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The U'sual Rambling #1
Written by wessex_exile on Saturday, 30th Jul 2022 12:51

Here we go folks, are we ready for another rollercoaster of joy and dismay? Right now, I’ll probably take an even mix of both if it guarantees a solid midtable finish, but why stop at that. I agree with [b]Durham[/b] in his excellent match review, given how well we finished the second half of the season, ignore the bookies perennial struggler tag – we can do this! For the new season, the blog has slightly metamorphosed into [i]The U’sual Rambling[/i], though largely the same format as last season, albeit perhaps less labour-intensive in content. In my case, pertinent for Saturday given I am missing the opener at Sixfields to dog-sit the beautiful (and high maintenance, super ridiculous, energetic etc.) border collie Reggie.

[b]The world outside U’s World[/b]
So obviously there has been so much going on in the wider world that it would probably take the entire blog just trying to catch up – therefore, I’m not going to try. As a snapshot therefore, here is a very abridged precis, obviously with my u’sual commentary ramblings (quiet in the back!).

On the domestic front, BoJo has finally stood down as PM amidst a deluge of resignations from his cabinet and wider senior management team…although he hasn’t quite yet, waiting for his successor to be elected. The Tory party members are down to two candidates to choose from, the tax-dodging billionaire, or someone who probably can’t spell “tax-dodging billionaire”. Remarkably, Thatcher-lite Liz Truss is currently leading Rishi Sunak in the polls – ballots go out next week, and the poll closes on 2nd September, by which time the U’s will be:

[i]top of the league / pushing for promotion / midtable / struggling[/i] (delete as applicable).

Given that ASLEF are on strike today in support of the RMT, which undoubtedly will hamper the efforts of the faithful to get to Sixfields, it is of course right to mention the ongoing rail workers industrial dispute. As I’ve already mentioned, whatever your views on a worker’s inalienable right to take industrial action when all other avenues are closed to them, no one surely can deny that RMT Leader Mick Lynch’s systematic excoriation of any right-wing journo that has been thrown in front of him has been a joy to watch. The latest offer is an 8% pay rise over two years, which is still a pay cut, and with plenty of other unacceptable strings attached.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/07/27/train-rail-strikes-live-today-july-s

Across the pond, I have been fascinated by the January 6th Committee hearings, and have managed to watch all of them bar the latest (US) prime-time showing, which was 1am here in Blighty. Quite how he’ll avoid prosecution for dereliction of duty is beyond me, but I’m certain Trump will manage to do so. However, it is becoming clear that even his fawning propaganda acolytes at Fox are beginning to waiver in their support, clearly under orders from the real head of the far-right Republicans, Rupert Murdoch. One wonders how Tucker Carlson will cope, perhaps the pillow guy will do him one-off special with Trump’s face on it, so he can cry himself to sleep every night?

Sadly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still a thing. Whilst there is no good news for a war in Europe, Russian progress has ground to a halt, and on many fronts is being pushed back by President Zelensky’s forces. Their latest target, having turned the Russian navy into a submarine battalion, is the Antonivskiy bridge over the Dnieper River, one of the main Russian resupply routes into Kherson. The previous soviet empire collapsed under the crippling debt from their invasion of Afghanistan, perhaps Putin is on track to emulate that? We can but hope!

[b]U’s World[/b]
On Ukraine and relevant to the U’s, the Game for Ukraine shirts went up for auction a few weeks ago to add to the considerable £60k+ pot that we had already amassed from ticket sales for the British Red Cross humanitarian effort. I was lead bidder for one of the shirts at the close of online bidding, though eventually beaten by an in-person bid at the Open Day later that day – heyho, congratulations to whoever eventually won with a very substantial bid. By the end, over £6k had been added to the Game for Ukraine fundraising, so well done everyone who participated, a splendid effort and all for an excellent cause!

Transfer activity has been relatively modest so far, much to the annoyance of some clearly. Coming in, after leaving West Ham in the summer, midfielder Ossama Ashley has joined the U’s on a one-year contract. Not a particularly generous length for a contract, but on the flip side, more than enough time for Ash to make an impression and earn himself something longer next year. Attacking midfielder Alex Newby has also joined us after two seasons with fellow League Two rivals Rochdale and sporting a new blond rinse for the occasion too. I know very little about Alex, but 13 goals from 82 appearances for the Dale wasn’t a bad return, so let’s hope for more of the same with the U’s.

The two other sort of ‘signings’ were more really familiar faces staying longer. Emyr Huws, another midfielder, made a welcome return on a new one-year deal after making a very positive contribution to our upturn in the second half of last season. Sadly, he’ll miss the first part of the season after a horrendous X-rated ankle-breaker tackle from Millwall’s Jake Cooper. It’s easy to say there’s no place for that level of aggression in a pre-season friendly, but in truth there’s no place for that in any match, and I’m certain if it had been a competitive fixture Cooper would have been straight off. That Cooper went on to score the winner, catching Sham flat-footed to head over him into the net was equally galling.

Our final arrival, and staying on the Sham theme, was Sam Hornby from Bradford. I liked what I saw in Hornby when he played, and think he’ll be a very good ‘keeper for the U’s. Just as well too, given after a derisory initial offer, SPL side Livingston upped their offer for Shamal George to tempt him north of the border on a whopping 4-year deal. Although the fee was officially ‘undisclosed’, it has been widely reported as £87,500 (don’t know about any sell-on clauses though). Although that doesn’t sound like much, for Livingston that represents their second highest transfer fee paid, which I guess if nothing else is a marker for how the English and Scottish leagues compare? Livingston boss David Martindale was quite candid about their business plan – develop Sham as a goalkeeper, and in due course sell him back into English football for a healthy profit – and I for one wish Sham every success in his time at the Almondvale Stadium.

[b]Stat attack[/b]
Even though overall our record for opening day fixtures is quite good, with 35 victories and 20 draws from 80 attempts, in recent years things they have been rather a barren source of amusement. In fact, since that memorable 3-0 victory at Hillsborough way back in 2004, we’ve only won on three more occasions. However, it’s perhaps telling that we have been away on all three of those occasions – the 7-1 demolition of the budgies in 2009, the following season at Exeter City, and at Priestfield in 2013. Perhaps an omen of things to come this afternoon? Incidentally, for those who bemoan we always seem to play away first match of the season, whilst that is certainly true in recent years (18 times in the last 22 years), overall the record is 42 openers away in 80 seasons.

Gillingham and Lincoln (five times) are our most common opponent, followed by Chesterfield (another 6-3 anyone?) and Hartlepool on four occasions, and Southend, Barnsley, Stockport and Torquay three times. We’ve never played Northampton on the opening game of a season, until now. The “Can We Play Your Every Week” award probably goes to Stockport, who have lost all three of their opening games against the U’s, with Chesterfield (lost three and drew one) a close second.

As far as attendance goes, pleasingly the highest was 25,217 at Norwich for that 7-1 victory, though considerably fewer than that towards the end of the match, followed by 24,238 at Birmingham City for our first ever fixture in the Championship, and 24,138 at Hillsborough for the previously mentioned 3-0 stunner. The lowest attendance, for matches I can find data for, was just 1,625 at Accrington Stanley back in 2017. At Layer Road, the 1952 game against Ipswich attracted 14,674, with 11,484 turning up for the 1956 game against Southend – the only two times we’ve had a five figure attendance for an opening day home match. Mind you, for balance, there were only 1,662 in attendance for the visit of Southend in our first match of the 1982/83 season, albeit that was in the then Football League Trophy.

[b]Match of the Day
[i]Cambridge United v Colchester United
Saturday 9th February 2002
Nationwide Second Division (Tier 3)
Attendance 3,954[/i][/b]

For the opening [i]Match of the Day[/i] of the new season, the random memorabilia match selector has perhaps kept one eye on today’s game, chosen our February 2002 trip to similar local rivals Cambridge United. I’ll be honest, even though I have the programme and clearly were there, my memories of the day are fairly vague, possibly because this was a Dad awayday on the train, with all the usual refreshments that would entail. By way of another coincidence, the 2001/02 season was the season of our red Ridley’s away kit – a shirt that many see our new away top as an homage to.

The U’s, managed by Steve Whitton at the time, had been having a bit of a tough time of it in what was then the Second Division. A decent start to the season, including that opening day 6-3 victory at Saltergate, had kept the U’s firmly in promotion contention. But, by mid-September things had started to slip, and with six defeats in the next nine games, but early November we were firmly midtable and well adrift of promotion contention.

A particularly disastrous January, including four defeats on the trot, saw the U’s slip into the bottom half, albeit relegation was very unlikely. Stopping the rot somewhat, the U’s ground out a gritty 1-1 draw at Layer Road with promotion hopefuls Brentford on the previous Saturday to bring an end to that losing streak. This gave us hope they could press on and get something at the Abbey, with Cambridge United already looking like relegation certainties, and were followed by a sizeable gathering of the faithful at the Abbey.

This would be our last match prior to construction of the new all-seater South Stand, and with the old open away terrace already demolished, U’s fans were housed at the south end of the Habbin Stand. As is often the case for local derbies, the match had attracted some of our more ‘gnarly’ support and being in the same stand as home fans to our left, made for a pretty intense atmosphere at times.

Steve Whitton’s U’s lined up that afternoon:
1….Simon Brown
7….Karl Duguid
30..John Halls
12..Scott Fitzgerald
3….Joe Keith
17..Bobby Bowry (Dean Morgan 64’)
20..Micky Stockwell
4….Gavin Johnson
11..Graham Barrett
28..Adrian Coote
9….Scott McGleish (Kevin Rapley 64’)

First and foremost, this was a special occasion for U’s playmaker Micky Stockwell – his 700th professional appearance. 610 of those had been at Ipswich, until they shamefully cast him aside as they won promotion via the play-offs to the top flight. Their loss was very much our gain, and Micky had been a rock in the U’s midfield for 89 matches so far, putting in performances that belied his age time and time again.

If we gathered full of hope and expectation for kick-off, that was somewhat dented after just 18 seconds, when Tom Youngs blasted the home side into a 1-0 lead. It’s difficult to say it was against the run of play at the time, but it clearly would prove to be as the first half wore on. The U’s laid siege to the Cambridge goal, but record signing Adrian Coote wasted three guilt-edged chances to at least wipe out their opener, and to be honest give the U’s the lead their dominance deserved.

Under relentless pressure, Cambridge were fighting tooth and nail to hold on to their slender lead, and midway through the first half diminutive midfielder Luke Guttridge picked up a yellow card doing just that. Still though the U’s couldn’t make their pressure count, with half chances for McGleish and Barrett either drifting wide or ending safely in the arms of Cambridge ‘keeper Shaun Marshall. On the stroke of half time the U’s perhaps received the breakthrough they needed, when Gutteridge picked up his second yellow card and was off – could we make the next 45 minutes against ten men count?

Well, for the best part of the first 20 minutes of the second half, the answer was sadly not. Still the U’s dominated, but resolute defending and our misfiring attack combined to deny the U’s the goal they deserved. On 64 minutes Whitton made a double substitution, bringing on Kevin Rapley and Dean Morgan for McGleish and Bowry. Within a few minutes it had paid off, with Coote stealing in to finally hit the back of the net, bring the U’s level, and send our support into raptures.

With renewed energy, some fresh legs, and a whole heap of self-belief, the U’s redoubled their efforts to find a winner, whilst t’other U’s redoubled their efforts to cling onto the point they so desperately needed in their fight to avoid relegation. At it looked like they might do it too, until with just five minutes to go super-sub Kevin Rapley (aka Krapley Rapley) hammered home the winner we so richly deserved and sent our support ballistic in celebration.

[b]Cambridge United 1 (Tom Youngs 1’) Colchester United 2 (Adrian Coote 68’; Kevin Rapley 85’)[/b]

Three more draws after the Abbey game steadied the ship for the U’s and ease any nagging worries about relegation. Although we eventually finished 15th, that still represented year on year progress for the U’s since their return to the third tier. Cambridge United weren’t as fortunate, finishing rock bottom of the league by some distance, and were relegated to the basement.

The financial impact of that relegation put a severe dent in their redevelopment plans for the Abbey, with the intention originally to replace the North Terrace with a much larger all-seater stand, moving the pitch south in the process. That’s why, when you visit the Abbey today, there’s that large swathe of grass between the pitch and the South Stand.

Micky Stockwell would go on to make 145 appearances for the U’s, scoring 24 goals, until a serious back injury forced his retirement in 2003. Despite his Ipswich roots, Micky would become a firm fans favourite amongst the faithful, and a legend to this day.

Up the U’s!




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When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
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