By Jordan Worland
As a thirty-something Habbinite you might not believe me when I say this, but I promise you it is true: I love chanting at football.
Chanting bonds us together and a great chant sticks with us for life. For me, when you mention the name of my hero, Mick Heathcote, my mind instantly repeats back his chant. I am confident I don’t know the actual ‘Daydream Believer’ lyrics anymore, just the Barry Fry version. But coming to the Abbey when I was little, one chant always stuck with me. Back in the days of the Allotment End, I, like everyone else in the NRE took great joy in chanting about visiting supporters getting rained on. A simple but effective chant which I am sure did not lift spirits in the away end. It’s ironic then that when I think back to one of my best nights as a U’s fan, it was us getting drenched to the bone on an open away terrace in West London.
A ‘Games Of Our Lives’ article about an LDV Vans match? Must be the 2001/02 season and the run to the Millennium Stadium, right? As epic as that night in Bristol was, this nostalgia trip takes place the following season.
Let me take you back. It’s a cold and wet night in January 2003 and United, of Division 3 and led by manager John Taylor, are in the Southern Section semi-finals for a second consecutive year. Standing in our way, Brentford of Division 2.
These days Brentford are a fairly established Championship side. This summer they’ve signed Pontus Jansson for a wedge of money we could only dream of inheriting and next season they’ll begin life in a shiny new stadium. However, back in 2003, life wasn’t as flashy for the Bees. During the late nighties and early naughties, Brentford were something of an old foe for United.
This fleeting rivalry was born in the 98/99 season. Brentford had adopted a storyline lifted straight from Dream Team, when former Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades purchased the club and installed himself as both chairman and manager. The U’s and Brentford contested the Division 3 title race that season. It was a race that was settled with a last day showdown at the Abbey. Lloyd Owusu’s chip handing an agonising win to Brentford. It meant that Brentford won the title at United’s expense and I experienced my first ever heartbreak. One I hadn’t recovered from by tonight’s meeting.
The following three seasons after that title drama saw both United and Brentford tottering along in Division Two with the two fairly well-matched whenever they met; 4 draws and 1 win each. 2001 was a prime year for Brentford clashes with one game including that comeback from 2-0 down and another THAT Daniel Chillingworth goal. However, by the time of the LDV meeting in 2003, United were adjusting to life back in Division 3 after a dismal last place finish the season before. The previous season had been a disaster for United, but one ginger ray of light had emerged. A former shelf-stacker and part-time footballer had just completed his first full season as a professional, notching ten goals. Dave Kitson had arrived, and the 2002/03 season was shaping up to be Kits’ time. More on him later.
So, back to that cold and very wet January night in 2003. The U’s fans found themselves in the Ealing Road Terrace, a single tier terrace located behind one of the goals. Traditionally a home end, the terrace was used at various times throughout the naughties to house away fans, as was the case tonight. A fairly steep terrace, it was sparsely populated by the few hundred U’s who had decided to brave the cold and torrential downpour. A smaller number of U’s fans were housed adjacent to the terrace in the bottom corner of the seated main stand.
The difference in leagues had made Brentford favourites on the night and they went ahead courtesy of a Mark McCammon header in the 43rd minute. It was one-way traffic prior to the goal and it continued to be the case after. Brentford striker Rowan Vine had two second-half attempts well blocked as Brentford pressed and pressed for a decisive second. It seemed like a matter of when rather than if. The rain continued to lash down on the U’s fans and slowly the clock had ticked into the 91st minute. By this point, nothing of note had happened for United. Perhaps some left to get a head start on the journey home. The only relief for a drenched U’s fan was that there was only 60 seconds of this left to endure.
That’s right, in one of the games of my life, nothing good happened for United in 91 minutes. That was all going to change in the following 7 minutes of what I can only describe as a soaked delirium. Brentford’s Paul Smith, who had earlier been lucky not to concede a penalty, blocked a Kitson shot, only for the ginger assassin to bundle in the follow up. A melee of damp but not out U’s fans kicked up the noise and the game headed to not just extra time, but glorious golden goal.
The opening exchanges of extra time looked to be a repeat of normal time, with Brentford firmly back on top. Had we celebrated a United goal that was only going to lead to a prolonged soaking before inevitable defeat?
But then it happened. A first and last golden goal for the U’s.
Brentford’s Robert Traynor, who in the opening period of extra time was inches away from grabbing himself a golden goal, gave possession away to Franco Nacca. Nacca, who had come on as a substitute, survived frantic Brentford appeals of handball to play the ball down the line to fellow substitute Omer Riza. Riza cut inside and buried it into the far corner in front of the U’s fans. What followed is a blur of rushing euphoria and a mass bundle. Riza ran off to one corner, executed a perfect sliding celebration to be mobbed by his rushing team mates. The U’s fans mirrored Riza’s sprint from the middle of the terrace to the same corner flag. There were limbs, there were those casualties who lost their feet to the wet, but more than anything, there was a crowd of a couple hundred U’s fans who had celebrated themselves dry. A moment that if you were there, you’ll never forget.
That U’s team of the 02/03 season will go down as a team that really should have done better than their 12th place finish. Kitson’s prolific 25 goals saw him come agonisingly close to David Crown’s club record of 27 in a season. Riza and Youngs, his partners in attack, had pace and goals aplenty in their armour too. In midfield we had the muscle of Wanless mixed with the cuteness of Gutteridge, whilst the defence was marshalled by a rock called Andy Duncan. Perhaps a more experienced manager could have got us over the line.
Griffin Park holds mixed memories for U’s fans. From the lows of seeing ‘Dancing’ Shaun Marshall lobbed from the half-way line, to seeing United score their only ever golden goal six months before the rule was abolished. It’s fitting we get one final night there this season, in her last ever season.