“And now the end is near, and so we face the final curtain…regrets, we’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”. Not quite right Paul Anka, probably more than a few, but otherwise a fair assessment of where the U’s are today. It’ll be interesting to see how we perform with the relegation monkey finally off their back – I’m not expecting miracles, particularly with Tranmere needing at least a point to guarantee making the play-offs, but they’ll certainly be more nervous than we will be, so can we make that count? This will be my last blog of the season, and not yet sure what I may or may not do for next season, but (polite or otherwise) suggestions are always welcome.
Manchester City v Colchester United
Saturday 31st October 1997
Nationwide Football League Division 2 (Tier 3)
On the subject of nervy teams needing a point, there’s been much talk online over the week about the 15th anniversary of our 0-0 draw at Huish Park on May 6th 2006, in the process gaining promotion to the Championship for the first time in our history. As The Times reported after the match “…nobody involved in the club will care about the quality of yesterday’s uninspiring draw against Yeovil, as the point was sufficient to secure automatic promotion from League One and elevate them into the second tier of English football”. A fantastic day for all associated with Colchester United, and particularly the 1,700 of us jammed into Yeovil’s ground.
One day, I may well do something about that day, but for now and true to the original concept behind these blogs, I’ve let the random match selector close out this season, and once again it hasn’t failed me, with our first and only visit to Manchester City – then of course still plying their trade at Maine Road. In the Premier League just three seasons earlier, a catastrophic run of underperformance under a succession of no less than six managers in less than three years had seen them tumble down the leagues in epic style, to land for the first time in their history in the third tier of English football.
But first, let’s also celebrate another golden moment, and of particular relevance to the world we live in today. Not the U’s 50th competitive match this season, it is actually Match #51, nor indeed the Letters from Wiltshire blogs, which is only at #48 (I had to skip some midweek matches recently because of other commitments). No, this is the 50th iFollow broadcast of this season, with the dreadful FA Cup match against Marine broadcast by the BBC. Frankly, although at times it hasn’t been pretty viewing, this season – indeed this year, would have been significantly gloomier for all concerned without the streaming service. I know football is all about fans being in the stadium, and we really don’t want TV broadcasts to undermine that, but I sincerely hope that as we slowly come out of the pandemic crisis, some way can be found to continue to allow those who can’t be in the stadia to follow their clubs.
More comatose than actually sleeping, but back to Maine Road. Considering Man City were a big fish in our small pond, and obviously everyone’s top tip for automatic promotion back to the second tier, they’d had a pretty ropey start to the season. Of their opening 15 matches, they’d won just five, drawn six and lost four. Not an unmitigated disaster I grant you, and considerably better than the U’s, but manager Joe Royle – and more importantly chairman Frannie Lee and the Man City board – would have been expecting something much more than the mid-table mediocrity they were showing.
In his defence, Joe Royle had a massive job on his hands, and that was off the pitch as well as on it. He took over in the February of the previous season, too late to do anything about the relegation that was coming. I can’t remember the exact quote, but I recall at the time he commented, on arrival at the training ground to be greeted by his over 50-strong squad, all on lucrative professional contracts, that it was “…like something out of Zulu”. He set to paring that back to realistic levels, whilst battling relentlessly with the board to try and get them to see they were no longer the big club they used to be, and had to be much more realistic in their ambitions – it was definitely a big ask. On top of which, if the board’s burden of expectation wasn’t enough, he had a massive fanbase to win over too, with attendances regularly topping 30,000.
As for the U’s, three defeats and a draw in the previous four matches under Steve Wignall had seen us slip down to 18th in the league, certainly a bit too close to the relegation zone for comfort. But this match wasn’t just about league points and places, this was the big one that pretty much every U’s fan had looked for when the fixture list came out. It wasn’t just a first for us either, in a long and distinguished playing career, manager Wignall had never played at Maine Road either, commenting in the press on the Friday “ I played well over 600 League and cup games in my career, including ties against Manchester United, but I never had the chance to play against City or at Maine Road”.
Our allocation was of course all-ticket, and I still have the stub, with eventually nearly 2,000 making the trip to Maine Road that day. Not quite sold out, but still easily the largest gathering of the U’s faithful on an awayday that season. I had a very good friend living in Manchester at the time and having no love for the blue half of Manchester either, he was more than happy to come along for the match. As a result, I travelled up on the Friday night to make a weekend of it with him and his partner – and a cracking weekend it was too.
10..Neil Gregory (Mark Sale 71’)
11..Karl Duguid (Paul Abrahams 79’)
The name of note in the U’s line-up that day was Jason Dozzell. Initially playing on a game-by-game basis for the U’s reserves back in September, Wignall had been very keen to sign Jason, but protracted negotiations and discussions dragged on well into October before he eventually put pen to paper. Only 30 at the time, he represented a significant coup for the U’s, and brought with him a vast amount of experience playing at the highest levels of the game – and it showed too. Teaming up with former Ipswich team-mate Geraint Williams in midfield, they were a classy pair of players for a third tier club to boast.
Where do you start with Man City’s squad though – never mind that Joe Royle had been pruning relentlessly, and they were without Lee Bradbury as well, sold to Crystal Palace for £1.5m (mind you, they paid £3.6m for him barely a year earlier) – they still had in their line-up that day Nicky Weaver in goal, Lee Crooks, Shaun Goater and Kevin Horlock amongst others. They also had brick-outhouse defender Andy Morrison, signed on loan during the week from Huddersfield following Bradbury’s departure, and making his debut this day.
Housed at the Kippax Street end of the North Stand, with some somewhat antsy home fans immediately to our right, the U’s faithful were still in excellent voice, and for the most part we refused to be drowned out by the tens of thousands of City supporters all around us. As the match kicked off, the Maine Road roar was of course deafening, but as the first half wore on, with the U’s more than a match for Man City, the home supporter grew quieter and quieter, whilst we just got louder and louder.
First of making sure they couldn’t hurt us, as the half progressed Man City found themselves more and more penned back by a rampant U’s, marshalled superbly by the George and Jason midfield pairing. Then the Maine Road support started to find their voice again – but through a chorus of groans and barracking as Man City utterly failed to lay even a punch on the U’s. As the half-time whistle went, with the U’s more than good value for the 0-0 scoreline, the Man City team left to a chorus of boos from all around the ground.
Into the second half, Royle brought on Ian Bishop for Danny Allsopp in a bid to try and regain some sort of control in the midfield. It certainly helped, with the match much more even to begin with. The telling moment was to come barely five minutes into the second half, with Carl Emberson alleged to have brought down Michael Branch, and referee Mike “don’t tell him your name” Pike awarding a controversial penalty. It looked a dubious one from our vantage point, the U’s players were incensed, as was the bench – but it changed nothing, and Kevin Horlock gleefully put away his chance to give Man City an undeserved 1-0 lead. Post-match Wignall was furious, stating “I have watched the incident four or five times on video and I have to say the decision was very harsh. In my view the City lad wasn't going to get the ball and just fell over”.
He fell over
Still reeling from that decision and struggling to regain our composure against the now rampant Sky Blues, within three minutes City had double their lead, with new signing Andy Morrison scoring a bullet header on his debut. It was kind of surreal – for 50 minutes we had been by far the better team, and more worthy of being two up in truth – and suddenly we had a mountain to climb if we wanted to get anything at all from the game.
…and Morrison makes it two
However, the U’s were made of sterner stuff that day, and set to getting back in control of a match that had slipped from our grasp for barely a few moments - and five minutes later got just what we deserved, with Jason Dozzell scoring his first goal for the U’s to halve the deficit and send us ballistic into raptures. Now Man City really did have the fear factor, but despite Wignall bringing on Sale and then Abrahams to try and get the elusive second goal, we just couldn’t find a way to unlock a resolute 10-man City defence, who celebrated at the final whistle as if they’d just won promotion.
We celebrated too though – yes we’d lost, but it had been such a brave performance, deserving of so much more, and held promise of things to come with Dozzell in the midfield.
Manchester City 2 (Kevin Horlock 50’p; Andy Morrison 53’) Colchester United 1 (Jason Dozzell 59’)
And what better way to finish off celebrations that evening than a cracking proper Wilmslow Road Rusholme curry…
Despite this victory, Man City continued to struggle in the league right the way through to Christmas. Joe Royle was under considerable pressure, with supporters demanding a change, but the board stuck by him. They were repaid that confidence after Christmas, with Man City going on a remarkable run, only losing two more matches from then to the end of the season. That would include doing the double over the U’s, in the first ever pay-per-view match broadcast, and Fumaca and all that.
It was touch and go, but they could only make the play-offs even with that run – officially the lowest league position they’ve finished in. Getting past Wigan in the semi-final, they faced Gillingham at Wembley at what is widely regarded as one of the more epic play-off finals. With eight minutes to go Gillingham went 1-0 up, then doubled it to 2-0 with three minutes to go. City looked doomed, but Horlock made it 2-1 in the 90th minute, and in the 5th minute of injury-time, and with virtually the last kick of the match, Dickov equalised. No one could break the deadlock in extra-time, and clearly shattered by those late goals, Gillingham were abject in the penalty shoot-out, scoring just one, and Man City returned to the second tier.
The U’s bounced around in lower mid-table, never quite clawing our way to mid-table safety, never quite getting fully sucked into a proper relegation scrap. A week after giving LuaLua his debut, Wignall left in January, and following a brief caretaker spell under Steve Whitton, Mick Wadsworth took over. Eventually, we’d settle exactly where we were going into that epic match against Man City, in 18th place – but what a day at Maine Road that was!
Up the U’s
[Post edited 8 May 13:48]