|Letters from Wiltshire #29|
Written by wessex_exile on Wednesday, 27th Jan 2021 18:50
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.
[b]Plymouth Argyle v Colchester United
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.
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.
[b]It’s all about golf balls, spare change and pasties…[/b]
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.
[b]On the road[/b]
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 [b]Noah[/b] and [b]Durham[/b] in amongst what must have been 2-300.
John McGreal’s side lined up that day:
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 less than five 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…
[b]Plymouth Argyle 2 (Craig Tanner 61’; Ryan Donaldson 87’) Colchester United 1 (Craig Slater 31’)[/b]
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
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Letters from Wiltshire #45 by wessex_exile
Tonight, Colchester United face Southend United in what may not necessarily be the most important game of our respective histories (though it’s certainly very close), but is almost certainly the most important Essex derby ever. However this season pans out, by the end of it there’ll either be only one team in Essex, or worst case scenario, none at all. If the U’s win, then Southend will be 9pts behind with just three games to go, and a minimum of a -12 goal difference to overturn if they want to overtake us. Certainly mathematically possible, but that would rely on a remarkable turnaround in their form, form that they’ve shown precious little sign of achieving so far this season. The stalking horse is Grimsby, with their game in hand, who have rather belatedly shown an improvement in form, so their match against automatic promotion chasing Morecambe tonight is equally important, particularly if we want to avoid the unthinkable, with both Essex clubs dropping out of the league.
Letters from Wiltshire #44 by wessex_exile
So here we are, as the nation mourns the passing of His Royal Highness, Duke of Edinburgh, the U’s face the first of two season-defining moments, with our late kick-off match at home to Walsall. Before then, no doubt many will have been focused on events elsewhere, not least the early kick-offs for Grimsby (at home to promotion-chasing Bolton Wanderers), and particularly Essex rivals Southend United, who faced a tricky visit to Exeter City – still very much in the hunt for at least a play-off spot. As I finalise this blog, I know that Grimsby have beaten Bolton 2-1, and Southend earned a credible 0-0 draw in the West Country. More to the point, the U’s will know this too. Whilst I can’t help but feel that will ought to be to our advantage, it surely must also put additional pressure on a squad whose confidence is paper-thin. We must hope that Hayden Mullins, assisted by Paul Tisdale, get their heads right, and send the lads out this evening fired up with self-belief.
Letters from Wiltshire #43 by wessex_exile
Well, that has been a lively week for Colchester United in the press, and not least for Robbie Cowling, with not one, or two, but kind of three club announcements in rapid succession to try and put the record straight. First, we had Tribunalgate, which certainly looked very poor according to the initial press reports, but which on closer inspection when some of the ‘fact gaps’ were filled in wasn’t anywhere near the story that some would have us believe. Then of course we had the ‘leak’ that the U’s were about to go into administration, despite all the reassurances we’d been given in previous statements from Robbie. Not so said Robbie again, and particularly angry at what he believed to be the source of the story. Hence statement #3, repeating his assurances, but this time after passing through the lawyer filter to remove his thoughts on the source. To paraphrase Robbie’s conclusion to that statement, let’s hope we can all have a day off from this sort of media shenanigans and enjoy our game at Oldham tonight!
Letters from Wiltshire #42 by wessex_exile
Well, these sure are strange times at Colchester United, particularly for a club (nor a Chairman) not usually associated with the ‘managerial revolving door’ approach. With results not matching expectations or even minimum requirements, and a brief spell after being appointed Interim Head Coach, Wayne Brown has been released to return to the Jammers, for whenever their pandemic-interrupted football restarts. In comes not one, or two, but three new ‘appointments’. Hayden Mullins steps up as Head Coach to the end of the season, Joe Dunne apparently comes back to the U’s in a sort of unofficial coaching/ team-spirit sort of role, and exceptionally experienced lower-league former Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale arrives to provide Hayden with advice and support – crikey!
Letters from Wiltshire #41 by wessex_exile
This afternoon the U’s take on Bradford City in a bid to gather sufficient points to stay clear of the bottom two. It’ll be a tough gig though, even if (as I suspect) Bradford City have left it a bit too late to challenge the play-off spots. They were on a decent run of form, that is until defeats at Newport, Carlisle, Scunthorpe and a goalless draw at home to Oldham put paid to any lingering promotion hopes. For us, it’s simple, to stay out of the bottom two, for all intents and purposes we only need to gain half (or more) of the points that Grimsby or Southend do. Sounds easy, just wish I felt more confident we will…