Colin Payne on something extraordinary in Essex
It was my fifth-ever away trip. I know this because my first four were Oxford (lots of snow), Forest (a semi-final), Shrewsbury (my first trip on a Football Special) and Sheffield Wednesday (the most terrifying day at a football ground in my life – but that’s another story!) But this was my fifth away-day. The first leg of the League Cup first round, August 1979.
1979 was a different time, a very different time. I was 15, although only just. The Boomtown Rats were number one in the singles chart with I Don’t Like Mondays (Live Aid had yet to be invented, although third-world famine was all the rage). More importantly to my musical development, Madness released their first single The Prince that very week. We as a nation still smelted steel, produced cars, dug coal and stitched our own textiles. Margaret Thatcher was just three months into her ‘reign’, and Britain was changing. This was indeed 1979.
And like the country, Watford was also changing. This was our first proper game after the ‘Hull Night’. We were the big club going to a potential giant-killer, Goliath, in the shape of the mighty Second Division Watford, visiting tiny little David, in the form of Colchester United (who only two seasons earlier were a league above us). Back then the League Cup was exciting, because any football match was exciting to a 15-year-old boy, but away games especially so.
This was the antithesis of the soon-to come Family Terrace, with its Easter eggs and Christmas parties. What the hell my parents were thinking back then I’ll never know! I was a kid for God’s sake! Yet I was given free reign to travel around the country unsupervised with a four-pack of lager, shiny Dr. Martens and an irrational attraction towards danger. These were the days of Panorama documentaries exposing the English Disease, football specials. Skins, rude boys and mods. Didn’t Mum and Dad watch TV? Of course, I wasn’t an actual hooligan – I had no desire to hurt anyone, but I did love running around being a nuisance.
I remember the journey down was on a Travel Club coach, myself and Lloydo were sat just in front of ‘The Punk’. We had no idea what his real name was, but he was someone we oh-so wanted to be associated with. We had seen him at previous games – he was a real punk, had hair like Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols, none of your Mohican nonsense, the band names painted in white on his biker jacket were the right ones. He was – as the vernacular went at the time – ‘hard’, and we were travelling to Colchester with him. He never spoke to us, because he didn’t realise he was with us, but we were ‘in’.
We stopped at a roadside burger van on the way, on the edge of some woods, I’m guessing to ‘burn time’. Two coachloads of mainly teenage gobshites descending upon an unsuspecting roadside trader, singing and chanting, an unruly mob to be sure. “If you’re hungry, shut the fuck up and behave!” the vendor declared, waving an egg-slice in our general direction, as the volume increased around his van. We did. The punk was no longer the hardest man around us.
The match itself was disappointing. Or at least I believe it was, for 42 years later the actual football is never what sticks in the mind. After the League Cup run the previous year, we were all dreaming of Wembley – we had tasted the heady flavour of success, and wanted more! We lost 0-2. I also recall Micky Walker was in goal. However, that wasn’t the most memorable thing (in fact the score wasn’t memorable at all as I had to check it before penning this piece). No, the reason I remember that trip so well was something under my feet. I’d never seen it before at a League ground and am pretty sure I have never seen it since.
We were stood on wooden terraces! Not shuttering on concrete, or railway sleepers stacked upon the ground, but actual wooden terraces, with open risers, and wooden crush barriers! I swear it bowed in places, creaked underfoot. It was thinner than scaffold planks!
I didn’t realise at the time that the reason this was so mind-blowing for me was that in decades to come I would become a middle-aged man obsessed by quaint old stadiums now long gone (and again what were my parents thinking letting me become THIS!) Back then for a 15-year-old boy, my mind was full of the terrifying prospect that someone was going to start singing Knees Up Mother Brown and a pile of barely pubescent wannabe hooligans and one cool punkrocker would end up in a heap among the dog-ends and faded crisp packets we could see below us through the extremely frail looking wooden (yes wooden) terracing.
I only spent half the game upon that timber death trap, moving to the ‘open end’ (all lower-league grounds had an open end at the time) as Watford were attacking that goal in the second half. It was then I realised that the wooden terracing was probably preferable to the crumbling concrete mess that my Dr. Martens now nestled upon.
As stated earlier, the game itself has gone from my memory banks, how could it remain when wooden terraces were thrown into the mix! When we climbed back on board our coach, feeling a little worse for wear after consuming those four cans of Harp and an undercooked burger, I’m pretty sure we were confident that a two-nil deficit could be clawed back in the second leg (it wasn’t).
Fate, and the fact it would be years until we were as poor as Colchester again, meant that I never returned to Layer Road. And I really wanted to, because it was a truly rubbish stadium, but a great football ground. I have no idea if that wooden terracing was there when the bulldozers tore the place down in 2008. I’d like to think it was, but somehow suspect it never lasted.