Cloud cuckoo land

Cup fever is often a passing affliction, but Colchester will move to a new ground thanks to the passion created by the Chelsea game, as Graham Dunbar explains 

For Colchester United these are the best of times being played at the worst of places. Since the demise of Cambridge United a year ago introduced the Conference to the Abbey Stadium’s old-school charms, the unofficial mantle of “League’s worst ground” has passed on to Layer Road – and that is just the home-town opinion. (Which also points out that Layer Road’s immaculate pitch is a perfect stage for Champions League football while the Stamford Bridge surface would suit most League One sides.) 

It is not that Colchester fans are suffering an excess of nostalgia for a ground little changed since 19,072 people crammed in, and on top of, the stands for an FA Cup tie against Reading in 1948, or taking a perverse pleasure in seeing Nottingham Forest and Derby County supporters reminded what standing to enjoy a restricted view feels like.

Being drawn away to Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round also meant more people rode the bandwagon to west London (6,000 in the away section) than could have fitted in all of the tin sheds at Layer Road (a season high of 5,933, the effective capacity, saw Derby defeated in round four) for a replay.

It is just that, for all the love invested in the only place the Us have ever called home, its financial and practical limitations – unlike the pitch – are clear for all to see. The touchline-hugging tricks of Mark Yeates have been a joy all season, but terrace dwellers on the shallow Bar Side watch him from the waist up for one half of every home match.

Cynics and Southend fans argue that Layer Road coped comfortably with sub-3,000 gates last autumn, but safety rules have chipped away at the capacity year by year. The spectacular winning runs that have taken Phil Parkinson’s team to the brink of the Championship – the club have never been in the second division – only confirmed the need for a new way of doing things. Then a Sunday trip to the capital ensured no local bureaucrat would dare stand in the way.

So it was that three days after The Biggest Game In Colchester’s History a bunch of mental-health administrators cleared the last major barrier to building a new stadium on council-owned farmland. By deciding that a derelict psychiatric hospital site can be sold for housing, a link road to the A12 will be built; because the road will be in place, a stadium can be built. At Cuckoo Farm. Credit has to be given to the borough council, which was hardly guaranteed when naive, as opposed to downright ignorant, civic leaders proclaimed that Colchester “will always have a pitch to play on” and expected fans’ fears to be eased.

A patch of grass at Layer Road was first played on by Colchester Town before the First World War, when the Liberals were in power, and sincere thanks are due to local Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell that it’s still in use today. As council leader in 1991, Russell oversaw the purchase of Layer Road for £1 million, saving the Us from extinction near the end of the first of their two-season Conference exile. The council had sold the ground to the club in 1970, starting a tiresome pattern of ambitious redevelopment plans failing to get off the drawing board for the next decade (when Russell was still a Labour candidate, but that’s another story).

The inevitable virtual-reality model of the Colchester Community Stadium already exists and shows it with a capacity of 10,000 and options to expand to 18,000. A detailed planning application will soon be lodged and all concerned are sticking to a target opening date of August 2007, though it might be wise to check the betting patterns of north Essex construction workers before committing to a full season ticket. That still leaves next season, when it is possible Boudicca’s manor will host fortnightly invasions from places such as Leeds, Ipswich and Norwich to a ground set in a residential area with limited parking, nearly two miles from the nearest train station.

After a year of that madness, any doubters should be convinced that the Us playing on Cuckoo land is the sensible option.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month