You are only as good as your next game

Four months ago Leyton Orient found themselves 2-0 up going into the dressing rooms at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.  They O’s were just 45 minutes away from their first visit to the Championship and sticking one over on the Rotherham United manager, Steve Evans.  Nobody wants to see that these days do they?  Ninety minutes later and the players lay distraught on the pitch, having lost the game 4-3 on penalties.  After a forty nine match league campaign, their fate had been settled by one missed spot-kick.  Harsh.

IMG_1120A few months later and the O’s were looking up the table rather than down it. Amazingly, after those exploits last season, manager Russell Slade was under pressure.  The fickle nature of football, combined with a new owner who had bought the club in the summer from Barry Hearn, means that a manager is only as good as his last match, irrespective of what has gone on before.  Slade’s achievements in finishing third last season were impressive, especially with clubs with much bigger resources, and of course, budgets in the division such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Preston North End and the anti-club, Milton Keynes Dons.

Whilst The Mighty Rooks would be starting their FA Cup campaign down on the south coast at Bognor Regis Town, I would be in London.  Westfield Shopping City, Stratford to be precise.  Sometimes even I have to compromise between football and family time, and this was a promised treat for the Littlest Fuller.  But then a cunning plan started to emerge.  Get to the Shopping mecca early doors, take family to nice restaurant for lunch and then walk across the Olympic Park for some football.  Genius.  So clever that they agreed to come with me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Orient, as they always were when I was growing up.  My Dad often used to bring me to Brisbane Road when I was young as the Dad of one of my best school friends, Derek Possee,  used to play for them and so we didn’t used to pay to get in.  I remember seeing a couple of classic games against West Ham here, including the FA Cup 4th Round back in January 1980 when the Hammers edged a thriller 3-2 on their way to Wembley (proper FA Cup Final Wembley, not money-making Semi-Final Wembley), standing on a milk crate at the front of the West Stand.  I remember that stand well, with the tea bar at the back and the rust falling from the roof whenever the ball hit it.  I stood on it for the last time in December 1996 to see Peter Shilton make his 1,000 appearance against Brighton & Hove Albion.

IMG_1105Since then the ground has been totally transformed.  The old West Stand is now a unique-looking stand with steep obstruction free seating and then a huge wall behind it, with various local community facilities inside – a great and innovative use of the space.  In each corner there are the privately owned flats with their balconies that openly flaunt their ability to disregard the Taylor Report with spectators able to stand (STAND!) and drink beer (BEER!) in view of the pitch.  How many of them do you think cause problems each home game? Exactly!

Leyton Orient 0 Colchester United 2 – The Matchroom Stadium – Saturday 13th September 2014
Sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that will be the sentiment of the majority of Leyton Orient fans as they reflect on the defeat to Colchester United. It was a decent game of football, with the home side peppering the visitors goal (16 shots) but failing to really test Walker in the Colchester goal.  There was one incident in the second half where from the view we had in the North Stand, Watt appeared to handle the ball on the line, although most of the crowds view would have been of the keeper diving in front of him.  May be just the angle but looked like a penalty from where I was sitting.

There were a few familiar names in the starting line up for both sides.  Leyton Orient had Jobi McAnuff on the bench, a player who showed considerable promise at West Ham under Pardew but was shipped out far too early. Colchester lined up with Freddie “The new Tony Cottee” and George “son of John” Moncur.  Sears problem was, like Cottee, he was a small, in your face striker.  He, like Cottee, scored on his debut for the Hammers and was then seen as the saviour.  Unlike Cottee, he never really repeated that high and was released by the Hammers.

IMG_1122Colchester were forced to start the game with 10 men, as the referee wasn’t happy with the black ankle pads that George Moncur had on over his socks.  The U’s were wearing a black and yellow kit, with striped socks.  Quite what was wrong with that I don’t know.  Good to see he was so hot on those laws of the game but let so many very physical fouls by the away team go unpunished in the first half.  It’s all about priorities, after all.  It did seem that Colchester had been sent out to simply use brute force to stop any Orient attack and it was a surprise that it took twenty minutes for the first name to go into the book, that of Moncur. Like father, like son.

Colchester seemed happy to hoof the ball into the corners for Sears to chase.  They weren’t in the game at all, appearing to have come for the draw.  Just before half time Magnus Okuounghae rash challenge on David Mooney saw him see red and the most ludicrous “stand off” between two aging, plump fans in the East Stand, gesticulating to each other that frankly made them both look very silly.

However, come the second half and Colchester realised that if they played on the counter-attack, using the pace of Sears and Watt, playing it to feet then they may have some success.  Twice they broke, twice they scored.  The first, was less than 10 seconds after Leyton Orient had taken a corner, with Sears the creator.  Five minutes of injury time were announced but still the O’s couldn’t hit the target.  “We’re only playing against ten men” shouted the chap next to me.  True, but with Orient always keeping two men on the half-way line to counter the attacking threat, they lost that numerical advantage.

IMG_1124The defeat meant that Slade could be soon looking for another job.  Director Mauro Milanese was the man to pass the message on to Slade from ‘President’ Francesco Becchetti after the 2-0 loss to Colchester.  “The president has been honest enough via Mauro Milanese to tell me we have got one game to sort it out so hopefully we get a response on Tuesday,” said Slade, “That’s in terms of my future, obviously today’s result is not a great one for the football club, these things can happen but obviously the president will want better than that.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why football will one day eat itself.  Senseless decisions made by people who believe they can be the next Manchester City or Chelsea, spending peanuts along the way.  As a neutral it was a very enjoyable afternoon, watching a decent game of football. One game can change the course of a season and I hope for all that Slade has done for the O’s it comes on Tuesday night.

Camulodnum accipiatur primum….

First we take Colchester….then we take Sudbury.  Not my words, or those of Leonard Cohen but actually Boudica in AD61 when she attacked the Roman garrison and capital of Britain, raising it to the ground resulting in the centre of power moving down the Roman road to a little settlement called Londinium.

One thousand nine hundred and fifty years to the day that Camulodnum fell (well, newspapers from that day are a bit thin on the ground) here Danny and I were as we heading along the A12 in deepest, darkest Essex trying to find the Weston Homes Community Stadium.  My feelings of building identikit stadiums on the outskirts of towns with no facilities or decent public transport nearby are widely known (feel free to read about my previous visit to Colchester United here).  Since my last visit here it was good to see that access had been improved with a shiny new slip road directly off the A12 being built.  But obviously the local council are embarrassed by the presence of the ground and/or the team as there are still no signs for the stadium – just one for a hospital.

Our plan was to take in the early midday plus fifteen minutes kick off between Champions Brighton & Hove Albion, who incidentally have built a very nice looking new stadium with public transport provisions included, and Colchester United before we headed up the B1508 to Sudbury for the vital promotion/playoff local derby in the Ryman League One North.

The car park was full so we were forced to park on a nearby industrial estate for a bargain of £8.  Remind me again why I don’t normally watch league football?  We met up with Nick who had our tickets and entered via a breeze block portal, of course after being searched.  Brighton fans have a reputation don’t you know, so the steward doing the searching told me.  I wasn’t going to ask as what, although the small (and I mean small) amount of home fans obviously knew as they apparently “could see us holding hands”, even though we were in the concourse.

It was sit where you wanted in the stand.  Although actually it wasn’t.  Despite Colchester managing to sell a massive 4,000 seats for this game, the East Stand was kept half empty, with the vacant seats towards the Brighton end.  So why on earth could the away fans then not use the whole North Stand?  With the three central blocks almost full, any attempt made to move across the aisle was met with rebuke from the little Hitlers.  Simple questions like “Can we sit there?” were simply ignored.  Logic and sense are not words that can ever be applied to stewards at League clubs.  Take a bow the boys from Tamdown Securities, you did a hell of a job today.

It was hoped that this may be a promotion/championship party for Brighton & Hove Albion.  However, they did something that is quite rare for teams who run away with the league towards the end of the season with the finishing line in sight.  They carried on winning.  They wrapped up promotion against Dagenham & Redbridge a few weeks ago (see Daggers Diary for more details of this game), became champions against Walsall and then partied on Saturday against Southampton.  This game had thus became the day at work after the big leaving do on a Thursday night. And Sky had been left with egg on their face by showing it live. The two last honours left to get under their belt were to break the 100 point mark, thus becoming only the third Football League team to do this (Fulham and Sunderland being the other two), and finally to keep hold of Gus Poyet.

The Uruguyian’s stock has been rising since he left the Assistant Manager’s position at Leeds United to take a similar role at Spurs in 2007.  With Premier League clubs about to start their annual cull, there are fears that Gus will be prized away from the American Express Community Stadium before the first ball is kicked, with West Ham United looking favourites to want his services just as soon as the owners finish congratulating themselves about “winning” the Olympic Stadium (and thus all the personal benefits that go with the disposal of the existing more than adequate Boleyn Ground) and realise that the team on the pitch are on the verge of relegation.

Sorry mate you are in my seat

After a couple of seasons playing in the Championship, Colchester United had dropped back into the third tier two seasons ago.  Their season in the sun saw them at one stage hint at a push towards the play offs, finally finishing in 10th place but gaining the crown “Kings of East Anglia” (because there is such a title) by finishing above Norwich City and Ipswich Town.  This season their form had been erratic and results in the previous week meant a play off shot this season was now out of the question.

With the Bank Holiday sun beating down, the game kicked off at 12.15pm.  Someone had obviously forgotten to tell the home fans who forgot to turn up.  Without my glasses on I had assumed that the blue and white silent and motionless figures at the far end were just empty seats.  Oh hang on, they were.

Colchester United 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – Weston Homes Community Stadium – Monday 25th April 2011 12.30pm
“Was this the real thing, or was it just fantasy?  Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.  Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.”  Not my words but those of the late, great Freddie Mercury.  But after the comedy value of the opening goal it could apply to any one of three Brighton players.

Calm down son it was only a tap in

Ankegren, granted carrying a knock from a clash a few minutes before (that actually saw him substituted soon after) spilt a ball into the box from O’Toole, but Elphick was on hand to smash the ball away….straight into fellow defender Calderon who then attempted to clear it and to give it straight to Colchester’s Henderson who tapped it in, although his over the top goal celebrations would have suggested to an outsider it was the goal of the decade.

Henderson should have doubled the lead just before the break when a miss hit shot fell at his feet with an open goal six yards out but he blazed it over.

The second half started with a fine display of authoritative stewarding.  With more fans now in the seats again they denied anyone having access to the empty areas.  Also they persisted in getting the front dozen rows to sit down, but left the remaining rows standing up.  Of course when one of the portly chaps fell throw a gate around the edge of the pitch nobody laughed.

Brighton improved in the second half and it was plain to see why Barnes and Bennett are the two most talked about players.  Bennett’s movement was excellent, and it was no surprise when these two combined for the equaliser.  The Colchester keeper had made a couple of excellent saves prior to the goal and had no chance when Barnes volleyed in at the near post from an excellent cross by Bennett.  The away side then took the game to Colchester.  Danny was sweating, and not just from the temperature (which apparently was “Hotter than Greece”) but because he has a small wager on there being more than 2 goals (or actually 2.5 goals – quite how someone can score 2.2 goals is a mystery to me).  But it was not to be.  Wood’s header from close range was the last action of a much better second half and honours were shared.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

We hotfooted it back to the car like Mercury and Eros from aforementioned chilly Greece and pointed the car Northwards to Suffolk.

AFC Sudbury 2 Needham Market 2 – King’s Marsh – Monday 25th April 2011 3pm
Some twelve miles and 33 minutes later we ignored the sign for the sewage farm and drove down a narrow country lane to AFC Sudbury’s King’s Marsh ground.  The home of Gainsborough and Constable, Sudbury is as quaint as a small market town could be with thatched cottages, Britain in Bloom signs and cricket being played on the green. Parking on a roped off field gave us the impression it was a Summer Fete or Garden Party and as if the club were waiting for the appearance of “Two World Famous Bloggers” (Not my words, but those of Charlie Dobres at Lewes FC), the teams emerged just as we did from the strange conservatory which acted as the turnstiles.

To say the Ryman League One South has been a two horse race this season is a bit of an understatement. Since prior to Christmas the top of the table has been all about East Thurrock United and Needham Market.  Three weeks ago they passed the point where they could be caught by anyone else.

Needham Market are following in the footsteps of Lowestoft Town and Bury Town in strengthening the position of Non League football in East Anglia.  Last season they won the Eastern Counties League, gaining promotion to the Ryman League structure for the first time.  Fortunately they had already invested in their ground to satisfy the beauocrates of the League and this season they have continued this momentum. This season it has been about the goals of Craig Parker and Sam Newson who have 48 league goals between them, nearly 60% of the team’s total for the season.

This route will be familiar to AFC Sudbury fans.  They have won the Eastern Counties five years in a row before at last the powers that be deemed their ground could cope with an extra dozen or so fans.  They also got to three consecutive FA Vase finals during their league domination, although they lost all three.  This time last year they were floundering in the Southern League Midland division, travelling to places like Aylesbury, Rugby and Atherstone Town.  A year down the line after moving into the Ryman League they have had a much better season again thanks to the goals of James David Baxter who has weighed in with 22 so far this season.

1-0 to Sudbury

The club has invested its money wisely in facilities.  With a nice size bar, function rooms, its own air raid siren (more of that later), very good food and drink and signs for just about everything it was the perfect setting.  And the game?  Well we couldn’t complain.

AFC Sudbury raced into a two goal lead against the run of play.  First Jack Wignall headed home through a crowd of players before a minute later James Baker did his reputation no harm with a fantastic header into the bottom corner and a superb run up field by Sudbury’s left back.  Two nil at such an early stage was harsh but the Needham fans rallied their team and for the remainder of the half they tried any which way to break through the home defence.

2-1 - Game on!

After a quick refreshment top up (a £1 for a pie!!!), it was back into the action.  Sudbury knew that anything but a win would end their season, whilst Needham had little to play for apart from Suffolk bragging rights.  And what better way to rally your team than a good old fashion air raid siren.  Dug out from a long lost cupboard in the ground and still sporting its “Property of the Home Office” sticker, it was being used in the second half to “wind up” the away fans.  It didn’t work as Needham eventually found their feet and thanks to some bizarre refereeing found themselves back in the game when our friend in black awarded a controversial penalty to the visitors.  Two – one and the away fans went into choruses of “Danny Last’s Red and White army” (well, that is if you believe Mr Last’s version anyway). And just as we saw in the first half Needham followed this one up with another less than sixty seconds later.

A Terrace Trannie from back in the day

With scores elsewhere filtering through on the terrace trannies (How times have changed – this now means something completely different), Sudbury knew that they needed to score a winner.  But that goal didn’t come, and it was the away fans who celebrated the “moral” victory and left Sudbury heartbroken for another season.

The official crowd of 512 made it the joint highest in the division for the season (ironically with another home gate at Sudbury) and it was great to see so many families enjoying the game and facilities.

I am not going to mention events some 120 miles south of here.  That is for another day and another post.  For now it was back in the car and a trip back to the Capital of Cool (aka Copenhagen) for me.

We came, we saw, we ate a rather nice chicken burger with lettuce and we drank cider.  That is all I am saying.

More pictures can be found here.

Step one, flatten land, Step two unpack IKEA stadium, step three think up silly name

It amazes me that given a blank canvas people paint the same picture.  Imitation is supposedly the best form of flattery but in the case of football stadiums it is simply dull and unimaginative.  Look at all of the new stadiums built in the lower leagues in the past fifteen years and you would be hard pushed to tell them apart if you were colourblind and could not see the seat colours.  There have been a couple of exceptions such as the magnificent McAlpine / Galpharm in Huddersfield but these are really few and far between.  These new stadiums come in two varieties.

1. The “wrap around” stadium where all of the stands join together.  Examples of these include the Ricoh Arena, the Madejski Stadium, the Liberty Stadium, the Keepmoat Stadium and of course my personal favourite the Balfour Webnet Arena.

2. The “separates” where all four stands are identical and the concept of filling in the corners is forgotten.  Examples of this are the Deva Stadium, The Fitness First Stadium, Adams Park, Sixfields and of course the imaginatively named New Stadium.

As you can see from the above the identity of the club is completely lost, primarily due to cash.  Naming rights did not exist 20 years ago.  The first club to “sell its soul” was Middlesbrough who sold the rights to their new stadium in 1995 to BT Cellnet.  Since then we have had a procession of stupid names being attached to grounds to provide some short term cash.  With new stadiums due in the next few years at Cardiff City, Liverpool and Everton it will be with interest we see what companies decide to throw ridiculous sums of money to have their name in lights.

So, what relevance is all of this?  Well as part of my quest to tick off all new stadiums this season I was due to pay a visit to Cuckoo Farm, the brand new home of Colchester United.  Or not as the case may be.  Because the cheque book had already been taken out and the cash from Weston Homes had already been banked and their name adorned the stadium on the edge of the A12 in Essex. Their choice of stadium was the second variety.  Four almost identical stands, with windy gaps in each corner and the soul less sterile feel of football in the 21st century.

The club had been relegated at the end of last season from the Championship, punching above their weight for most of this two season spell and cheered on by crowds of less than 5,000 in their tiny Layer Road ground.  So this new stadium was seen as a new dawn for the club.  Unfortunately, nobody told the team.  and two points from their first three games at the stadium was hardly inspirational stuff.  The last thing you really need in such a situation is a visit from one of the pre-season favourites, who could go top if they won, Leicester City.

Colchester United 0 Leicester City 1 – Tuesday 30th September 2008

The Weston Homes Community Stadium

The Weston Homes Community Stadium

Despite only being located in Essex, Colchester is in the far corner, and so it is actually 70 miles from home.  That is the bad news, but the good news was that from the end of the road it was 65 miles of dual carriageway and motorway, meaning that I passed the floodlights of the stadium in just over an hour from home.  I expected to see signs on the A12 showing drivers where to get off, but these were completely lacking, so I had to use my initiative and followed directions for the town centre.  I had some luck in seeing a car with a Leicester City flag in, so I followed them, down a residential road, through two miles of business parks until I saw the first sign post for the stadium – some 2 miles from the main road.  Hardly inspiring or welcoming visitors.  I had booked a parking space, and although it wasn’t quite the same closeness as at Crawley on Saturday, it was less than 30 seconds away from the turnstiles.  With Autumn arriving with vengence I stayed in the car until 10 minutes before kick off, hardly worrying about a last minute rush.

The stadium was a basic and sterile inside as it was from the outside.  All four stands sat on their own, with the corners being left empty.  Three stands were almost uniform in design, with the main stand having a row of executive boxes at the top.  The crowd was very poor.  Leicester City had been given the whole of the South Stand, which they filled 3/4.  The “hardcore” Colchester fans were located in the side (West) stand although they barely raised a shout all evening.

I had a ticket in the corner of the North stand, and took my seat along with a dozen or so other fans.  There was more stewards in the stand than fans at kick off time, and there job was to stop fans migrating from this end block into the middle, which was also just as empty as these tickets actually cost £2 more.  However, most fans realised that if you went down to the concourse area, walked along and came out of a different entrance, they didn’t notice!  Utter pointless!!!

This was another first half to forget.  Leicester’s squad is so far ahead of everyone else’s in this division that it is hard to see who would’nt back them for promotion.  In goal they had David Martin, son of Alvin and currently on loan from Liverpool.  Chris Powell, the veteran fullback, was their first choice left hand side defender, and up front was Steve Howard, the man who powered Derby to the Premier League.  Other players in the squad included Paul Dickov, that Bulgarian who played for Charlton Athletic and Barry Hayles.  They played the ball around well but without any cutting edge, and most fans seemed to be more interested in listening on their radios to the action from the Emirates in the Champions League.

At half time I went down to the breezeblock concourse and bought a chicken burger for £3.50 which had obviously been cooked when the club played at Layer Road, and left in an oven when they relocated.  It was almost inedible, as hard and tasteless as a rock.  It set me up with enthusiasm for the second half, but not before I had ventured back to see the Colchester dancing girls.  It took me back to the golden period of West Ham entertainment with the Hammarettes.  Inappropriately dressed, false sexual writhing and out of time dancing – oh hang on – they WERE the Hammarettes – obviously transfered by our current board (or perhaps owned by a third party and thus subject to an independent review).

The second half started much better, although it was Leicester who took the game by the scruff of the neck, realising that they could win this without really breaking into a sweat.  The only goal came on the 50th minute when Lloyd Dyer cut in from the left hand side and hammered the ball home.

Both teams then tried to work an opening but with little joy.  With five minutes to go I had seen enough and headed back to the car.  Some 4.5 miles later I was passing the ground on the main A12, and saw that a number of fans had the right idea, parking in a lay by and then simply climbing up the embankment to get to the stadium and save themselves £10 parking fee and a 9 mile round trip.

The crowd was announced as 5,109 which is probably as good as it is going to get there this year.  It is certainly unclear as to how the club can attract more fans, or even if they want more fans.  More effort could have been made in terms of public transport, and certainly some basic signage.  I would also say that £20 for the cheapest ticket was again 25% too expensive, but then again what do I know about running a football club.  Perhaps they could get a refund on the stadium and buy something a bit smaller and more central.  I hear there is still some land vacant to the south of the town in Layer Road.

About the Weston Homes Community Stadium – Capacity: 10,000 All Seater
Colchester United moved out of their one hundred year old Layer Road ground in July 2008 for the soleless monstrosity on the northern edge of the town centre on land ajacent to the A12.  The 10,000 box style stadium has the capacity to be developed by 8,000 by building an additional tier on the West Stand.  However, based on the fact that the club failed to fill the old Layer Road which only had a capacity of 6,000 when the club had two seasons in the Championship I doubt there will come a day when this is required.  The stadium was largely paid for by Colchester Borough Council and a number of grants.  The club also sold the naming rights to the ground for £2m (for a ten year deal) to Weston Homes.

The stadium’s first game was versus Althetic Bilbao in August 2008 which they lost 2-1.

How to get to the Weston Homes Community Stadium
Despite sitting next to the A12 there are no directions from this main arterial route to the stadium.  Car drivers are not encouraged to use cars although the stadium has 600 spaces that can be pre-booked at a cost of £10 per game.  There are a number of units on the surrounding Business Park that also allowing parking from anything from £2 to £5 although these are at least 1/2 mile away.

As part of your ticket you get free transport to and from the stadium on buses which run from the main station, and wait outside the ground on the final whistle.

How to get a ticket for the Weston Homes Community Stadium
With a capacity of 10,000 and an average attendance of less than 4,500 buying tickets in advance is not necessary.  Away fans are allocated the whole of the south stand.  Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling the club on 0845 437 9089.  Ticket prices range from £20 in the outer blocks of each stand, to £24 in the centres of the stands.  My tip is to buy the former and then move to the latter when you are inside!