Football Fan's Eye View: Colchester United - A swift and defiant single-finger salute

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The Independent Online
UNLIKE MOST football fans who know that moment inside out, I can't remember the first time I saw my beloved Colchester United. No matter how hard I try, my memory simply refuses to offer up a romantic August afternoon, sun beaming in the sky, as we rattle five goals past a hapless Hartlepool and I fall head over heels in love with the Us. It just wasn't like that. In fact, my earliest flashback is of a tragic Friday night home game where we were beaten 1-0 by Mansfield.

We were chasing promotion in the old Fourth Division and were probably sixth in the table at the time (I'm only guessing here, but it seemed that we spent virtually all of the early 80s being sixth in the table). Mansfield took the lead half-way through the second half, much to the excitement of their hardy away fans, all 49 of them (I know because a man next to me had counted them at half-time).

But it's not the pain of their celebrations that I most remember about the match, it is the fantastic miss by our own centre-forward, Roy McDonough. With five minutes to go, Roy was one-on-one with their goalkeeper and we held our breath, ready for an equaliser. Unfortunately, the luckless McDonough stumbled in the mud, scuffed his shot wide and fell flat on his face.

Lower league fans will recognise the tragi-comedy aspect of this incident, which is why I can confess now that as the prostrate McDonough struggled to regain his feet, I shouted: "Go on Roy, there's still another five minutes - make a name for yourself." In response, the beleaguered striker rose slowly from the sludge, scraped the mud off his knees and in one single movement turned towards my position on the terrace and gave me a swift and defiant single finger salute.

I mention this because, in my 18 years following the Us, this is probably the most meaningful exchange I've ever had with a Colchester manager (after leaving us in the mid-80s, McDonough would later return as player-manager and lead us back into the League after two years in the Conference).

The managerial situation is uppermost in our minds at the moment following the recent, sudden departure of our last boss, Steve Wignall - another former Us player who took over from George Burley (McDonough's successor) and engineered our recent escalation in fortunes, including last year's promotion to the Second Division via the play-offs.

Wignall was the backbone of our defence when I first started supporting Colchester in 1981, travelling 10 miles on the bus to home games from the tiny Essex village where I lived. I'd given up going to nearby Ipswich Town with my Dad because the Colchester Experience was more down to earth, powerful and intimate. Seeing Colchester changed my perception of football in the same way that punk and The Clash changed my entire vision of music. But that's another story.

The return of Wignall as manager brought a warm sense of continuity to my time on the Layer Road terraces - and took us to all-new adventures. We've almost been treating our time in the Second Division this season like going somewhere exciting on holiday that you'd like to move to permanently. We've seen all these places (glamorous Stoke, Manchester City... I even know one fan who has taken holiday snaps at every ground, including a picture of himself in front of the Notts County scoreboard when we were 3-1 up). But after nine games without a win, Wignall, our tourist guide, simply put down his umbrella, folded up his notes and got off the bus, saying: "I don't feel I can take this team any further."

In his time in charge, Wignall did a grand job with little cash - Colchester are not a club rolling in money. His departure has left me in a state of turmoil. I was told the news during one of my BBC Radio 1 programmes and was barely able to speak for four records.

Wignall's successor, announced this week, is Mick Wadsworth, until Thursday in charge of Scarborough. Something of an unknown quantity in Essex, his appointment may be greeted with some suspicion by the Us fans. A look at Scarborough's position in the Third Division will tell you why.

Steve Lamacq presents BBC Radio 1's Lamacq Live, along with The Evening Session.