With the news that fans might, just might be allowed back into stadiums right at the end of the season and more hope that football could return to normal (whatever that is) next season, Connor O’Reilly remembers our last away day down the M11 at Brisbane Road…
Saturday March 7th, 2020 will be forever known as the final pre pandemic gameday for most fans in the UK, the last time we could enjoy football in a stadium surrounded by fans, not worried about a virus or social distancing. On that day, we travelled down the M11 to face Leyton Orient backed by 1,200 fans in the away day. This article isn’t about the result or an iconic day out in London, it’s just an ode to the good old days of pre pandemic football.
The date is the 7th of March 2020. Former Brazil star Ronaldinho is being arrested over the usage of fake passports, Liverpool have gone 25 points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory against Bournemouth, and Coronavirus is starting to become a thing, with Italy announcing the mass quarantine of the Lombardy region to try and slow down the transmission rate of the virus, the biggest such measures at the time outside of China. Its about to strike 3:00 in the UK as teams prepare to face each other in front of fans for the last time and Cambridge United are about to kick off against Leyton Orient in a mid-table clash. Orient were playing in there first season back in the football league, led by Ross Embleton after the truly tragic death of Justin Edinburgh. They had a spell with Carl Fletcher in charge between mid-October and mid-November before being sacked and seeing Embleton reappointed as manager. The O’s had a steady season languishing in lower mid table and were stabilising themselves after a two-year spell in Non-League. United on the other hand were on a new manager bounce, with caretaker Mark Bonner leading the U’s after getting rid of Colin Calderwood at the end of January. United were having a mediocre season, grabbing a couple of iconic results at the start against Brentford, Crewe, Exeter and Mansfield before a horrid run of form from November to January with only 3 wins in 17 games, including three 4-0 losses in the space of one month, which led to Calderwood’s sacking. In came Bonner as an interim manager and then the results started to turn around. United took 13 points from a possible 18 including wins against playoff chasing Colchester and Bradford and a valuable point away at promotion chasing Plymouth. They were coming into the game off a frustrating loss against Carlisle but had the momentum of playing some of the best football they’ve played all season.
Going into London that day, you couldn’t tell that there was a pandemic coming by the end of the month. The Hamilton Hall was full of U’s fans at Liverpool Street, who got to London early so they can get drinks in, before stumbling onto the Central Line to get to Leyton. The walk down Leyton High Street was busy, with people going for a Saturday shop mixing with those heading to Brisbane Road for the game. Once in, fans hung up flags and picked their spot in anticipation of the clash and then the 1,256 Cambridge fans started chanting, welcoming Bonner and the boys onto the pitch. The game kicked off and United looked lacklustre against a quick and dangerous Orient side, who from the start clearly wanted it more, and on the 18th minute took the league after an Orient counter attack caught the U’s defence off guard and left Jordan Maguire Drew free to finish in the box. Both sides traded blows before Orient dealt a killer blow right before the half time whistle, capitalising from a Callum Burton save to tap in and give the O’s a 2-0 lead going into the break. Half time came, and the usual smells of fried onions and burgers and conversations about a general hatred of controversial U’s player Samir Carruthers. Little did we know that it would be the final time that would happen due to the pandemic. The second half kicked off and whatever hair dryer Mark Bonner used worked as the U’s came out the stronger team and grabbed one goal back on the 60th minute when everyone’s favourite Scouse Prince Paul Mullin (wonder what happened to him) scored from a tight angle against Chilean keeper Lawrence Vigouroux. United came knocking and had one final chance to win it late on when Jack Roles cut between 2 Orient defenders and curled a shot towards the top corner, only to see Vigouroux palm it over with a fantastic save. The whistle came and United had lost. The Amber Army were still singing, like the had done all afternoon, chanting Bonner’s name before finally being ushered out of the away end.
A week later on the 13th of March, the FA had announced the suspension of football until the 3rd of April, but that never happened. United never returned to finish the 2019/20 season and saw the league end on a PPG basis. Clubs around the country closed the door as people realised the risk of Coronavirus and United wouldn’t return until late July. The pandemic has had a profound affect on the way we all live our lives, and for many football behind closed doors, watching via iFollow and listening to the sweet voices of Mark Johnson and Dough Shulman has become the new norm. But for many fans, deep down we long for the return of days where you’d drunkenly stumble into a stadium, singing songs about Andy Dallas on repeat for 20 minutes, and going absolutely crazy when you score. It’s been a long year without normal football, and even though we’ve been lucky enough to return to games at the Abbey albeit with restrictions, it’s not the same. Who knows when the next time will be when we can fill the NRE or go on some stupid long train trip accompanied by your best mates and alcohol, but it will return, and when it does, it’ll be the best day of all. We’ll be back soon.