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Letters from Wiltshire #17
Written by wessex_exile on Friday, 20th Nov 2020 17:30

So I never actually imagined more than two weeks after the event that Trump and his attack-dog “Hot Mess” Giuliani would still be refusing to acknowledge that Biden has won the US Presidential election, but there you have it. Closer to home, we are just past halfway through our circuit-breaker 4-week lockdown, and most of the graphs suggest things are slowly improving, but nowhere near a rate that would see figures return to the pre-October levels. Much closer to home, Alfie has been in self-isolation for the last 14 days because one of his teachers tested positive – delighted to say we have both passed through that period without developing symptoms…and without killing each other either 😊

[b]Notts County v Colchester United
Saturday 15th January 2000
Nationwide League Division 2 (Tier 4)
Attendance 4,931[/b]

Letters from Wiltshire #17, and we return to the memorabilia random match generator for a trip to Meadow Lane in only our third match of the 21st century. In the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we go back to when the world was last meant to come crashing to an end, just fifteen days after the Millennium Bug was supposed to have brought the world to its knees, economies collapsing, society breaking down, planes falling from the skies etc. As we know, none of that actually happened, and although there were sporadic technical glitches around the world with software which hadn’t factored in 4-digit year codes (so 2000 would be indistinguishable from 1900), these were very minor indeed. Still, didn’t stop virtually an entire industry of consultants popping up overnight who could ease our Y2K worries…

For the U’s, our concerns approaching the new millennium were much more grounded in reality, and despite our then customary first win of the season away at Chesterfield, just two more victories in the next 18 matches had left us mired in the relegation zone by the end of November. To be fair, much of this for manager Steve Whitton was just trying to mend a side broken by the departing manager Mick Wadsworth. We rallied slightly following a half-decent December (doing the double over Chesterfield in the process), and following a reasonable point away at fellow-strugglers Blackpool in our first match of the 21st century, we were precariously placed just outside the relegation zone.

What followed, in our previous match before travelling to Meadow Lane, was a game that is already part of Colchester United folklore, as the U’s entertained Bristol Rovers at Layer Road. In a ripping end-to-end contest, Jason Roberts gave the Pirates a 12th minute lead, McGavin equalised on 36 minutes, before Roberts (46’) and then our very own Jamie Cureton from the penalty spot (59’) gave Bristol Rovers a commanding, seemingly unassailable lead. McGavin gave us hope with a stunning strike over the despairing dive of ‘keeper Lee Jones three minutes after Curo’s penalty, only for referee Butler to dash that hope – pointing to the spot in the 69th minute for another Cureton penalty.

And then the miracle really began.

Cureton tried for the same top corner, sending Simon Brown the wrong way, but his effort cannoned of the corner of post and bar and away to safety. With ten minutes to go, Layer Road erupted as Karl Duguid controlled beautifully on the edge of the six yard box to pull the U’s level at 3-3, and then put us into dreamland with a blistering strike from outside the box to make it 4-3 just two minutes later. Ecstasy turned to agony in the 86th minute, when Nathan Ellington pounced on a loose ball (back off the bar I think) to bring it back to 4-4, and then cometh the hour cometh the man, with a minute to go Lua Lua blasted Layer Road into the stratosphere, jinking, twisting and turning in front of three defenders to make it 5-4 for Colchester United, and probably one of our greatest comebacks of all time.

When lockdown began, Colchester United very kindly added the full match to their YouTube channel, so if (like me) you weren’t lucky enough to have been at Layer Road that day, it is definitely worth a watch.

[b]After the Lord Mayor’s show…[/b]
As mentioned, I wasn’t at Layer Road for the Bristol Rovers match, so had to content myself spending a remarkably pleasant Saturday afternoon drinking beer with mates in a local pub and watching as Jeff announced each goal as it was scored. I might have lost my sh*t a bit when Lua Lua’s goal-flash arrived, much to the amusement of those around me. With no other matters pressing, and on the back of the Brizzle game, I decided what better way to spend the next weekend than a trip to Meadow Lane.

I’ve been to Notts County on a number of occasions (two years earlier for example, covered under Matches of Yesteryear #34) and it’s usually been a reasonably stress-free awayday. I say usually, but train cancellations did force me and Alfie to turn round and head home a couple of years ago, when we realised we couldn’t make the match before about half-time. Still, all good back in 2000, and as I wasn’t meeting my brother-in-law at the Trent Navigation this time, I contented myself with some beers on the train without the need to get to Nottingham too early. Once I got into the ground (we were still back then housed in the cavernous Kop stand closest to the train station), there was a fairly decent turnout from Essex gathered, clearly still buoyant after the Bristol Rovers comeback.

The U’s lined up:

1….Simon Brown
6….Joe Dunne
5….David Greene
4….Gavin Johnson
24..Ross Johnson
3….Joe Keith
30..Steve McGavin
8….David Gregory
11..Jason Dozzell
25..KK Opara (Lomana Tresor Lua Lua 65’)
9….Jamie Moralee

Whilst the U’s were struggling to pull away from the relegation zone, Notts County under manager Gary Brazil were going considerably better, just outside the play-offs, but only on goal difference. No one, therefore, was underestimating the task we faced – I personally would have been over the moon with a point (and in a small dark corner of my soul maybe subconsciously actually sort of okay losing so long as we didn’t get gubbed). But hope is a curious thing, and that result against Rovers had certainly provided plenty of that, so we were all in good voice cheering on the U’s that afternoon.

In the Notts County line-up was striker Kevin Rapley, who would go on to somewhat underperform for the U’s for a couple of seasons a year or so later, and Mark Warren in central defence. Warren would sign for the U’s in August 2002 but left for our South Essex rivals the following January. For the U’s, Titus Bramble (on loan from Ipswich) had picked up a knock in the Bristol Rovers game, and had temporarily returned to Portman Road for treatment, so new Brighton and Hove Albion loanee and long-throw specialist Ross Johnson stepped up to make his debut for the U’s. Although we didn’t know it at the time, that Rovers game turned out to be Bramble’s last appearance for the U’s.

On a chilly January afternoon, Notts County certainly started the brighter of the two, and Brown did well to pull off a stunning reflex save after just 20 minutes. Notts County broke down the right wing, with a pinpoint cross met perfectly on the volley by Craig Rammage. I’m pretty certain everyone in the ground believed it was a goal all the way, but Brown thought otherwise and managed to instinctively tip it over the bar. That was the sort of thing that really raised your spirits and instil some self-belief, and five or so minutes later it paid off.

Kelechi “KK” Opara was proving to be a bit of a revelation at the U’s and was certainly a handful this afternoon. On 30 minutes he picked the ball up in Notts County’s half and weaving his way into the box past various attempts to block him, was eventually tugged back in unison by both Matthew Redmile and Mark Warren. Referee Michael Ryan had no hesitation, and gleefully McGavin took his chance from the penalty spot, expertly finding the bottom corner of the goal well beyond the reach of Darren Ward. After the match, McGavin admitted that the role of penalty-taker hadn’t really been sorted out ahead of this match, but with Lua Lua on the bench to begin with, he happily took the opportunity to stake his claim.

And it didn’t stop there either. Bang on half-time, and just after receiving a yellow card, McGavin managed to dart between a hesitant Gary Owers and Ward to tap home right in front of us an exquisite cross from the mercurial Opara out on the right wing. 2-0 up at half time, and we were bouncing around the terrace in delirium!

[b]Backs to the wall…[/b]

Into the second half, and McGavin very nearly made it a hat-trick, with the ball ricocheting into his path just two yards out from a David Greene header, only to see his deft touch smothered on the line by goalkeeper Ward. Thereafter, with promotion-contenders Notts County really starting to apply pressure, it became a real park-the-bus backs to the wall performance for the U’s, desperate to hold on to their 2-0 lead.

They did well too, with a really gutsy performance, Brown doing particularly well to push a well-struck shot by Rapley around the post for a corner, but inevitably the pressure did eventually tell. On 65 minutes Stallard expertly hooked a shot from inside the box over the defence and the head of Brown, and into the goal to half the deficit to 2-1. Whitton immediately sacrificed the flamboyant flair of Opara for the…err…flamboyant flair of Lua Lua, but clearly in much more of a midfield holding role. For the remaining 25 minutes I can’t remember us getting out of our own half with any particular purpose, but boy did we defend resolutely – typified by Joe Dunne throwing himself in the way time and time again, and eventually, miraculously we held on for another vital 3pts.

[b]Notts County 1 (Mark Stallard 65’) Colchester United 2 (Steve McGavin 30’p, 45’)[/b]

Okay, so not quite the drama of the previous match, but on a much more positive note, this was a resolute defensive performance compared to leaking four goals at home, and Whitton said as much in the press after. Significantly, these were our first back-to-back wins in over a year, and with 10 points from a possible 15 gained (going back to the 3-0 victory over Luton Town before Christmas), we seemed to be getting into the form of promotion hopefuls, not relegation candidates.

Downbeat Steve Whitton was trying not to get too giddy about it though, commenting "[i]when we are safe from relegation, then we can start to enjoy ourselves…[but]…the lads did everything we asked of them and it was a good, hard-working away performance[/i]". Whitton also singled out KK Opara’s performance, only his second for the U’s, Brown’s excellent performance in goal, and indeed a very solid debut for Ross Johnson in defence. We’d go on to win the next two as well, but ultimately be content with lower mid-table survival at the end of the season.

Both Bristol Rovers and Notts County would miss out on the play-offs, in 7th and 8th place respectively, albeit Notts County were a distant 15pts behind the Gas, who themselves were only 2pts outside the play-offs. I’m sure many Rovers fans that season looked back to when they were winning 3-2 at Layer Road, with Cureton looking to make it four from the spot, and wonder whether that was when they lost their chase for the play-offs?

Now that’s a millennium bug.

Up the U’s

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