The Day We Did Colchester….
Crossing into Essex was just something that had to be done by the SOENISC. We had held many meetings in the south of England during our first year of existence, but these were mainly in the south west (Bournemouth, Weymouth, Torquay, Southampton) or as random as Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. Then in late 2006, I became interested in the phenomenom of Colchester United FC. This fascination began in October 2005 when I visited Layer Road to watch the Cherries win 1-0 in the last minute. I enjoyed the trip to Colchester, in Essex and always felt I should go back. It was in late 2006 that Colchester United finally got recognition as a great team. They started beating all the “big boys” at home. During their first season in The Championship, Colchester lost maybe only 2 home matches as they were within a few points of the final play off spot. Some achievement for a club which has a very old stadium, averages 5,000 fans and is so close to London that kids probably choose West Ham, Chelsea or Tottenham ahead of the Us. During that season 2006 – 2007 saw home wins over the likes of Leeds, Southampton, Southend, Wolves and a 4-0 rout of Sheffield Wednesday. I suggested the SOENISC should pay a visit to this wee stadium which was tidy and cosy and somehow resembled Bangor FC’s Clandeboye Park.
This idea was put on hold and not really developed any further when it came to deciding on our first meetings of 2008. Time in the football season was running out and we wanted to make sure we met some Northern Ireland internationals before the season was out. The season 2007 – 2008 had already seen us meet as a club in Exeter, Weymouth and Bath. A quick check of the football season fixtures and Tim Beattie pinpointed the Colchester United v. Cardiff City match in mid March for a meeting, and the chance to meet Warren Feeney and Tony Capaldi of Cardiff, and also at Colchester was Aidan Davison, who once was a Northern Ireland goalkeeper, for those who care to remember him. It was all set in stone fairly soon after, and on Saturday 15th March 2008, SOE NISC were set for Colchester in Essex. It was to be my second trip to the stadium, and a very eagerly anticipated meeting.
Following a mammoth turnout of 14 to the Bath meeting in February, it was felt the Colchester meeting would attract much less club members, as it was only 5 or 6 weeks later, and involved going north east from London. It didn’t stop the hard core, and confirmed on the day we had 8. I began the usual round of media build up, getting small publicity on about 3 local Colchester tourist sites, as well as the CUFC official club forum and an unofficial club forum. The news article also featured on a website of an Essex newspaper. The biggest publicity for us, though was a preview and photo on the main page of the Colchester United FC website the day before the match. We also appeared with a photo in the club programme. This was all thanks to Matt Hudson, who was the media/PR guy at Colchester United FC. A really nice guy, Matt, who also arranged for the players to meet with us, and informed us about Steve Downey, a Belfast man who was a youth coach at Colchester United. This was news to us, and an extra Norn Iron connection ahead of the trip.
The original plan was to meet in a wee pub, whose name I cannot remember (maybe The Pig, or The Dragoon) and then head to the CUSA Corner Bar before the match at 3 pm kick off. However on speaking to Matt Hudson, he offered us, the entire club a full guided tour of Layer Road, just 2 months before Colchester United would say goodbye forever to their wee stadium. This was an amazing offer and meant we had to adjust our plans slightly, by doing the stadium tour first, before the teams arrived, say around 12.30 pm. After the stadium tour we then headed to the local pub for the meeting and drinks. Then after this, we were welcomed into the Colchester United Supporters Association Corner Bar. A very small cosy wee bar upstairs the club shop, with lots of memorabilia on the walls, lots of popular Us fans, and two lovely barmaids, Jeanette Westlake and Lea Finch. I had actually been in touch with both ladies on e-mail before we went, and I had also posted a few times on the CUFC internet forum looking forward to the visit. The date was Saturday 15th March 2008, the venue was Layer Road, Colchester Essex and it was to be the 16th meeting for the South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club.
There were actually 9 confirmed guests. 8 of us had got tickets through the club, which I had pre-ordered in Terrace Three, one of the hardcore standing sections. The other person was called “McFaggen”, a username from the NI website “Our Wee Country”. I had met him before and he seemed a cheeky chap, he had a few times bowled me on the website “Our Wee Country”, so although it was nice to have him along, I didn’t want him to spoil the culture of the usual SOE NISC day out. He even tried to claim that Colchester isn’t in the South of England. A map wouldn’t go amiss. I class everything south of Birmingham in the south of England! Anyway all was set, we were ready for the day out and my friend Gemma and I enjoyed some cheap white wine and strawberries at my place the night before the meeting. It was to be a very early start from my place at Ensbury Park, Bournemouth. A few weeks before I had booked firstly the 6 am Megabus from Bournemouth University up to London Victoria. Then we were to use our Oyster Cards and Day Travelcards to get from London Victoria to Liverpool Street, where we could get a direct train to Colchester (central Colchester). Layer Road from there by train was a bit of a task, as it was by bus, so bulk taxis for once would be in order. The whole thing was planned, and my old mate Steve Jones from Bite Communications had kindly let us stay at his, and was coming along for the day out as well. It was the first time I’d seen him since 2007 so that was another chance of a catch up.
Anyhow after about 3 hours sleep, Gemma and I awoke and got ready. Simon McCully had agreed to pick us up and drive us to the university around 5.20 am. We did that and arrived in time for the cheap Megabus. My mate Millwall Neil was also heading to London that day, to watch Millwall, and had also booked onto the same Megabus, yet he joined it in Bournemouth Triangle and we were onboard heading to Victoria!:
Most people slept on the “party bus”, including me, but I also enlightened the population with some early morning music featuring Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr Pressure.
Soon we got off at Victoria, got our travelcards and headed on route to Colchester. We wanted to see some sights briefly, so we stopped for very quick photo opportunities at Westminster Abbey, St. Stephen’s Tower, The London Eye and Victoria station. We then got a district line train from Westminster to Liverpool Street. This was very handy actually as we were due to meet Steve Jones there, who lived very close by. Wee Jono Crute and Alan Scott would also meet us there for the Essex party train. They had come from Bristol or Bath. Quite some trek for us all in them days. They really were lunatic times. Anyhow once out at Liverpool Street, Millwall Neil decked in his lions shirt, and us all in green stopped and joined us for a very quick pint at Hamilton Hall, the Wetherspoons at the entrance to Liverpool Street Station. I lost Alan Scott, because he was at the other entrance! But soon we had our first pint, before heading to the platform for the train direct to Colchester, or as some less educated English folk like to call it “Coach Da”, that even has an Ulster twang to it, we thought as the choice lager of Fosters saw us get two tables and an iPod with NI saws as we left London behind for Essex.
The party train was good craic, though apart from us, the train wasn’t very full. As the train zoomed past the main station at Chelmsford, a green shirted man waving a green NI scarf manicly could be seen out the window. It was “McFaggen”, though I was to learn of his real name, Barry Hetherington. We had swapped numbers and texted to say he’d be at Chelmsford anyway. Once our train arrived in Colchester, we knew that Barry would be on the next one and we should wait for him. We also waited for Tim Beattie who was driving. Here is what you missed on that there party train:
We posed for photos dressed all in green at Colchester Station and then took two separate taxis direct to Layer Road football ground for our stadium tour. I gave in a quick call to Matt Hudson, who came down to meet us and take us inside for the exclusive guided tour. It was an honour and a priviledge to be given the tour. The stadium may have been old and seen better days, but such was my love for football that i love pieces of history. The stadium was knocked down forever in Summer 2008, just 4 or 5 months after we visited it.
The tour took us past the far corner flag through a small gate and into the away terrace. We were then taken into Terrace Three, where we would stand that afternoon. From there we went past the director’s box, as rundown as the one at Glentoran’s Oval and as director like as a tea stained mug being handed out to Bill Clinton at Buckingham Palace. Not clean or new. Bur raw and real.
We sat on the benches, got pitchside, posed for more photos with the stadium empty and the players not there yet. Then it was inside through the players tunnel and into the TINY TINY changing rooms and showers. I’m not joking but the Layer Road changing rooms are the smallest I’ve seen. Great atmosphere though I bet for team camaraderie. Maybe the tight low ceilinged changing rooms are one of the reasons why the Us had such as impressive home record the previous season. This season however, was a different story. The home record was abysmal, and teams were coming and taking the 3 points for fun. They had gotten over the small changing rooms by now. There were 10 of us on the tour, the 8 of us (Scott Gordon couldn’t make it at last minute) as well as Matt Hudson and another guy called Neil who wanted to join our tour!
In the changing rooms, the Colchester shirts overlapped each other, the water and shin pads got in the way of walking and the showers were that small you could have been forgiven for touching yer mates willy in the shower. Perhaps for Gemma, the only lady on the tour, the thought of Teddy Sheringham and Carl Duguids penises getting cleaned was a natural thought. I noted the lack of the Teddy Sheringham shirt, understanding my last chance to ever see him play live league football had gone. Teddy Sheringham was a big hero of mine aged 13. When he was at Tottenham Hotspur.
I loved Teddy Sheringham, even changing my name to Teddy and copying his haircut back in 1993. I told school teachers to “call me Teddy.” I relaxed in the solace that Teddy Sheringham was still a legend and his final season in the English league had come. I asked Matt if we could meet Teddy that day, but sadly he wasn’t around…I also remember the large amount of Red Bull in the home dressing rooms. It was then onward into the away team, Cardiff dressing room where we noticed it was even smaller. Must get hot in there! Must get cosy and managers must get frustrated when teams are playing shit and the anger echoes around four narrow walls. I have been in larger dressing rooms every time I used to play football for 10th Bangor Boys Brigade. The away dressing room was tiny. We seeked out Warren Feeney and Tony Capaldi’s shirts for photos (two NI internationals) and I also decided to leave my personalised SOENISC business cards by each hanger! It was Simon and Alan’s idea. From the tiny dressing rooms, it was up to the small trophy cabinet, via a not so posh lounge with worn carpet.
I love seeing trophy cabinets. It was nice to see the rise of Colchester United FC. Nicknamed the Us, playing in blue and white stripes, they aren’t exactly the fashionable club to support. Especially in an area where West Ham, Ipswich and Norwich have all been Premier League regulars in recent times. All three of those clubs have also made it into Europe, Ipswich Town even scalping Inter Milan in 2001, and Norwich City beating Bayern Munich away back in 1993. All this occurred while Colchester went from non league to the Championship, and had attracted international players from Scotland, Wales, England. They boasted players such as Jamie Cureton, Teddy Sheringham, Neil Danns, Chris Iwelumo. The trophy cabinet proudly showed the “shield” for being runner up in League One, behind their Essex rivals, Southend United. Ironic that Colchester had outlasted them in the division above, as the Shrimpers went straight back down. Just two years before the Us had successfully beaten some big clubs to promotion, including Nottingham Forest, Bradford City. They even managed a 3-0 win away at Sheffield Wednesday the season that the Owls went back up. They were a free scoring team…
However they were now in a relegation battle and survival in the Championship was important. Once we headed through the directors box, Matt Hudson said to me, “that there ladder heads up to the roof, where the TV cameras go. We’ll be knocking the stadium down in a few months, so last chances to go up there, do youse wanna go up?” “Too right!!” I said, knowing the lads would be very much up for it, given that we had, in 2006 climbed on a roof over looking Tivoli Square in Copenhagen with the club fleg before the away match with Denmark. Soon we had all climbed up the wee ladder and onto the roof of Layer Road . It was old, worn, manky and unsafe. BUt a great experience. We posed for photos and even got intill the video camera box. It was amazing how close the houses were to the stadium – smallest private car park I’ve ever seen at a football stadium!
Once down from the stadium roof, the tour ended, we tanked Matt Hudson so much for his hospitality. It will live in my memory for a long time that day. Soon we were all buying match programmes and checking out the wee article on us in there and then it was off to the pub for the official meeting. The 8 of us squeezed into a narrow corner of the pub for the quick meeting. The pub was called “The Drury Arms.” On the way in it was funny, because the bouncers saw us all dressed up in green, and knowing that ColU play in blue and white they assumed we were away fans and initially sent us into the wrong part of the pub.