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Letters from Wiltshire #44
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 18th Apr 2021 15:56

So here we are, as the nation mourns the passing of His Royal Highness, Duke of Edinburgh, the U’s face the first of two season-defining moments, with our late kick-off match at home to Walsall. Before then, no doubt many will have been focused on events elsewhere, not least the early kick-offs for Grimsby (at home to promotion-chasing Bolton Wanderers), and particularly Essex rivals Southend United, who faced a tricky visit to Exeter City – still very much in the hunt for at least a play-off spot. As I finalise this blog, I know that Grimsby have beaten Bolton 2-1, and Southend earned a credible 0-0 draw in the West Country. More to the point, the U’s will know this too. Whilst I can’t help but feel that will ought to be to our advantage, it surely must also put additional pressure on a squad whose confidence is paper-thin. We must hope that Hayden Mullins, assisted by Paul Tisdale, get their heads right, and send the lads out this evening fired up with self-belief.

[b]Colchester United v Bristol City
Saturday 23rd September 2000
Nationwide Football Division 2 (Tier 3)
Attendance 7,411[/b]

Letters from Wiltshire #44, and the random match selector has gone right back to the early part of the 2000/01 season, and a visit to one of my frequent haunts over the years, Bristol City at Ashton Gate. Whilst probably not quite as significant an event in our history as the next few days might turn out to be, it was still a seminal moment for the U’s – as we began adjusting to a world without the mercurial talent of Lomana Tresor LuaLua in our line-up. Although the actual £2.25m purchase by Newcastle’s Bobby Robson was only officially concluded in the middle of the previous week, it was a widely anticipated move which had kept LuaLua off the team sheet for the best part of two weeks.

It had been an up and down start to the season for the U’s under Steve Whitton – good wins against Swansea and Bournemouth, a bunch of drawn games, and defeats at home to Rotherham and away at Wigan, which left the U’s mid-table going into this game. Bristol City, on the other hand, were experiencing a surprisingly poor start to the campaign, and were sat in the relegation zone at the time (albeit they had games in hand). Travelling over on the train with kids Lauren and Sam, I was therefore reasonably hopeful we could get something from the match – not something we generally have much success at visiting Ashton Gate.

[b]On the day[/b]
The U’s lined up as follows:
1….Simon Brown
2….Joe Dunne
19..Alan White (Joe Keith 67’)
18..Aaron Skelton
6….Simon Clark
20..Micky Stockwell
8….David Gregory (Chris Keeble 52’)
11..Jason Dozzell
4….Gavin Johnson
10..Steve McGavin (KK Opara 85’)
17..Tony Lock

Bristol City at the time were managed by Danny Wilson, and on paper had a very strong squad – far better than their relegation zone place would have suggested. From my time in Bradford, I was well aware of the talent of Brian ‘Tinman’ Tinnion, Keven Amankwaah was well-known in lower league circles, as of course was striker Tony Thorpe. Though not on the team sheet for this match, the Robins did also have Kayode Odejayi in their squad.

On a beautiful September afternoon, as me and the kids took our places up the back of the cavernous Covered End amongst probably about 200 of the faithful, we didn’t have long to wait to see how the U’s would respond to the sale of LuaLua – about 80 seconds to be precise. Pressure from the U’s straight from kick-off forced a corner, Micky Stockwell took it short, crossed the return beautifully into the danger zone, and there was Tony Lock to head past the helpless Steve Phillips. What a dream start, greeted by ferocious celebrations in the away end, and surely a portent of more goals to come?

Well, Danny Wilson and Bristol City clearly didn’t read that particular script, and instead dusted themselves down after that early set-back, and really started to turn the screw. Mind you, we did well to weather the storm for the most part – even if it was pretty much one-way traffic, we were keeping them at bay, and although it would be a long afternoon, possibly signs we might just get away with a smash and grab 3 points.

That is, however, until an Aaron Skelton howler.

Synonymous with wayward shooting, Aaron was actually a fairly decent defensive midfielder on his day, only this day wasn’t one of them. Dithering on the ball outside his own penalty area and choosing not to just boot it out of harm’s reach, his pocket was picked by Tony Thorpe, who cutting into the penalty area scored with a well-placed shot past an advancing Simon Brown. So that was that, now, we had a long way to go to even keep hold of a point. Bristol City’s tails were up, and for the remainder of the first half laid siege to Simon Brown’s goal. However, to their credit, the U’s ten-man defence for the most part held out. When we were breached by Scott Murray beating the offside trap, his free header not only cleared Simon Brown, but the crossbar (just) as well. Tony Thorpe should have grabbed a second with a diving header in injury time, but was well wide when he should have done better.

Still, we’d made it through to half time without conceding again, and whilst we’d showed very little attacking intent, there was hope amongst the faithful that we could at the very least hold on to the point in the second half.

It was very much as you were into the second half, with the added frustration that whenever we did seem to at least have a chance to ease the pressure and take the ball up the other end of the pitch, either luck, or just plain poor control, seemed to let us down. However, in the meantime Simon Brown was having probably one of the best 45 minutes of his career between the sticks. Time and time again, when it looked certain Bristol City would score, there was Brown pulling off stunning saves, denying Tony Thorpe in particular two cast-iron certain goals.

For a bit of light relief, as Alan White was stretchered off with a nasty looking leg injury, one of the stretcher bearers managed to get his feet in a pickle, tipping poor Alan out on to the side of the pitch – much to the amusement of pretty much everyone in the crowd – even us lot. Fortunately, apart from some dented dignity, no harm was done. On the pitch, Simon Brown continued to work miracles, somehow keeping out a point-blank header from City substitute and namesake Marvin Brown and defying the laws of gravity to dive backwards and claw a certain Thorpe goal out of the air.

With a game management substitution late in the game, swapping KK Opara for Steve McGavin, Steve Whitton’s U’s held on, to somehow mastermind a point from a game we really didn’t deserve – or at least very few but Simon Brown deserved. Bizarrely, and we would have been riding out of town in Steve Cotterill sombreros if so, we nearly nicked all three points at the death, with a screamer from Tony Lock in injury time that was just inches wide.

[b]Bristol City 1 (Tony Thorpe 20’) Colchester United 1 (Tony Lock 2’)[/b]

Never one to miss the opportunity for a bit of sour grapery, after the match Danny Wilson commented “[i]We were caught cold by a goal in the early moments of the match and when you give a team something to hang on to like that, I'm sure Colchester got what they came for[/i]”. To be fair, he wasn’t actually wrong in this case, and he did also graciously concede “[i]…credit to Colchester and their keeper Simon Brown, he had a stormer. He kept his side in the hunt with two or three fantastic saves in a game we dominated throughout[/i]”.

This, for me, is one of those moments following the U’s that the after-match experience is probably just as memorable as the game itself. We headed back to Bristol Temple Meads, and with connections as they were, had the best part of an hour to wait for the next train back to Salisbury. Obviously, the station bar beckoned, so with beer, soft drinks and crisps we settled down for the wait. Ten minutes later, in walked a ‘handy’ bunch of (ahem) more elderly chaps, no colours, not too old, but of that age (if you know what I mean) that you try and avoid them on an away-day. Spidey-senses told me immediately these were not regular train travelling punters, but I figured with two young’uns in tow, I wasn’t going to necessarily be on their radar…but I was wearing a U’s shirt, which they clearly spotted straight away, and made a beeline straight for me.

Although my initial risk assessment was spot on in terms of their ‘handiness’, it actually turned out all they wanted to do was talk about football. Not just the match, and they agreed we really had gotten away with an ill-deserved point, but more about LuaLua. Yep, LuaLua, who was no longer at Col U, but apparently made a huge impression on them in the few games between the two he participated in. They absolutely loved him, most of Bristol City did apparently, and according to them, Bristol City immediately offered £1m for LuaLua after that previous season’s match at Ashton Gate. I had no reason to disagree with them, but they did agree that holding out for £2.25m was probably the better decision.

Anyway, after a really enjoyable time together chatting, including the Brizzle sorts standing a round (plus ice-creams for the kids), they said their goodbyes and headed off for their train. We had five more minutes before our own train arrived, and on the way out, my more than persuasive daughter bullied me into putting £1 into the fruit machine so that she could (unofficially) push the buttons.

And then we started to win…

More than just win, as the £1 investment developed, our winnings went from getting £1 back, to winning £2, to £5, to £10…to the point that with our train pulling into the station, it was time to cash in, take the £10 and run for the train. The maximum win was £15, and literally seconds before I was ready to press the button, another Bristolian came up to point out that all the lights on the machine were red – I didn’t know what this meant, but he explained it meant a guaranteed £15 jackpot was coming.

We had to believe him, so stuck with it, and won the £15 jackpot…which then repeated…three more times! By the time the fruit machine had stopped pumping out £60 in £1 coins, our train was on the platform waiting to depart. I had just enough time to reward the chap with £10 of the coins before we literally had to jump on the train as it was about to leave, weighed down by a fistful of coins.

If you’re wondering, both kids demanded and received their share of the winnings…

Up the U’s

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