Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Chris Billy

So there I am idly scanning my Twitter feed when @twounfortunates plug, of things, a blog ( about why Chris Billy was somebody’s favourite-ever Carlisle United player. Once I had recovered from the shock that he was actually somebody’s favourite-ever player my mind started to wander and inevitably it headed for Colchester United’s shrine to decrepitude: Layer Road.
Layer Road was one of those stadia that rejoiced descriptively in the some of the football fan’s more laboured euphemisms. It was “old school”; it had “character”; “difficult place to go” etc.

It was all of those things and more: it was small; the view from the terrace behind the goal was dreadful; in short it was a pit and if the same regulations applied to teams already in the Football League as it did to those hoping to be promoted into it then Colchester would undoubtedly have been thrown out without so much as a second thought. In all but name it was a non-league ground that would have shamed many non-league clubs. On top of which it was bloody miles away from just about everywhere ~ it was even a tidt trek from the town centre and the railway station! (Admittedly this is a complaint that can just as easily be levelled against Argyle.) Still however you cut it the journey from Plymouth to Colchester must be one of the very worst that an English football fan can make and the journey to Colchester from just about anywhere else isn’t much better! So naturally the football gods decreed that I needed to make the trip twice in the ’95-’96 season as they bestowed upon us matches against Colchester would more or less bookend the season.
The first occasion marked the very first league game of the season. Football fans of all teams will know the feelings this occasion inspires. It is always a bit mixed. There is hope, there is always hope, but it is tempered with trepidation. The previous season had seen the complete collapse of Argyle as both a team and a club. A long running feud between chairman Dan McCauley and superstar manager Peter Shilton had reduced the team to the complete shambles that resulted in Argyle being relegated to the 4th tier (how I hate that description!) for the first time in our history. We needed a knight in shining armour to rescue our distressed damsel and he came along in the shape of one of football’s most maverick managers when much to my astonished glee McCauley recruited Neil Warnock; more importantly, they seemed to enjoy a great relationship; McCauley was even prepared to back Warnock’s judgement financially and a clutch of new signings was unveiled. It was with all systems set to an optimistic “Go!” that I made the long journey to darkest Essex to see Nicky Hammond, Mark Patterson, Paul Williams, Wayne Burnett, Mick Heathcote, Keith Hill, Chris Billy, Ronnie Mauge, Adrian Littlejohn, Kevin Nugent, Chris Leadbitter and subs: Chris Twiddy, Mickey Evans, Doug Hodgson (who?) play.
The day itself was sweltering. I don’t have the temperature reading for Colchester on August 12th1994 to hand but take it from me: it was hot and humid; it was all but unbearable; I recall sweat trickling down the centre of my my back as I stood and watched the match. It was certainly not football playing weather! I think it was probably the hottest day on which I ever saw a football match. A match that ultimately we were to lose 2-1 with Mark Kinsella scoring with a piledriver from distance, something which became something of a recurring theme, and Colchester getting a player sent off after he had tangled with Chris Leadbitter. It is fair to say that the home fans were incensed by the red card and delighted with the spectacular winning goal. That apart I remember little of the game that might have been Chris Billy’s first for the club.
On to my second trip to Essex. This time it was for the first leg of the end of season play-offs and the match was played on a Sunday afternoon. This facilitated a Saturday night out in London preceded by the watching of the Man Utd 1 (Cantona) Liverpool 0 FA Cup Final in a Twickenham pub in what must still rank as one of the worst Cup Finals ever played. The Middlesesex Sevens tournament was happening on the same day and Twickenham was awash with Rugby League fans down to watch Wigan RLFC take part for the first time in an event that saw those two codes finally bury the hatchet after decades of bitter division.
It wasn’t as hot in Essex this time but Mark Kinsella did his thunderbolt from distance again and Argyle lost the game 1-0. It was a dour battle. Warnock unleashed his “dogs of war”, later to be reincarnated by Paul Sturrock as “blood and snotters” to rather more success, to no avail and a tricky return leg lay ahead of us three days later. So it wasn’t by any means a classic and for the second time that season I returned, eventually, to Plymouth disappointed. Three things stood out from the game: one was a defensive mix-up as we defended a corner that resulted in an amazing on-pitch row between the players who almost came to blows; the second was a Colchester defender at another corner clearly elbowing one of our players (yellow card issued) in the box for what would have been the most blatant penalty ever had the corner been taken and the ball in play; the third was a miss by Chris Billy…
It was one of those moments that sits horribly in the fringes of memoryand yet stubbornly refuses to recede. Argyle broke from about halfway, Billy made a run between their centre backs and the ball was threaded with great precision through to him. Billy ran on to it leaving the defence for dead, took a touch, looked up at the advancing goalie and side-footed the ball past him towards a now unguarded net. The Green Army behind the goal surged forward with anticipation and started to celebrate what appeared to be a certain goal. Only it wasn’t. Billy’s slide rule was a tad out and the ball slid agonisingly, unbelievably past the post. The view at Layer Road was appalling and I never did actually see exactly how the ball failed to go in. A wild celebration was stopped in its tracks and supporters looked at each other with blinking incomprehension. “It’s not a goal.” “It didn’t go in.” Or more simply: “he missed.”
So that’s what springs to mind when I think of Chris Billy. I don’t think, not immediately anyway, of a brilliant performance by him at Home Park when a soon to be relegated Argyle beat champions-elect Bristol City 2-0, nor of his stocky figure ploughing through the mud with his socks down around his ankles with his hugely impressive calf muscles bulging. It’s a miss in what at the time seemed like the most important game that Argyle had played in years.
It’s unfair, really. Ultimately his miss didn’t matter because Colchester were beaten on a night of huge passion and no little controversy in the second leg three days later. It was a match that I still rate as the most exciting game I ever saw and Home Park played a starring role as a cauldron of hostility. And how did Billy play on that evening? He didn’t. Warnock dropped him and Steve Cherry, Mark Patterson, Paul Williams, Ronnie Mauge, Mick Heathcote, Martin Barlow, Chris Leadbitter, Richard Logan, Adrian Littlejohn, Mickey Evans, Chris Curran were the victorious Pilgims that secured the trip to Wembley.
(With thanks to for supplying some of the details.)