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Happier Days - Part 3

By: Chris Smith
Date: 01/09/2010 (Last updated: 17/01/2012)

THE usual poor game at Cambridge was next. Whilst they got results, John Beck, until recently at Histon, was the archetypal percentage game player and not averse to stunts to doctor the pitch and unsettle the away team. All this unpleasantry was always offset by the joy of drinking in Cambridge.

The first time I went was 1982 and it seemed half the very sizeable Town support was extremely inebriated. We lost 1 0 on a gloomy day. I can't ever remember the sun shining there on any of my visits. I also went for the healthy option (lentil stew) for lunch but wouldn't do that again as it didn't mix with the lager and cider. Must have been a duff lentil in there…

I would have liked to have seen the 3 0 hammering of Fulham on New Year’s Day but was back at work. The Brentford supporting colleague was now going out with one of their players and told me that whilst Town were irresistible (in football terms), the Fulham players had been drinking heavily the night before and this had divided the team. I'd seen us play Fulham a few times and they'd always hammered us.

For some reason, I missed quite a few of the next games, but saw us equalise in a 1 1 draw at Huddersfield’s Leeds Road where there was a good following of Town fans. It was slightly disappointing to compare this campaign to 1979/80 when we were also promoted from this level but with far bigger followings.

I used to go to quite a few non league grounds on a spare Saturday and saw Keith, a Town fan living in Lincoln, at a Kingstonian game. AFC Wimbledon now also play at Kingsmeadow. Keith was doing the Isthmian League grounds on cheap day returns when Town played at home but made all the away games. I've been to Kingstonian’s ground on a good number of occasions, and when I have done so, Town have won every game wherever they have played. So, if you want to buy me a season ticket there…Make a note of it for 30th April. I'll be there and three points a banker. Nurse!

Whilst Town were still in a promotion spot, the form was dipping. Whilst we had beaten Preston 4 1 and won at Bradford, Neil Woods’ early goal scoring had dried up and we were losing to nondescript sides such as Wigan (!). A useful goalless draw would be played out at Bolton who finished level on points with us. We lost at home to Tranmere who would be promoted via the playoffs. This was particularly disappointing as Rovers were a team we had generally had a very good record against. After drawing at Mansfield, where a win should have been on the cards, I made the journey up for the home game against Southend and just fewer than 10,000 saw Dave Gilbert score the only goal. It was a deserved win nonetheless.

A few days later, we travelled up from London for the Tuesday fixture at Rotherham. I'd finally got the hang of the duty list at work and finished early that day and proceeded to gain a head start on my travelling comrades. This would be the season I perfected the art of the power nap in the car where I stole twenty minutes shuteye whilst clasping an unfinished can. The sudden jerk awake would reveal zero spillage and I was able to carry on unhindered. (I think there may be a double entendre in there somewhere) I've since seen this routine perfected by cricket goers at the tea interval.

Tony Rees, a player I never gave the credit he deserved, scored two with Woods adding another in a 4 1 win. I believe Clive Mendonca score for the home side and I think it may have been our first ever league win there. A great night for pogoing wildly on the away terracing. Two home wins followed and my next trip was Swansea away. That really has always been an unfriendly place to visit. Rob Moss picked us up late, and as our tongues were hanging out for a much needed libation, he decided to do his weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. I nearly went to a game relatively sober.

I was interested to read a SWWF report on the next game at home to Reading where John Cockerill had scored the first two and was offered the penalty to get a hat trick. This apparently had Alan Buckley going ballistic until Dave Gilbert, the favoured spot kick taker, duly converted. You can't fault the manager’s professionalism.

A good following went to Bournemouth for a midweek game but saw us lose 2 1 in torrential rain. A 1 0 win over challengers Cambridge at home was followed by a run of four matches without a win. We went to Bury for the following Tuesday’s game in plenty of time for once. However, we were still stuck in heavy traffic in Birmingham at six. I ended up relieving myself on the side of a suburban street having held on heroically until then to a large round of applause and cheers from a contractors van behind us. Having all the time in the world, I had a chat with them prior to returning to our car. When the traffic started moving, we let them go ahead of us and they kindly took us through all the rat runs so we could pick up the M6 as quickly as possible. We were just 10 minutes late for kick off and in time to see Town concede. We lost 3 2 and I think David Lee scored a cracker. He was to haunt us at Bolton in later years if I remember correctly.

A few days later we played at Fulham and I tapped up my colleague to see if her boyfriend could sort out a few compos for us. Bless him, we had half a dozen for the Eric Miller Stand that backs onto the Thames, but elected to go on the open terrace with the rest of the Mariners fans. I was horrified to find out later that we'd been given tickets for that stand so we could have gratis booze all game. One of the few lapses in professional drinking I've had in a twenty year career. A goalless draw against a team that would be relegated wasn't what was anticipated.

A home game against Birmingham didn't excite (I'd always found them a negative team) but it was the run in, so we all travelled up the following Saturday. It wasn't a surprise to see another goalless draw against an unambitious Brum team. It was however, to see Town lose at home to Crewe the following Tuesday, and fail to score again despite having plenty of time to rectify an early concession.

With Bolton Wanderers challenging strongly for the last automatic spot and with Cambridge and Southend pretty much already up, there wasn't any room for mistakes. Town had another good following at Leyton Orient, although our last visit there had resulted in a 5 0 battering in 1989. It was always good to have a game on our doorsteps being London based and we didn't waste any time. Garry Birtles and Tommy Watson scored the goals to put us in good heart on a hot day. The walk back to Leyton station saw the locals watching with amazement as a long line of Town fans sang all the way. Conveniently, there was a cider festival on at Stratford Town Hall, and it would have been rude not to go despite me not meeting the Viz caricature of Real Ale T***s ( curly beard, spray on dandruff, a tendency to sexual excitement over steam engines and an inability to drink fast).

Four points were required from the last two games which were Stoke away and Exeter at home. We travelled by car from London and decided to have a drink in the sticks rather than Stoke itself. Despite this watering hole being in the Real Ale guide, I was mollified by the presence of scrumpy on the bar. Getting out of the car sparked an avalanche of empties. When we did get to the ground, it was clear that the police weren't taking any chances and I was surprised to see a helicopter hovering above us for Third Division crowd control. This sadly isn't the case now, but boys with their toys…

We made our way past the odd punch up near the turnstiles to join several thousand Town fans on the away terrace. It was a bit of a relief to see a large following. I think leading from the front and then stuttering on the run in had affected our support throughout the campaign and I personally found some of our gates disappointing considering the numbers we'd attracted the previous season. I suppose a part of me also wanted a repeat of the 1979/80 momentum but that is never going to happen again.

I don't recall Town putting Stoke under any pressure but the home fans were obviously antsy so several thousand piled on the pitch to shore their defence up before coming over and wishing us all the best for the following season. Or something like that. The local police had obviously anticipated this and had the situation fairly well controlled as Town fans sung “Always look on the bright side of life” to the home fans whose team had finished nowhere. I think the game finished at half past five or so.

Because of our superior goal difference over Bolton, a win at home to Exeter was all that was required. I travelled up on the train for this and took my place in the Pontoon early as a 14,000 crowd assembled. John Cockerill scored two goals in front of us in the first half to send us absolutely delirious and it looked a formality. However, City pulled one back and hit the woodwork before the referee blew his whistle. This was the cue for us to invade the pitch through the open gate and pile into the penalty area before realising the whistle had gone for a City free kick. Town were again hanging on in the last minutes after building up seemingly unassailable 2 0 leads. However, we weren't to be denied and the full invasion ensued followed by a good session on Cleethorpes station and a party all the way back to London.

Time to sigh wistfully now and hope the good times are returning.

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