It was 3:31pm on Saturday 4th March 2006, and the match dubbed by many as the League One title decider was very much going Southend’s way. The Layer Road faithful were stunned and in truth so were we. The Shrimpers supporters started to sing an old favourite ‘Layer Road is falling down, poor old Col U’, and one look around the old ground would suggest they had the evidence.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a derby victory over Colchester as much as the next Shrimper, but for this particular Southend supporter, Layer Road has some great memories, and I don’t just mean the odd victory over our local rivals.
Dad and I made a fair few visits to Layer Road during our footballing heydays of the 1970s and early 80s. Just like watching the likes of Southend and Orient, following Colchester was a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
Layer Road during the 70s was always remembered as the place mighty Leeds were brought to their knees – right up to my very last visit I don’t think that the ghostly images of shocked Leeds players ever went away.
Not that this was the only Cup tale the old stadium could tell. Back in the late 1940s Ted Fenton’s ‘Oyster Boys’ of the Southern League defeated First Division Huddersfield Town (1-0) and Second Division Bradford Park Avenue (3-2) at Layer Road before bowing out at a Stanley Matthews inspired Blackpool (0-5).
These Cup-ties gave Colchester national recognition. In 1950 League football was secured, the first game a Division Three (South) goalless draw at Gillingham.
Although the U’s plied their trade in the Third and Fourth divisions, there were some smashing players. An early favourite of mine was Trevor Lee, a powerful midfield/forward player with an Afro haircut that would put any glam rocker to shame! Then there was Roy McDonough, who scored goals for both Southend and Colchester during a number of spells, he went on to manage the U’s during their successful Conference season and I believe to this day holds the football league record for being sent off more than any other player!
Another goal scorer was the ill-fated John Lyons who sadly found everyday pressures too much. In November 1982 he took his own life at a tragically young age, only hours after playing for Colchester against Chester at Layer Road.
In goal during those early visits was Mike Walker. My wife told me how she took a slight fancy to a Spurs goalkeeper by the name of Ian at the very first football match she ever saw, it made me feel old telling her I watched his dad play between the posts for the U’s!
Then there were the games I watched, yes there were some memorable games with Southend including the Shrimpers 4-3 win in the League cup, a 3-3 draw at the start of 84-85 season and a 2-0 win that as good as relegated U’s to the Conference as well as just about secured promotion for Southend.
One of my favourite matches was from the 88-89 season. Colchester had endured a poor season and their league status was in doubt. A run of results towards the end of the season had lifted them clear of the relegation zone, but as Halifax Town arrived at Layer Road, only a victory would do.
The Shaymen had former Manchester United and Ireland goalkeeper Paddy Roche in their line-up. As the match progressed it seemed as if Colchester would never get past the Town keeper as they trailed 0-2. But then by a stroke of luck, good for Colchester and bad for both Roche and Halifax, the Irish keeper caught the ball but landed awkwardly, badly damaging his ankle. The stricken keeper was carried from the field and replaced by the big cumbersome central defender (no keepers on the bench in those days). U’s saw their chance and roared back to win 3-2. I remember the place going crazy as the winning goal went in and League football was secured albeit only for another twelve months. As for Paddy Roche, he never played League football again.
In fact in some forty visits to Layer Road I never saw a goalless draw!
Then there was the 3-3 draw with Southend at the start of the 84-85 season. Tony Adcock scored a hat trick for Colchester and former Ipswich and England man Trevor Whymark was on target for the Shrimpers.
The game had been marred by crowd trouble, and as the match came to an end the police took the unusual step of keeping the home supporters in the ground whilst the visiting Southend fans were escorted out of the stadium. As we started to leave, a surge from the back of the stand caused us at the front to become crushed. I called to a police officer to help me lift my girlfriend of the time over the wall and onto the perimeter track and what seemed to be safety, and as he did so, his now agitated police dog tried to bite her! She never went to another Essex derby!
But for all the wonderful players, great games and fantastic memories this story is about the ground, Layer Road. Yes, as the Shrimpers fans would say, falling down; but full of character and the sort of place a real football fan could watch an honest game of football. My special memory of Colchester United’s former home: a 3-0 win over Peterborough Reserves, the final game, the final goals, and a chance to watch football on the terraces with my young son Alfie, just as I had with my late father all those years ago.