A glimpse of the future?

COLCHESTER United back in the Championship? That won't be happening for at least another year, but Saturday gave us all a flavour of what it would be like to grace the Football League's second tier again.

Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United back in the Championship? That won't be happening for at least another year, but Saturday gave us all a flavour of what it would be like to grace the Football League's second tier again.

If the U's had avoided relegation last term, then the new Weston Homes Community Stadium would have been packed to the rafters for virtually every home game this season.

Attendances would have been nudging 10,000 every fortnight, and every home game would have been a big occasion. So that has to be the target for the Essex club - to regain their Championship status.

Of course it won't be easy. Many other clubs are in the same boat, not least Saturday's visitors Leeds United, who have hosted crowds in excess of 30,000 this season.

Saturday was a triumph on virtually every level, in terms of commercialism and public interest. A record crowd of 9,559 crammed into the new venue, with just a few hundred empty seats to help with crowd segregation. The executive boxes were full and the restaurant was buzzing.

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There was not an empty place left in the official car park, and amongst the distinguished guests were a whole host of former U's playing legends, as well as former U's Chief Executive Marie Partner, who was with the club for more than 20 years.

It's just a shame, though, that Saturday was the exception rather than the norm. It gave a glimpse of what might have been, but hopefully also what might lie ahead.

The U's have made dramatic progress, on the pitch, since manager Paul Lambert took charge in mid-October. He has transformed the team from relegation candidates to one of the most respected sides in the division.

But there is still work to be done. United should be amongst the leading promotion contenders next season, if they can unearth a regular goalscorer, or at least eke a full year out of the injury-plagued Steven Gillespie.

Leeds were stronger in most areas. The second automatic promotion slot looks a little beyond the Yorkshire club, but they must be favourites to return to the Championship via the play-offs.

The U's best part of the game was during the first 25 minutes, when they were full of life and energy. No doubt encouraged by finally playing in front of a sell-out crowd, the hosts forced the pace and could have taken the lead.

Karl Hawley and Mark Yeates both had chances. Preston loanee Hawley tested the reactions of Leeds keeper Casper Ankergren with an early shot that the big Dane struggled to divert around his near post.

Hawley then released Yeates through on goal, but the Dubliner could not squeeze his shot past the imposing figure of Ankergren. The ball flew wide off the keeper's chest.

Argentine striker Luciano Becchio showed the U's how to finish by plundering his 13th goal of the season in the 29th minute. It was to prove the match-winner.

Becchio was given too much time to make room for himself in the box, following a pass from Robert Snodgrass, and then unleash a thunderous shot that flew past Mark Cousins and into the roof of the net.

There was still more than an hour to play, but in truth Colchester never really looked like finding an equaliser.

In fact, Leeds should have added to their tally. And they would have, if leading scorer Jermaine Beckford had not left his shooting boots back at Elland Road! On another day, he would surely have notched a hat-trick.

Three times Beckford was through on goal, only to be denied by a combination of Cousins and his own poor finishing. Ankergren, by contrast, had virtually nothing to do throughout the whole of the second half.

U's boss Lambert had begun the afternoon with a diamond midfield, choosing to play Yeates behind the front two of Hawley and Clive Platt, and therefore sacrificing some width.

The tactics were tweaked later on in the game, with Yeates operating wider and the likes of Simon Hackney, Ashley Vincent and Lewis Gobern all being introduced as substitutes.

But the U's were not clever enough to break down a stubborn Leeds rearguard. Certainly, they didn't possess the weaponry to spoil a Leeds run that has now yielded seven victories and two defeats in their last nine matches.

However, at least Saturday gave a taste of what might be at the Community Stadium.

There are still five games remaining this season, but it is difficult not to already look ahead to next term.

Hopefully, the U's will not be hindered by such a dreadful first couple of months to the campaign. Then the crowds might just return, and a sea of empty seats might become a ghost of the past.


COLCHESTER UNITED: Cousins 7, Maybury 7, Trotman 7, Baldwin 7, Tierney 6, Hammond 6, Izzet 7, Perkins 6 (sub Hackney, 62), YEATES 7 (sub Gobern, 83), Platt 6, Hawley 6 (sub Vincent, 74). Unused subs: White, Gerken.

LEEDS UNITED: Ankergren 7, Douglas 7, Sodje 7, Naylor 7, Parker 7, SNODGRASS 8 (sub Hughes, 88), Howson 7, Kilkenny 7 (sub Robinson, 78), Delph 7, Becchio 8 (sub Dickinson, 90+1), Beckford 6. Unused subs: Marques, Lucas.

Referee: Mr Keith Woolmer (Northants) 7.

Attendance: 9,559.

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