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Letters from Wiltshire #20
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 5th Dec 2020 16:00

And finally, for now, we see football supporters return to stadia to watch elite football…well, those that aren’t in Covid-19 Tier 3 anyway. After some of the more recent performances, there are no doubt many of the faithful that would question the moniker ‘elite’, so let’s hope the U’s respond with some pride and passion today. With Essex in Tier 2, that would allow up to 2,000 in attendance, but Robbie (sensibly in my opinion) has currently restricted capacity to just 1,000 whilst he assesses how effective the measures that have been put in place will be to ensure fans stay safe. Whether we get 1,000 in remains to be seen – when the restriction was announced we had 540 season permit holders, I don’t know if we’ve sold any more since, and I severely doubt all of the permit holders we already have will attend. But, whether its 100 or 1,000, it’ll be refreshing to at least hear some crowd noise on the iFollow stream.

[b]Sheffield Wednesday v Colchester United
Saturday 7th August 2004
Coca-Cola League 1 (Tier 3)
Attendance 24,138[/b]

Maybe we all need a bit of a lift after Crawley and Exeter, so I’m delighted that the random match selector has chosen what I’m pretty sure was my first trip to Hillsborough, as Letters from Wiltshire #20 goes back to the very start of the 2004/05 campaign. This was Phil Parkinson’s second full season in charge at Layer Road, and after steering us away from relegation on arrival in February 2003, his first full season had shown considerable promise, with a couple of decent cup runs in the FA Cup (5th Round) and LDV Vans Trophy (Area Final) thrown in for good measure, so expectations were reasonably high for 2004/05 amongst the travelling faithful.

[b]Who put the Grim in Grimsby?[/b]
Before we get to the match, a short reflection on a few matters Grimsby-related. The Mariners were formed at a meeting held in the Wellington Arms pub in 1878 as Grimsby Pelham (after the family name of the Earl of Yarborough, whose ancestral seat is at Brocklesbury House near Immingham), but became Grimsby Town a year later. Originally playing at a variety of smaller local pitches, they moved into Blundell Park in 1898 and remain there to this day. I’ve never been, but frequent visitors [b]Durham[/b] and [b]Gerry[/b] know well enough that Blundell Park is in Cleethorpes and not Grimsby.

Grimsby are considered the most successful of the three sides from the historic county of Lincolnshire, alongside Lincoln and Scunthorpe, winning (amongst numerous minor honours and play-offs) Division 2 twice, Division 3 once, Division 3 North twice, Division 4 once, and the Football League Trophy once. Not a bad set to be honest, and a trophy cabinet we’d be more than happy to have, but it isn’t all roses. With fluctuating but overall declining fortunes throughout their history, when they were relegated to the Conference in 2010 they became only the fourth club (after Carlisle United, Oxford United and Luton Town) to have played in all five top divisions – Leyton Orient and most recently Notts County have now also joined that group.

[b]“[i]Grimsby on a Tuesday night…[/i]”[/b]
We often sing about this, but it actually is a thing – in 19 matches at Blundell Park over the years, since our first meeting back on 1st September 1959 (a Tuesday night, of course), nine have been on a Tuesday evening, and only six actually played on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not been much better for the travelling Mariners either, with again only six trips for a Saturday afternoon match – though of course those stats are skewed by our tendency back in the day to play on a Friday evening. Of those clubs we have played reasonably often, they are right up there near the top with nearly 32% of all matches between us played on a Tuesday night, exceeded only by equally far-flung Sheffield United (36.00%) and Swansea City (36.36%). There are a small number of clubs up around the 50% mark, but these are more understandably relatively local sides Charlton, Fulham, and Crawley.

It’s one of those Friday night matches at Layer Road that I recall particularly fondly, a crisp chilly evening in November 1974. I was 12 at the time and had been taken to Layer Road with my eldest sister, her boyfriend (to become my brother-in-law) and I think his Uncle Flash and a few others, and we were in the Barside. Anyone who was never out on a Friday night at Layer Road, I can’t even begin to describe what you missed. This was one of those nights, floodlights penetrating the misty gloom, the heady aroma of woodbines and wintergreen filling the air, and the ever-present roar of the crowd interspersed by savage terrace humour directed at both opposition supporters and players, and frequently match officials too.

It’s too far back to remember many details clearly, but I know thanks to Graeson’s www.coludata.co.uk website that John Froggatt got us off to a blistering start in the 4th minute, and doubled the lead in the 12th minute. When strike partner Bobby Svarc made it three in the 16th minute, I honestly thought it was going to be double figures by the end. But Grimsby steadied themselves, and ground things out until big John got his first and only hat-trick for the U’s half-way through the second half to make it 4-0. And then came the moment that in my mind I can still see today – with only a few minutes left on the clock a cross came in virtually along the 18 yard line, and there was diminutive Bobby Svarc bravely diving in to drill a header like an arrow from the edge of the box to make it 5-0. What a night!

[b]Owls about that then![/b]
So on to Hillsborough, and with close friends Phil and Tess at the time living in Sheffield, I travelled up on the Friday after work to spend the weekend in their excellent company, they returning the favour by spending Saturday afternoon at Hillsborough in my excellent company 😊. We spent the Friday evening out on the town. Phil being a proper beer nut, navigated our way around a handful of hostelries that all served some excellent micro-brewery ales, finishing off with one of the best kebabs it has been my pleasure to experience – one of those that’s rolled up in a freshly cooked flatbread, rather than jammed into a ‘destined to disintegrate’ stale pitta.

Saturday morning, and after a bracing mid/late-morning breakfast, we headed over to the match, pausing for a few starters in the nearby Hillsborough Hotel. We weren’t the only ones either, with not only many Wednesday supporters, but quite a few of the U’s faithful doing likewise. I guess we simply weren’t on Sheffield Wednesday’s radar as a club to be wary of (even if we’d done the double over them the previous season), so there was nothing much apart from good-natured banter around the pub. Phil and Tess, willingly too, had donned U’s shirts for the afternoon, Phil in one of my spare blue and white stripes, and Tess in the dayglo orange away shirt.

Parky’s side lined up that day:

1….Aidan Davison
2….Greg Halford
18..Liam Chilvers
25..Sam Stockley
5….Wayne Brown
6….Kevin Watson
4….Gavin Johnson (Jamie Cade 72’)
17..Bobby Bowry
3….Joe Keith
8….Wayne Andrews (Ben May 72’)
9….Craig Fagan

[b]New Kids on the Block[/b]
There were quite a few notable milestones that day, with debuts for Aidan Davison and Kevin Watson, a second spell debut for Ben May, and third spell debuts for both Wayne Brown and Liam Chilvers. Aidan Davison was signed on a free transfer from today’s opponents Grimsby Town during the summer, with Thomas Pinault going in the opposite direction shortly after. Sheffield Wednesday, in the Premier League just four years earlier, were now languishing in the 3rd tier for the second season running, so weren’t exactly packed out with household names under manager Chris Turner. They did, however, have both former U’s Guy Branston and to become U’s Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu on the bench.

With over 24,000 in the ground, including what must have been nearly 500 of the faithful, there was certainly a decent atmosphere when the Wednesdayites found their voice, though with large sections of unoccupied seating inside the enormous stadium, when things quietened it felt strangely atmosphereless. Not that we let that get too much in our way and did our best to drive the team on in a game that on paper looked like a tricky way to start the campaign.

Karl Duguid was out injured, so the captaincy was given to Wayne Brown and it was clear right from the start he was going rise to the responsibility, constantly talking too, haranguing, bossing even his back line, leaving Sheffield Wednesday barely scraps to feed on. As often happens, before too long this started to affect the home support, with cries more of frustration than celebration ringing out, as the Owls failed to establish any sort of hold on the game. It wasn’t just a defensive masterclass either – as the U’s comfortably withheld almost everything Sheffield Wednesday had to offer, so they grew and grew in confidence as an attacking force. Craig Fagan was a constant thorn in their side, and his ding-dong battle with man-marker Patrick Collins would eventually earn both a yellow card.

As half-time arrived and the match still at 0-0, there were even a few boos and jeers from the home support, and if I’m honest, probably mild frustration amongst the away support that we weren’t actually in front – not that we’d created too many clear-cut chances to be fair. Chatting at half-time, the main worry was could we keep this up for the second half, or would Sheffield Wednesday eventually get into their stride? More importantly, if it was offered would we take the 0-0 right now, more than a few would answer yes to that one.

[b]Oh ye, of little faith[/b]
Into the second half, and it was clear that the U’s, still marshalled superbly by Wayne Brown, were more than capable of keeping up their excellent performance, with both Wayne Brown and Greg Halford testing Owls ‘keeper David Lucas. That’s not to say Sheffield Wednesday hadn’t stepped up as well, presumably after a bit of a half-time roasting by Chris Turner. They still weren’t making great inroads through our backline, but following three substitutions in rapid succession, bringing on Branston (59’), Peacock (60’) and Matt Hamshaw (66’) they were finally putting the U’s under sustained pressure. Peacock in particular had a decent shot that was cleared off the line.

Parky countered the increased pressure with a double substitution of his own, replacing Gavin Johnson and Wayne Andrews with Jamie Cade and Ben May respectively on 72 minutes. Slowly, inexorably, as the second half wore on, it really looked like we were going to hold on for a very and thoroughly deserved valuable point away at Hillsborough.

And then something magical happened…

[b]Pinch me someone[/b]
With just five minutes to go, from deep in our own half, Kevin Watson passed out to Sideways Bob, who in turn played a delightful ball up the line for Ben May to run on to. Tearing up the wing, he centred perfectly into the path of onrushing Craig Fagan sliding in from just three yards out! Hillsborough was silenced, as the massed ranks of U’s faithful erupted in riotous celebration, hugging each other, cheering, dancing, just pandemonium. Surely now, with only five minutes to go, we’d got this?

Maybe, maybe not, but Sam Stockley decided he wasn’t going to take any chances, and with a minute to go latched on to another inch-perfect pass from Kevin Watson, raced forward into the Sheffield Wednesday half, and from all of 30 yards let rip an almighty thunderbolt of a shot. It was like time stood still as we held our breath watching as it arrowed towards the goal, past the despairing dive of Lucas to bury itself in the back of the net – and then we literally exploded!

Stockley said after “[i]as the ball left my foot I just knew it was going in. I looked up after I struck it and saw the keeper was struggling to get across and I just started running to celebrate in front of the U's fans in the stand behind the goal. I'm glad that stand was there actually, because I was so fired up I think I would have kept running right out of the ground[/i]”.

Now we definitely could relax, there was no way we could let a 2-0 lead slip…was there? Clearly Sheffield Wednesday supporters didn’t think so, and the trickle leaving after Fagan’s opener turned into a flood. And still we pressed, so fired up by the two goals there was no question of sitting back. As the match entered the last minute, Fagan tormenting their defence yet again earned a free-kick on the edge of the box. Up stepped Joey Keith with an absolutely sublime free-kick, curling around the wall and into the corner of the net, leaving a hapless David Lucas flapping at thin air in its wake, and the U’s faithful in dreamland.

[b]Sheffield Wednesday 0 Colchester United 3 (Craig Fagan 85’; Sam Stockley 89’; Joe Keith 90’)[/b]

[b]Careful now…[/b]

Not surprisingly, the result took us to the top of the table. Parky was suitably calm after the match, stating "[i]we will enjoy this win, but we are not going to get carried away. To come to Sheffield Wednesday and win by this margin is a great achievement, but we have to remain focused. I'm really pleased for the guys who scored, and I thought the two new boys were good as well, both Aidan Davison and Kevin Watson did really well on their debuts[/i]".

We’d go on to win the next two matches as well, with home victories over Stockport County and Peterborough United, to stay top of the league. But, inevitably, we started to slip back, and a run of poor form through to late October saw us slip back out of the promotion race. In fact, by March we were actually starting to glance nervously over our shoulders at the wrong end of the table, but we ended strongly with 11 games unbeaten stay comfortably mid-table for another season.

However, on the evening of Saturday 7th August all we cared about was celebrating, so straight back to the Hillsborough Hotel for a few more celebratory beers. Again to their credit, there were plenty of Wednesday supporters in there as well, and all more than happy to admit we thoroughly deserved it. I used to have quite a few photos of that evening in the Hillsborough, but all I can find these days is this one of me grinning like a fecking eejit post-match.

However, that’s not quite the end of the tale. Two years later and leading up to the 2006 World Cup final, the company Sixty6Art put a plea out through social media etc. that they wanted photographs of football supporters to use in a montage banner depicting the classic scene of Bobby Moore holding aloft the Jules Rimet Trophy. I think the idea was the banner would be taken to England matches in the World Cup, though I’m not certain this did actually happen?

Anyway, I dug around in my photo archive, and found and sent in another photo from our post-match session back in the Hillsborough Hotel that evening, taken by Phil of me and Tess. To my amazement, they used the photo, and for every photo they used, they sent out a print of the montage. I still have the print on my wall, and if you look really close, seventh column in from the right, just about level with Bobby’s forehead, there’s me and Tess.

Up the U’s

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