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Letters from Wiltshire #39
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 14th Mar 2021 13:21

Editorials are tricky these days without being too downcast, but let’s be honest, there’s not much good news around the club and fanbase at the moment. On a personal positive note, I have my first vaccine jab booked for next weekend, which is a blessed relief. Seemingly being one of the young’uns on the U’sual, I hope many of you have already trod that path, and those yet to won’t be too far behind. It’s a cliché of course, but there really are more important things than football at present. Stay safe and get vaccinated folks, let’s make sure we all get through this together and come out the other side, wherever the U’s will be at that point…

[b]Colchester United v Brentford
Saturday 24th August 2002
Nationwide Football Division 2 (Tier 3)
Attendance 3,135[/b]

First off, nothing epitomises the ‘relegation six-pointer’ moniker more than our trip to Grimsby today. As mentioned on the board, win and we open up a 14-point gap over the Mariners, lose and it’s just an 8-point gap – at this stage that’s a massive swing. I guess, as much as I hope for the win, a draw would have to be considered adequate, just to stay 11 points clear of the bottom? I’m a great believer that goal difference is always good indicator of how things will pan out, so whilst our -14 GD is alarming, it’s nowhere near as alarming as the -28 for both Grimsby and Southend.

[b]Wikipedia graph © EclecticArkie[/b]

The random match selector has chosen the early stages of the 2002/03 season, with the U’s in the hallowed ground of the third tier of the Football League for the fifth season running. The U’s had been on a generally upward trajectory since we’d returned to Division 2, in fact we’d been on that upwardly mobile path pretty much constantly since our Conference low point more than 10 years earlier. Under Steve Whitton, it’s also fair to say that improvement in Division 2 had been fairly gradual, and by very modest increments. However, hopes were high that this season we’d finally make a decent challenge for promotion.

The Bees, on the other hand, were a well-established solid Division 2 side, and had been so pretty much since the late 70s, even spending a couple of seasons in the (then) First Division (post formation of the Premier League) ten years earlier. There’d been one blip as well, slipping into the basement for one season in 1998, but they’d bounced back immediately, and at the end of the previous season had made the play-offs. As older supporters might recall, Brentford FC and play-offs were not and continue to not be happy bedfellows, and they had developed a reputation for stumbling at this most important of hurdles. My copy of [i]Football Fans Guide[/i] relates the story of their 1996/97 play-off final, when supporters commissioned barges to sail down the Grand Union Canal, rather than face the public transport chaos of a trip to Wembley – “[i]…livening up a sleepy west London Sunday morning with fog horns and booming renditions of ‘We’re the famous Brentford FC and we’re going to Wembley’. The return trip was a little quieter: they lost[/i]”.

Thus it was at the end of 2001/02, again losing in the final, this time to Stoke City. Since the introduction of the play-offs, this was their fourth failed attempt out of four. All told, I believe their record stands at nine play-off campaigns at various levels, with a zero-success rate – including four as losing finalists. That defeat against Stoke, and an off-field financial crisis brought about by the collapse of ITV Digital, had sparked a break-up of the team, with high-earners such as Ingimarsson, Lloyd Owusu and club captain Paul Evans released. Their only hope of survival was selling the lease for Griffin Park to developers Wimpey, but the deal faltered, and they only avoided going into administration – just – by the late sale of defender Darren Powell for £400k on the eve of the season. This still left Brentford £4m in debt though.

With his team torn apart beneath him, manager Steve Coppell didn’t fancy the challenge ahead and resigned during the summer, to be replaced by his assistant and Crazy Gang founder Wally Downes. The clear-out was replaced by as many free agents as they could lay their hands on, including naughty boy Rowan Vines on loan from parent club Pompey, as well as the opportunity for virtually unknown Barbadian Mark McCammon to step up as first-choice striker. The remainder were mostly drawn from loans and their youth set-up – sounds familiar? Despite all of this, the Bees under Wally Downes had made an excellent start to the season with two victories and a draw and were top of the table.

[b]…and the U’s?[/b]
Our start had been more mixed, an opening day victory against Stockport, a decent draw at Tranmere, and then a disappointing defeat at Crewe, leaving us in lower mid-table. I found myself that weekend a free agent – Em was away at Cladh Hallan, Outer Hebrides on a university excavation, the kids were with their mum, so what better opportunity for a trip over to see family and friends in Essex. I’d been on school holiday annual leave the week before (coinciding with my birthday), so travelled over on the Friday afternoon to have a longer weekend back home with mum, and as usual went to the match with my brother-in-law Steve and his son.

Steve Whitton’s starting XI lined up:

31..Richard McKinney
3….Joe Keith
4….Gavin Johnson
6….Thomas Pinault
8….Mark Warren (Danny Steele 41’)
10..Kem Izzet
11..Dean Morgan
15..Adrian Coote (Lloyd Opara 77’)
17..Bobby Bowry
19..Alan White
20..Micky Stockwell (Kevin Rapley 64’)

Like Brentford, the U’s hadn’t exactly had a quiet pre-season, bringing in a raft of players, including Danny Steele from Millwall, Mark Warren from Notts County, Richard McKinney from Swindon and Pat Baldwin from Chelsea – needless to say, all free transfers – and Leke Odunsi on loan also from Millwall. This season also saw youngsters Dean Gerken and Greg Halford graduate from the youth set-up. Making room for this influx were departees Con Blatsis to Turkish side Kocaelispor, Anthony Allman to Woking, legend David Gregory to Canvey Island and Ross Johnson to Daggers. No, there weren’t any fees involved. Reminiscent of Mike Masters, we’d also learned in the week leading up to this match that talented Trinidad and Tobago international Avery John, who had impressed greatly during pre-season, had been denied a work permit and unfortunately wouldn’t be joining us.

[b]Shiny’s on show[/b]
As for the match, it was a lovely bright summers day, but with the youngster in tow although we still managed a couple of pints in the Drury beer garden, our seats for the match were in the Clock End. However, this wasn’t before a visit to the club shop to purchase myself a ‘Tiptree shiny’ U’s shirt birthday pressie, and still my favourite U’s shirt from the last 20+ years. No doubt a combination of our somewhat indifferent start to the season, the annual clash with the Chelmsford V-Festival, and the usual truancy during school summer holidays, the crowd was only just over 3,000, and that despite a sizeable following making the relatively short trip from west London (not by boat this time).

Whitton started with two of his three new signings, with McKinney in goal and Mark Warren in the heart of defence (and cover-boy for the matchday programme), and Danny Steele on the bench. We started brightly, pressing Brentford throughout most of the first half, and it was clear that despite the relative difference in our league placings, we were more than a match for the patched-up Bees. We really should have been in front by half-time, but inevitably it was in fact quite the opposite.

Mark Warren had unfortunately been injured late in the first half, bringing on fellow newbie Danny Steele for his debut. Whether inexperience or just bad luck, with the game in injury-time at the end of the first half, Steele clumsily bundled into Mark McCammon in the box, and referee Paul Taylor had no hesitation pointing to the spot. Gutting as it was, as it wasn’t a clear-cut decision, it was certainly one of those incidents where you’ll see them given. Irishman Stephen Hunt wasn’t complaining, and calmy slotted past Richard McKinney to give Brentford an ill-deserved lead.

The second half was all about the U’s spirit, fight and determination to get back into the game, and they certainly gave it a decent go. With no breakthrough approaching the halfway point of the second half, Whitton sacrificed Mick Stockwell in midfield, bringing on striker Kevin ‘Krapley’ Rapley, and 15 minutes later Lloyd Opara for Adrian Coote in a straight swap. All to no avail though, and although both Dean Morgan and Lloyd Opara brought off excellent saves from ‘keeper Paul Smith, we just couldn’t find the breakthrough we deserved in a dominant second half display. Credit also must go to Bees, despite their early season form, and their relatively young age as a squad, they were savvy enough to know they were under the cosh and needed to shut up shop effectively if they wanted to head home with 3pts – which they did.

[b]Colchester United 0 Brentford 1 (Stephen Hunt 45+2’p)[/b]

Not the result I was hoping for on what was basically my birthday weekend, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. It had been a spirited performance, with the U’s clearly the better side, we just couldn’t break through a determined Brentford rearguard after they’d nicked a lead with a somewhat contentious penalty decision. However, didn’t stop me heading down to the Greyhound to spend the evening with mates I hadn’t seen for a while.

Winning the last two matches in August, the U’s seemed to be heading in the right direction, before a disastrous run from September to the end of January, winning just three more matches and leaving us deep in the relegation zone, saw Steve Whitton hand in his resignation. The Parky effect when Phil Parkinson took over was almost instantaneous, and by the end of the season we reached 12th place, our highest league placing for 23 years.

Brentford’s early form continued through August, earning Downes the Manager of the Month award, but it was clearly papering over the cracks of a young inexperienced squad hastily bolted together. They struggled for the remainder of the season, and with more players released in March, including McCammon, and an injury list as long as your arm, they eventually finished well behind the U’s in 16th place.

Up the U’s

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