Do You Remember The First Time?

United fan Matt Ramsay remembers his first visit to a football match – not at the Abbey but at Colchester’s Layer Road. On the bench that day was former U’s manager Joe Dunne, who chatted to Matt about how to engage young supporters and keep them coming back. This article previously appeared in UTAS Issue 2.

A cross from the left is emphatically met by Colchester centre forward Mark Sale, who powers a header home past Chesterfield’s goalkeeper to win the game in the last minute.

It might not be a particularly vivid memory for fans who were at that match, even if it was the opening day of the season, Colchester’s first fixture since promotion to League One (Division Two as it was then) and a game sealed by a last-gasp winner. After all, it was two decades ago, at the dawn of the 1998/99 campaign.

But for me the goal is one imprinted in my brain. I was ten. Sale’s goal was the first I had ever seen live, the first last-minute winner at the end of Colchester vs Chesterfield, my first football match. I’ve never seen that Sale goal back, or any other footage from that afternoon. I’ve trawled the internet for it, but in a way I hope to never find it. I’ve been to over 800 matches since then at more than 120 grounds and seen almost 2,500 goals. The talking points of more recent matches are easier to recall thanks to EFL highlights packages, which have the effect of re-seeing some moments from the TV camera perspective rather than how my eyes witnessed them at the game first hand.

That isn’t possible for third-tier games in the late 90s, before clubs’ YouTube highlights, goals packages on Quest TV and fine moments captured on the phone of someone watching iFollow at home who could tweet them out almost instantaneously in the hope of retweets and new followers. I’m left with the raw memories of a ten year old at his first game. I have a surprisingly large number of snapshots from the day. The winner, of course. Failing to know that my fold-down chair wasn’t going to stay folded down when I stood up, and so falling on the floor when I tried to sit back down again, exactly as I had done a few weeks before at a West End musical. The Colchester players ending their warm up, turning away from my seat behind the goal and wandering towards the dressing room, one turning back to nonchalantly clip a ball onto the bar from what felt like 40 yards (but probably wasn’t), to a few amazed oohs from people around me in the days before the crossbar challenge was a thing.

During the match itself, with the home team well on top around mid-way through the second half, a Colchester player picked up a loose ball and thundered a shot onto the same bar from what felt like 40 yards (but almost certainly wasn’t), to a chorus of anguished aahs from people around me who were getting the feeling that it wasn’t going to be their day.

If trying to recall most other matches that I’ve seen since then, such trivial details would have been lost from memory, but these formative experiences carry a huge premium. I was hooked on the matchday experience, the calling of being in the ground that’s so central to life as a game-going supporter. Thumping late headers from number nines help but club engagement can be pivotal to securing the affections of youngsters.

Joe Dunne fulfilled that role tremendously at the end of July when Cambridge United hosted its open day. The club posted a video of the then head coach stood in his dressing room, members of the newly-reformed Junior U’s sat in front of him rather than the first team professionals, and gave them a brief talk about the role they can play and how important their support is.

“I’m talking to you young people in here, all you who have joined the Junior U’s. You’re now part of us, part of the team. We have a connection so you are part of our team. What you’ve done by joining it has allowed us to build a better young fanbase. You’re the extension of the first team. You’re not just getting something to sit in the stand and watch a game. Feel this changing room. This is where it takes place. This is where the emotion is, in the changing rooms.”

The football club takes a lot of criticism, much of it just, and no doubt have done in the pages of this issue of UTAS, but imagine being a young kid or their parent stepping into the inner sanctum and being made to feel special in such as way by a head coach.

Perhaps the opening home League Two game of the 2018/19 season against Notts County was the first experience of live football for some of those who were there on that open morning. It was the first game of my third decade of attendance, coming four days after the 20th anniversary of my trip to Layer Road. There was a terrific parallel between the two afternoons, Barry Corr taking on the Mark Sale role as the talismanic number nine by heading a last-minute winner for the home team at the dawn of a new campaign. It was an exciting enough conclusion for any of the Amber Army, but the combination of Corr’s goal and Joe Dunne’s teamtalk will hopefully have left a lasting mark on some of the young U’s, enough to give them the hook that will keep them coming back and to remember the occasion 20 years down the line.

There are other people that bridge those matches beyond my own personal connection. Three players with Cambridge United links appeared in the Colchester team that beat Chesterfield. Goalscorer Sale was an ex-U (although he never actually played a game before moving on to Birmingham), as was Richard Wilkins after over 80 League appearances in the amber and black before 1994. The other is Dunne himself, a Colchester stalwart during two spells that amounted to 181 games before starting the coaching career that led to him being head coach at the Abbey following Shaun Derry’s departure before his own sacking in December. He came off the bench with just over ten minutes remaining against Chesterfield and so was on the pitch for the winner.

Whatever people’s opinions of his tenure in charge, there’s no denying that he is a thoughtful and insightful speaker. I took the chance to speak to him about my own personal anniversary following the Notts County game in the ambitious hope that he’d have some recall of that specific game (“My only memory of that would be probably being angry with the manager that I got dropped!” He did recall another meeting between the teams, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he scored in a 6-3 victory, which also came on the opening day three years later) but also of his speech to the youngsters and the importance of making them feel part of something.

When I drove down Newmarket Road coming in off the A14 this morning I saw these bright illuminous Cambridge kits and families coming to the game,” he said.

We were surprised how many young fans that we see in our kit and we actually talked about it today. I brought some young fans into the changing room today when the lads were warming up, and if they go away from today living and breathing that, and hopefully carrying on from last year, they’ll keep coming back and families will keep coming back.“

“When you’re young you’re impressionable. You have to keep giving positive experiences to these young people and the families that want to come back, and that’spart and parcel of my job. Yes, winning helps, days like today will help, and sometimes you don’t analyse games like today. You just let today be today. Hopefully they can havesome memories from today.”

“We have a little window that’s open in our office so we can see the refreshment bit and it’s full of young people and they’ll have some good memories of today’s game and that’s important, important for us all.”

Unprompted, he went on speaking. He told of his early experiences on both sides of the Irish Sea, an anecdote he still associates with the event and the remembrance of his own son’s first experience of seeing him play.

“My first memory of a real match was getting crushed, getting lifted over a wall at St Pat’s (St Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin), years and years ago with my father and just loving the fact that I think I saved my dad a few quid, getting him a pint after the game.

I think I was ten, being shoved over the wall, eight or ten, and the next time I tried to do it I remember actually falling and breaking my arm. We still went into the game.

My first memory of coming over on the boat for England was 1984 or 85, Remi Moses was playing for Man United and I went to Anfield and it was Liverpool against Manchester United and I got stuck in a lift with Ron Atkinson. Me and my dad were big Liverpool fans and we were stuck with Manchester United’s Ron Atkinson and nobody said a word, didn’t say an absolute word and he was fuming and I just thought wow.

I’ve been over many times. I’ve got memories of being shoved up the back at Wembley. It was the 1984 Charity Shield, Liverpool were playing Everton I think, 100,000 there and I only saw half the pitch. My son’s first game was at Dover, watching me play for Dover on a cold September night.”

These memories run deep. Seasoned fans who have racked up hundreds of visits to their team’s ground and elsewhere around the country are always likely to recall the greatest victories, finest goals and tales from trains and terraces, but perhaps none more so influentially than the days that seed the addiction which keeps them coming back for more.

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