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?

Saturday, 29 September 2007



Terrace 3.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Home and Away

While the players are away this blogger is at play and I’ve discovered recently just how daunting it is for away teams to come to Layer Road. I’ve been given access to the home and away changing rooms and the difference between the home and away facilities gives yet another clue as to why we have an extra edge here at Layer Road.The Bunker
The first thing that strikes you is that each room has its own personality. I’ll start with the away team’s bunker. Remember that these rooms are just below the seating in the main stand and it’s anyone’s guess as to what noises travel through this room. The pictures here show what a bland environment welcomes our guests.

There are 45 clothes hooks and just one coat hanger (suggestions for suitable uses please). There's a junior size physio table. What's in the box beneath it - actually it says 'Medy Elito' on the box, so either that's where he lives, or he has been playing a part in this season's campaign that we have yet to realise. Notice also the whitewashed brickwork walls.
The shower and bath facilities (and just check out the helpful Health & Safety notice).
There really isn’t anything else to mention about the bunker facilities. Is it any wonder that opposing teams emerge from the tunnel so fast?

The Arcade
Now let’s take a peek at the home changing room. These pictures were taken after a training session so it does have the impression of being used on a regular basis and I’m told that the room has yet to be cleaned up by the youth team. What differences do we immediately notice? It’s brighter! There's no brickwork and there's extra sound proofing. For extra comfort some air handling & heating - it can get a bit cold in here in January. Three clothes hooks per player in a neat arrangement of ones and twos. Oh, and yet again, just the one coat hanger. Is this another peculiar feature of Layer Road. Or is it a spare TV aerial?
Let's not forget that the players are away from home and loved ones for most of the day. So that perhaps helps to explain the TV , Hi-fi and drinks coolers. Note the mirror (for the posers). Surely a bigger one might give the impression of more space and more people and therefore that we are a bigger club?

Now see this - a magnetic Subbuteo board for the players’ relaxation – allegedly our keepers excel at this version of the game. I guess it's also probably used for the occasional tactical presentation, and I noted that one of the magnetic 'players' kept falling off the board. Separate toilet cubicles, showers AND two baths (probably for Duguid and Sheringham – although I’d welcome your comments on this and some justification for your views).
I wonder how much all this will change next season at Cuckoo Farm? Are the players being consulted on the design – perhaps Internet access (with links to fashion shopping web sites), padded seats (now that would be nice for the spectators too), separate physio room with piped music and scented candles, or laundry facilities with a 90 minute turnaround time? Once again, your ideas also welcomed.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Match 3 - Charlton Athletic

This game looked like a great match-up from the start. One of last season’s premiership teams and much fancied for a quick return, Charlton Athletic, brought with them two former Layer Road heroes from recent seasons:

  • Phil Parkinson: now the number 2 at Charlton, couldn’t really be looking forward to another visit after last season’s 5-1 thrashing here as Hull City manager which effectively got him the sack;
  • Chris Iwelumo: (aerial nuisance, but lacking in earth-based skills) the scorer of so many vital goals. Am I the only one who thought he couldn’t cross his legs properly let alone do much useful with his feet when the ball dropped nearby – unless of course it was a penalty or he was 6 yards out?

And in return we already have two of their escapees:

  • Kevin Lisbie, who can’t have expected he was going to partner Teddy Sheringham when he signed for us;
  • Kem Izzet: who left in 2001 before they found out whether he could play at this level.

I managed to grab a chat with one of the Special Constables before the game. Before I got ushered back onto the footpath he let on that he has been policing matches here at Layer Road for the last 23 years and has yet to get inside the ground to watch a match. How does he feel about this? Actually he’s not a footie fan, but I wonder if there’s someone at the club who would like to invite him to spend a Saturday afternoon or weekday evening watching a bit of action behind those tin sheds that border his patch.

As for the match, well it was almost like the glory days of last season with a great first half midfield display and some slick finishing up front. I’m beginning to see a bit of a likeness between Sheringham and another pensioner from the past – Ray Crawford. Just how lucky are we to have such silky smooth skills sported so sensationally on Saturdays? The crowd has found it’s voice once again – “Parky, Parky, what’s the score?” – the sun is shining brightly …

And then it happened! Two-nil up and we concede a goal just before half-time. Just like the Burnley match, only in reverse. And we trudge in for the break on a low.

It struck me today that the half-time entertainment gives the two sets of fans a break of a different sort. For 15 minutes or so they forget about baiting each other or trying to score points with their cleverly crafted song contest entries. We all sit or stand together in awe of the stuff that parades in front of, and around us:

  • We cheer together as the juniors take their penalties (including a first public appearance – and goal – for Lisbie Junior – but no appearance from Eddie the Eagle);
  • We jointly marvel at the skill of the substitutes in passing to each other so accurately – with no chance of a scything tackle (see later) or other form of harassment;
  • We laugh side by side at the ‘over the wall’ attempts that pass each side of the wooden defence;
  • We check our lucky tickets, hoping to win a few bob
  • We eagerly wait for the half-time scores and cheer as one when we hear that Ipswich are losing;
  • We puzzle over the delicate fork prods of the groundsman as he tends his lawn;
  • and we wait expectantly for the safety announcement … the safety announcement ...

… except that today, once again, the half-time entertainment leaves no time for this important piece of public safety information. So, for those who missed it before the game, here it is:

... ding, dong
This is public announcement. In the event of an emergency please remain calm, and await further instructions. Thank you.
... ding, dong

The second half was a mixture of revitalised opposition, frantic defending, cheating (Iwelumo, who went from hero to zero in less than an hour), poor officiating (failing to spot the cheating), an equaliser, and a scything follow through by Danny Mills on George Elokobi. It’s ironic that Mills’ own web site includes a prominent link to a sports injuries clinic! Is this how he makes his money?

All in all a fair result at 2-2 and a great afternoon’s entertainment. This was English Football at its best. Plenty of action, excitement, goals, controversy and plenty to discuss on the radio phone-ins and web site forums after the game. So, the positives we take forward to the next match:

  • 3 points better off than this stage last season;
  • at least 2 goals scored in every match so far (and at least 2 goals conceded in all but one of them);
  • 6 places higher than the corresponding stage last season (although the daft thing about tables this early is that we would have been 5th if we’d won);
  • Ipswich lost 4-0;
  • George Elokobi can sing ‘I’m Still Standing’ with pride;
  • we have a couple of warm-up away games before the Scunthorpe encounter in two weeks.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Comments Welcomed

My thanks to all those who responded to my message on the BBC 606 message board recently. There were some interesting snippets of people’s experiences over the years and I’d encourage you to post any more of your highs and lows, good and bad memories of Layer Road here. I know that the club are interested in collating your stories and they are following this blog too. So what do you think? Has Layer Road got its own personality or is it just another football ground? What has made Layer Road unique for you over the years?

This really is a special season at Layer Road and I see that there’s a fan/film-maker called Ray Hollingsworth who wants to make a film of memories of Layer Road.
Is there anyone out there who remembers the first season in the league – or even the years before that? My own experiences only go back to about 1968 but I’m sure there are stories just waiting to be told.

It turns out that this year is also the centenary of Layer Road (see centre page spread in the Essex County Standard Friday 7th September 2007). And the next 100 years starts with the Scunthorpe game on 29th September. I hope to do something special with this blog for that game.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Match 2 - Burnley

Work continues at Cuckoo Farm and in a visit up there this week I started to think about the best parking places and walking routes to get to the ground. At the moment it seems, there aren’t any. It’s particularly disappointing that the road infrastructure from the A12 isn’t going to be built in the early years. How many fans do they want to attend matches at this wonderful 20th century stadium? (Yes, I did mean 20th C)

Pre-match facts:

  • Burnley lost their last league game but won in midweek in the Carling Cup, which incidentally we have decided to skip for the second season in a row after embarrassing first round defeats against lower league opposition. It does have the advantage of allowing us ‘to concentrate on the league’ as the old saying goes when a team is knocked out of any cup competition.
  • After a great win away at Preston last week (3-0) we are up there in the play-off zone once again, but early season tables are just for fools. So much can happen as a result of just one game. We are known to suffer attacks of vertigo - maybe we need to become known for attacks of Virgo?

Anyway the sun is out, the sky is blue, only Burnley can spoil my view of the fourth game in a row against northern opposition. They certainly spoiled it last season when they were the first team to come to Layer Road looking for a draw and left with a point and a 0-0 result after the most boring performance of the season.

Well a much better attendance this week and it was evident in the better voice the crowd gave in support of the team out there on the pitch. An extra 500 people crammed into the ground, and the away support was allowed to roam across the whole of the Layer Road end this week – even though they could still stand at arm’s length from each other.

One of the most noticeable differences between the two sets of supporters today was the range of chants available just as a result of the name of the team. While we can pick anything from ‘U-ni-ted’, ‘The U’s’ (a haunting sound after a drummed intro – which works best at night games), ‘Col U’ (after a bit of co-ordinated hand clapping) to that variation on a theme ‘Oh – When – The – U’s’, poor old Burnley could only muster ‘Burn – lee’ (clap, clap, clap).

Plenty of action outside the ground this week for the ball-boys. It was an average match for the number of times a ball cleared the stands. I don’t know what the record is, but at one game last season I lost count at 8 times in the first 10 minutes. Perhaps someone will let me know. Maybe there’s a case for employing a Wimbledon (tennis) style of ball management. For matches against Burnley it could be the best entertainment of the day.

As for the match we let ourselves down badly today. Teddy Sheringham was playing a different game to the rest of the team. I’m not sure if it’s his fault or that of the other ten, but there’s a link missing somewhere. In the first half it went 0-1, 0-2, and then 1-2 just before half-time to give us some thought of a second half revival.

Half-time entertainment:

  • the kids’ penalty competition, which we lost,

  • ‘Over the Wall’ in which one competitor did quite well in the 30 seconds allowed for chipping as many shots as possible over a wooden defence into an empty goal (maybe the players should be doing this!),

  • The announcement that Ipswich were losing at Watford.

The panic set in. No safety announcement at half-time today. Sorry, but that means 0/10 for the backroom boys for this week. I’d like to report that the absence of this vital information sent the crowd into mass hysteria and glancing for the nearest exits, but in reality who else even noticed? Anyway the teams are back on the field and it’s time for the onslaught.

Only, no-one gave the correct script to the players. George Elokobi decided it was too easy being just one goal down and he conceded a pointless penalty which was converted to make it 1-3. The fans did come alive again towards the end, especially when we scored quite late (2-3) and then got the announcement of 5 minutes added time. All to no avail and our first defeat of the season.

At the end of the day we fall back on the fact that:

  • we have a two week break until the next match (and there’s still some cricket to watch on the telly),

  • we have 5 points more than we did at this stage last season (and are 9 places higher in the league),

  • Hull are below us (having stolen two of best players from last season) and Ipswich aren’t top.