So, what’s happening in the world outside of coronavirus? Well, the world collectively holds it breath waiting for the outcome of the US presidential election, and what may transpire if the result doesn’t go the way of white supremacists, our own government votes itself a handsome pay rise, then votes against free meals for our most impoverished children during half term, and thousands protest in Poland over new laws that ban abortion in almost all circumstances. What the f*ck…
Colchester United v Cheltenham Town Saturday 29th February 2020 Sky Bet League Two (Tier 4) Attendance 3,698
Letters from Wiltshire #11 and we return to the traditional random match selector, and bang up to date too, with what eventually turned out to be the penultimate match of the domestic season 2019/20, at home to Cheltenham Town on Leap Day 2020. As far as I can tell, we’ve only played three times on this day, and (spoiler alert) never won once, in fact never even scored – the previous being a 0-0 at Selhurst Park back in 1964, and a 1-0 defeat at Blackpool in 1980.
Say what? Early astronomers realised that leap days were needed because our planet takes approximately six hours more than 365 days to orbit the sun. The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar, calculated the orbit to be approximately 365.25 days, and hence added one day every four years to try and keep things in check. However, our orbit is actually 365.24219 days – not a huge difference granted, but it meant our calendar was getting increasingly out of whack with the solar calendar (e.g. seasons, equinoxes etc.).
By the 16th century, the Gregorian calendar was introduced (by Pope Gregory XIII) to bring things back in line, refining the leap day adjustment to be yes to every year if divisible by four, no if it is also divisible by 100, though yes again if also divisible by 400 – seems pretty straightforward. To correct the drift already experienced, Thursday 4th October 1582 was followed by Friday 15th October 1582, allegedly leading to riots by those who genuinely believed they were literally having time stolen from them.
New Kids on the Block Before we get to the Cheltenham match, let’s have a quick look at today’s opponents.
Harrogate Town AFC were formed in 1914, but thanks to the Great War, didn’t actually play their first competitive match until August 1919, five years later – that’s got to be a trivial pursuit question for the future? They spent these early years playing in various amateur regional leagues, including West Riding League, Yorkshire League and even the Midland League, and eventually disbanded in 1932. In 1935 they reformed as Harrogate Hotspurs, and following World War II changed their name to Harrogate Town.
After a spell in the West Yorkshire Association Football League, the Sulphurites (so named because of the hot springs beneath the town) joined the Yorkshire League in 1957. Twenty-five years of yo-yoing in that league later, they became founding members of the Northern Counties East League Division 1 North (catchy huh), and then steadily climbed their way up to gain promotion to the National League in 2018.
In a similar fashion to the U’s, by the time the 2019/20 was curtailed, they had amassed sufficient points to be awarded second place in the league behind Barrow, and hence a place in the play-offs. Second place meant direct entry at the semi-final stage, where they beat Boreham Wood 1-0, and then in the final brushed aside former league giants Notts County 3-1 at a socially distanced Wembley stadium. Finally, after a wait of technically 106 years, Harrogate Town were part of the 92.
Harrogate is famous for its hot springs, and the town motto Arx celebris fontibus rather unimaginatively translates as “a citadel famous for its springs”. Anyone who has visited Harrogate, or even travelled in the north, will also know that Harrogate is also equally famous for Betty’s Tea Rooms.
Any connections? As touched on previously, this is the first time we have played Harrogate Town in any competition, so there’s no point dwelling too much on the history between our two clubs. There are no transfers that I’m aware of directly between the two sides, but Graeson’s www.coludata.co.uk website does list three who have played for both – Matt Stonemen, Matt Heath and of course Alan White. I’ve never heard of Matt Stoneman, but he apparently played three games for the U’s between 27th December 1994 and 28th January 1995, and even managed to score as well, in our 2-2 home draw with Hereford on New Years’ Eve.
There is one other significant connection – Luke Garbutt, who has played for both the U’s and Cheltenham Town, was born in Harrogate, and played for Harrogate Grammar School and local side Pannal Ash Juniors before being spotted by Leeds United.
Back to the future And so to Leap Day 2020, and with my youngest in tow, I drove over for the Cheltenham Town game, having purchased our e-tickets on line. Parking up in the Park’n’Ride, we braved crossing the A12 junction and headed to the concourse for a pre-match bite to eat and drink, picking up our free programme in the process. Not surprisingly, given his connections with both teams, ‘Arry was the cover photo for this edition.
The U’s had been in frustratingly indifferent form leading up to this game and were desperately clinging on to a 6th place play-off spot, but only on goal difference. Cheltenham were going somewhat better, and although one place above, were a comfortable 5 points better off. February had been one of those months – wimping out 1-2 at Cambridge, smashing Plymouth 3-0 the following match, then three days later losing by the odd goal in five at home to Grimsby, falling apart at Port Vale 0-3, and then in the face of a howling storm, brilliantly overcoming Salford City 2-1 away. If we wanted to stay in the play-offs, we needed something today.
Cheltenham, managed by Michael Duff, started with Ben Tozer as captain, who had played just the once for the U’s on loan – a somewhat inauspicious record too, in defence on the wrong end of a 4-0 home thrashing by Notts County. Cheltenham were in worryingly good form too, having won four on the bounce going into this match. Pre-match McGreal commented “…we know that we’re in for a game, on Saturday. We’ll have to come with our own plan and implement it against a team that’s won four on the bounce”.
It was miserable weather, with a strong swirling wind and a sticky pitch (though nothing compared to Salford the previous weekend), but the U’s seemed to adjust better to the conditions in the early stages. Harriott had an early half-chance to put us ahead, but for goalkeeper Owen Evans it was an easy save, and then a minute later, after some neat passing, Harriott had a better attempt on goal blocked. It wasn’t all U’s though, and Gerken had to be on his toes to claim a decent cross into his box that was begging for a head to finish it. Harriott was clearly the main threat in the final third, twisting and turning the Cheltenham defence every which way, and on the quarter of an hour mark combined well with Stevenson to allow him to drill in a shot which could only be parried away by Evans.
Twenty minutes in, and the heavens opened, but still the U’s pressed, with Harriott, Robinson, even big Sowumni having half-decent chances on goal – the latter a header which looked a certain goal until Ryan Broom managed to throw himself in the way. As the sleety rain eventually dried up, we come to the first controversial moment in the game.
Controversy #1 – on 42 minutes a speculative Chris Clements through ball saw Alfie May seemingly at least a yard offside, but to the dismay of everyone no flag was raised. With Eastman et al trailing in his wake, May managed to slot the ball past the onrushing Gerken to give Cheltenham a 1-0 lead, albeit Gerken did well to get a hand to it in the process.
Controversy #2 – May, already on a yellow card for kicking the ball away, should have been booked again for his inflammatory goal celebrations in front of the faithful, but clearly referee Sam Purkiss was having a “Be kind to Robins” day.
Half-time arrived, and although the U’s had dominated possession, and the better of admittedly few decent chances on goal, we were losing 1-0. Time for a Bovril to warm me up.
Into the second half, and after a slow start, Sowumni makes a heroic tackle to deny Ben Tozer just as he was about to pull the trigger. After just ten minutes Michael Duff decides to change things around and brings on Rohan Ince for Clements. However, it was still the U’s creating the better chances, with Stevenson almost getting on the end of a Poku cross that had the Cheltenham defence at sixes and sevens. The Robins were still a threat though, with Gerken on his toes to clear a long-range effort that was nearly claimed by an advanced May, and five minutes later reacting well to keep out a Max Sheaf effort.
Time for McGreal to mix things up, and in rapid succession brought on Frank Nouble and Chuck Norris for Poku and Comley. Switching to a 4-3-3 to accommodate both strikers, this should have been the cavalry charge towards at least an equaliser, or even winning the match. However, maybe because of the change in formation, this actually marked a spell of pressure from Cheltenham, with the U’s struggling to reassert their game plan on the match, and ten minutes after the double substitution, the U’s were 2-0 down. A regulation Chris Hussey free-kick out on the U’s left should have been dealt with easily by Gerken, who somehow managed to flap aimlessly at it, as the ball curled into the far corner of the net.
There was no way back from that unfortunately – in fact if anyone looked more likely to score in the remainder of the match (including 9 minutes of injury-time) it was Cheltenham, and they nearly did too.
Controversy #3 – Sowumni, already harshly booked for a foul earlier in the second half, was racing back to try and cover a long-range pass into the path of Jonté Smith, and with his back to it, managed to clip the ball with his hand in the process. To be fair, it was one of those “I’ve seen them given” moments, and true to form referee Purkiss did, showing Sowumni a second yellow for the ‘offence’.
Colchester United 0 Cheltenham Town 2 (Alfie May 39’; Chris Hussey 79’)
The U’s dropped out of the play-offs on the back of this result and faced the real possibility of not getting back into them either. The situation wasn’t helped by the prospect of our next match, a long trip to Carlisle the following Saturday. However, in what would turn out to be the final game of the domestic season we finally put things right with a thumping 3-0 victory at Carlisle, squeezed back into the play-offs as a result, and stayed there thanks to our marginally better average points per match record (1.57 compared to Port Vale’s 1.54).
Cheltenham likewise made the play-offs, finishing top of the group, but went out in the semi-final against Northampton, whilst the U’s were unlucky to do likewise against Exeter City. Exeter had no such luck in the final and were brushed aside 4-0 by Northampton.
Play-off failure marked the end for John McGreal, who alongside (ironically) Danny Cowley at Huddersfield, were the last two football league managers to be sacked in the 2019/20 season, on the 14th and 19th July respectively.
Anyway, if you can bring yourself to be reminded, here are the ‘highlights’