MARTIN Smith was the only Colchester reporter in the Villa Park press box to witness one of the greatest nights in U’s history. Thirty-eight years on, he remembers an unlikely cup upset.

BOBBY Roberts sat across the desk in the cramped manager’s office at Layer Road the morning after the nightmare before and made a prediction that was both outlandish and unfeasible.

Colchester had just been taken clinically apart 2-0 by Aston Villa in the home leg of their League Cup tie and it had just been suggested to him that the return trip to Birmingham the following week might be a wasted journey.

Yet Roberts, a dour Scot not given to frivolous statements, dutifully told the assembled hack pack of one: “There’s no thought in our minds that we’re just going up there next Wednesday to play 90 minutes of football. I still think we have a chance.

“I don’t think the tie is done. Football is one of those games where you never can predict what will happen.”

It made the splash headline on the back page of that day’s Evening Gazette: ‘We’re not finished yet – Bobby’. It had the hollow ring of a manager trying to talk up the impossible and not demoralise his shattered players.

The night before, an 18-year-old whipper-snapper called Gary Shaw – only playing because Andy Gray was in dispute with the club and about to become the most expensive domestic footballer with a £1.5 million transfer to Wolves – scored his first Villa goals, and might have had a third but for an offside flag.

To put the enormity of the task facing the U’s into context: bar an addition or two, this was the nucleus of the Villa side who would be League champions the following season, and European Cup winners the year after.

A week later, in the same corner office with its obscured view of the pitch, Roberts was still upbeat as he prepared to board the team coach waiting patiently outside in Layer Road.

In the interim the U’s had succumbed to the second of three successive Division Three defeats, conceding a last-minute goal at home to Swindon, but the obvious question was swatted away waspishly by the manager: “I still don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t win tonight.”

He reasoned: “Villa played as well as they can when they came here last week and I don’t think we should have lost so heavily. Besides, if Southend can beat Bolton and Plymouth knock out Chelsea, then why shouldn’t we beat Villa?

“It will not be easy. But I don’t think we’ll get a hiding tonight.

“If we can get the first goal that will put added pressure on them. It will make them nervous and that’s where I feel our chance lies.”

Twelve hours later those words of defiance became reality. The U’s did score the first goal, thanks to Trevor Lee’s diving header. Then, with 11 minutes left, Bobby Gough launched a shot from the edge of the area over Jimmy Rimmer to level the aggregate score.

Extra time came and went, and it was into a penalty shoot-out. It became a marathon. There were a couple of retakes, and just about everyone had had a go when, at 8-8, goalkeeper Mike Walker stepped up for his turn.

The thought occurred that this was going to be akin to a goal-kick. It was. The ball rose high into a now delirious Holte End.

After Tony Morley rolled in the decisive kick at six minutes past 10, the last train south having long gone, Villa manager Ron Saunders admitted: “We froze. And at the same time they relaxed and played the better football. You cannot take anything away from Colchester.”

How to describe one of the most momentous evenings in Colchester’s history? The intro to the following day’s Gazette match report had to be rewritten several times and the writer still squirms with embarrassment at the hyperbole 38 years later. However, it does sum up the prevailing mood.

Under the headline: ‘U’s win – then lose!’, it ran: Like the condemned prisoner on Death Row given a last-minute reprieve, only to be taken outside and shot, heroic Colchester were narrowly dumped out of the League Cup last night.

Roberts was quoted as saying: “We have now set a standard of play that I am looking for us to carry on in the League.” They did, enjoying their best season in the Football League up to then.

And why the manager’s unswerving optimism throughout? He revealed that he had never lost at Villa Park in a 16-year career south of the border.

“I must have played there seven or eight times for Leicester and never got beaten. In fact, we only drew there once during that time. When I was at Mansfield and they were in the Third Division we beat them home and away. It’s just one of those lucky grounds for me. I always felt we could get a result there but I didn’t tell the players about my luck there before the game!”