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Letters from Wiltshire #37
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 7th Mar 2021 13:29

On Tuesday night, long-suffering U’s fans, and after such a long wait, finally saw something truly remarkable. Yes, on that fog-bound night we witnessed not one but two miracles – Trevor Kettle making two catastrophically poor game-changing decisions, listening to arguments against those decisions, admitting he had been wrong, and reversing them. Oh my days, as I live and breathe, if I’m ever blessed with grandchildren in years to come, will they believe doddery old me when I tell them what happened that night? Oh, and the U’s finally threw the monkey off their back and won a game…

[b]Wimbledon v Colchester United
Saturday 7th January 1995
FA Cup (3rd Round)
Attendance 6,903[/b]

Letters from Wiltshire #37 dips into the distant past in my memorabilia archive, right back to match no. 18 in the collection, our FA Cup 3rd Round match against Wimbledon at adopted home Selhurst Park in January 1995. In the context of my recent performance assessment for previous Colchester United caretaker managers (LfW#35), it is ironic that the random match generator has chosen a moment in the history of one of them – Dale Roberts.

Our paths with Wimbledon haven’t crossed too much over the years – our first encounter being Wimbledon knocking the U’s out of the FA Cup in 1962, when they were non-league and we were the ‘big’ club. Once they’d been promoted to the Football League, we played each other in both the Third Division (1979/80) and Fourth Division (1982/83), but other than that the only other occasion had been an Associate Members Cup at Layer Road, which we won 2-1.

[b]”[i]Nah, don’t go sarf of the river me ol’ china[/i]”[/b]

Unlike black cab drivers, the U’s will indeed go south of the river, particularly on this day. We’d had an eventful FA Cup journey to this point, and no doubt many of you will remember our 1st Round game at Yeading (MoY#45), probably more for what happened off the pitch than on it. I wasn’t at the 7-1 demolition replay at Layer Road but did make the relatively short trip down to league rivals Exeter for the 2nd Round, a match we won 2-1 from a Tony English goal with minutes to spare. That game is also in my collection, so may well feature in the future.

Hopes were high that we’d get a decent draw out of the hat for the 3rd Round, a Premier League side at the least, and preferably one reasonably local for the travelling supporters. They say always be careful what you wish for, because Wimbledon ticked all those boxes and it still felt like a kick in the teeth – worse still, I think at the time our ball was drawn, we were still in the bag alongside only four others, one of which was Liverpool! Even worser, at the time Wimbledon were a pretty solid top flight side, and had been since long before the formation of the Premier League, so on the back of no glory, no big day out, no visit to a swanky state-of-the-art stadium, no TV money and no significant gate receipts, there was very little likelihood of success either.

[b]Chin up son[/b]
Still, none of these were really good reasons to be downhearted, it was still the FA Cup after all, and as we should know anything could happen. The U’s were going well in the league, after a slightly shaky start, and had only lost two league matches since the start of September, so confidence was high that even if we couldn’t pull off an upset, we might just bring them back to Layer Road for a replay. At the time, Wimbledon were playing at their adopted home Selhurst Park, and with an average gate of only 10k that season, and considerably less expected for this game, tickets for the U’s faithful were not going to be a problem.

Passions were high amongst the U’s supporters for other reasons too, after traitor George Burley walked out on the U’s on Christmas Eve for that bunch up the A12. Burley had steered us from relegation zone to play-offs in four months, and who knows what he could have achieved if he hadn’t walked out – but such is the lot of small clubs and managers who use them as shop windows. Dale Roberts was appointed as caretaker whilst chairman Gordon Parker looked for a replacement, and Dale’s record going into this match was won 1, drew 1, lost 1.

1….John Cheesewright
2….Simon Betts
3….Tony English
4….Peter Cawley
5….Gus Caesar
6….Adam Locke
7….Trevor Putney
8….Steve Brown
9….Steve Whitton
10..Mark Kinsella
11..Paul Abrahams (Tony Dennis)

[b]The Crazy Gang[/b]

Of course, most football supporters will know of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang, not least typified by celebrity hardman and media gangsta’ Vinnie Jones. Vinnie had really made a name for himself at Wimbledon, particularly after they defied all expectations to beat Liverpool and win the FA Cup back in 1988. Other famed members of the Crazy Gang at the time included of course Dennis Wise, John Fashanu, Lawrie Sanchez and Mick Harford, but it is little known Wally Downes who is usually credited with forming the group. Incidentally, Downes played a few games on loan for today’s visitors Newport County back in 1987.

Vinnie was the only member of the group to leave and then end up back at Wimbledon, in a pretty decent career that also took him to Leeds, Sheffield United and Chelsea, as well as an unlikely call-up to his ‘national’ side Wales (a proper Jack Charlton one this – Jones’ grandfather on his mothers side was born in Ruthin). Mick Harford was still at Wimbledon and also lined-up against the U’s that afternoon. What’s more, the Dons had Dean Holdsworth up front, Robbie Earle in midfield, and Hans Segers in goal, so really were going to be tough opponents. In Joe Kinnear, they had a pretty tough cookie as a manager too.

[b]Are we there yet?[/b]
There was never going to be any debate about not making the journey over to Selhurst Park for this match. Although there wasn’t going to be a problem about getting tickets, after all the Arthur Wait stand we had been allocated could hold 8,000, I do recall it was nevertheless an all-ticket match, not least I suppose so the police and match officials had a decent idea about how many would be turning up in support of the U’s. Let’s not forget, the Metropolitan police had very recently had an up close and personal encounter with the Barside at Yeading, so were almost certainly going to be watching this one very closely.

My brother-in-law picked up my ticket for the match from Layer Rd in the week leading up to game, and we arranged to meet before the match at one of the local pubs. My memory is vague on which one this was – I can certainly remember that Selhurst Park was a sod of a ground to try and get to you on public transport, and I know for certain before the match we approached the ground walking up the hill along Park Road from Whitehorse Lane (and marvelling at the huge throng of U’s supporters outside the ground). From that I deduce we were probably in The Railway Telegraph, reasonably close to Thornton Heath overground station – I know I was in a pub, at least that much is certain 😊.

[b]The match[/b]
If you thought my memory of pre-match was hazy, it’s nothing compared to the game itself. There must have been about a thousand U’s fans in the Arthur Wait stand that afternoon, and we were comfortably out-singing anything the Wimbledon support had to offer in a derisory crowd of less than 7,000. We needed to be in good voice, because less than ten minutes in we were 1-0 down, after ‘Crazy’ Mick Harford had put the Dons in front. However, it isn’t either my blue-tinted spectacles or poor memory at fault when I say this was really against the run of play.

We’d started very strongly, and with Kinsella in particular in excellent form, really had been causing our Premier League opponents plenty of difficulties. We’d continue to do so as well, more than a match for Wimbledon for most of the first half, but never quite fashioning a clear-cut chance that I can remember.

Into the second half, and it was more of the same really, though as the U’s legs began to tire, it became more containment than really posing enough threat to change the outcome. Dale Roberts tried to change things around a bit, bringing on Tony Dennis for the hard-running Paul Abrahams, but to no avail. Wimbledon appeared content with proceedings, and despite the vocal support we were giving the team, the Dons happily ground out a 1-0 victory and passage through to the 4th Round. There was certainly no disgrace though, we had given one of the better teams in the Premier League a very good run for their money and could leave Selhurst Park with our heads held high.

[b]Wimbledon 1 [Mick Harford 9’) Colchester United 0[/b]

To put this performance into context, Wimbledon drew high-flying First Division side Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park in the 4th Round, and had an easier match brushing them aside 2-0 away from home. They would eventually be eliminated after a replay by Liverpool of all teams, their victims in the 1988 final, with the FA Cup won by rivals Everton in a surprising 1-0 victory over Sir Alex’s all-conquering Manchester United.

Dale Roberts was replaced as manager by Steve Wignall the following week, a vacancy that apparently Mark Lawrenson was also interested in. Wignall struggled to maintain the form under Burley, and although finishing the league in 10th place was a reasonably solid start to his managerial career, for the supporters it was still disappointing given where we’d been at Christmas.

I think on balance Wignall made it up to us, taking us to the last two of our three Wembley appearances, and eventually promotion to the Second Division. If Wayne Brown can match that record, he’ll earn the freedom of Colchester without a doubt.

Up the U’s

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