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Letters from Wiltshire #05
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 26th Sep 2020 13:46

Matchday #3, and Robbie’s not happy. I know opinion is divided, but I have considerable sympathy with the Chairman on this one. I don’t want this to be necessarily a political comment, but many are looking on with bemusement as the government seem to lurch from one knee-jerk reaction to another during this crisis, and I would be saying this of any government, regardless of their political persuasion. The nub of Robbie’s comments is quite simple, what’s the point in having a panel of experts working closely with responsible club owners to plan supporter’s safe return to essentially open air stadia, investing in alterations, changes to layout, developing detailed procedures etc. to then have the rug pulled out from under their feet? I know why, a second wave seems to be coming, and frankly it looks like people simply can’t be trusted to follow the rules – but why then are pubs still open, or does the virus only come out after 10pm?

[b]Colchester United v Witton Albion

Sunday 10th May 1992

Vauxhall FA Trophy (Final)

Attendance 32,254[/b]

Letters from Wiltshire #05 returns to happier times, and the U’s first visit to the twin towers of Wembley. There have been a lot of column inches in recent weeks throughout the media on the triumphant return of today’s opponents Barrow to the football league – even [b]Durham’s[/b] excellent match preview looks back on some of the previous encounters between the two sides, so I have chosen the FA Trophy Final very specifically, as the very next match after we claimed the Conference title with a convincing 5-0 victory over Barrow the previous weekend.

I’d imagine most of you have one of these at home, mines getting a bit dog-eared now…

[b]Auld lang syne[/b]

Before we get into the match, let’s reflect briefly on our on-off relationship with Barrow. They were formed in 1922, 15 years before we even existed, but we didn’t cross paths until November 1961, with a 1-1 draw at Layer Road. For a few seasons, the Ziggers (as they were then) were a bit of a bogey team for the U’s, and it would take until September 1967 before we finally won a match – 3-2 at Layer Rd, with Dennis Mochan scoring his first for the U’s that day. There have been several notable names who opened their U’s goal-scoring account against Barrow, including Ray Crawford in August 1970, Watney Cup hero Phil Bloss on his debut in April 1971, and Mark Kinsella no less in August 1991.

[b]Parting of the ways…[/b]

Going back to the 1971/72 season, infamous in the collective memory of Barrow AFC, the U’s had an average season in Division 4, finishing mid-table. Grimsby won the league, with Southend, Brentford and Scunthorpe promoted alongside them. Back then there was no automatic relegation, clubs had to apply for re-election, and usually got it too. Barrow finished third from bottom, 8pts ahead of Crewe at the foot of the table (in the days of only 2pts for a win as well), and only a point from avoiding relegation altogether.

The precise detail of the re-election process is dealt with in a very good article by Ged Scott on the BBC website ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/52283009 ), which I recommend. In essence, the old boys network came together to decide who to sacrifice to make way for Hereford, very much in the limelight at the time thanks to Mr Radford. Sadly, unfashionable, unfancied and in particular isolated Barrow, despite finishing 8pts clear of the bottom, were voted out on a second ballot going head to head with new boys Hereford.

[b]A brief romance…[/b]

It would take Colchester United suffering the same ignominy to be reunited with Barrow, when we too were relegated into the Conference in 1990, albeit this time there was no vote, this was straightforward off you go stuff. We drew 2-2 at Holker Street, and won narrowly 1-0 at Layer Rd (Mario Walsh scored in both games for the U’s). In the intervening years, Barrow had even slipped as far as the Northern Premier League for a few seasons, but in 1990/91 they were a reasonably solid mid-table outfit.

Much less so the following season, and whilst the U’s were sweeping everyone aside on our march back into the football league, Barrow were fighting a losing battle at the other end. Much has been written about that fantastic day at Layer Rd on Saturday 3rd May 1992, when a Mike Masters hat-trick, and goals by Nicky Smith and Big Roy in front of 7,193 saw the U’s promoted ahead of fierce rivals Wycombe Wanderers and a hilariously dejected Martin ‘Sour Grapes’ O’Neill on goal difference. Barrow weren’t so lucky, and although technically relegated back to the Northern Premier already, were officially so at the final whistle, alongside Cheltenham Town (relegated to the Southern League).

[b]All caught up[/b]

So there we have it, Barrow’s role in our past, and context for today’s match report, our very next competitive fixture, our first trip to Wembley, and a chance to do the non-league double. I wasn’t at the Barrow game, I’d already travelled over for the FA Trophy home leg semi-final against Macclesfield, and got my pass for the Final, so I had to follow that one on Ceefax.

As this was clearly going to be a day when beer was to be taken, I travelled up bright and early on the train from Salisbury for the match. We knew that ticket sales for U’s fans had been going extremely well, so it was no surprise to start bumping into blue and white shirts even on the train up from the West Country. More so at Waterloo, and the tube journey across London, and by the time I arrived at Wembley Park (I think it was) it was blue and white everywhere. Witton Albion had been allocated the West side of Wembley, and therefore the fans favourite Green Man as their designated pub. The U’s were on the east side of Wembley, and so I headed for the Torch to meet my brother-in-law, and a whole bunch of other friends and family who’d made the trip.

The place was absolutely heaving, I’d never seen so many U’s fans crammed into one boozer. Queuing at the bar was 3-4 deep at times, and with the chanting going on, absolutely deafening as well. We took to getting double rounds, just to avoid too much essential drinking time being lost at the bar, but everything was very good natured – even with quite a few Witton Albion fans clearly reckoning they’d have more fun at our pub than theirs (and I think they did).

The abiding memory, however, was the coaches – wave after wave of packed out U’s coaches steaming past down Bridge Road towards Wembley, each one greeted with a roar from the assembled throng in the pub car park, flags waving, scarves twirling – I’d never seen anything like it in all my years following Colchester United, and it’s a memory I’ll cherish for ever.

For once, enjoy the U’s line-up as it was published in the commemorative programme:

If I thought the Torch had been mental, nothing prepared me for the sight as we walked up Wembley Way to take our seats – a sea of blue and white flags, banners, scarves all around, and the noise! To be fair, given their usual level of support, Witton Albion hadn’t done too bad either, and there must have been 6-7,000 of their supporters on the east side, and definitely playing their part to create an atmosphere. However, with an estimated 25,000 U’s fans in full voice opposite them, they had to pick their moments to be heard. The roar as Roy McDonough led out Colchester United sent shivers down my spine, and still brings me out in goosebumps when I think of it today.

We were still in full voice when Mike Masters put the U’s 1-0 up after just five minutes, and in doing so became the first American professional footballer to score at Wembley. For the next 15 minutes, we just passed it around, fully in control, and it came as no surprise when Nicky Smith doubled our lead in the 19th minute. I still see Nicky Smith around at U’s away games, in his role as whatever the modern-day equivalent of a police ‘spotter’ is called, and he’s always got time for a chat – providing we’re on best behaviour of course. Halftime, and the U’s were comfortably in control, and thoughts of refreshments – one look at the jammed concourse had me deciding to tough it out for another 45 minutes and grab a pint or two after the match in town.

Witton hadn’t been completely overawed and had come close on a few occasions in the first half. They came out even brighter for the second half, and whilst I never felt we were under too much pressure, they were enjoying far more of the ball. In the 57th minute that pressure told, with Lutkevich scoring a fine glancing header that looped beyond the reach of the despairing dive of Scott Barrett. Whilst this gave Witton Albion and their supporters a considerable lift, still the U’s weren’t to be overrun, and comfortably weathered wave after wave of Witton Albion forays. Shortly after their goal, Roy subbed himself for Gary Bennett, really a like for like substitution, but obviously on much younger legs 😊.

The turning point, if there was going to be one, might have been Jason Cook’s reckless challenge in the 81st minute, which earned a straight red card. Whilst very sad for Jason, and his family watching on, you couldn’t really argue with the decision – though it broke your heart to watch him trudge off dejected. But the U’s were made of sterner stuff, and roared on by the blue and white army, refused to buckle and took the fight to Witton Albion for the last ten minutes. We were rewarded with a minute of normal time to go, when McGavin scored the third to put the result beyond doubt, and set up incredible celebrations from the U’s Army in the stand!

[b]Colchester United 3 (Masters 5’; Smith 19’; McGavin 89’) Witton Albion 1 (Lutkevich 57’)[/b]

The rest really is all a bit of a blur, I can remember Roy holding the trophy aloft to tumultuous roars, the lap of honour, the dancing, hi-jinks and stuff, the obligatory wearing of the lid as a hat – I also remember Jason Cook, boots in hand, being dragged out to take part by team mates. It was a peculiarly spiteful twist that red carded players weren’t eligible for a winners’ medal – so step forward unused sub Eamonn Collins – a little man with a BIG BIG heart – who gave his medal to Jason Cook!

[b]…and finally[/b]

Amidst all the celebrations, do spare a thought for the poor old Colchester Hippodrome – shirt sponsor for the U’s all the way to the Wembley final, and then ousted on their biggest day by the fat wallets of The Sun newspaper – never one to miss a trick when it came to cheap advertising.

Whilst celebrating our own FA Trophy Wembley triumph, I should also give a shout out to Barrow – they had already got FA Trophy winners medals themselves two years earlier. They’d go on to do it again in 2010, becoming the only side to win the FA Trophy at both old and new Wembley – bravo Bluebirds, and welcome back!

Up the U’s

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