Book Review: My Layer Road, compiled by Matt Hudson & Jim French. Breedon Books Publishing, £25.
Words: Matt Calmus. Pictures: Steven Green.
Available from the club`s Retail Outlet and local bookstores; published spring 2009.
A book bound by memories and laced with loving recollections, My Layer Road simply bleeds nostalgia.
Yet another compendium comprising yesteryear`s history in Britain`s oldest town. Except this is different: it`s an almost scrapbook selection of fan tales from the terraces at an old stadium still afforded some state-funeral reverence in football, a year after demolition.
The ground`s crumbled checks are restored to rosy complexion as Matt Hudson, club media manager, and local author Jim French consciously take a very backseat role in hanging the 244-page volume together. Scores of supporters, some more famous than others, are found here essentially admitting that Layer Road was their greatest guitly pleasure of all.
That`s despite dishevelled stands, a rusting roof and those all-concrete trimmings. Most prefer remembering thier favourite fixtures, famous faces and unfurling flags – the, hallowed version, in other words, reincarnated in her best-possible fortress pomp.
Or, in the case of Paul Anderson from the CU-FC, maybe not. His bittersweet reminiscence, confirming how half-a-dozen Scandinavians decided to call the ground their adopted home accidently finding it in 1988, includes being scoffed at by staff reporters on the Sun. Laugher because a recent 8-0 thrashing by Leyton Orient made their newfound determination to follow the U’s from thostands of miles away quite unbelievable.
“We discovered that Colchester had a team but… had great difficulty keeping up with results. This was a few years before satellite TV and the internet, so we had to rely on two-week old copies Match and Shoot magazines and the odd phone-call to English newspapers. ‘What, calling from Sweden and you want to know results from the Fourth Division? Get lost!'”
Layer Road`s full story spans a potentially ill-timed inception, armature team Colchester Town disband to form United just before the Second World War, through to now. What’s printed between the book’s covers as remains as rich throughout as Anderson’s above comment suggests it should.
Patchwork accounts first paint the U’s birth as a colourful one, told at this point in crystal clear black-and-white photography alongside some narrative. You get the near-miss of a felled Mustang aeroplane narrowly avoiding the pitch, anecdotes of once-young ntrepreneur charging supporters to store bikes brought to matches and an appearance from possibly the shortest-serving Football League manager ever, Ron Meades. He lasts just three whole days, in 1953.
One common thread uniting these mostly filmic appraisals of Layer Road, in what qiuckly unfolds as a nearly two-dimensional DVD, is an overriding sense of romantic attachment. Most who sang to the rafters inside the always less-than-comfortable confines at any time between 1937 and 2008 left with heavy hearts and much regret. “Layer Road under the floodlights… now that was real football!” So exclaims Kevin Drury.
His confessional continues: “You remember that petition for Cuckoo Farm that eventually collected 30,000 signatures? I never signed it. Yes, I know the club needed to provide an acceptable quality of backroom facilities for the players and the day-to-day running of the club. But the move was really for the club – not most of the fans.”
Although better-known fanatics, like commentator Neil Kelly, DJ Steve Lamacq and MP Bob Russell also thier very own last rites and remembrances to Layer Road’s U’s life and times on each passing page, the book opens with a recollection proving that taking pleasure from Colchester’s bygone days is not merely the preserve of stereotypically keen older salts.
A touching preface in tribute to teenage follower Emily Begg, whose sad death from from leukaemia coincided with the club`s maiden Championship season, 2006-7, is recorded by her parents in an entry of commemorative celebration. “Such was Emily`s enjoyment of being at Layer Road,” they write, “she never let a poor result spoil her day.
“Emily held the players in such high regard that she made cakes, individually numbered and delivered to Layer Road, and she even made a football-pitch cake for Parky [Phil Parkinson] when he replaced Steve Whitton as manager, in March 2003.”
The beauty of a hardback as diverse as this is that it reveals an alternative and mostly hidden history of Colchester United, guiding the reader through many emotional responses with each and every episode. Nothing at all like a plodding press-release, thankfully.
Firsthand memories from the ever-passionate Dick Graham, managerial mastermind of that Leeds win, also shows how how priceless-an-asset he really was for the club. He recalls redecorating the changing-rooms alone and almost single-handedly managing the club`s media relations; what he relates cofirms beyond beyond that that his term should evoke more than just one improbable F.A. Cup victory.
Ex-boss Graham recounts: “Bill Nicholson, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, rang one morning and said: ‘I want to ask you something, Dick. I thought: ‘Oh good, he`s going to buy one of our players.` Bill said: ‘How do you attract the publicity you get? Here I am, manager of one of the top teams in the country, and when I pick the paper, all I read about is Colchester United!'”
It is a is a fantastically fresh document for a football book that maintains a respectably old-fashioned aura as it winds its way around 72 years of United`s Layer Road stay. It ought to be both savoured and treasured by any staunch supporter, especially anyone fighting withdrawal symptoms this summertime after last year`s necessary uprooting to the new Community Stadium.
Possibly the only complaint to make of an artefact that feels somehow criminally new considering it honours everything antiquated and charming about the club`s first ground comes in its title. Layer Road was always ours, not just mine or yours. The rest of the book has it right: that place belonged to us all.
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