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Awayday Review - Colchester, Layer Road
Awayday Review - Colchester, Layer Road
Sunday, 18th Nov 2007 10:03

Sheffield to Colchester to watch Queens Park Rangers on a Wednesday night? No problem at all.

1 - The Game
No doubt, with six goals scored and countless chances missed besides, this was a belting game for the neutral. The fact that both back fours looked like porn stars in a Kevin Keegan wet dream made it somewhat more harrowing for their long suffering supporters. QPR started the brighter of the two sides and there was much to admire about the way they attacked in Mick Harford's first game in charge. Hogan Ephraim was allowed off the leash for the first time since arriving from West Ham and he ripped into his former team mates right from the off, bagging a deserved and well taken first goal for QPR after a neat one two with the equally impressive Rowan Vine.

Sadly for Harford in his quest to impress the watching Flavio Briatore Ephraim's goal was merely an equaliser despite Rangers' early dominance. A little earlier Mark Yeates had teased Lee Camp with a deep cross and Mikele Leigertwood lived up to his unfortunate nickname with a bumbling own goal as the ball landed back at his feet off the cross bar. Even more infuriatingly for the caretaker manager Rangers allowed Kem Izzet the freedom of the penalty area to head home the hosts' second goal immediately from the kick off and then shipped a third before the break when Adam Bolder was harshly penalised for fouling Kevin Lisbie and Yeates hammered in the free kick via a deflection.

After half time Rangers continued to look good going forward and Rowan Vine got a debut goal his overall performance richly deserved to halve the deficit with half an hour still to play. But the back four was in pieces and Colchester gave the impression of a side that could score at any time. Stung into life by Vine Yeates rattled the base of the post and then as the R's struggled to reorganise Clive Platt planted a header into the bottom corner for 4-2. Rangers stuck the cue on the rack at that point, knowing that any further dents in the scoreline on their behalf would only yield another response from the U's. Fantastically entertaining for those who just fancied a night at the football, frightening stuff for the travelling QPR fans.

2 - Rangers' performance
I can sort of see what Harford tried to do here and perhaps it's no surprise that it failed just days after John Gregory's departure as manager. Mikele Leigertwood had hardly impressed in the middle of midfield since arriving from Sheff Utd and the defence had been leaking goals left right and centre so to switch him to centre half, where most fans of his previous clubs believe he's more effective, should have solved a couple of problems. In the end it only created more, he looked seriously uncomfortable there all night. Alongside him Danny Cullip looked painfully slow and with Martin Rowlands out of position in one full bath berth and HMS Barker looking like the Exxon Valdez in the other they formed no kind of platform to build a performance on. Jason Jarrett looked tidy in the first half but vanished altogether in the second and Adam Bolder was poor alongside him but the front four were quite impressive. This was clearly Hogan Ephraim's best game for the club so far and Rowan Vine got a goal and the man of the match award on his debut. We always looked threatening with the ball, but never looked capable of keeping the it out of our own net long enough to get any reward for that - to go in at half time 3-1 down after being the better team for long periods of the opening half was a real body blow, one that we rarely looked like recovering from.

3 - Rangers' Support
You know things are going badly when you can turn up for a QPR match at Layer Road and buy tickets on the turnstile. Normally this allocation is snapped up weeks in advance and the box office has to employ all manner of ticket restrictions to distribute them fairly. Nevertheless we sold out the tiny seating enclosure and the terrace was pretty full by the time the game got underway. There wasn't the usual boisterousness of an away day with Rangers though, most fans seemed quite happy to just stand quietly and take their medicine before heading home. Chants and songs were few and far between although I did enjoy one prominent member of the message board community's impromptu ditty about Southend when the Colchester fans started to slag off their Essex rivals. I can't remember quite how it went, and I'm sure he can't either, but it was something like: "One proper club in Essex, with a proper f****** roof and a proper f****** toilet, a proper club in Essex is Southend." Made me laugh anyway, he seemed genuinely angry about it. I won't name him here, he knows who is, top marks mate, you raised a smile on a dark night.

4 - The Ground
Layer Road has taken over from Blundell Park in recent years as the one Premiership managers threaten their players with when the relegation battle starts to heat up around Easter time. "Do you want to be playing at Old Trafford or Layer Road next season?" It's hard to argue that this little corner of Essex isn't a complete shit hole. The ground, very much like Oxford United's old Manor Ground, is made up of about nine different bits of stand scattered haphazardly around the pitch. It looks like it's been assembled over some time by one of those poor bastards who spent time as a prisoner of war and now can't bear to throw anything away.

There isn't an unobstructed view in the place and the toilets are a disgrace to mankind. The terrace built to house the away fans is something of a miracle really as you wouldn't think that a stand built all of three feet away from the back of the net could actually offer no kind of view of that goal no matter whereabouts you stand on it. It is possible to get a better view of what's going on in that penalty area by staying in the town centre and using a short range telescope to peer in from three miles away. Those Rangers fans who paid to sit down were housed in a little shack by the corner flag which looks for all the world like somebody has stolen it from the 18h green at Wentworth.

Despite all of that, as the doors swung shut on a Colchetser v QPR fixture at Layer Road for a final time I couldn't help but feel I might miss the old hell hole. Looking at the pictures of their new ground in the match programme, which didn't turn up from the printers until half time just to add to the whole Unibond League feel of the place, it looks horribly like the U's are about to curse us with another soulless, plastic out of town bowl of nothingness from next season. I mean Layer Road has a bit of something about it, a bit of character, there's something a bit special about a game under the lights here that you just don't get in a half empty Walkers Stadium.

I'd hate to think we're going to have yet another trip to an out of town retail park on the calendar next season, pre match drinks in a pub with a play barn on the side, competing for parking with silly old bints going to Tesco or teenage chavs taking their pimply faced, pregnant girlfriends to see Saw 4 at the multiscreen. Football is in danger of losing its identity and while I certainly won't miss wading through an inch of piss to the toilets at half time, or not being able to see a match I've paid £18 to get into, I just know I'm going to be bored with their new place and pine a little bit for Layer Road within ten minutes of my first visit.

5 - Atmosphere
Match days at Layer Road always feel like an FA Cup 1st round tie to me. The home fans seem to treat every game as a cup final, particularly those in the popular terrace next to the away seats down one side. The ground looks to be holding far more than is really safe for it but because of its size any noise and sound created quickly drifts off into the night air. Fans at cup games like Chasetown against Oldham make a funny noise when the underdog manages to score, and it sounds exactly the same here. Overall not bad but not great, the QPR fans sitting down were once again treated to a gang of Colchester fans up against the fence right next to them acting like a group of escaped mental patients when the home side scored. It's not really cheering, or celebrating, it just looks like headbanging violence, like an old style mosh pit.

6 - Pre Match
After a nice meal and several bottles of Budvar in The Railway at Liverpool Street we hotfooted it up to Colchester and ensconced ourselves in The Bricklayers round the corner from the station. It's a nice little pub with a small bar at the front with a pool table that we made use of, opening out into a larger open plan area at the back. Three real ales and Adnams on the pumps when we were in there, and we had a very nice quiet hour or so in there before heading off to the match. It's a very good pub and one I will use again. I was sorry to hear from the land lord that before the QPR match last season a group of Rangers fans had taken the place over and made a right mess of it. Who are these people? Absolute scum that just make it much harder for the rest of the supporters to just get a quiet drink before a match because everybody expects trouble from us. Where's the fun in trashing a small family business like this one before a match? Morons.

7 - The Journey
I'm getting to be more and more like my Dad as I'm getting older, and I'm not sure it's a good thing. There once was a time when the rule for me going to a match or not was whether I could get back to Sheffield by train after the game. The ruled out trips like this to Colchester on a Tuesday night and Plymouth on Boxing Day but slowly over time the rule has changed to 'can I get to the game by train from Sheffield and to hell with the way back'.

So at 1127 in the morning I jumped on board the Midland Mainline service from the steel city heading south, with no means of making the return journey after the game and no real idea of what I was going to do about that. It's the madness of a football fan. My trip down passed without event and after a few beers and a lovely plate of sausage and mash at Liverpool Street I boarded the half four One service up to Colchester. An earlier Norwich service had been cancelled so this one was pretty rammed but we managed to get seats all the same and arrived in Colchester in good time for a few more drinks before kick off.

We left the pub at about 7pm with the intention of getting a taxi from the station but of course there were no cabs to be seen when we got there - it's always the way. We asked a bus driver where we might find a taxi rank and, with profits for the bloody bus company rolling round in her eyes, she told us to jump on and she'd take us "most of the way there." Half an hour of sitting in traffic later and she was telling us this was as close as the bus route went, all of three hundred yards the other side of the station and still a good 20 minutes walk to the ground. We made it in about a minute into the game which is torture to me, I can't stand to miss any of the action and I wasn't best impressed that the bloody bus driver had screwed us over.

It was only when Clive Platt headed home Colchester's fourth goal that thoughts even turned to my return trip home. You can get as far as Derby or Doncaster on the fast trains north from London after 11pm but that might have been tight and at the end of the day what can Derby and Doncaster offer me between the hours of 2am and 5am on a weekday morning? Not much, and I speak from experience.

I had been offered a room at a friend's house in Langley but getting there from Colchester on the trains after 10pm isn't the barrel of laughs you might expect. It would certainly require a sprint to Colchester station, a trip of unprecedented speed on the circle line from Liverpool Street and another dash to the last train from Paddington and even then you've got to get over the embarrassment of meeting your friend's family for the first time by waking them up knocking on their door at half one in the morning.

I did consider finding a pub with a late license in Colchester, getting myself nicely drunk and then kipping at Colchester railway station until the first train left in the morning. I don't know Colchester that well though and wasn't overly confident of finding a "late license" in quite the same way I can do in London or Sheffield. In London it's possible to still be supping at 4am but I'd be surprised if you can do that anywhere in Colchester without frequenting one of those clubs where David Brent and Finchy hang out in The Office.

My other idea to head back to London, stay in a pub until they threw me out and then spend the early hours of the morning walking around our fantastic city seeing it with nobody around. I had this idealised, romantic view of me being all alone outside St Pauls or walking down by the river and looking at London in a whole new light. The weather was kind and I was actually quite up for it, once in a lifetime sort of thing. But then I started to think of all the things that could go wrong, the middle London isn't really the place to be by yourself at four in the morning with an enticing back pack slung over your shoulder. Best case scenario some pissed up nobody stumbles out of a doorway and pukes on your shoes and you have to spend the next 18 hours smelling of reconstituted blue WKD until you can get home and change. Worst case scenario the police fish your corpse out of the river down by tower bridge the following day and the post mortem reveals you'd been brutally arse raped before drowning.

It was at that moment, as I was getting the "you've been a stupid idiot coming this far with no way back" sweats that Dave Thomas, of AKUTR's fame, strode into view and offered me a lift home. Proper home, right to my door. Still clinging to my romantic view of Trafalgar Square at four in the morning I said I'd think about it but almost as soon as the words had left my lips another image of the river police poking at my battered and violated corpse with a wooden stick flashed before my eyes and before I knew it I was in the back of Dave's car, safe, warm and on my way home.

We dropped Dave Anderson off near Kettering and after a greasy burger, and bizarre incident with a car door and some torn ligaments in Dave's hand, we pitched up in Sheffield at a little after two in the morning. Massive thanks to the two Dave's for getting me out of a hole all of my own making. I note with some trepidation that we have a similarly inaccessible trip to Cardiff after Christmas, maybe I'll have come to my senses before then. Wouldn't bet on it though. It's great fun really.

8 - Police and Stewards
As I've already said I arrived at the ground right on kick off in a pretty bad mood after being messed around by a bus driver whose route, contrary to her assurances, went no closer to Layer Road than the flight path of the migrating Alaskan Bar-tailed Godwits.

When I did finally make it to Layer Road I was first sent to the wrong turnstile by a steward after he read my ticket incorrectly. After somebody who knew what they were doing then sent me back to where I'd gone originally the same steward decided that I should swap tickets with the man standing behind me in the line so that he could go in with his mates and they wouldn't get sperated. I initially went along with this but after the swap the steward then looked at my new ticket and confirmed that I'd have to go back down the road to the turnstile he'd sent me to incorrectly the first time around and enter there.

The game had already kicked off by this stage so I lost it a bit in a Bazil Fawlty style rant, demanded my ticket back from the man that had swapped with me, told the steward he was a silly, incompetent, old fart and pushed my way through the turnstile and onto the terrace. I apologise to the QPR fan who wanted to swap tickets with me for some inexplicable reason if I was rude, but it's a brave man who gets between me and QPR when the match has kicked off.

Inside the stewards threw one QPR fan out at half time, I'm not sure if it was the same QPR fan who hurled the barrier and gesticulated angrily to the referee from the side of the pitch about the suspicious positioning of the ball for the corner that led to the first Colchester goal but if it was he can have few complaints.

Overall not bad, but a needless pain in the arse outside beforehand.

Total - 44/80

Photo: Action Images

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