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Letters from Wiltshire #02
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 8th Sep 2020 13:27

Three days on from our early Carabao Cup exit at the Madjeski, we prepare to start the next cup competition at Fratton Park – at least we can’t be out of this one by full-time – well, not tonight anyway. For those that gain perverse pleasure from such things, had we prevailed against Reading, only Luton Town would have stood between us and another match against Manchester United! Of course, we wouldn’t have done, because we’d be in a completely different strand of reality, and thus a completely different cup draw, but no harm in a bit of Whatiffery.

Barnet v Colchester United

Saturday 24th January 1998

Nationwide League Division 3 (Tier 4)

Attendance 2,471

Letters from Wiltshire #02, and we dip again into my matchday memorabilia collection, this time the random match selector pulling out the U’s trip to Barnet back in the winter of 1998. This wasn’t to be my last trip to Underhill that season, the second visit already featuring way back in Matches of Yesteryear #15. If memory serves, it was a windy cold day, and I headed up to London on the train as usual. This was also FA Cup 4th Round day – Hereford had ended our interest in that competition, winning a 2nd Round replay on penalties. Eventual winners Arsenal were away at Middlesbrough, whilst their opponents in the final Newcastle were set to play a tricky fixture at ever-charmless Stevenage in front of the cameras on Sunday.

Never mind the FA Cup though, some of the matches in Division 1 (that’s Championship in old money) that day are worth considering, including:

Bradford City v Swindon

Oxford v Portsmouth, and

Port Vale v Crewe

There’s hope for us yet…

Steve Wignall was managing the U’s at the time, and had just passed his third anniversary in the role. Going into the game, we were in a run of indifferent form, and although we’d won the last two on the bounce (home to Torquay and Cardiff City), were struggling to really challenge for promotion. Barnet, on the other hand, were having a very good season in 4th place. Whilst there was very little likelihood that anyone would catch Notts County, already ten points clear at the top, 2nd and 3rd place were in easy reach for Barnet.

I always enjoyed my trips up to Underhill to be honest – invariably a very good and vociferous turnout from the U’s faithful, good opportunities for pre- and post-match beers both in Barnet and London town, and a pretty straightforward journey up from the South West. This one was no exception, and with nothing spoiling back home, no need to fret and rush for connections either. The crowd that day wasn’t particularly massive by Barnet’s standards (they’d jammed in 3.5k on Boxing Day against Posh), but certainly helped by what must have been close to 400 from Essex.

The U’s lined up that afternoon:

1….Carl Emberson

2….Joe Dunne (programme lists Nicky Haydon)

3….Scott Stamps (Nicky Haydon 14’)

4….Aaron Skelton

5….David Greene

6….David Gregory

7….Richard Wilkins

8….Steve Forbes (Tony Lock 66’)

9….Neil Gregory

10..Mark Sale

11..Paul Buckle (Steve Whitton 86’)

Barnet were managed by John Still, in his first season in charge at Underhill following an unsuccessful spell in charge at Peterborough United in 94/95. As managers tend to do, Still set about signing a clutch of players he knew from his time at Peterborough, which included the notable Ken Charlery and our very own Scott McGleish – well, I say our own, but it would be three years before Scotty followed up his successful 1996 loan with a permanent move to the U’s. The other two names in the Barnet line-up that need no introduction were Sam Stockley (listed under his full name Stockley-Phillips on the https://www.coludata.co.uk/ website), and of course goal-machine Sean Devine, at the time already with eleven goals in his name.

Following a few beers and some cheery ‘bantz’ with the locals at the nearby Old Red Lion, which at one point threatened immediate expulsion by the doorman, the U’s faithful gathered on the South Stand open bank of temporary seats – not ideal on a cold January afternoon (that’s at the bottom of Barnet’s infamous sloping pitch). The Old Red Lion is worth a mention – always a popular destination for away supporters visiting Underhill, but much like our own Drury, once Barnet moved to their new ground at the Hive, the days were numbered for the pub, and it eventually served its last pint on 28th February 2015. It was demolished shortly after, the site now occupied by some remarkably bland indifferent flats.

Buoyed by pre-match libations, we were still in good voice when after just four minutes Aaron Skelton popped up to put the U’s 1-0 up, with the celebrations briefly threatening to spill over on to the pitch – the perfect start! We continued to dominate for the next ten minutes, threatening to add to our lead, when came what was probably the first turning point in the game. On 14 minutes Scott Stamps went down under a heavy tackle, which eventually forced the defender off injured, replaced by Nicky Haydon – originally listed to start instead of Joe Dunne. This clearly unsettled the backline, and from then on Barnet started to take a hold of the game.

I was hopeful that we could hold out to half-time and then regroup, sadly Sean Devine had other ideas, and with a minute of the first half to go, equalised for Barnet – bugger, the second turning point. There was always hope though, given we seemed to hold a bit of an Indian sign over the Bees (we’d won or drawn the last seven matches against them) – it all rather depended how we came out second half really.

Not particularly well so it turned out. Buoyed by their late equaliser, it was all Barnet going into the second half, and before too long we were 3-1 down, with goals in rapid succession by (you guessed) Scott McGleish and a second for Sean Devine. In danger of having our arses whipped, and needing to do something to effect change, Wignall immediately replaced Forbes with Tony Lock, which seemed to have the desired effect – or at least got us back on to a level footing with Barnet. In fairness, they also started to look quite happy with a 3-1 lead, and were sitting back somewhat. However, they woke up a bit in the 83rd minute when we grabbed a deserved second goal through Richard Wilkins, and more or less immediately brought on Steve Whitton for Paul Buckle to push for the equaliser. By now Barnet were backs to the wall, but try as they might the U’s just couldn’t find a way through, and the match finished 3-2 to the Bees.

Barnet 3 (Sean Devine 44’, 65’; Scott McGleish 59’) Colchester United 2 (Aaron Skelton 4’; Richard Wilkins 83’)

Walking back to High Barnet tube station after the match, I had to reflect on what had been an okay performance against a good side in our division, clearly looking good enough to maintain their challenge for promotion. We clearly had work to do if we were going to do likewise, but with other results favourable, we had lost little ground on those ahead.

Little did I know that our period of indifferent form was coming to an end, and after a decent point away at Scarborough, and a disappointing home defeat to Swansea as our next two matches, we embarked on a remarkable run of good form that propelled the U’s to 4th in the table, and a place in the play-offs – the first match in the play-offs naturally being a trip back to Underhill…and the rest, as they say, is history.

Elsewhere, Newcastle (and pretty much everyone else) had assumed their FA Cup game against Stevenage would be switched to St James’s Park on safety grounds. That is, until Stevenage Chairman Victor Green got wind of the fees Sky would be paying to televise the match. After that, he was having none of it, Newcastle were furious, and engaged in some fairly shabby underhand tactics to try and discredit Stevenage and their ground to have the venue switched – all to no avail. The match went ahead, with on loan Giuliano Grazioli cancelling out Shearer’s early goal – ironically meaning there would be a match at St James’s Park after all (which Newcastle won 2-1, albeit there remains considerable debate whether their first actually crossed the line – judge for yourself below).

Up the U’s







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Letters from Wiltshire #09 by wessex_exile
Letters from Wiltshire #08 by wessex_exile
Lots of discussion this week on football forums, including here, on two subjects – the petition to lobby parliament to allow limited numbers of supporters back into football grounds, and of course the return of that old chestnut from Man City Chief Executive Ferran Soriano, introducing Premier League ‘B’ teams into the EFL. First off, I don’t mind admitting I’ve signed the petition ( https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/552036 ), as have 192,779 others at the time of writing, though I don’t actually think it’ll make any difference. I can completely understand why some do not think this is a good idea, as second-wave spikes of coronavirus infection pop up all over the country (mainly because – let’s face it – some people are dicks and can’t be trusted to sit the right way on a toilet). But to me, the two go hand in hand (not dicks and toilets) – whilst football clubs throughout the country struggle financially without spectators, we are always going to be under threat of this sort of ‘B’ team nonsense as a condition of financial support from the Premier League fat cats. They got their way in 2016 with the EFL trophy, who’s to say they won’t again when the financial squeeze really starts to tighten its grip without paying customers through the turnstiles? Robbie has featured prominently in this debate in recent weeks, and looks like he will again on Sky tomorrow if this tweet from Sophy Ridge is anything to go by - https://twitter.com/SophyRidgeSky/status/1313874336118341632
Letters from Wiltshire #07 by wessex_exile
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