16 January ~ Colchester United v Norwich City is not normally a fixture that registers on many people's radars. In fact, even the home crowd wouldn't be that bothered were it not for the events of the last six months. But thanks to U's chairman Robbie Cowling – "I've never wanted to win a game of football so badly" – and the extraordinary bitchfest going on behind the scenes, this normally benign fixture is a sell-out and we're all set for East Anglia's newest grudge match.
In the past, Colchester United and Norwich City fans have had little more in common than a mutual admiration for each other's hatred of Ipswich Town. But since the U's recorded that now infamous 7-1 victory at Norwich on the opening day of this League One season, the admiration has somewhat soured. Colchester fans had barely let the smile fall from their faces when Norwich fired manager Bryan Gunn and promptly replaced him with the man who had masterminded the Canaries' biggest-ever home defeat: Colchester's Paul Lambert. Five months on and defeated only twice in 21 League games, Norwich sit in second place, two above the U's, and all hell has broken loose.
Cowling, miffed at losing his prize asset, complained to the Football League about Norwich's conduct in luring Lambert, demanding compensation and a points deduction. It's a moot point that the complaint was made three months after the event, just as Norwich overtook Colchester in the League, but since then regular and public shots across City's bows have done little else than stoke the fires of this fixture. Seemingly determined to spite Norwich as best he can, Cowling's gone for the jugular, calling the saintly Delia "disrespectful" and choosing to lock out many of Norwich's fiercely loyal away supporters. It's the latter tactic that seems to have got most fans, of both teams, wound up.
Norwich have been limited to only 1,900 tickets for today's game in a 10,000-seat stadium that is, according to U's fans, not often more than half full. City say they could have brought at least 5,000, chairman Cowling stands firm, saying he would "rather see an empty seat than an away supporter", despite having given Leeds 3,000 tickets earlier in the season. Many U's fans felt the club could do with the money rather than look at empty seats and with a week or so to go there were plenty left. Then, rather less than mysteriously, the game sold out. When Norwich fans realised Cowling wouldn't budge, they simply bought hundreds, maybe even thousands of tickets in the home stands via Colchester's "impossibly easy" online ticketing system.
So as the game kicks off, it's difficult not to have one eye on the pitch and the other on the stands, trying to spot how many Norwich fans are sitting on their hands amongst the home supporters. Paul Buller