|Letters from Wiltshire #38|
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 14th Mar 2021 13:21
So the green shoots of recovery we saw emerging last Tuesday night were firmly trampled on Saturday afternoon, as Crawley shone an uncomfortable spotlight on our deficiencies. If we must take some solace from this, Wayne Brown must surely be getting a clearer idea, match by match, of what’s needed for survival. And let’s be honest, as unpalatable as that must be for us, survival is 100% the only concern right now – anything after that is a bonus. So we go again tonight, only this time it’s a very tricky long trip to new arrivals Harrogate, probably the surprise package in the league in my opinion. It’s all about taking chances – Harrogate have lost more games than the U’s, but they’ve won significantly more too, which is why they’re challenging for the play-offs, and we’re…not ☹.
[b]Colchester United v Lincoln City
Always apparently with a flair for the dramatic, as the U’s struggle to avoid relegation out of the Football League, Letters from Wiltshire #38 returns to our first league match after getting back into the Football League. It was August 1992, and after two balmy seasons in the Football Conference, and on the back of winning the non-league double, Roy McDonough’s U’s were up against Lincoln City. Lincoln had also experienced the trauma of relegation to non-league football in their recent history, seven years earlier, in their case only taking one season to bounce straight back.
Tonight’s blog will have to be briefer than usual, as there isn’t much time to kick-off, and to be honest, there’s not too much I can remember in detail from this day. Of course I remember it as an occasion vividly, who wouldn’t remember that first match back in the Football League. Putting it in context, it was also less than a month after the birth of my first-born, so an ideal opportunity to show off the new arrival to the family, and of course take in a trip to Layer Road in the process – I know, I’m a bad person, what can I say 😊?
Driving over on the Friday night to stay with Mum, me and my brother-in-law headed over to the match, via of course a few beers in the Drury en route. I recall a better than average turnout from Lincoln City as well, one of those clubs that’s always seemed a bit of an enigma at times as far as support is concerned. At times seemingly stuck out on the edge of nowhere barely able to attract four-figure attendances, and then sweeping all before them in non-league on regular 10k+ crowds. I guess sometimes there’s really not much else to do in Lincoln on a Saturday afternoon – apart from drink I suppose, the pubs really are excellent.
Having guided us back to the Football League, chairman Gordon Parker was perfectly happy to stick with son-in-law Roy McDonough. Roy’s only pre-season signing was unknown Darren Oxbrow, a free-transfer centre-back from Maidstone United, though he did also take goalkeeper Paul Newell on loan from Leyton Orient. Big Roy started both in his first Football League line-up, and including of course himself at no. 9.
Lincoln City were managed at the time by Steve Thompson, very much a fans favourite following a long playing career for the Imps in the early 80s (and a shorter second spell immediately before moving into the manager role in 1990). There were a couple of names of note in the Lincoln line-up that afternoon, not least Keith Alexander, a well-renowned journeyman striker in football circles. Alexander would go on to take over from Thompson at the end of this season, becoming the first full-time black professional manager in the Football League. He sadly died in 2010 aged just 53, and was posthumously awarded a lifetime achievement award at the 2010 Black List celebration of African Caribbean figures in British Football.
The other name, certainly with hindsight, was Jason Lee. Now I’m pretty sure at the time this was nothing special, because I’m pretty sure this was before David Baddiel decided he needed to ‘black-up’ to ridicule Jason Lee, and particularly his ‘pineapple’ hairstyle. Apart from the systematic bullying, for someone who’d probably consider himself a bit of a lefty, his caricature is a very nasty chapter in Baddiel’s career, and one I would hope he is suitably ashamed of.
Anyhow, enough about politics, how about the game? Well, frenetic is the first word that comes to mind. We had literally only just squeezed in at the back of the Barside when Dean West put the Imps ahead with less than a minute on the clock. Their supporters were still singing “Welcome to Division 3” when McDonough equalised two minutes later, and we were still laughing about that when new-boy Darren Oxbrow made it 2-1 to the U’s.
And that was that, the game finally settled down, both sides realised they were allowed to defend as well as attack, and basically cancelled each other out. Still, although the goal-scoring fun was over, it was still a day to celebrate, on the sunny Barside terrace watching the U’s back in the Football League, and winning as well.
[b]Colchester United 2 (Roy McDonough 3’; Darren Oxbrow 7’) Lincoln City 1 (Dean West 1’)[/b]
Also was a false dawn as it happened, with the U’s losing the next four on the bounce, by which time we were back in the relegation zone. Roy McDonough’s tenure as manager was very much death or glory, and whilst the Conference had been very much glory, this first season back was much more an even mix. This was typified by our match stats over the season, we either won or lost – there were only five drawn matches all season, and three of those were in a four-match spell early in 1993. Take for example our run-in at the end of the season, win five out of seven (plus another of those draws), then get spanked 7-1 at Crewe!
All of this meant we finished 10th, and only four points out of the play-offs. This was an extremely credible performance for McDonough in his first season managing in the Football League, but I think also started to show some of his managerial weaknesses too. Gordon Parker would stick with Roy for one more season, but I suspect the writing was starting to appear on the wall during this campaign.
Up the U’s
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Letters from Wiltshire #48 by wessex_exile
“[i]And now the end is near, and so we face the final curtain…regrets, we’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention[/i]”. Not quite right Paul Anka, probably more than a few, but otherwise a fair assessment of where the U’s are today. It’ll be interesting to see how we perform with the relegation monkey finally off their back – I’m not expecting miracles, particularly with Tranmere needing at least a point to guarantee making the play-offs, but they’ll certainly be more nervous than we will be, so can we make that count? This will be my last blog of the season, and not yet sure what I may or may not do for next season, but suggestions are always welcome.
Letters from Wiltshire #47 by wessex_exile
Here we are, at the penultimate game of the season, and our last game in front of the cardboard U’s faithful at the JobServe. It has been a long, difficult, and definitely strange season, which frankly I’ll be glad to see the back of. That’ll we’ll be here again in August is definitely going to be something to celebrate, but I suspect we’re facing a summer of significant rebuilding both on the pitch, and possibly off it too. I won’t be the only one, but the biggest oddity for me has been being able to watch every single game – not always easy viewing, but something I’ve never done before, and probably never will again. But it doesn’t really make up for not being there in person, the long train journey away-days, meeting fellow U’s and other supporters, and of course sharing a beer or three. Fingers-crossed we can return to the terraces in 2021/22.
Letters from Wiltshire #46 by wessex_exile
That was quite a week for us all then. In the space of four short but remarkably tense days we have gone from having to take shoes and socks off to check how many more points we need to guarantee survival, or whether we would even achieve it, to breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing we’re almost there. But close of play this afternoon, whether by our own actions or the failure of others, I am sure survival will be confirmed. Of course, Tuesday night not only all but guaranteed it, it also virtually condemned local rivals Southend United to non-league football for the foreseeable. Looking at the host of fully professional former football league sides currently battling it out for the two promotion slots out of the National league (including Hartlepool, Torquay, Stockport, Wrexham, Chesterfield and Notts County), it is not going to be a walk in the park for Southend to return any day soon.
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.