My Layers of memories

To coincide with the publication of a new book called My Layer Road - Carl Marston recalls his own experiences of covering Colchester United's last 16 years at the wonderful old ground

Carl Marston

To coincide with the publication of a new book called My Layer Road - Carl Marston recalls his own experiences of covering Colchester United's last 16 years at the wonderful old ground

I HAVE a confession to make - I used to have a second home!

I'm not rich. My second home was not a cottage in the Cotswolds, or an apartment in the Canaries. It wasn't even a beach hut in Clacton.

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No, my second home was better than all of these. It had windows and a door, a line of chairs and a long table. It also had a set of coat hooks. And best of all - it had the best views in Essex!

I first moved into my “new” second home in 1992. I remember the day well - it was a Saturday, November 21. I stayed for a little over four hours, and left in a state of shock mixed with excitement.

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I went back there, every alternate weekend and the odd weekday evening, for the next 16 years. They were great times. My second home is still standing, apparently, but the views are no longer as good. So I've moved on.

I am of course referring to the press box at Layer Road, a timeless place, jam-packed with memories. On the outside, it looked quite small and, unlike Dr Who's Tardis, it was quite cramped on the inside as well.

The windows steamed up, a few posts obscured the view at the far end of the pitch, and after one particular summer I returned to my second home, only to find that it had shrunk by about a third - the police had commandeered it and filled the space with CCTV cameras.

Yet I didn't care. It still felt like home to me.

When I first arrived, as a 20-something still wet-behind-the-ears journalist, I was greeted by two legendary figures who occupied seats at either end of the box.

Hal Mason sat on the extreme right, nearest the corner flag, and Bernie Webber, his partner-in-crime, was based on the far left.

They gave the impression that they had been sitting in these same seats for 200 years. Their knowledge of Colchester United was second-to-none. Their foreheads almost bulged with a life-time of hoarding memories of their beloved U's.

By the time that I became acquainted with Hal and Bernie - the U's equivalent to an Eric and Ernie - they were both in the twilight of their journalistic careers, having retired from full-time employment.

They were now both freelance. No job was too small or too big for them. They wrote stories for the nationals, long reports for local weeklies, and did updates for radio stations.

And I was in awe of them!

I waded my way through countless Green Un “runners,” ringing through to the copytakers back in the office with five or six paragraphs every 15 minutes, and would also pool together some notes for the next edition of the EADT.

While I was doing this, Bernie would be speaking to anyone who had shown even a passing interest in receiving some copy of the U's latest match. Often, he would be on two phones at the same time; often, he would forget who he was talking to, or who had scored the winning goal. But he would always muddle through.

Hal was just as busy. He alternated between regurgitating managers' quotes and munching on boiled sweets. Hal always came to Layer Road equipped with a pen, book and a bag of mints.

Hal and Bernie both passed away long before the U's finally left Layer Road for good. They lost count of the number of times that a possible move to a new stadium was muted during their lifetimes, but deep down both knew that Layer Road would finally be deserted for something newer, plusher and grander.

As for me, I loved every minute of every visit to that Layer Road press box.

I will never forget my very first U's game as a journalist (a miraculous 4-4 home draw against Rochdale in November, 1992, when U's keeper Ron Green spent more time out of his penalty area than in it!).

I had visited a few times before, mainly for some Friday night football with my Dad in the late 1970s, but I always consider that eight goal-thriller with Dale to be my proper debut.

Since then, I have sat next to some very affable journalists, and interviewed some very charismatic managers outside my “second home” - the likes of Kevin Keegan, Barry Fry and current Ipswich Town boss Roy Keane spring to mind.

I reported on two promotions, one relegation, several great cup runs, a few pitch inspections, some dodgy referees, a streaker, the occasional crowd protest, and one magician (Lomana Lua Lua!).

But for me, the biggest pleasure was sharing my “second home” with so many people - the players on the pitch, the fans on the terraces, the management in the dug-out, and of course Hal and Bernie in the press box.

I like the Cotswolds, and I wouldn't have minded an apartment in Tenerife. But I wouldn't have swapped the Layer Road press box for either of them.

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