Colchester United’s unwitting role in pitch invasions, 19 years apart
- Credit: Richard Blaxall / Pagepix
Last weekend’s pitch invasion at Leyton Orient, which caused a two-hour delay before the final few minutes could be completed, was not the first time that a promotion-chasing Colchester United side had faced on-the-pitch turmoil in their final away game of a season.
I was at Doncaster Rovers’ old stadium, Belle Vue Ground, for the final day of the 1997-98 season when the U’s, with Steve Wignall as manager, were pushing for promotion.
The similarities between that day in South Yorkshire, on Saturday, May 2, 1998, and that of last Saturday, April 29, 2017, in East London, are remarkable.
But there are also some big differences.
Looking back to 19 years ago (there were actually 18 years and 362 days between the two events), hosts Doncaster Rovers, like last weekend’s hosts Leyton Orient, were facing up to a future life outside the Football League.
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In fact, Rovers’ then-75-year history as a Football League club came to a sad end that very afternoon although, like the current-day O’s, their relegation had already been confirmed before the U’s visit.
And whereas the Leyton Orient fans of last weekend had a much-loathed owner to protest again, in the shape of Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti, who had presided over the dramatic decline of the London club in the course of just three years, so Rovers fans of the late-1990s aimed their anger at much-maligned chairman Ken Richardson.
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In both cases, grave errors – to put it mildly – at Board level had been the main contributory factor in the respective clubs’ relegation out of the Football League.
Just like at Brisbane Road, I remember the turmoil at the Belle Vue Ground on the final day of the 1997-98 season as being an extremely difficult one for Colchester United, the innocent party in all of this, caught up in a dispute between fans and owners.
There were two pitch invasions at Doncaster, the first of them after just 12 minutes, which caused both sets of players to disappear into their dressing rooms. It actually felt more like a demonstration, or political rally, rather than a mere sporadic invasion of the pitch by disgruntled supporters.
I recall a sea of placards and banners, most of them expressing their disgust for owner Mr Richardson, and also general manager Mark Weaver.
Just like at Leyton Orient last Saturday, it was a very peaceful protest, with U’s fans offering vocal support to Rovers’ cause.
In my match report for the following Monday’s ‘East Anglian Daily Times,’ I wrote – ‘For a while, there was even the threat of the match being abandoned.’
However, unlike at Brisbane Road, Rovers fans did eventually drift away back to the stands and the terraces, and the match was able to continue.
Ex-Ipswich Town striker Neil Gregory went on to score what proved to be the winning goal, in the 52nd minute, although that goal did prompt a short second pitch invasion. Gregory’s goal, due to results elsewhere, was not enough to secure automatic promotion, although Wignall’s men did go on to clinch promotion to the third tier via the play-offs.
As for Rovers, they faced an uncertain future.
In my match report at the time, I wrote: ‘Doncaster will now go part-time. They hope to be in the Conference next season, but even that is not assured, because of the poor conditions of the ground.’
Ironically, of course, Rovers did regain their Football League status (in 2003), moved to a fine new ground at the Keepmoat in 2007, and clinched promotion to the third tier a few weeks ago.
Leyton Orient also face a very uncertain future.
Certainly, the goal of the fans’ pitch invasion on Saturday was more extreme, to get the match abandoned, and so cause a major headache for the EFL, rather than just stage a demonstration.
It is impossible not to have sympathy for the club’s long-suffering fans, who have watched their club decline from narrowly missing out on promotion to the Championship in 2014, to nose-diving into non-league after 112 years as a League club.
Most of them also felt angry at being duped into thinking that Saturday’s game had been ‘abandoned,’ only for the players to return to the pitch to play out those surreal last few minutes in an empty stadium.
But perhaps, having made their point, O’s fans should have dispersed rather than lingered on the pitch?
As it was, John McGreal’s men, just like Wignall’s side of 19 years ago, produced a very professional display to win the game (3-1), and keep alive their promotion hopes.
One thing’s for sure – I will never forget either game. Pitch inspections do wonders for the memory!