When did you fall in love? We mean with your chosen sport you understand, not with your nearest and dearest.
Here at Thoughtsport we favour football. Sure, we keep an eye on the cricket (especially The Ashes) and we rather like it when England win the RBS Six Nations; even that surly Scotsman Andy Murray catches our eye now and again.
But football is our first love. More specifically Colchester United. Yes, Colchester. That last bit usually makes most fans ask “Why?” with the usual excuse that we grew up there. However, we thought we’d delve a little deeper. Just why did we fall in love with Colchester and football — could we even pin it down to a ‘when’?
After some thought (well, it is Thoughtsport) we found we could and the answer surprised even us.
Your first love?
Most fans can remember their first match or even a specific match from their early fandom. A thrilling victory, an outstanding performance something that really caught their imagination. Ours was a little different. You see, Colchester lost on the day we fell in love with them. Let us tell you more.
We’re going back to the early 1990s. It’s 1992 to be exact. To put this in context this wasn’t Colchester’s worst season. A few years previously, after battling and bravely avoiding relegation in the 88/89 season, we’d finally succumbed. In 89/90 we’d been relegated from the old Fourth Division. Yes, Colchester were heading for the GM Vauxhall Conference (for younger readers, that’s what the Blue Square Premier used to be called).
Back then non-league football was proper non-league football. Most of the teams down there, in fact almost all, were semi-professional at best. That meant their players were the proverbial milkmen, postmen, factory workers and teachers of FA Cup headline writer’s dreams.
After two seasons in the wilderness the U’s had battled back into the Football League. In 91/92 we did the non-league double, taking the GM Vauxhall Conference title and the FA Trophy (I know, I know!). But our love for all things blue and white didn’t start there, no. It didn’t start with the famous 2-1 win away at Wycombe (our only realistic rivals for the title) when our goalie thumped a 90th minute clearance which, with one glorious bounce, sailed over the opposition goalie to seal a 2-1 win. No. Not then.
It wasn’t all the glorious away trips to exciting sounding places like Merthyr Tydfil, Boston, Morecambe, Altrincham and Kingstonian. No.
Nor was it when we trounced Barrow 5-0 to seal promotion. It wasn’t even at Wembley (the proper one, with the twin towers) when, despite being down to ten men we tonked Witton Albion 3-1 to win the FA Trophy.
We fell in love with Colchester, and football on 16th December 1992.
A fateful day…
It was an FA Cup second round replay. The U’s had bravely pinched a draw away at Gillingham to bring them back to Fortress Layer Road. Victory would surely secure a glamorous 3rd Round tie against Liverpool, Manchester United or the like.
Standing in a freezing, wet, drizzle-filled Layer Road we watched as Gillingham tore us to pieces. It was 3-0 and that was only at half-time.
After his goal-scoring heroics our ‘keeper, Scott Barrett, had left. Gone to sunnier climes (also known as Leyton Orient). This meant the U’s were left with a succession of loanee goalies. Between the sticks for us that day was a veteran stopper called Ron Green. Ron was one of the most unlikely looking footballers I’d ever seen. He was about 40 and looked older.
It was like my team were playing with the proverbial ‘fat kid in goal’ — last to be picked and bunged in goal. He was a disaster. It was, incidentally, his last game for Colchester — but only after he’d conceded 16 goals in eight games.
The second half was moderately less traumatic in that Colchester at least didn’t concede any more goals. As the clock ticked into the last few minutes some fans started to shuffle out. Out of the rain, out of the stadium out of sight of that humbling we were getting at home.
On the Ball
Then came Steve Ball. Such a great name for a footballer. Plain, unobtrusive, unashamedly English. A run-of-the-mill name like Alan Jones or Matt Smith. Steve Ball.
At a shade over 6ft tall, midfielder Ball single-handedly sealed my love for football and Colchester United that day. In the 88th minute he picked up the ball in midfield, waltzed past a couple of half-hearted ‘its-the-88th-minute-we’re-3-0-up-what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen?’ challenges and smacked in a thudding long-range shot which crept into the bottom corner.
Drenched with rain, hair plastered to his forehead he continued his run, collected the ball and ran back to the centre circle.
Belief. Suddenly, like a wave of warm caramel coating me from the toes upwards, I felt it. Ball became a man possessed. He tackled everything — possibly even a few team-mates — and charged at goal with every opportunity. The (remaining) crowd were fueled by his belief alone. The noise lifted. Ball won a corner and there were even a few cheers. 3-1 down with seconds to go…
The corner came over and guess who leapt like a salmon? Ball seemed about a foot taller than anyone else, soaring through the drizzle to plant a header into the net. 3-2! We couldn’t… could we? There it was. Doubt. Doubt that the inevitable defeat may not be so inevitable after all. We might equalise!
It ended 3-2.
But that 90 minutes will stay with me forever. Longer than the trips to Wembley, longer than the trips to Merthyr (I try to forget those), longer than any other game. That was when the flame of my football passion ignited.
It was the classic rollercoaster. Pre-match nerves, expectation and hope (might we draw one of the big boys in the 3rd Round?); crushing disappointment as the goals flew in… to our net; anger and frustration (even I’m better than Ron Green!); exasperation as the second half pootled along without the urgency I felt coursing through my veins; the rush of excitement of a great goal; the surge of renewed belief as the second went in; the wobble of doubt about my feelings for another man as Steve Ball embodied my every wish of that moment on the pitch; the realisation that all those dreams so recently shattered I was still stood amongst the shards may not be dead; the crescendo of noise and passion as, along with thousands of others I wished, willed and prayed for another goal… and the crashing of that wave, onto the rocks as the final whistle went.
That’s why we love football.
We’d love to hear how, when, why and where you fell in love with the game – or your chosen sport.