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Letters from Wiltshire #23
Written by wessex_exile on Tuesday, 15th Dec 2020 17:58

As I’ve been providing updates on the ongoing US presidential election, it is worth mentioning that the Electoral College votes have now been cast, which formally confirms Biden as the new President-elect. Normally a formality, as the losing candidate has usually long-since conceded defeat, but these are far from normal times, and America has far from a normal lame-duck President. Still, at least the threat of members of the Electoral College ignoring the popular vote in favour of an outcome demanded by Trump has failed to materialise. In the UK, new Covid tiers were announced this week, with London going into Tier 3. Colchester stays in Tier 2, but only just, with as far north east as Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford also moving into Tier 3 – and as if you need reminding, Tier 3 means no supporters at matches.

[b]Colchester United v Doncaster Rovers
Saturday 4th May 1996
Endsleigh League Division 3 (Tier 4)
Attendance 5,038[/b]

Tonight CUFC visit CUFC for what will no doubt be a tough match, but following a spirited four points on our travels in the last two away games, not necessarily one we should be daunted by. Cambridgeshire, for now, is Tier 2, so we can expect up to 2,000 home fans to be there, which if memory serves will be the first time we’ve played away in front of supporters this season? It will be interesting to see whether that plays a part or not. Traditionally, football supporters have always assumed that being at home is an advantage, and the stats back that up. I guess most of that is down to the presence of home support, so I think it’ll be interesting towards the back end of this season to look at how much results during lockdown and closed stadia do or don’t buck that trend.

Letters from Wiltshire #23 is another from the random match selector, and a return to something involving Colchester United after the last two ‘specials’ for #21 and #22. This time, it’s the final match of our domestic season in 1995/96, at home to Doncaster Rovers. The U’s still had an outside chance of making the play-offs, whereas Donny were content to finish the season comfortably mid-table, or so we thought. That wasn’t to say their supporters weren’t up for a party.

In an otherwise sea of fog, there are three, no four very clear memories I have from this game…

[b]Memory #1 – seemed like a good idea at the time…[/b]
I think this was one of the first times I’d witnessed a kind of ‘mass’ participation in wearing fancy dress from the Doncaster Rovers supporters. Not something I’ve ever been drawn to if I’m honest – in fact right up there with cardboard cut-out trophies covered in tin foil and face-painting on my “Never Do” list, but back then it was a curious spectacle nonetheless.

Incidentally, and on that subject, allow me to share the story of my friend Mark, who was at our final game of the season in 2015 against Preston North End that I covered in my very first Matches of Yesteryear blog. He was at the match, but not with me; as a lifelong PNE supporter he was in the away end, and leading up to and during the day we’d been sharing light-hearted ‘bantz’ back and forth. Although the match was broadcast live, I’d never actually seen it…well, because I was there. I’d seen the highlights loads of times, but not the whole match start to finish, so imagine my amusement when the club broadcast the match last season during lockdown, and up popped an image of my mate repeatedly throughout the match.

And why? Because completely by chance (he’s the one on the left) Mark happened to be stood next to someone spotted by one of the match cameraman who rather randomly had decided to dress up as a chicken! I get that the supporters wanted to wear yellow (we’ve done similar with orange in the past), but at what point does your inner voice say “yellow yes, but chicken suit – nah”? The most amusing part for me was my Mark’s post-match description of the world’s most disconsolate chicken traipsing out of the ground after the match – and that’s the thing, if you think something like face-painting or fancy dress is a good idea – ask yourself whether it’ll still seem like a good idea if you have to travel a long way home disappointed.

[b]Back to it[/b]
Anyway, I digress, and this evenings kick-off is fast approaching. As usual, I drove over with my partner and daughter to visit my Mum and extended family for the weekend, and as was often the norm, after lunch me and my brother-in-law Steve headed over for the match. As Steve was driving, I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of a couple in the Drury, before we took our place up near the back of the Barside. Not only were the Donny Rovers supporters fancy-dressed, but there was quite a few of them as well, and their one half of the Layer Rd terrace was pretty well full.

They might not have had anything to play for, but we certainly did. The U’s were one point and one place behind Wigan in the last play-off berth, and just two points behind Hereford in the third play-off spot. So, we pretty much had to win as an absolute minimum. We could have got away with a draw, but only a very high-scoring draw, given Wigan (who’d also have to lose) had scored two more than the U’s (back then, places were decided on goals scored not goal difference). If we did win, and Wigan failed to win, we were in the play-offs. If we did win, and Wigan also won, we were reliant on Hereford losing. If Hereford drew, we’d have to win big, scoring at least three more than Hereford in the process. Basically, the long and short of it was that whilst we were all in fine voice on the Barside, there were lots of permutations and combinations which made success unlikely.

The U’s were managed by Steve Wignall back then, in his first full season in charge, and all in all it hadn’t been a bad season. We’d never quite managed to force our way into the automatic promotion top three but had been in and around the play-offs throughout – I think the lowest we’d been all season was 10th following a run of poor results in January and February.

Our line-up that afternoon was:

1….Carl Emberson
2….Chris Fry
3….Simon Betts
4….Tony McCarthy
5….Gus Caesar (Adam Locke)
6….Peter Cawley
7….Mark Kinsella
8….Tony Dennis
9….Scott McGleish
10..Robbie Reinelt (Steve Whitton)
11..Paul Gibbs

There were one or two changes to the line-up on the back of the programme, with Gus Caesar coming in, presumably for Joe Dunne who wasn’t even on the bench (injured?), and Doogie dropping to the bench in favour of Paul Gibbs starting. The latter would prove to be a very significant decision.

[b]Memory #2 – who are ya?[/b]
The person I want to mention from the Doncaster Rovers side was Cyril “Sammy” Chung, their manager. I’m not sure why, maybe because it was his oriental origins (his father was Chinese) at a time when there were very few involved in English football, but his is both a name and a face that resonates with me in my football journey. There’s no obvious reason why, he had a decent career as a professional footballer at Reading, Norwich and then Watford – but that was back in the 50s and 60s, so not on my radar. He’d dabbled in football management with Wolves for a couple of seasons, including winning promotion to Division One in 1977, and keeping them up the following season as well, so maybe that’s it – just used to seeing him on Match of the Day?

[b]Memory #3 – outrageous![/b]
I won’t plague you with a gritty in-depth analysis of the game, because I can hardly remember any specific details at all. I know for once the U’s were playing towards the Layer Road end first half (presumably Doncaster Rovers won the toss?). I’m vaguely certain that whilst we were probably on top, we weren’t necessarily dominate, and that clear-cut chances were few and far between. Then came the flash of (ahem) brilliance from Paul Gibbs. Charging up the left wing right in front of us in the Barside, Gibbs swung in a looping cross from about the corner of the 18-yard box.

Or at least he tried to, but got the angle slightly wrong…well, wrong for a cross, but bloody perfect if he was trying an outrageous driven looping shot from a very tight angle. Back-pedalling ‘keeper Gary O’Connor could only flap aimlessly as it sailed over his shoulder and into the top corner of his goal. I was looking right down the barrel of that one from my vantage point on the Barside, and as soon as Gibbs had struck the ball, it was “no, surely not…” and then absolute pandemonium as the ground erupted.

[b]Memory #4 – easy tiger![/b]
I’ll be honest, I can’t remember whether it was news at half-time that filtered through, or during the second half, but at some point we heard that Wigan were losing at home to Northampton, with a huge roar going around Layer Road as a result. The odd thing was, if anything it spurred Doncaster Rovers on, like it was news from elsewhere that directly affected them? Dunno, maybe they just were swept up in the emotion and passion of the occasion, but thereafter it seemed to be the U’s who were backs to the wall, whilst Donny battled for everything, chased everything, absolutely desperate right to the dying seconds of injury-time to get an equaliser.

But they didn’t, and scoring his last goal in a U’s shirt, Paul Gibbs had taken us to the play-offs 😊

[b]Colchester United 1 (Paul Gibbs 45’) Doncaster Rovers 0[/b]

Elsewhere, although Hereford comfortably beat Rochdale 2-0, Wigan slipped up losing 1-2 at home to Northampton, and the U’s had snatched an unlikely play-off slot. I won’t dwell on how were fared (a) because it still makes me sad, and (b) because my trip to Home Park may well feature as a blog one day.

After two seasons of mid-table finishes, Doncaster Rovers let Sammy Chung go in the summer. Since then, he spent some time around the turn of the millennium as Director of Football in Barbados (let’s be honest, not a bad gig), and joined the coaching staff at Minehead in 2005. I’m delighted to report that according to Wikipedia, at the ripe old age of 88, Sammy still lives on the Somerset coast to this day.

Although this play-off attempt would eventually fail amid the golf balls and small change of Home Park, we did go on to not only make the play-offs again at the end of 1997/98, but this time going all the way through to promotion, defeating Torquay in the Wembley final. In the Torquay line-up that day was none other than Paul Gibbs…

Up the U’s

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Letters from Wiltshire #43 by wessex_exile
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