Sunday, 30 September 2007

Match 4 - Scunthorpe United

Quite a day for me this turned out to be. I was invited by the club to witness 'A Day in the Life of Layer Road' the day after the official centenary of 100 years of football at this ground. It's just a shame the players didn't perform on the day to make it the complete experience. However I managed to chat to a lot of the important people who make Layer Road the show that it is today, and I don't mean the players or the Board! I mean the very important people who toil away behind the scenes day after day or match after match. Some of them do it for nothing, other than a sense of putting something back into their community. Others would argue that they are paid next to nothing for the role they perform. The real heroes in fact don't even mention it and just get on with their tasks because, well, because it's match day and that's what they do. So this week's entries are dedicated to these heroes.

My first encounter was in the ticket office. A guy came in with his young son and asked if there were any tickets available for today's game. After being told that there were only standing tickets in the terraces they had a short discussion and decided to wait for another match - they really wanted to sit down. Now what sort of example is that? Why spoil kids at such a tender age? Most of us had to learn to become football supporters by standing on wooden terraces, often exposed to the elements and equal amounts of cigarette smoke and beer fumes. I know things have moved on in this day and age, but you have to earn your seat at a football match. You won't appreciate it until you've done your time on the terraces.

Amongst the first arrivals are the caterers and the food for various functions throughout the day - most importantly the birthday lunch for one lucky fan being held later in the Players' Lounge. And don't forget all the refreshment outlets around the ground. The provisions don't just magically appear out of thin air as they are needed. The early part of the day sees trolleys and trucks transporting tins and tuck to all corners of the ground.

Now here's a question: What washes whiter? You're probably going to say something like Ariel, Bold or Persil. Well, actually it's Brian and Ian. And what a job they have on their hands, and not just on match days. They have the pleasure of managing the kit for all the clubs teams throughout the week. Believe me, it is a full time job. There's a whole bank of automatic washing machines running through their match programmes just so that the players can have two sets of immaculately laundered kit hanging up to greet them in the changing room on match day. Watch out for the big yellow bins being carted around the ground. That's the dirty linen. So what's the most difficult part of this job I asked. Getting the socks whiter than white I'm told. Check them out after Christmas and we might see a few grey threads. I have to say that this is the first time I've ever seen Persil on tap!

Time to see the kit hanging up in the changing rooms. Everything is done by numbers here. Strictly numerical order. Except for the keepers, who have to sit together. By my reckoning if Sheringham had been playing today, then Teddy wouldn't have been in the corner. Maybe they move around to music as a pre-match warm-up and rearrange themselves into alphabetical order? I spotted a large selection of jaffa cakes, jelly sweets and glucose drinks for that important calorific infusion at key moments in the game, like half-time and full-time.

A real trooper is the batman to the executive seating area, Jim Partner (and yes, he IS related ...). At various times he was to be found sweeping the steps, carrying a stack of programmes, arranging blankets, clearing up the mess left behind, and having a cuppa, although I'm sure he deserved something a lot stronger. He's been a part of this set up for a lot longer than his charges and he's seen most of the professional games here at Layer Road - including the biggest ever crowd of 19,000+ in 1948. I did ask a few people if they had any rituals for match days. One of the 'meet and greet' team here told me that last season she wore the same lucky underwear for every match - and yes, they were clean every time.

This isn't true of one hardy supporter I bumped into at the supporters club shop. Fortunately it's just his replica shirt that gets worn at every match - but not washed again until the end of the season. Maybe we can arrange for Brian and Ian to ..... ..... no, perhaps not.

Next up it's the security briefing, and I'm not allowed to go into details here but I can reveal that the police turned up late for this. Yellow card only this time. They have been warned. Actually, we may regard them all as security staff, but in reality we ought to acknowledge them as safety officers. They are here for our safety and well-being and when the chips are down (or the drinks run out) it's their job to direct us away from harm and into the path of buses and cars in Layer Road. Sometimes they'll go and get our balls back. There are some well seasoned professionals amongst them, including a supervisor who plays away at Portman Road apparently and has done time at Wembley too - so we are in good hands.

At the security briefing the stewards are warned to watch out for this blogger wandering around the ground picking up snippets and snaps for today’s entry. I find out from one of them why the right wing area in front of the main stand needs extra care and attention. It’s where they scatter ashes. The drainage down this side doesn’t work as well as the rest of the ground either. I wonder what’s going to happen to this area when the ground gets developed?

The media moguls have been setting themselves up in the background almost unnoticed. We've got Anglia TV in the highest vantage point on top of the main grandstand, while BBC Essex and Hospital Radio hover just below them, but still with an excellent view of the surrounding area. No sign of BBC Radio Humberside, but word reaches us that they have been here before and they have decided to hang around with the hacks on the press bench in Block A, rather than risk the rusty rise up to the roof. One of the radio guys has an unhealthy interest in turnstiles and believes there's one hidden somewhere in the depths of the ground. Any suggestions?

Players are starting to arrive at the ground in their suits ready for their first test of the day – smiling nicely and signing autographs. It looks like most of them carry little handbags with them too. And the next question just has to be – what on earth do they carry around with them in their handbags?

The referee and his assistants have arrived earlier and just in case they need any help the ref has brought his Mum and Dad with him today (so that’s one well seas
oned chant gone out of the window already).

The action is now starting. By that I mean the hardened fans are already queuing up outside and the gates are about to open. The early risers will take up their places in their favourite spots, seats in the stands, or steps on the terraces. I notice there’s a few people who make straight for the bookie sheds to wager their last few coppers on the outcome of some of the insignificant premiership matches taking place elsewhere. I’m sure I saw that you could get odds of 7-4 on Portsmouth beating Reading later today (or was I dreaming? – check out the results). I found out that the number of staff working here on a match day increases to around 120, while only about a quarter of that are full time staff the rest of the week. And before you ask, that doesn’t include the players. I don’t count footballers as staff. How I would have loved to have had the chance to play regular footie and get paid for it. For a while the staff outnumber the fans and it’s the arrival of the away support in their three coaches that tips the balance.

Colour plays an important part in the proceedings. Apart from the teams being able to tell each other apart large proportions of each set of supporters have to dress in their respective home or away shirts. Maybe this gives the impression of there being more players. Then we have the stewards and safety officers with their own colour scheme. The red high-visibility jackets apparently for supervisors and yellow for the rest, plus the police of course, although I did ‘detect’ a few in dark clothing today. And talking of dark clothing there’s always the ‘men in black’ who run (ruin) the show when it gets under way. The ambulance crews that arrive later are dressed in green outfits, probably so that we don’t notice them carrying players off the pitch – it’s important after all that we notice the injured player in all his agony. A quick scan of the ground later on reveals an interesting point that shouldn’t be lost on the club – there are more replica shirts in the terraces than in the seats. And there are more replica shirts worn in the paid seating than in the executive box. One further point worthy of mention is our local MP – a lifelong supporter of the club and a resident of the Barside – turns up as always resplendent in a waistcoat in the club colours. More from him later.

As for official stuff there’s a prominent sign located in various locations about the place which describes the 23 Ground Regulations. One of them (number 12) has been highlighted with a marker pen – the one about not smoking in stadia. How many of these regulations can the average fan recite? Perhaps this could be a specialist subject on Mastermind.

The special constable who has been pounding this beat for over 20 years tells me today that his father has a share certificate dating back to the 1940’s indicating a part-ownership of the ground. That means he should be able to get inside for games instead of standing outside in Layer Road pushing people onto pavements.

Players and officials wander out onto the pitch to start soaking up the atmosphere – or is it really bec
ause the changing rooms are so cramped they have to take it in turns to get kitted up? They gather in small clumps on different parts of the pitch. It’s a bit like cricket in some respects when allegedly knowledgeable individuals inspect the wicket before a match and attempt to predict the number of runs and outcome. Is football the same? I can just imagine the comments: “looks like a big score today then, probably 4 or 5 goals on this pitch” , “should be OK for some action over by the Barside but a bit sluggish by the dugouts”, “how well do you think the 4th official will show up against the player’s tunnel?”, “I reckon a handful of yellows and maybe a red in these conditions”. More likely are comments like: “where’s your Mum sitting?”, “three lots of hair gel in this breeze”, or “where are the tv cameras?”

The media teams are now getting their test transmissions under way – checking their Internet links so they can report immediately to their editors. Programme sellers set out their stalls and get ready to rake in the extra three quid from the fans. I believe we have an award winning programme at Colchester and quite right too given the quality of the product and the content. I wonder how many get printed and how many of them still exist a few weeks or months later? Where do old match day programmes go to die? Apart from collectors are there really thousands of programmes of every match from last season for instance still gracing our shelves, bookcases, magazine racks and safety deposit boxes? The souvenir insert at the Leeds game last season was an inspired move. To include a copy of ‘the Leeds game’ from 1971 will ensure that more of these get saved for even longer and will probably lead to a few domestic disputes as it nearly gets chucked out a few times with the weekly papers. I still have my original from 1971 plus some newspaper clippings from the weeks around that magical historical event.

As if it’s not exciting enough already just being inside the ground there soon begins the pre-match entertainment and we are treated to formation-training with a musical accompaniment. Actually there’s three different performances happening at the same time, and sadly there’s no co-ordination between the three teams, the choice of music and the routines being performed. The ref and his two assistants seem to be the most ‘together’ bunch on the pitch at this stage – but will it last?

It’s a special day today – yes that’s right, our mascot Eddie the Eagle is back. He’s been on holiday and missed the last match. I’m sorry to break this news to some of you, but the truth is that there’s a bloke inside that costume – honestly! And sometimes he just needs a break from it all – now that doesn’t really surprise me.

But seriously the really special thing about today is the centenary of the first match at Layer Road on 28th September 1907. To celebrate the club have arranged a guard of honour by soldiers from the local garrison, since it was an army team that played in the first game. A great photo opportunity too, and I manage to get quite close to the action at this stage. It’s all followed by the usual announcements about the team line ups and the varying levels of cheering for different players. I wonder if any players have this bit built into their contracts, a bonus based on how loud we cheer when their name is called out.

So, for the best part of the next two hours it’s all down to that bunch out on the pitch. It’s why we are here really and we expect every one of the U’s team to perform to his very best ability for two periods of 45 minutes each. We expect them to give 110% as always. We expect a shed load of goals (in our favour) from the forwards, and some heroics from the defence in keeping a clean sheet. The midfield generals will control things like they always do. Because, after all, Colchester United are “by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” and we remind them of this from time to time.

Except for today.
Despite the pre-match hype about the centenary, or the similarities between Scunthorpe this year and ourselves last year. Despite the glowing accolade from the opposition manager who wants “to do a Colchester” because we “set the standard” for clubs getting promoted into the Championship. And despite the fact that we are desperate for our first home win this season it just ain’t gonna happen today. Even if today’s match had lasted for twenty two hours we still wouldn’t have scored a goal, we still wouldn’t have got a decision from the ref, and we still wouldn’t have prevented Scunthorpe from scoring the one damaging goal just before half time.

It seemed that the half time penalty shoot out by the kids was cancelled out of sympathy in case we enjoyed it more than the match. ‘Over the Wall’ taunted us still further as we watched the ball hit the back of the net more times than we could even dream of. We heard, understood and even remembered the safety announcement, because it was more exciting than anything we’d seen in the previous 45 minutes. But the next 45 weren’t any better, and the least said about the match the better.

Of all the things I heard shouted at the ref the only one I feel I can put into print here came from a specific direction in the Barside throng, and sounded more like an observation at Prime Minister’s Question Time: “You’re having an awful game ref!”. Well that told him. It was delivered with superb timing, when the ref was within spitting distance, with clear and concise diction and when the rest of the crowd seemed to hush waiting for these words of wisdom. Yes, I know it wasn’t obscene or insulting, and it wasn’t even funny, but it was spot-on the mark. What else would you expect from your elected representative?

The post-match analysis was always going to be a turgid affair. I remember having a short conversation with the radio interviewer when he asked if anyone could remember what happened during the game that was worth asking one of the players? Er, well, there was, maybe, perhaps, didn’t, well, er , “No”. But he managed to pull something together and JJ sparked into life and gave a ten minute answer to a simple question. A pity things couldn’t have been strung together like that a bit earlier and then maybe the crowd would still be here chanting the names of their heroes.

The longest TV interview was given by the winning manager, and when George Williams emerged he was set upon by the complete media scrum who shoved all manner of recording devices into his face. It was difficult to see who was actually interviewing him, but the long yellow wire from draped from the radio commentary box 50 feet above gave it away – BBC Essex are the prime contender for this piece of the action.

Instead there were dumbfounded fans staring in disbelief at an empty field for a good half hour after the game had finished. At the Barside the waistcoat was the last to leave – it had to make a speech to the Supporters Club in connection with the centenary
. In the Layer Road end the stewards returned their yellow coats and their ties (probably in case they tried to hang themselves later). In the grandstand were two young fans who were absolutely distraught at what they’d just witnessed, and the odd-job man was doing what I saw him doing at the start of the day – sweeping the rubbish from the executive box. There was a lot of sweeping going on around the ground – much more than during the game. There were several hundred drinks bottles and food wrappers littering terraces and stands all round.

In the aftermath I managed a chat with BBC Humber commentator George Kerr, ex player (Barnsley, Bury, Oxford, Scunthorpe) and manager (Lincoln, Grimsby, Rotherham, Boston). He gave his opinion of the state of Layer Road. ‘It’s got character’ he told me. ‘It’s not safe. It’s about time you had a new ground. Don’t build the new one too small.’ So what’s new?

Well, today has given me a great insight into a day in the life of Layer Road, and I hope you have enjoyed reading it. It’s reinforced my view that it’s the fans that make a club. Players can come and go – and some of the greats played less than 50 games for us – but the fans stay for life and support the club through the good and not do good times. They buy their replica shirts for every occasion and every season, and they are proud of their club and what it has achieved over the years. Perhaps we need a few of these stalwarts represented in the club’s Hall of Fame?

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