In over thirty years of going to games, I can recall perhaps ten instances where I’ve encountered anything that might be described as football violence.
Bizarrely, considering that Colchester United are a small and not very interesting club based some 250 miles from Exeter, no fewer than three of these incidents have been at games against today’s opponents.
Let me recount for your pleasure each of these thrilling episodes. Who knows, some day I may add to the canon of nostalgic footy thug literature with an extended, no holds barred version of my City versus Colchester tales? And then surely a film - The Layer Road Cake - would follow?
I first ventured to Colchester in 1991 for an FA Cup tie. Colchester were a non-league side for that one season, so a City defeat seemed inevitable. Somewhat fortunately, we held out for a goalless draw in front of John Motson and the Match of the Day cameras, but our little group of Grecians were less lucky to find ourselves cornered by an older, meaner bunch of Colchester hooligans in the town centre.
After a few threats had been made, our group - including a BBC Radio reporter complete with bulky broadcasting equipment - made a run for it. Seeing my brother narrowly avoid a van swinging off a roundabout, I decided that the risk of a kicking was preferable to the likelihood of being run over. We partially sighted people are used to making such snap decisions.
I stopped to face the Colchester lads, but, naturally, they were distracted by the moving targets and ignored this one-man stand to pursue my fellow Exonians.
Result! No perilous traffic dodging, no lung bursting sprints and no need to throw (or more to the point receive) a punch in anger. Plus I got to boast about being the only one of us not to have run away like a big coward…
In the event, a few of the more persistent Colchester lads caught up with a couple of our number, gave them a light-ish going over and insisted: “We wouldn’t have had to do this if you hadn’t run away.” Hardly logical since it was their threats that caused the City fans to run, but then truth is famously the first casualty of war.
A few years later, at a City v Colchester game at St James Park, some visiting supporters ‘took’ the old Centre Spot social club. This, as I recall, involved the Essex boys turning up, chucking a beer barrel through a window and running off with a punch or two thrown along the way. Doubtless others have a way more dramatic version of the incident.
I’ve seen more interesting bust-ups in junior school playgrounds, but yet this little moment appeared to have become Colchester legend. When we turned up for the return fixture, lots of home fans - or as close to ‘lots’ as you could get at Layer Road - were merrily singing a song about the battle of the Centre Spot. Tiny things, tiny minds, eh?
Most strange of all was the time that our away end at Layer Road was invaded by a couple of dozen Colchester loonies. They just lifted up the temporary fence that separated home and away fans and pottered in gesturing, threatening and hitting people.
To be honest, this actually was a pretty shocking incident. Violence inside football grounds all but disappeared years ago, and whereas the hoolie brigade will often insist that they only target their own kind, the Colchester chaps seemed somewhat indiscriminate. Certainly the then chairman of the Exeter City Supporters’ Club was among those set upon.
The highlight for me came when things had calmed down and a couple of City’s own hooligan-inclined supporters nipped off to the toilet to ‘clean up’ the blood that they had spilled for the cause. They returned with blood artfully rearranged to highlight their battle scars. Ahh, bless! I am now old and avuncular enough to find that quite sweet…
Oh, and there was also a mini pitch invasion on my last visit to Layer Road. This, however, was because my good friend Ben just fell on to the pitch. He was a very big lad in those days and, as he leaned on the advertising hoarding, he somehow overbalanced and in slow motion slumped over the wooden boards and onto the turf behind the goal. The look on the stewards’ faces was priceless.
It will be interesting to see whether a new ground and the comparative success enjoyed by Colchester since these skirmishes has changed things up there. I guess we’ll find out later today.
And, although the league table suggests our team should, like us fans, be on the alert for a potential thumping, I’ve got a happy hunch that today will go just fine on the pitch and off it.
I'm looking forward to it a lot. Geddon City.