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Letters from Wiltshire #13
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 3rd Nov 2020 12:59

2020 – the year that just keeps on giving. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the government has announced another lockdown, starting this Thursday and lasting for at least four weeks. The implied threat is there, behave this time, or in the words of the late great Alan Rickman “Christmas is cancelled”. When I read in my local press the police had to break up a Bristol rave this weekend with over 700 revellers in attendance, I fear for the worst. For now, ‘elite’ football is unaffected, which I assume includes the FA Cup next weekend as an ‘elite’ competition, even if non-elite teams like our opponents Marine FC are taking part? As for the future, I personally think now that it is unlikely we’ll see fans back in stadia this season, though I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that…

[b]Colchester United v Blackpool

Saturday 8th August 2015

Sky Bet League 1 (Tier 3)

Attendance 4,438[/b]

The latest in the Letters from Wiltshire series, and we reach unlucky #13. No one is quite sure when the no. 13 became associated with bad luck – some believe the origin is biblical, with Judas being the 13th apostle at the Last Supper. In Norse mythology there is a similar theme, with a feast for the gods disrupted by Loki as the 13th guest, ending up with the world apparently plunged into darkness. In more recent times, the Tarot “[i]Death[/i]” card is the 13th major arcana card in most traditional decks, though this of course could be a construct precisely because the no. 13 had already attracted a reputation for bad luck (though in truth, the Death card is more generally associated with major change in someone’s life, not specifically death). Whatever, and as I don’t have a programme for the match selected, let’s keep the supernatural mumbo-jumbo going with my Halloween pumpkin commentary on 2020.

I’ve noticed on a number of occasions that the random match selector appears to be anything but random, and today is certainly no exception. I won’t go into detail now, all will become clear in Letters from Wiltshire #14. However, before we get to the opening day of the 2015/16 season, and our match at home to Blackpool, here’s a brief run-down on Tuesday’s opponents Stevenage.

[b]All you need to know about [i]Stigenace[/i][/b]

…is how Stevenage was recorded in the Domesday Book, translated as roughly “place at the stiff oak”. So, despite it being widely associated with the post-war boom in ‘New Towns’ (it was the first to be designated as such in 1946 under the New Towns Act), as a place it had been around for quite some time before that. Albeit they were very modest beginnings, and prior to the New Town expansion, it was little more than a village stopover on the Great North Road.

Although developed as a New Town with lofty and quite progressive ambitions – pre-planned autonomous residential sectors, a pedestrianised town centre, designated cycleways to keep bikes and vehicles apart, industrial sectors etc., inevitably the first to be sacrificed at this particular design altar were character and individuality. My first, and mercifully brief interaction with Stevenage was getting dropped there after the 1979 Knebworth Festival (Led Zeppelin etc.) on my hitch-hike back to Colchester.

As for football, the original town side was Stevenage Athletic, formed in 1968 playing at Broadhall Way, but going bust in 1976. Stevenage Football Club (originally Stevenage Borough FC) were founded in the same year, to fill the void left by the demise of Athletic. They’d originally planned to continue playing at Broadhall Way, but the stadium lease-holder (and ex-chairman of Stevenage Athletic) had other plans, and dug a trench right across the pitch to prevent it being used for football. Stevenage ended up playing their early years on a roped-off pitch at the local King George V playing fields, eventually returning to Broadhall Way in 1980.

After several decades in various lower divisions, including the United Counties League, Isthmian League and eventually the Conference, Stevenage were eventually promoted into the Football League for the start of the 2010/11 season. They’d won the Conference back in 1996 as well but were denied promotion because Broadhall Way wasn’t considered fit for league football. As a result, our paths didn’t first cross until Boxing Day 2011, their second season in the football league.

For the U’s, this was a very inauspicious occasion, getting battered 6-1 at home! However, since that low-point our record against Stevenage is particularly good, winning nine and drawing three of our 15 matches (14 in the league, and once in the FA Trophy) – though I’m sure most of us still remember the Kurtis Guthrie game for all the wrong reasons. Being relatively close geographically, aside from Guthrie there have been many who have turned out for both sides over the years, not least Teddy Sheringham of all people. Obviously this includes last season’s captain Luke Prosser, and it is a genuine shame that we can’t be there to welcome him back with a well-earned ovation.

[b]Back to it[/b]

And so back to the opening day of the 2015/16 season. Following the euphoria of the final day of the previous season, avoiding relegation by the skin of our teeth with that thrilling victory over Preston North End, I think it’s fair to say there was a degree of optimism about the place. Okay, everyone could see the multiple deficiencies that needed fixing to avoid being in that situation again, but there was hope that we would, and with some shrewd signings which showed promise, perhaps the future was looking bright?

We drove over nice and early, to give time for me and Alfie to call in and see Granny for a quick lunch, before parking up at the park’n’ride. It was certainly and literally very bright that day, in fact it was scorching bloody hot! Taking advantage of the U11s for free offer, I had decided that me and Alfie would go in the East Stand family enclosure for the afternoon. On reflection, with the blazing hot sun in our face all afternoon, this wasn’t to be the smartest of moves, but I can’t deny it was a thoroughly beautiful day in all other respects. As a result, on more than one occasion I found myself gazing with envy at the welcoming shade of the South Stand…

[b][i]”They’re changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace…”[/b][/i]

There had been a lot of close-season transfer and loan activity, so it didn’t really come as much of a surprise that no less than six of the U’s that day would be making their debuts – Darren Ambrose, Joe Edwards, Elliott Parish, Matt Briggs and Richard Brindley from the start (the latter two for their second spell at the club), and Kane Vincent-Young coming on as a second half substitute.

The U’s therefore lined up:

33..Elliot Parish

3….Matthew Briggs (Kane Vincent-Young 79’)

4….Joe Edwards

5….Alex Wynter

8….Alex Gilbey

9….Chris Porter (captain; Macauley Bonne ‘79)

10..George Moncur

11..Gavin Massey

18..Tom Eastman

24..Richard Brindley

28..Darren Ambrose (Dion Sembie-Ferris 82’)

Blackpool had been through a difficult 2014/15 campaign, with their new manager José Riga sacked after just 14 league games in charge, the club already five points adrift at the bottom of the Championship. His replacement, Lee Clark, couldn’t do much to improve their plight, and they were eventually relegated still bottom of the league, a massive 20 points from safety. Needless to say, Clark didn’t escape the baleful attention of chairman Karl Oyston, so the Tangerines arrived in Essex for the start of the 2015/16 season under new manager Neil McDonald. That being said, and even though in some disarray off the pitch, as a former Championship side they were inevitably considered by some to be one of the promotion favourites.

In the early stages Blackpool certainly looked worthy of that billing, spurning two gilt-edged open goal chances in the first five minutes. Still, we weathered that storm and had just about managed to steady the ship and get back into the game…when inevitably we conceded the first. The exotically named Bright Osayi Samuel used his pace to devastating effect, breaking through the U’s lines into the penalty box, before pinging a cross virtually through Parish to give Mark Cullen the simplest of tap-ins from less than a yard out. Though left cruelly exposed by our paper-thin defence, there was a question mark as to whether Parish should have got a firmer hand on the pass, but perhaps I’m being overly harsh.

Given we were gaining a foothold in the match, this was a massive setback, and in truth a worrying moment too, given we could have realistically been 3-0 down at that stage. However, within just four minutes were we back on level terms, with Gilbey smashing in an unstoppable shot from outside the area, right into the top corner of Colin Doyle’s goal. A stunning strike that would have featured prominently in Sunday’s media had it been scored in the Premier League.

Thereafter, the remainder of the first half was fairly even, with both sides creating chances, particularly Chris Porter with a header which was only inches wide on the half hour mark. A minute or so from the break, Massey really should have put the U’s 2-1 ahead when through on goal – but Doyle stood up to the challenge and managed to save the effort. We were left to rue the missed opportunity in injury time, when that man Cullen made an inch of room for himself on the edge of the box and drilled home through a forest of legs.

Half-time, the U’s were 2-1 down, me and Alfie were baked to perfection, and certainly ready for the welcome shade of the concourse and a couple of bottles of water.

Refreshed and ready for another grilling, we returned to our seats to watch an equally revitalised U’s come out much the stronger for the second half. Barely ten or so minutes later, we were again level. Massey, who had been terrorising the left back for Blackpool, outpaced him down the wing, and crossed perfectly for debutant Darren Ambrose to calmly side-foot home from five yards out. Nothing more than we deserved at that stage, and although Blackpool always carried a threat, I was hopeful we’d press on and actually win the game. I think Blackpool manager Neil McDonald thought the same, bringing on Jose Miguel Cubero immediately, and Kwame Thomas shortly after, to try and shore things up and hold on to the point.

George Moncur went very close after that, shooting straight at Doyle following yet another free-flowing fast-paced U’s break midway through the second half. Almost straight after Massey then mugged Jose Cubero whilst dawdling in possession in his own half to race through on goal, only to be denied (again!) by a brave challenge from Doyle to prevent what should have been the winner. Doyle injured his left arm in the process and had to be McDonald’s last substitution. No one should celebrate a player going off injured, but in the context of his performance to date, I’ll admit I wasn’t sorry to see the back of Doyle that afternoon.

With just eleven minutes to go, Tony Humes made a double-substitution, bringing on Macca Bonne and new lad Kane Vincent-Young for Porter and Briggs, and a few minutes later Dion Sembie-Ferris for the tired legs of goal-scorer Ambrose. However, try as we might, Blackpool held on, and the U’s couldn’t add to their tally and ultimately win a game that on balance they probably deserved to.

[b]Colchester United 2 (Alex Gilbey 22’; Darren Ambrose 56’) Blackpool 2 (Mark Cullen 18’, 45’)[/b]

At the time, I thought that it wasn’t necessarily a poor result against a team I believed would do well that season. With the benefit of hindsight, it really wasn’t that good a start, and after just six games we were in the relegation zone without a win and just four points to show for our troubles. Four league wins on the bounce after that gave hope that Tony Humes had turned things around, but as we entered October that hope turned to utter despair, as we started a dreadful run of form.

Towards the end of November, and with seven defeats from nine matches, Robbie Cowling had seen enough and Tony Humes was relieved of his duties. We then entered the ‘poisoned chalice’ phase of the season, with no one seemingly wanting the manager’s job. Hall and McGreal gave it a go as an interim duo for about a week, then Wayne Brown as caretaker for most of December, Kevin Keen also as caretaker until our inevitable relegation was confirmed with two matches to go, and David Wright as caretaker for the penultimate game. McGreal was appointed ahead of the final match of the season but didn’t take up his position until the season had ended, so for our final match we were managed by McGreal’s assistant Steve Ball.

We must have spent a fortunate in monogrammed manager attire that season…

Oh, and promotion favourites Blackpool were almost as inept as we were, and likewise relegated alongside Doncaster Rovers and Crewe Alexandra.

Up the U’s

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