Colchester United won’t be high on many groundhopping lists, but the club is based in a nice town not too far from London, and it’s a trip into the kind of small-time English football where some different kinds of fun can be had.
I went out there as part of a three-game weekend in East Anglia: Friday night in Colchester, Saturday at Norwich City, Sunday at Ipswich Town. I doubt that the scheduling gurus set this up for us groundhoppers, but it sure worked out well. And I got to meet some club executives, plus witness the Great 2021 Towel Caper.
Colchester United History
Of the many signs that I was not in the big-time for the evening was the series of photographs around the concourse of my stand, showing the highlights of Colchester’s history. I will summarize them thusly: that time we won the Cup that only happened four times, the time we beat Bradford in the 1948 Cup, the time we played Chelsea in the FA Cup Fifth Round (no score mentioned), and that time we beat Leeds in the FA Cup.
The last was not just the highlight of Colchester’s history, more or less, but one of the most famous FA Cup “giant killings” of them all, a lowly Fourth Division team beating the mighty Leeds United, top of the First Division, with their 10 internationals. This video — sorry about the music, but at least I’ve spared you the cultural intro — is the stuff of English football legend, supporters-in-trees and all.
In the quarterfinals, Colchester went to league champs Everton and lost, 5-0. The other time they made the Fifth Round was that tie against Chelsea, which they lost 3-1 at Stamford Bridge after beating Sheffield United and Derby County.
Otherwise, the history of Colchester United is that of a club spending all of two seasons, from 2006 to 2008 in the Championship, above the third tier.
Colchester Community Stadium
Everything I read and heard about Colchester’s stadium, including from their own fans, is that it’s pretty generic, lacks color, is never even half full and it’s out on the edge of town. You’ll want to take a taxi out there, as even the buses don’t get particularly close! It’s currently called the JobServe Stadium for sponsorship reasons, and it’s four modern stands with a total capacity of just over 10,000.
Away fans are behind a goal in the North Stand, home rowdies in the South. The best place to sit is the West Stand, which has the best facilities and views.
Game Day Tips at Colchester United
Like I said, take a taxi out there from the center, or from what everyone calls the north or main station. There is a Colchester Town Station in the center, which you should use to see the town’s sights, but if you’re passing through on the London-to-Ipswich line, you’ll stop at the station just called Colchester, on the north side of town. From there a taxi is about £7 and takes 10 minutes.
There is a pub very near that station, called the Bricklayers Arms, which looked nothing special when I popped in but is mighty convenient. I heard good things about the Dog and Pheasant on the way to the ground, and it looked nice from the taxi. There is also a little bar area that opens up before the game with outdoor space in case the weather is better than it was when I visited.
Food at the ground is your very basic football fare, so get something to eat in town instead. Or in London, even!
Getting Tickets to Colchester United
Since the largest crowd on record at the stadium (vs Norwich City in 2010) is actually less than the stated capacity of the place, I’m going to suggest you can do what I did: roll on up and get a ticket on the day! I will say, though, that it’s the only club I’ve been to where the “ticket office” is in fact a video kiosk in the club shop. I clicked and tapped a few times, waved my phone, spent £28, and sat wherever I felt like.
Of course, this was a Friday night against Newport County, who brought about 85 people, so maybe for a bigger game it would be a little different. Apparently Southend United, also of Essex but currently down in the National League, are considered the main rivals.
Full disclosure, owing to weather and travel fatigue, I in fact never saw Colchester. But a few people told me it’s a nice little town, mainly because of its age. It claims to be the oldest city in Britain, because it was the site of the first big Roman city and capital. There is even a theory that the Roman city, named Camulodunum, was the inspiration for Camelot.
What I heard about, though, was the castle, which dates to the 12th century and is one of the most intact examples from that era; today it houses an important collection of Roman artifacts. The old area of the town is said to be nice, as well.
The Game: Colchester United vs Newport County
There was never any notion that what I was about to see was going to be anywhere near epic. The soccer gods, however, can dial up anything at anytime, and I was trying to “complete” the 92 football league grounds, this being #73.
Alas, the gods instead served up a 1-1, about which I honestly have a hard time remembering a thing other than Newport’s tiny center-forward scoring a nice goal. Here are the highlights:
My fun was had off the pitch, and in many ways it was the perfect League Two experience. We begin at the train station, where — it being Friday night — taxis were hard to find. In the queue, I spotted a couple guys who had that “football look” about them, so I asked, and indeed they were headed that way and interested in sharing a taxi. Great!
One of them was a Colchester supporter, who pronounced it “Colstah” in his self-described “dodgy Essex accent.” And the other, it would soon turn out, was the CEO of another League Two club! He was on an unofficial trip, meeting his chief scout to help evaluate a couple of upcoming opponents, and the other guy was, I guess, just a buddy of his along for the ride. Because of course the CEO of a Football League club would share a taxi with a mate and some American ticking off the 92. Welcome to League Two!
At the ground, the first thing I chuckled at was in the first minute, when a wayward pass — and not the last — hit a steward in the head. It wasn’t a dangerous thing, so everybody had a laugh and teased him about keeping his head in the game, etc. And then the ballgirl couldn’t be bothered to hop over the advertising board to get the ball, so a supporter had to come down from the third row to give her the ball!
Next, when she handed the ball to the “Colstah” player for the throw, I thought he looked familiar. Last name Daniels. Hmm. A quick Google search revealed he was Charlie Daniels, a former Bournemouth player who shares the name of a southern rock legend and icon of my youth, and who once did this:
Beyond that, Daniels is the kind of guy you run into in League Two. He’s from Harlow, Essex, and started out in the Tottenham academy setup. He got a pro contract but kept getting loaned out (Chesterfield, Leyton Orient, Gillingham) before finally moving to Leyton — where he got loaned out to Bournemouth! But he stuck at Bournemouth and got to ride with them all the way to the Premier League, where he scored 15 goals including that cracker against City.
And then, at age 34, he began a process known as “playing down the leagues.” After a bad injury, there was a season split between Shrewsbury Town and Portsmouth in League One. Then it was down to Colchester in League Two, where he is back home in Essex and, when I saw him at age 35, seemed to be the classiest dude on the pitch. He honestly looked like Bobby Moore out there, not putting a foot or a pass wrong, and whenever things got sketchy at the back, the fans around me would all cry out, “Give to it Daniels!”
I have little doubt that a coaching gig is coming his way soon, along with maybe some television work. Not a bad career, all in all, and I assume he’s happy to be playing at all.
You know who’s not happy? The Newport wanker with the towel.
At some point in the first half, Newport won a throw-in down at our end, which they were attacking. A kid from their bench ran over and handed him a towel to wipe down the ball, and when he was done he whipped it over his shoulder, and into the first row of seats. The next time he wanted it, the same steward who had taken a ball to the head went over, picked it up, and handed it to him — this time earning a slightly more negative reaction from the home fans.
Again he wiped down the ball, and again he tossed the towel into the seats. Only this time, a supporter went over, picked up the towel, and stashed it under his seat! This was met with universal acclaim, of course, which only got better the next time that Newport wanker came over for a throw-in. He looked for his towel, then at the steward, then a little confused, all the while being battered by insults and taunts, the general gist being “Where’s ya towel, ya wankah!!?!??”
It was brilliant, and at halftime I saw the towel-taker in the food queue, being told by a steward that “the people on the radio” wanted him to say something to the bloke that took the towel, “but I told him I couldn’t tell who it was!”
I love League Two football, even when it’s cold and wet and sparsely attended and out on the edge of town. You get to meet club executives, buy tickets on the day, sit where you want, and see goofy stuff like people getting hit by balls and stealing towels. I confess a good game would have been a bonus, but one shouldn’t ask too much of the soccer gods.
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