The 1930s and 1940s

Sun 11 Aug 2013
Author: Matt Hudson
The U's players prepare for Bradford in 1948

The U's players prepare for Bradford in 1948

The U's get professional life underway.

Sceptics argued that the new professional club would not attract the 4,000 spectators deemed as the break-even figure whilst supporters argued that Colchester boasted a population higher than seventeen of the then current Football League clubs. 

Twelve directors formed the Board and they appointed Ted Davis, former Huddersfield goalkeeper and Bath City manager, to be in charge of team affairs. 

On July 14th 1937 came the public announcement that the new club would be named Colchester United - a week after Davis' Yorkshire contacts enabled the players to be kitted out in the same blue and white strip as his former club. 

After opening trial matches on August 19th and August 26th 1937, United's first-ever Layer Road game was against Davis' old team Bath City on Thursday September 2nd in the Southern League Midweek Section. 

United won 6-1 with Reg Smith registering the club's first-ever hat-trick. 

United's goalkeeper Ronnie Dunn was a proficient musician with his Army unit and to celebrate the occasion he played 'The Post Horn Gallop' on his bugle to welcome the players on to the field. 

That entrance tune would stay with the club throughout its Layer Road history. The 'gate' was recorded as £250 rather than in terms of numbers. That amount of cash equated to an attendance of approximately 3,500. 

Two days later an amazing 11,000 witnessed a thrilling 3-3 Layer Road draw with neighbours Ipswich in the Southern League. 

Smith, scorer of that first treble, was sold to Wolves for £250 with full-back Cliff Fairchild joining Arsenal for a similar fee. 

Davis used his entrepreneurial skills to also arrange for those clubs to contest the Colchester Challenge Cup at Layer Road later in the season. 

Bill Barraclough became United's first sending off when he questioned the referee's parentage in the November fixture with Norwich City Reserves.

The popularity of the new United team finally spelt the end for Colchester Town. 

The Oysters, in serious financial difficulty, folded in December 1937, having dropped into the six-club Essex Senior League before briefly re-appearing to complete an Essex Senior Cup tie in January 1938 in order to avoid a hefty fine.

This enabled United to enter a reserve side into the Eastern Counties League a month later, with their squad now boosted by Town's redundant amateurs.

With the team doing well in the Southern League under the astute guidance of Davis, it was a blow when a severe gale in January 1938 almost destroyed the newly erected corrugated iron and timber Layer Road End. 

The roof was torn off damaging adjacent properties and Layer Road itself was closed for two days to clear the debris. 

In the return match with Ipswich, 8,000 Colcestrians helped set a new Portman Road ground record at 23,890. United had worn an orange and black strip in a Layer Road friendly with Charlton a week earlier in order to acclimatize themselves to the change strip they would wear in Suffolk. 

United, finishing mid-table, reached the Southern League Cup Final. A two-legged affair - they lost 2-1 at Yeovil over Easter 1938 but triumphed 3-1 at Layer Road to win the club's first-ever trophy.

The Wolves v Arsenal fixture proved a roaring success with 17,584 crammed into Layer Road to witness a 1-0 win for Wolves. 

United had adopted the nickname of 'The U's' to distinguish themselves from 'The Oysters' of Town and their prolific strike force of Alec Cheyne (36 goals), Arthur Pritchard (29) and John Hodge (23) had helped the club net 155 times in all first team competitions.

Professional football in Colchester had been an overwhelming success. That was also the case in Ipswich as the Suffolk club were elected to the Football League for 1938/9.

Davis strengthened his squad with League football very much on the agenda. The public responded as the opening fixture of 1938/9 against Gillingham attracted 8,142 and a week later 10,129 watched the Southern League visit from Arsenal 'A'. 

In October 1938, Layer Road hosted the Southern League versus the Cheshire League representative match. Cheyne and Len Astill were selected from Colchester and Cheyne scored as the southerners ran out 4-1 victors. 

Another 4-1 success heralded U's first venture into the FA Cup. Defeating Ilford at Layer Road before 8,160 supporters they bowed out to Folkestone in the First Round Proper. 

A number of United's players actually belonged to Football League clubs in terms of contract. 

Davis had snapped up a host of experienced players and while they could freely play non-League for Colchester most had a 'price on their head' owing to their contracted club should another League club wish to engage them. 

With this in mind, Davis urged caution when the Colchester Board began discussing applying for membership of the Football League. 

Had United made the step up then they too would have been liable for the transfer fees or face losing a large part of the squad. 

United had had a fantastic second season. They claimed the Southern League championship scoring 110 goals in 44 games, finished runners up in the Midweek section and reached the Southern League Cup semi-finals. 

Time ran out to play the semi-finals and it was agreed to play them the following campaign. 

Once again goals were not a problem. Pritchard netted 43 times, while George Wallis scored 24 and Cheyne and Astill helped themselves to 21 apiece from United's 161 grand total.

With high hopes that United would be elected to the Football League, director Walter Clark presented U's case to the Football League members on May 23rd 1938. 

Colchester did not receive a single vote in their favour and this was put down to the fact that they had so many League-registered players on their books of whom Davis had, in effect, poached to play for Colchester.

The ownership of Layer Road was passed to the Borough Council with Chairman Maurice Pye declaring: "Every lover of football, will I'm sure, welcome this as a move in the right direction, for whatever happens this fine open space will always belong to the town, and be for the benefit of Colcestrians and their love of football." 

How poignant.

Once again War loomed over Europe. Colchester kicked off the 1939/40 campaign by winning the first leg of the delayed Southern League Cup semi-final by 5-1 against Norwich City Reserves. 

But after just three Southern League games, War was declared and, as with Town beforehand, the club closed down and Layer Road was denied the chance to earn League football after considerable momentum had been made. 

United continued to play friendly matches against local opposition up until December 1939, with the Army Fire Fighting Corp taking over the ground for drill practice.

Layer Road did not starve of football during hostilities as a number of high profile military encounters took place at the ground. 

The influx of military personnel through Colchester Garrison ensured that Layer Road played host to a number of star players. 

In fact when Colchester Garrison played The Combined Services on December 13th 1945 the match was effectively Colchester United versus Great Britain. 

Over 8,000 watched as eight England internationals including Frank Swift, Stan Mortensen and Tommy Lawton, accompanied by three Welsh caps took on the guest players that were representing 

The U's in the transitional Southern League season of 1945/6. 

It had been the determination of former Town player Syd Fieldus along with a couple of Directors that had kept the club alive but dormant during the War years. Fieldus was appointed Secretary-Manager and attended the first post-War Southern League meeting in the summer of 1945. 

Initially it was decided that an East and West League be formed to reduce travelling in a time when rationing was still in force. However at the eleventh hour the League opted for a single all-South division when a number of mainly eastern clubs dropped out. 

Colchester almost quit themselves, which would have seen the club slipping down the non-League ladder, but the Supporters Club stepped in and pledged to fund the average £50 required for away travel to the likes of Cardiff, Worcester and Hereford. 

Fieldus, liaising with Major Dai Rees, forged a strong relationship with the Garrison and as United only had four contracted players the Colchester team was complimented by servicemen of varying degrees of ability. 

So much so that 81 players were used to complete just 31 Southern League and Cup matches. It was permissible, and not uncommon, for that season only that players could be registered right up until kick-off time.

Football was back on its feet and Fieldus urged the board to appoint a full-time manager for the 1946/7 season. 

Layer Road had its Main Stand extended and the property behind what now is the Barside was purchased to overcome disputes regarding access by supporters to that side of the ground.

The new manager was no stranger to Layer Road. Ted Fenton, of West Ham fame, had turned out for Colchester Town in the early 1930s whilst a teenager. 

Fenton had excellent contacts and wasted no time in assembling his team from an array of professionals looking for a new start after the long War years. 

United finished mid-table in that first 'proper' season after hostilities and Fenton knew he had more work to do with his squad. 

The Popular Side stand was demolished and the timbers re-used to improve the Layer Road End. The Main Stand had a boundary wall built to prevent supporters trying to enter without paying and a suggestion was made to purchase 20 feet of land from each of the properties in Gladwin Road to provide supporter access to the Open End. 

The latter of course never happened. 

It was estimated that one-third of supporters arrived at Layer Road on match days by bicycle at this time. 

Fenton's first squad had numbered 28 part-time professionals, but this was reduced to just 17 for the 1947/8 campaign.Quantity was replaced by quality with the likes of Bob Curry, Bob Allen, Arthur Turner, Harry Bearryman, Digger Kettle, Dennis Hillman and Len Cater to name a few. 

At this time, Colchester United were on the verge of being put on the football map via a truly magnificent run in the FA Cup. 

The competition got off to a rather unspectacular start for United as they crept home 3-2 against neighbours Chelmsford in the Fourth Qualifying Round watched by a Layer Road crowd of 10,396. 

It was the second year running that The U's had reached the First Round Proper, they had been soundly beaten 5-0 by Reading twelve months earlier, and 8,574 fans held on nervously as Colchester edged out Banbury Spencer by a slim 2-1 margin. 

Wrexham, of the Third Division North were the next visitors to Layer Road and they were duly dispatched by a Bob Curry goal with both sides missing penalties. Once again, over 10,000 fans crammed into Layer Road. 

Ironically it was First Division Huddersfield, the club that had inspired United's own team strip, who were next to be put to the sword. The national press were making big things of little old Colchester and Fenton courted the publicity. 

He watched Huddersfield a couple of times before the tie and declared to the media that he had come up with a plan to beat them. This became known countrywide as 'The F-plan'. 

Both teams changed colours, Huddersfield to red and The U's to blue. 

Huddersfield struggled to adapt to the cramped surroundings and on 70 minutes Allen's free-kick was only parried by the visiting keeper and U's captain Bob Curry stabbed home the rebound. It was the first time that a non-League side had beaten a First Division club. 

The 16,000 crowd that witnessed that famous victory could easily have been trebled for the Fourth Round tie with Second Division Bradford Park Avenue had Layer Road been able to accommodate them. 

United didn't disappoint, although their opponents were more wary of Colchester's growing reputation. 

Indeed Bradford took the lead only for Curry to net twice before the visitors equalised on the stroke of half-time. Cutting stroked in United's third to send the home crowd into delirium and Fenton was chaired off the pitch at the final whistle.

The Fifth Round draw was awaited with bated breath. Blackpool, Stanley Matthews et al, were drawn out to host Fenton's Cup heroes. 

The effects of War were still evident with fuel rationing and just 36 hours before 52 coaches were due to set off for the north-west coast the Ministry of Transport reinforced their restriction on fuel usage.

Over 40 coaches had to be cancelled and as a result U's fans had to travel by train. This meant, however, that they would arrive in Blackpool in the early hours on the morning of the match. 

This did not deter the hardy band of fans and the West Lancashire Post reported: "The peace of Blackpool was shattered at dawn today by thousands of Colchester fans, waving rattles, ringing bells, blowing trumpets and shouting 'Up The U's'. Not since pre-War Illumination weekends has there been such an invasion as stormed our streets from 4 o'clock this morning." 

The support was good natured but the home side powered to a 5-0 victory in front of a 30,000 sell-out. Colchester United were now everybody's favourite non-League side. 

FA Cup success had an effect on League form and United finished fourth - nine points adrift of champions Merthyr Tydfil. They also reached the Southern League Cup Final but time ran out for the match to be played. 

It was inevitable after all the national publicity that Ted Fenton would be sought after. When the opportunity came to become assistant manager at West Ham in the summer of 1948, Fenton could not refuse.

Former Aston Villa and Portsmouth centre-half Jimmy Allen was given the reigns and the ex-England international took over the mandate to get Colchester into the Football League. 

Expectations of another great FA Cup run fuelled the imagination and a record Layer Road crowd of 19,072 gathered for the First Round tie with Reading on November 27 1948. 

Thick fog forced the abandonment of the tie after just 35 minutes and when the tie was rescheduled the following Thursday afternoon (there were no floodlights at this time) 'only' 13,371 turned up to see Colchester lose 4-2. 

In the Southern League, Colchester vied with Chelmsford and Gillingham for the title, but it was the Kent side that won their second title in three years. It was a disappointing season all round. 

Having reached the Southern League Cup Final held over from the previous season and that of the 1948/9 season too, the U's were forced to play both finals in the space of 10 days in a spell that also included four League fixtures. 

Fatigued, U's lost the 1947/8 final at Merthyr and the 1948/9 competition at Yeovil. 

Storm damage once again struck the Layer Road End with the roof being blown off. A shortage of steel meant that re-construction was still not complete as the 1949/50 season kicked off.

Allen strengthened his defence with the signings of Reg Stewart and Bill Layton and, by Christmas 1949, United had lost just three of their 28 games played, one of which was in the FA Cup at Wealdstone. 

The game was one of the first FA Cup ties to be televised but this time it was United on the receiving end of a shock. 

The U's led the table all season until a disastrous, fixture-congested April when they were held to home draws by Torquay Reserves and Gravesend & Northfleet and suffered 5-0 and 6-1 defeats at main rivals Merthyr and Gillingham in the space of three days. 

In between those two defeats, they also recovered some pride with a 3-0 first leg Southern League Cup Final lead over Bath City. 

Completing their fourth match in five days leg weary United allowed Bath back into the game and a last minute goal from the visitors took the game into extra-time at 4-1 in Bath's favour. 

Vic Keeble and Dennis Hillman scored in the extra 30 minutes and Colchester won the trophy for the second time. 

With Gillingham having defeated Merthyr in midweek all United had to do in their last fixture was to win at Barry Town to secure the title. Try as they might The U's could not break down the Welshmen's defence. 

The game ended 0-0 and Merthyr took the title on goal average with the 5-0 hammering over Easter helping to swing the title to Wales. 

All the more galling as Vic Keeble had netted 45 times, a seasonal club record that still stands, with Curry adding 24 and Fred Cutting 22. 

Fellow forward Arthur Turner had been out for almost the entire season with a cartilage injury.

June 3rd 1950 was then another red-letter day in United's history. 

Only Everton and West Brom opposed the expansion of the Third Division's North and South preferring another regional League. Of the applicants to join the southern section Gillingham polled 44 votes, Colchester 28, Worcester 11, Chelmsford 8, Peterborough 5 and Yeovil and Merthyr just one each.

Colchester United had been elected to the Football League with an enviable Supporters Club membership of over 16,000 and an average gate of 8,500. 

An amazing achievement when, because of the War, they had only been in competition for seven full seasons. The U's departed non-League with the following impressive record:

Southern League Champions: 1938/9
Runners Up: 1949/50
Southern League Cup winners: 1937/8, 1949/50
Finalists: 1947/8, 1948/9
Semi-finalists: 1938/9 (unfinished due to War), 1946/7
FA Cup Fifth Round: 1947/8

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