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Letters from Wiltshire #29
at 18:39 26 Jan 2021

Looks like some around the world have started 2021 a bit cross. Never mind the attempted insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, those normally laid-back Dutch have now been rioting for three nights running about the imposition of a night-time curfew to try and curb the spread of coronavirus. Farmers in Delhi have stormed through police lines and breached the Red Fort in protest against market reforms, and tragic Somalia has just passed the 30th anniversary of their ongoing civil war. In brighter news, President Biden has immediately begun dismantling and/or reversing some of Trump’s more contentious decisions, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, renewed funding for the World Health Organisation, revoking the ‘Muslim travel ban’, defunding the border wall, rescinding Trump’s report calling for a ‘more patriotic’ syllabus in schools, and overturning the ban on transgender people serving in the military.

Plymouth Argyle v Colchester United
Saturday 29th October 2016
Sky Bet League Two (Tier 4)
Attendance 8,650

With tonight’s game at Stevenage a 7pm kick-off, this blog may be a bit shorter than usual if I’m going to post ahead of kick-off. Letters from Wiltshire #29 returns for another West Country visit, the eleventh so far (including last season’s Matches of Yesteryear series), but the first to come from Home Park. Not my first visit to Home Park by a long stretch, I think that event was way back in May 1996 for our infamous first leg Play-Off semi-final. Given the 1995/96 season was the first time our paths crossed since I’d moved down from West Yorkshire, I’m fairly certain there wasn’t a previous visit to Home Park. I don’t have a programme for this match, but have managed to hold on to the tickets.

Context please
Anyway, back to the 2016 match. After a slightly ropey start to the campaign (losing their first matches home to Luton and away on the long trek to Carlisle), Plymouth had embarked on a terrific run of form, and going into this match were not only undefeated in 12 matches, but had won all but two draws in the process. Needless to say, they were top of the league and had been since the first half of September.

The U’s had faired less favourably, and although we’d had an okay start to the season (winning five and drawing one of our first eight matches), a subsequent slump had seen us slip down into lower mid-table ahead of the match. This was John McGreal’s first full season as manager – technically he was appointed ahead of the last game of the previous season, but as he didn’t take up the post until the close season, the current manager Steve Ball stood in as a caretaker.

It’s all about golf balls, spare change and pasties…
For anyone who visited Home Park back in the day, they will remember Home Park as a crumbling behemoth that had clearly seen better times, and in urgent need of a facelift. Crumbling open terraces, antiquated facilities, much of it rebuilt post-war (after heavy damage during air raids), but not really improved at all beyond that point. The local populace were similarly rather living in the past as well, and with a well-deserved reputation for not really moving on from the tribal football violence of the 70s and 80s – as anyone who was at that ’96 play-off match can testify.

However, the new millennium saw improvements, with the complete replacement of the Devonport End, Lyndhurst Stand, and Barn Park End as one continuous build, as a horseshoe arrangement facing the antiquated Mayflower Grandstand. There were plans to redevelop this into a new 3-tiered grandstand, but these plans had to be shelved as Argyle subsequently flirted with bankruptcy, including going into administration in 2011. As with what happened at Layer Road, Plymouth City Council agreed to buy the freehold for Home Park (for a reported £1.6m) and then lease the ground back to the club. Their fanbase also seemed to relax into the 21st century a tad as well, with Home Park no longer the fearsome venue of old for travelling supporters.

On the road
Me and Alfie drove down for this match, on what was actually a lovely day given we were at the wrong end of October. Normally, I street-park in the residential area on the opposite side of the A386. However, as places were becoming increasingly harder to find in previous visits, mainly because of a more and more stringent resident parking scheme, this time I availed myself of the luxury of the Home Park stadium car park (normally a park & ride, but utilised for football parking on matchdays). To emphasise the weather, the groundsmen were liberally watering the pitch right up until kick-off, and at half-time too.

Despite the distance from Essex, there was quite a reasonable turnout from the U’s faithful, including the drum to add some oomph to proceedings, the crowd (I think) including both Noah and Durham in amongst what must have been 2-300.

John McGreal’s side lined up that day:

1….Sam Walker
2….Richard Brindley
14..Alex Wynter
30..Lloyd Doyley
5….Luke Prosser (captain)
24..Craig Slater (Sammy Szmodics 91’)
28..Kurtis Guthrie
12..Kane Vincent-Young (Tariqe Fosu-Henry 91’)
7….Drey Wright
9….Chris Porter
17..Denny Johnstone (Macauley Bonne 92’)

The match
When all’s said and done, considering the relative positions of the two sides, this was a very good performance from the U’s, and for most of the game we were more than a match for our high-flying opponents. Drey Wright signalled our intent early on, drilling an angled shot wide of the post, and he was going to indirectly play an unwitting role in what might be construed as Argyle’s controversial opener.

Wright had come off worse in a tackle with midfielder Graham Carey, and was left in a crumpled heap writhing in agony. However, following the mantra ‘play to the whistle’, Carey continued to advance, and whilst some of the U’s gestured wildly for the ball to be put out, slotted it through beautifully for Craig Tanner to drill home the opening goal. This was galling to say the least, but if I’m honest I would have expected the U’s to do exactly the same, so couldn’t really complain. Still though we continued to press Plymouth all across the park, with Denny Johnstone shanking a volley that would have been a certain goal if he’d caught it right shortly after.

Just after the half-hour mark we got the deserved equaliser. Sam Walker saw an opportunity and launched the ball from his area into the path of Wright breaking into the Argyle half. Beating his man, Drey crossed into the path of Porter, who couldn’t get his feet sorted out in time and make decent contact. His fluffed effort was half-cleared back to him on the edge of the box, where he was brought down for a free-kick. Stepping up, Craig Slater curled an absolute peach both sort of over and around the wall and into the bottom corner, giving ‘keeper Gary Miller no chance, and the U’s a well-deserved equaliser before half-time.

The second half continued very much as the first had finished, with the U’s still showing attacking intent. Johnstone and Porter combined virtually from kick-off to fashion a chance for Wright, but he didn’t really trouble Miller. However, Plymouth still carried a significant threat, and reminded us of that shortly after, with that man Jerome Slew keeping Walker on his toes after a smart shot on the turn. As the half wore on, although both sides still carried a threat, and demonstrated attacking intent, they were rather cancelling each other out in a war of attrition midfield battle.


With fifteen minutes to go, we come to the really contentious, might I even say controversial and even calamitous, moment of the game. Well within the Plymouth Argyle half, referee Kevin Johnson and Argyle player Jimmy Spencer accidentally collided. Johnson went down, clearly in a lot of discomfort, and the ball out of play of an Argyle player (can’t remember who). Some reports say the referee was unconscious, but there did seem to be some ‘writhing’ going on too, but that could well have been spasms. All in all, he looked in a very bad way, and after 12+ minutes of extended treatment on the pitch, they bought a spine board on to remove the unfortunate Mr Johnson, to be replaced by 4th official Simon Knapp.

This is where things really went wrong. Knapp incorrectly awarded Plymouth Argyle the throw-in, who despite howls and protestations both on and off the pitch launched it forward with attacking intent. However, despite the injustice, everything seemed in control, with Prosser clearing up to tap back to big Sam for a clearance…only he slightly under-hit it, not massively so, but enough to give onrushing Ryan Donaldson an invitation to bear down on Walker. Big Sam swung a leg at the ball, which cannoned straight off Donaldson, ballooned over Walker’s shoulder, and bounce into the empty net.

Technically, with 12 minutes delay for the referee injury, the time was registered as the 87th minute, but in reality there was still at least 15 minutes left to play. We were gutted, and McGreal more or less immediately made a triple substitution, bringing Bonne, Szmodics and Fosu on to try and rescue at least the point we richly deserved. But, despite a number of efforts between then and full-time, we couldn’t fashion another goal. Anyone watching final score, and knowing the relative positions and form of the two teams, would probably reflect on what seemed to be another anticipated regulation home victory for the team top of the table. You would have to have been there to know the truth…

Plymouth Argyle 2 (Craig Tanner 61’; Ryan Donaldson 87’) Colchester United 1 (Craig Slater 31’)

First and foremost, I should finish by confirming that although Johnson was kept in hospital overnight, he was discharged the following day, with a combination of ligament damage and a little bit of blurred vision.

Curiously, the result was more or less the end of Plymouth Argyle’s run of form, and a mini-slump saw them sacrifice top place at the turn of the year, albeit they never slipped below second, and finished as runners-up with automatic promotion.

Conversely, after a couple more wobbles, and possibly buoyed by that Home Park performance, the U’s went on an undefeated run through November, December and January to propel us right back into the promotion frame. John McGreal was named Manager of the Month for December, the first time a U’s manager had received the award since Paul Lambert back in 2009.

Despite finishing the season strongly, the U’s missed out on the play-offs by one point and one place, and whilst it’s easy to point to any result throughout a season and say ‘that was the moment’, a credible candidate for that moment would be the fallout from the injury to referee Kevin Johnson

Up the U’s
Letters from Wiltshire #28
at 18:18 24 Jan 2021

It’s difficult to think about quite how to write this editorial, without appearing mawkish. On Sunday 17th February 671 people succumbed to coronavirus, with the 7-day average creeping just above 1,000 deaths. On that day, one of those was someone very dear to me, who died in Watford General Hospital of Covid-19 pneumonia. Idiots and conspiracy-theorists will tell you there’s no plague, or that masks infringe their civil liberties, or some other form of spurious non-science bullsh*t, so do me a favour – if they say this to you, please punch them on the f’cking nose for me, and say that’s from Wessex – thank you.
Letters from Wiltshire #28
at 14:54 23 Jan 2021

It’s difficult to think about quite how to write this editorial, without appearing mawkish. On Sunday 17th February 671 people succumbed to coronavirus, with the 7-day average creeping just above 1,000 deaths. On that day, one of those was someone very dear to me, who died in Watford General Hospital of Covid-19 pneumonia. Idiots and conspiracy-theorists will tell you there’s no plague, or that masks infringe their civil liberties, or some other form of spurious non-science bullsh*t, so do me a favour – if they say this to you, please punch them on the f’cking nose for me, and say that’s from Wessex – thank you.

Top 5 away-day football grounds

For those that don’t know, Watford General Hospital is on Vicarage Road, virtually right next door to Watford Football Club. I’ve been to Vicarage Road twice, once for our rearranged 1977 FA 1st round 2nd replay against AFC Bournemouth (we won 4-1 with goals from Steve Dowman and a Colin Garwood hat-trick, in front of just 2,230), and the following 2nd Round match actually against Watford (which we lost 0-2 in front of a slightly more respectable 11,907). Thinking about this connection, Letters from Wiltshire #28 will be my top 5 away-day football grounds.

This isn’t just going to be about the big fancy stadiums of our Championship years, and not necessarily those rare one-off cup clashes against top-flight opposition, but as much about the event itself, and the away-day experience overall. As I often say, context is everything – so let’s dive in, and as always, in reverse order.

#5: Stamford Bridge

Haha – so having opened with “…and not necessarily those rare one-off cup clashes against top-flight opposition…”, let’s start off with exactly that. Stamford Bridge was built in 1877, and began life as a vast more or less open bowl athletics track. Chelsea Football Club moved in on the day they were formed in 1905, and have stayed there ever since. Three times in the 20s it hosted the FA Cup final, and in 1935 saw an official record attendance of 82,905 watch a game against London rivals Arsenal (the match was drawn 1-1). Unofficially, it is estimated over 100,000 crammed in to watch a friendly against FC Dynamo Moscow, who were invited to tour the UK at the end of the Second World War.

Our trip to Stamford Bridge, for our first and currently only competitive match against Chelsea, was on 19th February 2006, in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. To accommodate the TV cameras, this match was switched to the Sunday, not that that discouraged the travelling U’s faithful, who snapped up the 6,000 tickets available in no time at all (and more than a few in with Chelsea too).

From a location perspective, it couldn’t have been easier to get to for me. We’d just moved to Warminster, having finally outgrown our Salisbury home following the arrival of Alfie 18 months earlier, but still a simple train journey up to Waterloo and short tube journey from there. Virtually a whole bunch of family before the match, we opted for pints at a pub in Parson’s Green before the match. I can picture it in my mind, but can’t for the life of me remember its name.

The ground itself was quite something – from the outside vast towering stands that dwarfed residential properties that surround it on three sides. The stewards were reasonably courteous, albeit somewhat overzealous in their confiscation of items that could be construed as ‘weapons’ (like small plastic ‘vuvuzela’ horns – although personally, confiscating those hideous things was fine with me).

Inside the ground was something to behold as well, not just the 2- or 3-tier stands on all sides, fully enclosed and giving a real bear-pit of an atmosphere, but the massed ranks of U’s fans already gathered and in full voice, and it was still half an hour before kick-off! Despite the throng, we did manage to get some fairly standard concourse food and drink before kick-off. We didn’t even bother trying at half-time, it was mobbed. The noise when Parky and the team ran out though was just deafening.

The abiding memory though, and one I know we’ll all share, is 6,000 U’s fans in full voice drowning out anything that Chelsea supporters did for the entire match – “Who needs Mourinho, we’ve got Phil Parkinson” booming out time and time again, and the goal celebrations when we took the lead, quite magical. That and balloons of course. Okay, we eventually lost 3-1 when Mourinho was forced to bring on Lampard, Cole and Crespo in the second half, but what a day, what a stadium and what a brave performance from the U’s.

#4: Ashton Gate

Another bear-pit of a stadium, and this one much more old skool than the revamped all-seater Stamford Bridge. First off, there is a bias here I suppose – my Auntie Di was a Bristolian (lived in Shirehampton until she passed), I’ve always loved the city, still do, and for the last 30+ years I’ve lived in relatively easy reach of Bristol. We even opened a regional office there six years ago, which I visit regularly, and my eldest also lives there. Proximity has meant therefore many trips to Ashton Gate (and the Memorial Stadium) over the years.

Just to clarify here, I am talking about Ashton Gate before relatively recent redevelopment, when away fans were housed in the South Stand, which used to be known then simply as the Covered End. Away fans were given about one third of this stand, with some of the more lairy home support behind a fence in the remaining two thirds (reminiscent of the old Ninian Park for anyone who’s made that trip in the past).

Whoever you support, no one could deny that Bristol City supporters, a bit like (for instance) Leeds and Portsmouth fans, do make a heck of a lot of noise most matches. What I always loved about Ashton Gate was that the acoustics were excellent, which allowed even a paltry few hundred U’s fans to make quite a bit of a racket on their own. My son Sam (who has never seen the U’s lose on any of our football trips together) used to have to cover his ears when we all got going, it was that loud. There were pillars, which could obscure surprisingly large slices of the pitch at times, but that was kind of part of the experience to be honest.

I think also I have to give a big shout out to City (and Rovers) fans too – in all my visits to Bristol to watch the U’s, always in colours, I have never once had any grief from anyone. In fact, quite the opposite, more often than not I’ll find myself drawn into conversation, usually about football, sat around a pub table with 5-10 City fans, everyone buying rounds and just having a good time – and that includes in the infamous Wedlock Pub too – now sadly demolished and redeveloped for flats.

Curiously, given how much I enjoy trips Ashton Gate, we rarely win, but my special memory has to be way back on 8th February 2003, in front of 11,107 (including what must have been 3-400 U’s fans). The U’s took an early lead through Scott McGleish, City equalised just after half-time, and then in front of the travelling supporters, up popped Thomas Pinault to make it 2-1 with about 20 minutes to go – what scenes of celebration there were. Oh, and City’s equaliser was scored by Craig Fagan…

My last visit to Ashton Gate was in 2014, and with the old South Stand then demolished, work had started on replacing it. As a result, we were housed at one end of the Atyeo Stand at the other end, and whilst I still enjoyed my football away day to Ashton Gate, the atmosphere just wasn’t the same.

#3: St Mary’s
Of the ‘new era’ all-seater stadia I’ve been to, I have to say that St Mary’s is probably one of the best designed. Graceful curves, fully enclosed, one continuous roof span, no pillars or supports getting in the way, for a relatively modest 30k+ capacity, it really is the dog’s danglies. Okay, so it’s set in a bit of an industrial wasteland for now, but what I also like about it is the heritage aspect – going back to the parish from which Southampton get their nickname The Saints.

That heritage aspect is also particularly important for me, as we provided the archaeological work to clear the site ahead of the development, which included a fair few dead Saxons, former residents of Saxon Hamwic. In recognition of our support, once the stadium was built, the team were invited to a celebration meal at the stadium, which naturally included a free bar and tour of the stadium – what a pleasant evening that was.

Needless to say, the U’s haven’t played at St Mary’s too often, five times to be precise, but I have managed to be at every one of them, plus a more recent trip to watch the England U21s play a friendly against Norway. Given the gulf in class between Southampton and the U’s, our record at St Mary’s is surprisingly good, having won once, drawn three times and only lost once (and even that was a spirited narrow 3-2 defeat in the League Cup). Of course, St Mary’s was one of those grounds that some believed was cursed, when Saints went on a prolonged run without a victory after moving in (something we know only too well), so maybe we were benefiting from an aftertaste of that curse?

As far as abiding memories go, it can only be that victory at St Mary’s on 16th March 2007, our first and most glorious season in the Championship. The match was played on a Friday night, so me and a friend from work travelled down for the game after work. I can’t remember why it was played on a Friday, but it clearly had an impact on the travelling support, which I reckon was only around the 200 mark (it would have been at least double for a Saturday afternoon).

Not that we let that get in the way of our support, and the small band of U’s supporters just didn’t stop singing all match. Every time the home support found their voice to try and drown us out, back we came with an almost never-ending chant of “Georgie Williams’ Blue and White Army” – just relentless. It was certainly helped by the U’s on the pitch, who were magnificent in both attack and resolute defence. A neat bit of interplay between Izzet and Iwelumo allowed Cureton to blast us into an early lead, Saganowski finally equalised mid-way through the first half, only for Cureton to brilliantly restore the lead a minute later with a stunning volley from a Richard Garcia cross…and the fans sung on!

#2: Brisbane Road

This one is all about the beer, and I’m not afraid to admit. Although not exclusively, this trip is usually one for leaving the kids at home, so the lads can get a bit lairy. As with any football ground in London or the Home Counties, it’s a straightforward train journey and tube/ overground there and back, always a bonus if beer is involved. The other bonus is it usually allows a stop at one of my favourite football trip pubs, Hamilton Hall at Liverpool Street Station – such as back in 2011 with my mate Jon and Alfie ahead of a forgettable performance on the pitch.

It would appear I’m not the only one that likes a trip to Brisbane Road either, and it is usually one of our better turnouts for away games each season – admittedly it does often bring out some of our gnarlier barsiders from back in the day too, certainly not something for the faint-hearted. The pre-match atmosphere in the nearby Coach and Horses, the usual watering hole for the U’s faithful is always excellent, with song after song raising the rafters at times.

There are some negatives about a trip to Brisbane Road, not least that there’s no alcohol on sale in the ground, albeit most have usually had enough by then anyway, and the queues for antiquated toilet facilities can be daunting (particularly if you’re trying to hold in a whole bunch of pre-match pints). PC Plod and the stewards are generally okay – providing you’re there to have a few beers and a good time that is, less so if you’re getting a bit antsy in your pantsy. I’ve never had any trouble from locals in all my trips, probably because I’ve never gone looking for any, just to meet up with mates and have a good time.

The stadium is compact, tidy, well-laid out, has generally excellent views on all sides, a good playing surface usually, and of course for the massed ranks, excellent acoustics. They don’t, as a rule, have much of a singing culture, so often it’s really only the U’s making all the noise – maybe that’s something to do with their support having a significant proportion who really follow one of the larger London clubs?

I’ve already featured my one trip to Brisbane Road that’s actually in my memorabilia collection (LfW#16) – the ill-fated match that would see Leyton Orient relegated to the Conference, finished in secret behind closed doors following a pitch invasion, and me and Alfie forced to get an Uber all the way back to Wiltshire after the match. For all the great visits I’ve had to Brisbane Road, this one has to stand out as the most notable for so many reasons – plus of course we won! (though we didn’t officially know that until we got home). I’ve already posted this YouTube link in the previous Brisbane Road blog, but I love watching it, so make no apology about doing so again.

…and finally…

#1: Griffin Park

For any that know me, this probably won’t come as much of a surprise. A bit like Brisbane Road, this is all about meeting mates, drinking beer and having a good day out – only this time with perhaps slightly less propensity for the old skool Barside to show up as well. Perhaps the long tube and overground across London is a bit too much of a ball-ache for those travelling from Essex, but for someone living in the West Country it make a London awayday even easier.

Brentford has always held a kind of fascination to me anyway, from long before I ever visited following the U’s. It was always that ground you could see from the M4 Chiswick Flyover and think “what ground’s that then?”. At university I was introduced to the Brentford Trilogy novels by Robert Rankin, and his two central characters (drunken layabouts) Jim Pooley and John Omally, which I loved from the moment I picked them up. In more recent years, it was fascinating to actual identify some of the ‘fictional’ locations in his books, not least the former Bricklayers pub, The Flying Swan and semi-permanent home to Poole and Omally in the books.

Sadly, this is one on my list that no longer exists (if you don’t count the demolition and rebuild of the Ashton Gate South Stand), but that’s progress I guess. What I will say is that the new ground looks first class, right in the heart of the community, and I sincerely look forward to my first opportunity to visit it following the U’s.

Back to Griffin Park, it’s another traditional smaller football stadium, bags of character and charm, perhaps more suited to hosting 3rd/4th tier football in look and feel, but which has undergone several redevelopments over the years. Many will remember we were originally housed in the two tier Brook Road stand, before the home supporters got roof envy and we were switched to the freezing open Ealing Road terrace. Then Brentford did some fund-raising to put a roof on it, and suddenly the home supporters wanted it back, so back we went to the Brook Road stand.

Traditionally, matches at Griffin Park are always preceded by a lap of the ground, with one (or more) starting in the Royal Oak, then clockwise to the New Inn, the Princess Royal and then finally the Griffin, which is where the U’s faithful usually congregate pre-match. Again, from a personal perspective, never a hint of trouble in all my many visits. The Brook Road stand has good acoustics, and I’ve been in amongst some noisy support at time. I’ve never been in the top tier seating, and of course I never will now.

The open Ealing Road terrace was considerably less welcoming, and on occasions I’ve been frozen solid and literally drenched to my skin watching the U’s (to add insult to injury, the latter whilst enduring a 4-1 drubbing), but it’s never really got in the way of enjoying my opportunities to visit Griffin Park.

Indeed, my favourite memory is indeed from standing on that open terrace with my mate Jon, watching Brentford play ping-pong on our goal line, before Iwelumo set Yeates free to run and run, bearing down on goal to drill the U’s into an unassailable 2-0 lead back in 2005/06 Championship promotion season. I’ve already featured this game (MoY#21), but the grainy video is worth seeing again.

For Jacki

Up the U’s
[Post edited 23 Jan 18:17]
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at 07:40 23 Jan 2021

...with special mention for Daniel, Katie and Harrison

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Letters from Wiltshire #27
at 16:01 16 Jan 2021

Welcome to 2021, and hopefully a vaccine-driven start to a much better year for everyone – which as you can guess was going to be my introduction two weeks ago. From a selfish perspective, hopefully an improved year for the U’s as well that sees us cement at the very least a play-off spot, but why stop there – don’t mess around with the lottery of play-offs, go straight for it with automatic promotion (who am I kidding). First up in that quest is a tough match against Tranmere Rovers Cambridge United, and no longer with Chuck to help us out. Still, set up for Jevani to put one over on his former club.
Letters from Wiltshire #27
at 12:26 16 Jan 2021

Welcome (finally) to 2021, and hopefully a vaccine-driven start to a much better year for everyone – which as you can guess was going to be my introduction two weeks ago. From a selfish perspective, hopefully an improved year for the U’s as well that sees us cement at the very least a play-off spot, but why stop there – don’t mess around with the lottery of play-offs, go straight for it with automatic promotion (who am I kidding). First up in that quest is a tough match against {Tranmere Rovers} Cambridge United, and no longer with Chuck to help us out. Still, set up for Jevani to put one over on his former club.

Exeter City v Colchester United
Saturday 5th May 2018
Sky Bet League Two (Tier 4)
Attendance 4,615

The opponents for today’s Letters from Wiltshire #27, Exeter City, know all about the lottery of the play-offs, appearing as losing finalists in 2017, (spoiler alert) 2018 and of course 2020. Being a local trip from here, Exeter City also feature prominently in my memorabilia collection, and this isn’t the first blog I’ve written from St James Park. This should have included our three most recent visits, but on 25th January 2020 a trackside fire put paid to my journey at Tiverton, the pandemic prevented a visit for last season’s play-off match, and again for our most recent 6-1 mauling – though in truth I’m glad I wasn’t there for that one.

The nickname for Exeter City is a matter of considerable debate. St James Park is located in the parish of St Sidwells (named after St Sidwella, allegedly a native of Devon who was martyred through beheading by reapers at the behest of her own mother-in-law – nice!). The parish is located outside the city walls, and some believe the nickname is a Homerian classical reference to the Greeks laying siege outside the walls of Troy, and/or that the association more specifically relates to antipathy between city boys and St Sidwells boys during the beating of the bounds.

There are a number of etymological suggestions as well: that it is a corruption of the derogatory term “Greasy ‘Uns” for children from St Sidwells, or perhaps based on the Welsh name for Exeter, Caerwysg. This derived from the Roman fort at Exeter, as Caer = fort and Wysg = Exe, and thus people from Exeter would have been known as ‘Caer Iscuns’ (which at a stretch, if repeated enough times, could morph into ‘Grecians’ over time). A slightly more prosaic explanation could simply be because a jeweller’s shop on Sidwell Street had a clock hanging outside with the name Grecians on its face

It’s not the despair…
I may have mentioned previously, but where possible I always try and do the first and last match of each season, and although this had really been a season to forget, there me and Alfie were driving down to Exeter on a beautifully warm sunny May day. Well, I say a season to forget, but in truth it had been a season that’s difficult to remember, it had been that underwhelming.

An exceptionally poor start to the season saw the U’s down near the relegation zone by the end of September, and knocked out of the League Cup in the first round at home to Aston Villa in front of the Sky Sports cameras (albeit it was a spirited performance). Although our league form rallied somewhat after that, in rapid succession we went out of the FA Cup in the first round at home to non-league Oxford City, and three days later went out of the EFL Trophy at the group stage, losing 2-0 at Southend United of all places.

However, we did seem to be capitalising on our opportunity to ‘concentrate on the league’, and with only one defeat from then through to the new year, we managed to climb into play-off contention. It wasn’t to last though, and a catastrophic dip in form through to mid-March realistically put paid to any lingering hope of the play-offs, even if mathematically it was still possible. Typical U’s, that despair gave way to faint hope after three wins on the bounce: at Stevenage, home to Luton, and at Forest Green Rovers, the latter including one of the fastest goals I’ve seen scored by a U’s player, as Drey Wright poked home a Sammie Szmodics cross after just 16 seconds.

However, as we know, hope is a capricious mistress, and all that good work was undone by three more successive defeats, at home to Accrington Stanley and Notts County, and away at Lincoln City, followed by a drab 0-0 at home to Swindon, ended any lingering dreams of an unlikely and ill-deserved play-off spot. That defeat at Lincoln would also turn out to be 7’ tall Sam Walker’s last game for the U’s, in technically his third spell at the club.

All caught up
And so there we were, me and Alfie driving down the M5 for a meaningless match for the U’s, with nothing to play for but pride. Exeter City, on the other hand, were already guaranteed a play-off place, it just remained to be determined where exactly, and therefore how the draw might favour them. 4th place was obviously the priority, giving them second leg home advantage over whoever finished in the final 7th place slot, so I was expecting a tough match against a team with quite a bit still to play for.

With Sam Walker expecting to leave at the end of the season, John McGreal’s side lined up that day

25..Dillon Barnes
2….Ryan Jackson
22..Kane Vincent-Young
6….Frankie Kent
5….Luke Prosser (captain)
14..Brandon Comley
16..Sean Murray (Tom Lapslie 76’)
10..Sammie Szmodics
11..Ryan Gondoh
20..Courtney Senior (Drey Wright 76’)
19..Mikael Mandron (Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe 46’)

Just to emphasise, it really was a beautiful day, not just warm but for early May actually hot. St James Park was undergoing renovation, with the old open away terrace behind the goal demolished, and a new stand under construction on the railway side of the ground opposite us. There was a decent following from the U’s too, with the drum coming along for the ride as well, and our own Durham making up what must have been nearly 200 of the faithful that afternoon, including Brennan Dickenson taking the opportunity to sit with the fans.

Least said the better to be honest
In truth, considering Exeter had a lot to play for, when combined with the heat on the day, the match started with a distinct lack of any urgency from both sides, and it almost had a pre-season friendly feel to it. Maybe at the back of their minds, Exeter players weren’t subconsciously holding back to a degree, not wanting to risk injury with the play-offs approaching? Maybe for the U’s players, they just didn’t want to crash and burn on the final day, and would be happy to play out a dull 0-0? Who knows, but it took nearly 15 minutes for the first meaningful action of the match.

Slopping defending from Frankie Kent allowed Liam McAlinden to nip in on the left, loft the ball over the advancing Dillon Barnes and run on to his own ball for what really should have been an open goal – only he chose to cross the ball instead of score, and Robbie Simpson shanked his chance up and over the bar. It was a considerable let-off for the U’s, and should have been a wake-up call, but we hit the snooze button and slumbered on.

Dillon Barnes, who wasn’t to be honest filling me with confidence, did reasonably well diving full-length to keep out a curling long-range shot from Ryan Harley, but it was the sort of regulation save you would expect any ‘keeper to make. It was his dithering with ball in hand that was bothering me most – often racing out looking for the early throw to put the U’s on a counter-attack, but then failing to decide which of the options presented to him to take.

Barnes was beaten late on in the first half, from a looping Simpson header that just evaded him and nestled in the bottom corner, but we were saved by the lineman flagging for offside. We were more or less in line with it, and I’ll be honest it looked very close, but to be fair the Exeter players didn’t protest too much, so I guess it was the correct call. Our only meaningful contribution all half had been a tame effort from Ryan Gondoh (making his full debut) which goalkeeper Christy Pym watched go safely outside the post.

Into the second half, and still no one appeared to really want to give it a go, until we were thrown a very unlikely life-line. Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe had replaced Mikael Mandron at half-time, and was proving to be a bit of a livewire in the box. Going down under a clumsy challenge from Sweeney, the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Sammie Szmodics claimed the chance for himself, but I really wish he hadn’t. Pym dived to his right, but Sammie’s effort was weak and straight down the middle, and gave Pym the chance to clear it with his trailing foot.

My video of that penalty

That just about summed up our day to be honest, and barely ten or so minutes later we were to pay for the miss. Having already hit the post from a Dean Moxey effort, Sweeney then did well down the Exeter right, sending an inviting cross into the box. Frankie Kent looked in two minds, perhaps expecting Barnes to come out and claim it. Barnes stayed rooted to his line presumably expecting Kent to deal with it, and Simpson took full advantage to run in between and head home easily. It was no more than we deserved to be honest.

McGreal changed things around a few minutes later, bringing on Lapslie and Wright for Murray and Senior in a double substitution, and it did at least inject a bit of urgency into the U’s. A speculative (mishit or deflected possibly?) cross from Ogedi-Uzokwe looked to be sneaking under the crossbar, which required Pym to palm it over the bar, and a half-chance for Prosser required a defter touch than he had to successfully lob Pym in the dying seconds – that one finished on the roof of the net.

And that was that, bowing out of our 2017/18 campaign with a whimper in 13th place and our worst league finish for 23 years…

Exeter 1 (Robbie Simpson 71’) Colchester United 0

With their victory, Exeter claimed top slot in the play-offs, and after a comfortable 0-0 away at Lincoln, and then a resounding 3-1 victory in the second leg, went on to play Coventry City in the final in front of over 50,000 fans. Coventry had finished 6th, five points behind Exeter, but it didn’t show as they comfortably beat the Grecians 3-1 in the final – the Exeter consolation coming in the last minute of the game.

Sam Walker did indeed leave in the summer for a bench-warming appointment at Championship side Reading. Over the following two seasons he made just 14 appearances for the Royals, half of which were as the ‘rotation’ goalkeeper for cup matches. However, just before Christmas he joined Blackpool on a one-week emergency loan after Blackpool’s goalkeeper Chris Maxwell tested positive for coronavirus, and this was extended by another seven days on 30th December, so he’ll be playing in their match at Bristol Rovers today (alongside Luke Garbutt as it happens).

If you can bring yourself, here are the Exeter City highlights from YouTube.

Up the U’s
Prediction Logged by at 12:56:02
Colchester United v Tranmere Rovers prediction logged
Letters from Wiltshire #26
at 18:18 29 Dec 2020

Well, after a piss-poor Xmas period so far for the U’s, culminating in the Roots Hall horror show on Boxing Day, let’s hope the U’s have burned off those festive calories and are raring to go. They’ll certainly have to be at their best against a Cheltenham side aiming to force their way into the automatic promotion places. In other news, we now finally have confirmation that there will be a trade deal in place with the EU once Brexit arrives in 2021. It remains to be seen whether it’s a good deal or not, and more to the point, who for, but at least it’s not the economic uncertainty of no-deal.
Letters from Wiltshire #26
at 18:17 29 Dec 2020

Well, after a piss-poor Xmas period so far for the U’s, culminating in the Roots Hall horror show on Boxing Day, let’s hope the U’s have burned off those festive calories and are raring to go. They’ll certainly have to be at their best against a Cheltenham side aiming to force their way into the automatic promotion places. In other news, we now finally have confirmation that there will be a trade deal in place with the EU once Brexit arrives in 2021. It remains to be seen whether it’s a good deal or not, and more to the point, who for, but at least it’s not the economic uncertainty of no-deal.

Colchester United v Huddersfield Town
Tuesday 24th September 1996
Coca Cola Cup (2nd Round, 2nd leg)
Attendance 4,095

And so, for our last match of 2020, the random match selector for Letters from Wiltshire #26 has chosen the very first League Cup match in my memorabilia collection. Certainly not my first League Cup match by any measure, that goes right back to at least the 4th Round home game against Southampton in the 1974/75 League Cup, but this is the furthest back that I still have a matchday programme for. As with pretty much all League Cup matches, for all time, this was a midweek fixture, at home to Huddersfield Town in the 2nd leg of the 2nd Round.

How so?
As I’ve mentioned previously, midweek matches at Layer Road are always slightly incongruous as far as my memorabilia collection is concerned. By rights, given both the travelling distance involved, and invariably needing to work both on the day before the evening kick-off and again the following day, evening games really shouldn’t be a possibility for me normally. However, context is everything, and this match happened to coincide with the first phase of a very large archaeological excavation at Imperial College Sports Ground, Harlington – just north of Heathrow. We were staying up in London during the week, using self-catering accommodation in Maidenhead, which just about put me in range of Layer Road following a full day on site.

The archaeology bit
Forgive the brief indulgence, but Imperial College Sports Ground (site code IMC96) turned out to be one of the more important, and certainly archaeologically significant archaeological investigations it has been my pleasure to direct. The site was a large gravel quarry right opposite Chelsea’s former training ground on Sipson Lane, and so we were getting pretty blasé about bumping into the likes of Petrescu, Lebeouf, Vialli, Wise, Di Matteo, Zola, Gullit etc. We were also still there when Matthew Harding died in the helicopter crash less than a month after this match, and witnessed the hundreds of scarves, shirts, flowers and other mementoes that were festooned on their gates by supporters.

This was a large quarry, and the IMC96 site eventually ran for five consecutive seasons before being exhausted, finishing in 2000. By this time we had uncovered an incredible complex of archaeological remains including Neolithic and Early Bronze Age enclosures, barrows and other monuments (red), a Later Bronze Age field system and water holes (mustard yellow), Late Iron Age (dark blue) and Romano-British (lilac) settlement focused on a hitherto unknown Roman Road heading north west from Londinium, and both Saxon (cyan) and medieval (lime green) settlement and field systems.

On a lighter note, Marcus Brigstocke also decided to film one of his We Are History episodes at the site in 1998, whilst we were excavating the three Early Bronze Age barrows more or less central within the site. If you haven’t seen these, they could best be described as an affectionate parody/ homage of Time Team, but you can of course decide for yourself, as the IMC96 episode (including your truly) is still available on YouTube.

The journey to here
Literally – I drove over for the game straight from work, which only gave me ten minutes to pop in for a quick coffee with my Mum before the match. Driving back straight to our accommodation in Maidenhead after the match meant for once I had to forgo the pleasure of a pint or two in the Drury, so after parking up on Gladwin Road, I met up with my brother-in-law Steve on a reasonably full Barside terrace.

Figuratively – as a Third Division side at the time, our 1st Round two-legged draw was a tricky one against First Division West Bromwich Albion. It looked even trickier when they beat us 3-2 in the 1st leg at Layer Road (I wasn’t there), and no one really gave us much hope of turning things around at the Hawthorns. However, in a blistering 2nd leg display that I’m really sorry I missed, we were 3-0 in the lead less than ten minutes into the second half, and although WBA did get one back with seven minutes to go, we held on for an unlikely 5-4 aggregate victory. The real story of the night, however, was our then ‘keeper Canadian Garrett Caldwell had to go off injured at half-time (tore his thigh muscle taking a goal kick), and without another goalkeeper on the bench, Steve Whitton volunteered to go in goal for the second half.

The 2nd Round draw wasn’t much kinder, again against First Division opposition, this time against our shirt donors Huddersfield Town. Drawn away for the 1st leg, a goal a-piece either side of half-time gave the U’s a very respectable 1-1 draw at the new McAlpine Stadium, to set things up nicely for this 2nd leg match. As Chris Hazlehurst (CUSA) commented in the programme “…as far as the match at Huddersfield was concerned it proved to be another splendid team effort and most travelling fans found difficulty naming a man of the match”.

The match
Our line-up for the 2nd leg was for once exactly as listed on the back of the programme:

1….Carl Emberson
2….Joe Dunne (David Gregory)
3….Simon Betts (Steve Whitton)
4….Tony McCarthy
5….David Greene
6….Peter Cawley
7….Adam Locke
8….Robbie Reinelt
9….Chris Fry
10..Tony Adcock (Karl Duguid)
11..Richard Wilkins

Huddersfield were managed at the time by Brian Horton, who had joined the Terriers a year earlier after two seasons managing Manchester City. Their line-up that evening was pretty much a first XI, and included their record £1.2m signing Marcus Stewart (from Bristol Rovers), recently signed Andy Payton (from Burnley, for a not inconsiderable £325k), and experienced midfielder Paul Reid. Breaking news for the U’s was the eventual and inevitable sale of Mark Kinsella to Charlton Athletic at the end of the previous week. At the time the fee was undisclosed, but it was eventually announced (leaked?) to be £150k. Obviously at the time a sizeable fee for a club of our size, but with the benefit of hindsight it does seem such a paltry amount.

There’s not a great deal I can remember about the match itself I’m afraid, other than a lasting impression that is was a pretty even game. Given Huddersfield were two divisions above the U’s, and we were struggling in the Third Division (at the time just eight points from the first eight matches), this was a very creditable performance. The U’s held their own, and on occasions even pressed Huddersfield, and at the end of both half-time and normal time the match was still 0-0.

I can’t remember what the rules on away goals were for the League Cup back then, but clearly they didn’t count double, or we would have been through to the 3rd Round at that point. I’m not certain if away goals might have counted after extra-time, but it proved to be a moot point. In the 8th minute of extra-time, that man Marcus Stewart finally broke the deadlock for the Terriers. Five minutes into the second period of extra-time, with the U’s pressing for an equaliser, Huddersfield finally sealed the match, with substitute Simon Collins making it 2-0 – and no way back for the U’s.

Colchester United 0 Huddersfield Town 2 (Marcus Stewart 98’; Simon Collins 110’)

As heart-breaking as it was to go out of the League Cup in extra-time like that, considerable comfort could be taken from four very spirited performances against First Division opposition. Huddersfield crashed out of the competition the following round, losing 5-1 at eventual finalists Middlesbrough (Middlesbrough lost the replayed final 1-0 after extra time to Leicester City).

Although not immediate, the spirit shown by the U’s eventually started to turn our season around, and following a run of 18 matches unbeaten between October and mid-February, we ended up narrowly missing out on the play-offs by one place and one point (sounds familiar ☹).

Garrett Caldwell did eventually recover from his thigh muscle tear, and played once more for the U’s the following season (a 2-0 home league victory over Torquay United), before returning to Canada to play for Toronto Supra.

Incidentally, in other news, at the end of the 1996/97 football season, tonight’s opponents Cheltenham Town (under the ever-charming Steve Cotterill as manager) finally gained promotion to the Conference. They finished a distant second to champions Gresley Rovers, but capitalised on Gresley’s ground not meeting the required standard to pinch the promotion place.

Up the U’s
Don't forget, 1pm kick-off today...
at 11:59 26 Dec 2020

...at Roots Hall.
Letters from Wiltshire #25
at 12:30 24 Dec 2020

A little earlier than usual, but as we approach the end of what has been a most difficult year for everyone, I’ll keep the introductory editorial brief, as I’m sure you will all be very busy in the coming days rescuing what you can from this pandemic-ravaged festive period. I simply wish you all peace on earth, goodwill to all (yes, even our South Essex cousins), and here’s to a happy, prosperous and most importantly healthy 2021 for us all.
Letters from Wiltshire #25
at 12:29 24 Dec 2020

A little earlier than usual, but as we approach the end of what has been a most difficult year for everyone, I’ll keep the introductory editorial brief, as I’m sure you will all be very busy in the coming days rescuing what you can from this pandemic-ravaged festive period. I simply wish you all peace on earth, goodwill to all (yes, even our South Essex cousins), and here’s to a happy, prosperous and most importantly healthy 2021 for us all.

Allies v German Empire
Friday 25th December 1914
Western Front
Attendance c. 100,000

The U’s at Christmas
In researching for this blog, I was quite surprised to discover that matches on Christmas Day actually used to be quite a thing, with the U’s doing so no less than eight times in the ten years between 1946 and 1956. The very first match was a 0-1 defeat at home to Gillingham, but that would be the first and only occasion we have lost on Christmas Day, probably helped by six of the eight matches being played at Layer Road. Relatively local rivals Gillingham have featured in three of those games, but the pick of the results has to have been demolishing Queens Park Rangers 5-0 at Layer Road in 1953.

The Great War
However, for Letters from Wiltshire #25 it seemed fitting at this time of year, and in the context of a world still beset by far too much hostility and intolerance, to focus on something heart-warming that perhaps still gives us hope for humanity. Thus, we go back to the Western Front Christmas Truce of 1914.

Gavrilo Princip being taken into custody by local Sarajevo police – © Topical Press Agency/Getty

For a bit of background, despite Baldrick’s assertion that he’d heard the Great War started “…when a bloke called Archie Duck shot an ostrich ‘cause he was hungry”, the reality was that it all followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by 19-year old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. Although this one event is considered the most immediate cause of World War I, the toxic contribution of an ongoing global arms race, fuelled by rampant nationalism, imperialism and militarism, all combined to plunge the world into the Great War just a month later, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supported by the German Empire, declared war on Serbia.

On the Western Front, fought predominantly by British, French and Belgian forces against the German Empire, the war started with the Race to the Sea, a failed attempt by both sides to outflank the other by pushing north through the Low Countries to the North Sea. There then followed the mutually costly and indecisive battles of Yser and the first battle of Ypres, before both sides settled back in November to reconsider strategies, whilst fortifying their positions and preparing for renewed offensives in Spring 1915.

These opening campaigns of the Great War had unleashed horror on a scale never before witnessed, both sides appallingly well-equipped to slaughter their fellow man with grotesque industrial efficiency. We can’t today even begin to imagine what it must have been like, nor the effect it must have had on the soldiers of both sides that went through it, but that was almost certainly a driving force behind the widespread unofficial truces along the Western Front for Christmas 1914.

Peace in our time?

© Emily Hobhouse, copy released in 2013 by the Manchester Archives

There were semi-official moves to try and at least broker a ceasefire, if not actual peace. Towards the end of 1914 a group of 101 British suffragists penned the Open Christmas Letter, a public message calling for peace addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria”. This was written in acknowledgement of the mounting horror of modern warfare, and in itself was a response to letters written by German women’s rights activists to American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt (president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance). The letter was answered by 155 prominent German and Austrian pacifist women early in 1915, and whilst neither brought an end to hostilities, the promotion of peace between women of nations at war certainly maintained their unity in the common goal of suffrage for women. Pope Benedict XV also called for at least an official truce, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”, but his plea was politely declined by both sides.

However, whilst officially there was to be no fraternisation with the enemy as far as leaders were concerned, the reality in the trenches was completely different. With the proximity of the trenches it was quite easy to shout greetings (and no doubt taunts as well) across no man’s land, and thus fairly easy to arrange temporary ceasefires. Cessations in violence on both fronts were actually reasonably common, certainly in the earlier years of the war. These were usually arranged to recover dead and wounded from the battlefield, with soldiers on both sides taking the opportunity to chat, exchange news, even newspapers (several British soldiers later recounted Germans wanting to hear news of the football leagues, results etc).

All quiet on the Western Front
As the Race to the Sea period drew to a close in November and with rations being brought through to front lines just after dusk, soldiers also began noticing a temporary and unsolicited daily peace as food was distributed and eaten on both sides. Inter-trench rivalry also started to include music, with impromptu choirs on both sides singing in the evenings – generally believed in most cases to be for the benefit of all within earshot, on both sides. There was a healthy competitive edge to this as well, with Sir Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards writing that he was planning a Christmas Day concert to give “the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony”, apparently in response to frequent choruses of Deutschland Über Alles. Inevitably, as Christmas approached, more and more of the songs being sung were carols.

© Harold B Robson - Photograph Q50719 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

There is no one definitive Christmas Truce event, but rather an unofficial (and unsanctioned) cessation of violence pretty much all along the Western Front. It wasn’t complete, there were still hostilities taking place, and other areas where even if there was no fighting, there was no fraternisation. However, in many sectors there was a genuine truce. It is reported that Germans placed candles on their trenches and in trees and sung carols, the British responded with carols of their own, with both sides shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Eventually, those brave enough to do so, lifted their heads above the parapets, and before too long soldiers from both sides were meeting in no man’s land, shaking hands, chatting, exchanging gifts and souvenirs, even joint services were held.

Author Henry Williamson, then a 19-year old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:
Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?

Near Ypres, Josef Wenzl of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment wrote in considerable detail about the Christmas Day encounter between his regiment and soldiers of the British 15th Infantry Brigade.
That which only hours ago I should have thought was nonsense I now saw with my own eyes. A British soldier, who was then joined by a second man, came from our left and crossed more than halfway into no man’s land, where they met up with our men. British and Bavarians, previously the worst of enemies, stood there shaking hands and exchanging items. The one star still in the sky above them was regarded by the men as a special sign from heaven. More and more joined in all along the line, shaking hands and swapping souvenirs. More than half of my platoon went out. Because I wanted to take a closer look at these chaps and obtain a souvenir, I moved towards a group of them. Immediately one came up to me, shook my hand and gave me some cigarettes; another gave me a handkerchief, a third signed his name on a field postcard and a fourth wrote his address in my notebook. Everyone mingled and conversed to the best of their ability. One British soldier played the mouth organ of a German comrade, some danced around, whilst others took great pride in trying on the German helmets. One of our men placed a Christmas tree in the middle, pulled out a box of matches from his pocket and in no time the tree was lit up. The British sang a Christmas carol and we followed this with ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. It was a moving moment; between the trenches stood the most hated and bitter enemies and sang Christmas carols. All my life I shall never forget the sight … Christmas 1914 will be completely unforgettable.


Leaving aside the romantic twaddle of Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace, nor past Sainsbury’s Xmas advert campaigns, what about evidence for actual football being played?

There is some dispute about whether actual matches took place, not least because of the practical limitations of trying to do so within a landscape of shell holes, mud and barbed wire. However, there are more than enough first-hand recollections to suggest that football was involved at various truce events along the Western Front. For instance, a letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade (published in The Times on New Years Day 1915) reported “a football match…played between them and us in front of the trench”. One of the more likely locations for a formal match would have been at the village of Messines, with two separate references on the British side to a match between the first battalion of the Norfolk Regiment and the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (Josef Wenzl’s regiment), but without any corroborating accounts from German sources.

All in all, recent research has identified at least 29 separate references to football being played during the Christmas Truce, probably most as a simple kick-about between soldiers on just one side (The Lancashire Fusiliers at Le Touquet apparently using a bully beef tin in place of a ball), but very few accounts of formal matches. Poet and writer Robert Graves served on the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the time, and wrote in his 1962 short story Christmas Trucewe provided the football, and set up stretchers as goalposts; and the Rev Jolly, our padre, acted as ref. They beat us 3-2, but the padre had showed a bit too much Christian charity – their outside-left shot the deciding goal, but he was miles offside and admitted it soon as the whistle went”. Graves’ work was fiction, but who’s to say the seeds of it weren’t originally sown from first- or second-hand memories whilst serving on the front line.

Probably the most compelling contender for a formal football match was apparently between teams drawn from the German regiment IR133 (Royal Saxon Regiment) and the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. This particular match was considered in detail by Swedish journalist Pehr Thermaenius in his book The Christmas Match: Football in No Man’s Land 1914, focusing on two players in particular – Albert Schmidt and Jimmy Coyle. This is probably the most credible account of a match taking place, with corroborating sources from both sides to the event. The British forces (technically therefore Scotland) beat the German side 4-1 btw…

Germany 3 Allies 2, or Germany 1 Scotland 4

Official response
Both British and German High Commands were not happy about the truce, and many of the soldiers, particularly officers, were rebuked over their part, though it is fitting to note that surprisingly few faced any sort of meaningful punishment. However, an unofficial embargo prevented the public from learning about the Christmas Truce until the New York Times broke ranks and reported on it on New Year’s Eve. The British press quickly followed suit, drawing heavily on accounts in letters sent home from the front line, and within a week, actual photographs from various locations were also published. Responses elsewhere, and particularly Germany and France, were more muted, with the French press forced to reprint a government notice reminding all that to fraternise with the enemy was considered treason.

Whether actual football matches did or didn’t take place during one of the most significant, spontaneous and unsanctioned cessations of hostilities in human history is largely irrelevant, it is the symbolic significance of such an event that is most important. The Christmas Truce has become a lasting and dramatic example of the spirit of non-cooperation with the most brutal of conflicts. That non-cooperation was described as the ‘live and let live system’ by Tony Ashworth in his 1980 work Trench Warfare 1914-1918 as it “gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence”, and at the very heart of that was the sport of the working classes, the universal language of football.

The Christmas Truce, and similar smaller-scale events before and after it, weren’t politically motivated actions by those who necessarily opposed war, or to overthrow the shackles of oppressive (and murderous) regimes, it was simply men – for a few brief hours at least – taking the chance to stop trying to kill each other, forget the horror around them and instead celebrate their shared humanity. By Boxing Day the truce was over and the bullets and shells were flying again…

Lest we forget

A cross left at Saint-Yves Ploegsteert Belgium to commemorate the Christmas Truce reads "1914 – The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget"

Merry Christmas to all, and Up the U’s
[Post edited 24 Dec 2020 16:44]
Prediction Logged by at 20:03:09
Southend United v Colchester United prediction logged
Letters from Wiltshire #24
at 14:39 19 Dec 2020

Welcome to our last match before Christmas. With South Essex going into Tier 3, by the time we take to the pitch at Roots Hall, it’ll be another behind-closed-doors match. With the Tier 3 boundary creeping inexorably closer, one wonders how long the JobServe will hold out and still be able to allow fans to attend. Robbie is doing all he can to make it possible for supporters to attend, and I confess I’m seriously considering our January 2nd match against Tranmere. In other news, I’m relieved to read that the FA will not take disciplinary action against Colchester United after a shameful minority chose to boo players and officials taking the knee, in the words of the EFL “as they highlight the inequality and injustice experienced by the Black Community”. I noticed a tiny minority chose to boo at our mid-week match at the Abbey Stadium, but I was pleased to hear they were immediately drowned out by the remainder of the 2,000 cheering and applauding. I admit I’m a little anxious about today…
Letters from Wiltshire #24
at 13:59 19 Dec 2020

Welcome to our last match before Christmas. With South Essex going into Tier 3, by the time we take to the pitch at Roots Hall, it’ll be another behind-closed-doors match. With the Tier 3 boundary creeping inexorably closer, one wonders how long the JobServe will hold out and still be able to allow fans to attend. Robbie is doing all he can to make it possible for supporters to attend, and I confess I’m seriously considering our January 2nd match against Tranmere. In other news, I’m relieved to read that the FA will not take disciplinary action against Colchester United after a shameful minority chose to boo players and officials taking the knee, in the words of the EFL “as they highlight the inequality and injustice experienced by the Black Community”. I noticed a tiny minority chose to boo at our mid-week match at the Abbey Stadium, but I was pleased to hear they were immediately drowned out by the remainder of the 2,000 cheering and applauding. I admit I’m a little anxious about today…

Scunthorpe United v Colchester United
Saturday 4th March 2000
Endsleigh League Division 2 (Tier 3)
Attendance 4,253

Letters from Wiltshire #24, and we have a real humdinger to celebrate – a trip to Glanford Park towards the tail-end of a season of struggle, just our second season in Division 2 since promotion via the play-offs. I’ve already featured a number of matches from this season, indeed Matches of Yesteryear #27 featured our home game against high-fliers Burnley just the previous Saturday. At the risk of repeating myself then, this was very much a rebuilding period for Steve Whitton and the U’s, repairing the damage left behind by departing manager Mick Wadsworth shortly after the season started.

I was living in Salisbury at the time, and with good friends Tobin and Julie (both Preston North End supporters) living in Lincoln at the time, took the opportunity to travel up on the Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with them. This wasn’t our first football trip together, Tobin, Julie, myself and a few others had travelled over to the Abbey Stadium in 1997 for our Tuesday evening match (we were all working in London at the time). Some of you may remember that match, it was just two days after Princess Diana died, and following a minute’s silence before kick-off, we were then soundly thrashed 4-1! I missed the highlight of the game whilst on the bacon roll run at half-time, when apparently some sort of “Peoples Front of Judea” moment ended up in fisticuffs amongst our own supporters…

Another one bites the dust…
After a very pleasant Friday evening around a few of the excellent pubs that Lincoln had to offer, Tobin and I drove up to Glanford Park for the match, on what was a very bright crisp day. Parking up at the stadium car park, we headed over to the Berkeley Hotel for a couple of beers pre-match. Another great football pub, and even then a bit of a rarity as it still had pool tables. It was reasonably full of Scunthorpe supporters too, who were more than happy to chat football over a few games of pool and some ludicrously cheap beer. Sadly, as with many others, although the building still survives, it is currently listed as “permanently closed”, amid doubts it’ll ever re-open. This isn’t a Covid-19 thing either, it has been closed since 2019.

Names to conjure with
Suitably refreshed, we headed over and took our seats within a very sparsely populated away end at Glanford Park. Following the U’s usually involves goals at one end or the other, and leading up to this match much was being made of how long it had been since we played out a 0-0 – 448 days as it happens. Apart from a couple of periods immediately pre- and post-war, when not scoring goals was almost unheard of, this was one of the longest spells without a 0-0 in our history.

Our line-up that afternoon was:

1….Simon Brown
6….Joe Dunne
3….Joe Keith
24..Ross Johnson
17..Richard Wilkins (Aaron Skelton 46’)
4….Gavin Johnson
8….David Gregory
11..Jason Dozzell
7….Karl Duguid
9….Jamie Moralee (Lomana Tresor Lua Lua 74/)
19..Tony Lock

Scunthorpe were player-managed at the time by Brian Laws, who’d had a pretty good playing career at Burnley, Huddersfield, Middlesbrough and most notably Nottingham Forest. Laws played in the ill-fated FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, and in the rearranged fixture managed to score an own goal as Liverpool went on to win 3-1. Looking through the squad list on the back of the programme, three names stand out – Lee Hodges, Guy Ipoua (brother of Cameroon international Sammy) and of course at no. 28, Stephane Pounewatchy. I can only assume Hodges, who the Iron had signed for £50,000 the previous summer, must have been injured, as he wasn’t even on the bench. Although one from the Wadsworth era, I actually really liked Pounewatchy and was sorry to see him go. Didn’t like him so much during the AutoWindscreens final mind…

Steve Whitton was bigging this match up beforehand, stating that "these are the kind of games where we've got to be ruthless, Scunthorpe are below us in the table and the outcome of this match could prove crucial to us staying in the Second Division. We still need points to stay up despite our relative safe position in mid-table, that's why tomorrow's trip to Glanford Park is a really big game for us”.

I wish there was more I could remember about the game itself, but a combination of it being over 20 years ago, and a phenomenally dull match, there’s not much I can bring to this one I’m afraid. What I do remember is that it was clear the U’s maybe hadn’t received Whitt’s pre-match memo, as the game was played out at a fairly pedestrian pace. We had a tough game coming up mid-week at Preston North End, so I can’t say with any certainty whether that was a factor in the minds of the U’s squad? However, Scunthorpe we mired deep in the relegation zone, and I would have thought that would have raised their game at the very least. Apparently not, and maybe a clue as to why they were in that position in the first place.

Guy Ipoua was subbed after just 8 minutes – I can’t remember exactly why, but I assume it must have been an injury. More worrying, Richard Wilkins was clearly struggling during the first half, after aggravating a neck injury, and he didn’t come out for the second half, replaced by Aaron Skelton (of Layer Road netting fame) – that didn’t bode well for our chances of scoring. Brian Laws brought on Gary Bull to try and inject some urgency into proceedings, countered ten minutes later by the introduction of our own super-sub Lomana Tresor Lua Lua. Lua Lua did at least bring some life into the game, prompting Laws to tighten things up in midfield with the introduction Matt Sparrow.

And thus it continued, with neither side on top, neither side able to break the deadlock, and after 448 days, we had another goalless draw blotting our copy book.

Scunthorpe United 0 Colchester United 0

In the context of where we were that season, it actually wasn’t that bad a result, particularly following on from a home defeat against Burnley, and with expectations of getting anything from our next game at Deepdale against champions-elect Preston North End very low indeed. How wrong we were, as a Lua Lua masterclass, bewitching and bamboozling the PNE defence, danced through to give the U’s a thoroughly well-deserved 3-2 victory. Back home visiting family at the time, Tobin and Julie were at Deepdale to see that performance.

Mr Colchester United
For Richard Wilkins, sadly this would be his last appearance for Colchester United. Speaking after the match, Richard said “if the specialist gives me any hope then I will cling on to it as long as it doesn't jeopardise my health in the future. I want to carry on playing as long as I can. Leg and body wise I'm fit enough to play for at least another two years. But my future career will hinge on what the specialist says”. Speaking very pragmatically about the future, he added “I have a family to think about and the specialist will dictate what happens to me next. Whatever will be, will be, but if there's any chance I can play again this season without further damaging myself I will”.

There wasn’t, and he didn’t – though it wasn’t quite the last time I saw Richard Wilkins, that would be jammed into a packed Layer Road two years later for his testimonial match against Glenn Hoddle’s Tottenham Hotspur.

Up the U’s
Prediction Logged by at 07:56:47
Colchester United v Morecambe prediction logged
Letters from Wiltshire #23
at 17:58 15 Dec 2020

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.
Letters from Wiltshire #23
at 17:57 15 Dec 2020

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.

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

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…

Memory #1 – seemed like a good idea at the time…
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.

Back to it
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.

Memory #2 – who are ya?
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?

Memory #3 – outrageous!
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.

Memory #4 – easy tiger!
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 😊

Colchester United 1 (Paul Gibbs 45’) Doncaster Rovers 0

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
Letters from Wiltshire #22
at 14:42 12 Dec 2020

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…hence I’m a bit late today, following the inevitable Christmas tree hunt – the decorating will have to wait until later I reckon. In the news, despite my confident assurance several weeks ago that Trump appeared to be grudgingly starting to accept that he had lost the US presidency election, he’s since doubled-down on his baseless accusations of election fraud – without obviously providing a single shred of evidence to back it up (and how could he, there isn’t any). His latest apoplectic tirade, just today, follows the Supreme Court telling Texas just where they can stick their egregious lawsuit demanding that Biden’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia be thrown out in favour of Trump. From a global perspective, it is deeply troubling that no less than 126 republican congressional representatives signed an amicus brief supporting the challenge. Trump will leave the White House in January, but they will stay at the heart of the US government, and I don’t think that’s good news for democracy, nor even the rest of the world. Ho hum…
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