Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Green, Green Grass of Home

A couple of things have happened since the West Brom game that have left me thanking my lucky stars that we have Layer Road and our very own patch of green, green grass that we call Home. And it has made me question a couple of previously held beliefs.

The first was watching some bits of the Southampton v Cardiff match on TV on Sunday as part of my warm up for the big match - Hamilton v Alonso v Raikkonen. I wasn't really watching the game, I was listening to the noise coming from the TV. The echo of the crowd in the St Mary's Stadium suggested that only a few hundred had bothered to turn up. A check in the press the next day suggested there were nearly 21000. I guess most were sleeping, but it did mean that we could have fit our capacity into the space that remained and still had room for 3000 more. The rattling of voices off the walls showed that a ground being only 63% full hasn't got any atmosphere. The learning outcome here for me is that maybe 10,000 is adequate for Cuckoo Farm, for the time being anyway. Let's not lose the terrific and glorious '
Real Football Roar' that erupts from everywhere except Terraces 1 and 2. Six and a half thousand muted voices in a larger stadium and we might as well be talking to ourselves. We need to live up to the title we won last season.

The second life changing event happened at Portman Road on Tuesday night for our first local derby of the season. It was a last minute decision and I managed to get a couple of tickets on the morning of the game, but my son and I had to sit in the Cobbold Stand shoulder to shoulder, back to knees (knees in my back, my knees in someone else's back), with a few thousand tractor drivers from another world. We had agreed that we were not going to say or do anything that might get us 'outed' as travelling criminals in that part of the world where we hoped to steal three points points from under their noses.
The plan started well and we took the lead in the most eerie fashion I have ever experienced. A great build up and stunning shot after half an hour. We had the lead and the roar was choking inside us. It happened without any noise - it was like watching the TV with the sound off. Had we really scored? Were we really one-nil up? Did we really have those three points in our grasp? Well the way the match went for the next 40 minutes either side of the break suggested we had already banked the three points.

Then an extraordinary set of events - a penalty where the ref didn't send off the offending keeper, who then has the cheek to save the spot kick, and town of Ipswich wakes up. They spot that we are making off with the booty and I'm sure they don't know how they did it but they managed to wrestle one point back from us and put one of the others spinning through the air for a few minutes. Then they snatched the whole damn lot and ran off to the bank themselves. Two different types of 'stunned' in the course of one match. I know which one I preferred.

In fact 'stunned' was the byword for the post-match interviews on the radio. Even Neil Kelly, our radio presenter, was stunned as he asked questions of Platt and Davison: "How did it ... ? What was ... ? Why ...?" was exactly what he said - he couldn't get any more words out himself. The replies were equally short: "I, just, dunno." "I ..." "Dunno"!

OK, so back to the life changing events - the cramped seats in the Cobbled Together Stand made me realise that Layer Road isn't as bad as I once thought. I've always considered my own seat to be economically constructed but Portman Road takes the biscuit. I'll be happy with my current space being replicated at Cuckoo Farm, although I'd really like a bit more width and leg room please - but I promise won't moan about the piece of heaven I possess until then.
(Click heels together three times, and repeat after me "There's no place like Home",
"There's no place like Home", ... "There's no place like Layer Road")

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Match 6 - WBA

I don't harbour any grudges against West Brom. It's easy to get angry about a team that beat you twice last season, especially the team that ended our unbeaten home run, the team that made it into the play-offs when we didn't. But for some reason I feel smug about the fact that despite them being in the top 2 when they beat us at home and their fans taunting us about the fact they were 'going up', we are still playing each other home and away this season. Welcome back to Layer Road. Actually I felt that West Brom were one of the better teams to come to Layer Road last season and they actually played some football. And I especially like West Brom a little bit more now that we have won our first home game this season at their expense.

I mentioned last week that Bela Balogh hadn't yet made a full appearance for us. That was put right and he played a competent and relatively solid part in this victory. He's got potential. Another lad who's got potential is our Teddy. Sidelined for about a month with an old age injury it was good to see him play again at last. It did highlight another interesting fact - that when you sign a player who has established himself elsewhere you also inherit the chants that go with him. In our case - Ohhhhhh Teddy Teddy, Teddy Teddy Teddy Teddy Sher-ing-ham (and repeat).

Now Yeatesy is our top scorer and he chipped in with two more today, a classic free kick and penalty which he won in classic/dubious fashion. However, I do sometimes wonder if he practices with the team in training or locks himself in the gym on his own and bounces off walls while appealing for a free kick or throw-in. I don't suppose the lino on our side of the pitch is his best mate anyway. Speaking of which I suspect it was a put-up job when mid-way through the second half the announcer asked for the loser of a pair of spectacles to contact a steward. Half the crowd immediately named the unhappy loser - 'Lino !'.

Anyway it was good to get back into my cramped seated position for the first time in ages. At one stage I accidentally whacked the guy in front of me while applauding, and I trod on several toes while working my way to my seat. No danger of 'Mind the Gap' messages here at Layer Road (except in our defence which left a huge gap for Kevin Phillips to open the scoring). 'The Gap' has been there all season with an average of almost two goals leaking through in every game. Mind you we've got a slightly better average at exactly two goals per game. So it doesn't really surprise anyone that our most frequent scoreline this season has been a 2-2 draw.

The half-time entertainment was up to normal standards with a draw in in the junior penalty competition, and a close run thing in 'Over the Wall' (in which I still don't understand the points system). Then the safety announcement came over loud and clear and for once it seemed that everyone was listening - I'll give them 9 out of 10 this week.

And finally, having dispatched the opposition 3-2 and having applauded the lads for the effort which saw us climb five places in the table to 12th, it was time for a decision. Having a seat in the middle of a row means we have a choice of exits. Left or right. To the right they were spending longer than usual congratulating the team on a fine performance so we chose left, and emerged onto Layer Road alongside the people who were sitting on our right and who exited that side. Oh well, another draw.

Friday, 19 October 2007

International Weekend

OK, so it's International weekend. What does that mean to us? It means we haven't had our heart rate and blood pressure exercised to sufficient levels for about two weeks. And according to government experts we could be among those who are in danger of becoming obese if we don't get some form of regular exercise. What was the Colchester United involvement in these two weeks of supreme international effort? Sadly just Bela Balogh playing for Hungary in their weekend match in which they beat Malta 2-0. Sadly also because we have yet to see a full first team competitive appearance by our international superstar, although he did make his club debut as sub the previous week. He also had to sit out the second of Hungary's Euro 2008 qualifiers in midweek.

It should be a time when we all join hands with other clubs' supporters and hail the efforts of our own national team (although Arsenal and Chelsea fans might have some difficulty in identifying who their national team is). And this is what we've been doing these past two weeks. What an exciting time it's been. Gritty and gripping wins over Australia and France to bring us another World Cup Final appearance. Forwards falling over each other to get to the ball. Backs standing firm in the face of continual onslaughts. The midfield mastery of that wizard Wilkinson. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, it's Rugby Union that has taken the headlines this last two weeks.

And what of our national soccer team. On the face of it a fifth consecutive 3-0 win in the tournament and a loss abroad on a wet synthetic surface. Except that the 3-0 win came courtesy of a nutmeg on an unsighted keeper, a deflection, and an own goal - hardly stuff to get too excited about. And all the defeat has done has been to send the media into apoplexy in predicting the next England manager.

But that's all behind us now and it's time for the real thing again. Saturday afternoons, 3 o'clock kick-off,
rusty corrugated iron stands, wooden stairs, pigeons nesting in the eaves, and the weather's turning colder. Yes, Layer Road beckons once more.

Come on the U's.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Being a Footie Fan

Away to Stoke at the Britannia Stadium this week and trying to protect our dodgy unbeaten away record (Played 4: Won 1, Drawn 3). Interestingly, Stoke are the reason I’m writing this blog. I had the mis(fortune) earlier this year to read a book by Stephen Foster called ‘She Stood There Laughing’. It was the reflections by a Stoke City fan of one of their more typical seasons (just escaping relegation). Now the thing that bugged me more than anything was the way the author took every opportunity to make derogatory comments about Colchester United and our stadium. Not just a few comments either, they were in every chapter. By coincidence one of their players at some stage of that successful campaign for Stoke was Chris Iwelumo – yes the very same turncoat who scored well for us last season and was both cheered and jeered within an hour when he returned here a few weeks ago with Charlton Athletic.

The author of the book describes in some detail the efforts he makes to follow his beloved team to all points north, south, east and west, despite becoming a resident of Norwich and being unable to bring himself to follow his adopted home town. His rationale being that any team in yellow shirts can’t play football. Let’s think about that – Norwich? Depends on your point of view in East Anglia (and they are certainly better than the Tractor Boys). Watford? Yes, OK I’d go along with that. Australia? Well, I can’t argue with that either. So where does that leave Brazil then?

While discussing the content of this book with a friend, a Norwich supporter, who just happens to live in Colchester and is secretly proud of our achievements, I said that I wished I had kept a diary of our first championship season (maybe someone else did and I have yet to discover it). So he suggested I do one of this season – the last at Layer Road, and take the opportunity to slag off Stoke City at the same time –just to even the score.

Well, I’d rather the lads did that on the pitch, but it seems that the QPR thrashing has taken most of it out of us and we went down 1-2 today to the Staffs Terriers. I’m not going to dwell on things too much except to say that I heard on the grapevine that the Colchester fans did more to fill the Britannia Stadium (with cheering, singing, chanting, and other vocalising) than the home fans on this occasion were able to muster. Let’s hear it for the Col U faithful …

Another parallel with the book is that my journey over the last two years at Layer Road has also seen the accompaniment of my son, who harbours some feelings for a little premiership outfit in Manchester. He’s a typical Manchester United fan – he doesn’t live in Manchester and still hasn’t seen them at home. In fact it’s worse than that – every time he’s seen them play live they have lost. Now that is true love.

But what is it that makes a football fan? Is it blind faith in your team’s abilities against all reasonable judgement - do Mansfield supporters still sing that old favourite: “….. they’re by far the greatest team, the world have ever seen”? Is it the desire to heap severe criticism on a bunch of inadequate individuals without giving the match officials any chance of arguing back at you? Or is it that we actually relish the opportunity to brag about buying designer clothes (replica shirts, etc.) so we can argue that we employ fashion designers to create our extensive wardrobe – and let’s face it the cost is a significant part of this.

I have to say I do find it galling that after spending a hard earned fortune on season tickets, replica shirt, scarf, matchday programmes, food and drink at the ground, and the occasional flutter on the 50/50 or club lottery, one of the club’s directors can resort to begging for more money from fans before the final home game last season. What is the average wage of the five thousand or so regulars compared to the average wage of the players? What is the average worth of the club directors? And they want more money from us? Are we supposed to be ever so grateful for what we receive each week when we venture out to matches? Do we have to make savings in our budgets during the week so that we can send another few bob home to the club?


Anyway – I recommend the book and you can find it on Amazon : She Stood There Laughing by Stephen Foster. I’d be happy to hear any other suggestions of books or blogs written by footie fans about their time in the Football League. Please don’t recommend premiership stuff – I can’t afford the time to read those, and I don’t speak any other languages.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Match 5 - QPR

The trials and tribulations of being a football fan. Once in a while there comes an event which tests your loyalties. For me it happened once last season when the opportunity to earn a few bucks on a Saturday for doing very little coincided with the home match against Cardiff. No contest really. Cardiff were top of the Championship at the time and we were on a bit of a roll ourselves, but I felt it was time our luck ran out. Then my son did something absolutely scandalous. He selected the Colchester v Cardiff match as one of 4 games in his works football competition - in which I usually predict all the scores at 1 – 1 and get a high percentage of successes. Except that I can’t bear to predict anything other than a Colchester win, so I predicted a 3 – 1 victory for the U’s and several people expressed surprise and amusement. The rest is history. I missed the match. My son didn’t. We won 3 – 1. Cardiff started their slide down the table and we were proving that we didn’t care who we played. In fact they could all spend a week at the top of the league and then come to Layer Road, just so we could knock them off.

This season it’s happened earlier. Our first home evening kick-off and we have yet to achieve a home win. We are playing QPR, who are firmly rooted at the bottom of the division. They have a caretaker manager in Mick Harford who was our assistant to George Williams last season and the loan arranger has exceeded himself tonight. Two players who were with us on loan last season – Chris Barker and Hogan Ephraim – are playing for QPR (Ephraim on loan) and a former U’s player (on loan of course) - Rowan Vine – is now playing for QPR (on loan of course). In fact Vine visited us twice last season with different clubs – Luton & Birmingham – so it’s just like he’s still playing here! And of course there’s something about a floodlit match that creates an electric atmosphere. The clash of events for me is my Dad this time. He had to go into hospital today to have his pacemaker replaced and I went to pick him up from Barts Hospital in London just after 7 pm. (All went well by the way – Dad’s OK.)

All is not lost as my son was at the ground, and able to text updates to me. Even better was the live commentary on BBC Essex which we managed to decipher despite the poor reception so far out of our area – it improved as we got nearer home and out of the city centre. There were a couple of dips in the landscape and these seemed to coincide with key moments in the game when our favourite commentator, honorary ‘Essex Man’ Neil Kelly, got a bit excited and gave us a clue that something wicked / interesting / vital / live-saving / crucial / exceptional / or downright amazing had happened.

It’s true we were in need of a lift after recent results, but we didn’t really expect the QPR defence to gift it in quite the way they did to open the scoring FOR US. 1-0 to Colchester. Just coming out of a cutting on the A13 and it’s apparent that QPR have equalised, 1-1 and it’s ‘our Hogan’ who did the damage. The QPR fans loved it I’m told – they’d just discovered they could taunt the home fans with a couple of repetitions of ‘You’re not singing any more’ when … they weren’t singing any more themselves. Izzet does it for us and it’s 2-1. And it’s all matter-of-fact in the commentary box when Yeates scores with a trademark free-kick a few minutes before half-time and it’s 3-1 at the break. No ‘over the wall’ in the interval this week – Yeates has done his version of that already! The half-time entertainment is boosted with the arrival of the match programmes in which the ink was still a tiny bit damp.

Then it gets a bit frantic for me. I’ve arrived at home, my radio battery is failing and the reception here is poor, so it’s the cable TV access to BBC Essex – but they are transmitting the wrong frequency on the cable network and it’s music!!! How about the Internet? My desktop computer crashed on Saturday and I’m trying to cope with a spare laptop and I haven’t got Real Player software installed and the BBC web site insists on having it. So I try to download it and get blocked because I haven’t logged onto my own computer as an administrator. (QPR pull one back – that man Vine). I log out and back in again as administrator and manage to download the software. (Platt scores for us and we increase our lead back to two goals at 4-2). Back to the web site and click on ‘Listen’ and discover that for various reasons they aren’t broadcasting the match tonight. Oh well, the last few minutes of a crackly reception – a bit like the half time safety announcement apparently – and the U’s are safely home with our first home win of the season. I was there in spirit.

By the way, did anyone else spot the moment when the linesman managed to keep the ball in play and the ball-boy then picked it up and tossed it to a player for a throw-in? What’s the ruling on that then? Discuss!