Alarm at U's exodus

AFTER a season of success, it's been a summer of discontent at Layer Road, and it's still only early June!Colchester United's wonderful first ever campaign in the Championship, when they finished a marvellous 10th in the table, was always going to make other clubs sit up and take notice.

By Carl Marston

AFTER a season of success, it's been a summer of discontent at Layer Road, and it's still only early June!

Colchester United's wonderful first ever campaign in the Championship, when they finished a marvellous 10th in the table, was always going to make other clubs sit up and take notice.

Players' careers that had been stagnating were suddenly on the rise, fired-up by fantastic performances.

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As a result the vultures have swept in, and it looks as though four or five regulars from last term may not be donning a Colchester shirt next season. So far, it has been the exit door and not the entrance gate that has been creaking at Layer Road!

The Essex club yesterday officially rejected Jamie Cureton's written request for a transfer, but the U's star striker is still adamant he wants to leave.

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It is an awkward position. Cureton still has a year to run on his contract, and the U's will be desperate to cling on to their main asset - he won the Championship's Golden Boot with 24 goals last season. However, the 31-year-old is clearly unsettled, and wants to secure a lucrative new deal, which could prove the final one of his career.

Manager Geraint Williams made his feelings known yesterday: “I will stress that we do not want to sell Jamie. We want to keep him at the club.”

If Cureton does get his way, with another club offering a fair price for the on-song goal-poacher, then the U's will be left with just one recognised striker on their books - raw teenager Jamie Guy!

At present, though, there is no need to panic. Williams still has time on his side to start replenishing what is suddenly a very threadbare squad.

Last year, Williams himself was not even officially installed as manager until a week before the campaign, and it took a few weeks for the team to gel and come to terms with life in the Championship. However, the promotion squad of 2005-06 was still largely intact, especially in attack, with Swindon loanee Cureton having just signed a two-year deal to resume his fruitful partnership with Chris Iwelumo.

The U's coped well with the loss of Neil Danns (to Birmingham), Liam Chilvers (to Preston) and loanee Mark Yeates (originally to Hull), but it will not always be possible to bounce back from such crushing disappointments.

Next season will certainly be tougher still for the U's. They are no longer an unknown quantity in the Championship, and losing a handful of key players would stretch even a club with a far bigger squad than Colchester.

Cureton's position is in limbo, but the U's have already lost his trusty strike-force partner, Iwelumo, to Charlton. The Scotsman signed a lucrative three-year deal last month.

Fellow front-runner Richard Garcia is out-of-contract and currently weighing up his options back in his native Australia, while left-back Chris Barker has decided to sign for QPR rather than return to Layer Road.

Barker was released by Cardiff last month, and although the U's were keen to sign him on a permanent deal - he impressed during a season-long loan - the 27-year-old has put pen to paper on a two-year deal at Loftus Road.

Hogan Ephraim, like Barker, enjoyed a successful loan stint last term. The 19-year-old has since signed a new one-year deal at West Ham, and may return for another loan spell, but there is no guarantee.

On the basis that last season's squad was already small, by Championship standards, Williams has a massive task on his hands trying to increase the quality and quantity of players over the next couple of months.

It appears that he will need to recruit at least four or five new players, and I would suggest his main priorities will be to sign a left-back, a couple of midfielders/ wide men and at least two new strikers (if Cureton does leave).

The goalkeeping position looks strong, with Dean Gerken having established himself as the first choice from last December. Aidan Davison will continue to coach Gerken, while also putting pressure on him for the No. 1 spot.

Wayne Brown and Pat Baldwin formed a strong centre-half partnership last season, and hopefully the likes of Garry Richards and George Elokobi will produce some strong competition in this department. Richards had a stint on loan at Brentford in the spring.But elsewhere, the U's really need to strengthen. The loss of Barker and Lawrie Wilson (released without making an appearance) means the U's need new blood at full-back.

Of course skipper Karl Duguid can fill in at either right-back or left-back, and Elokobi has played most of his games at left-back. But cover is required.

That is also the case in midfield, particularly on the flanks. Garcia was a regular on the right wing, while Ephraim was a useful performer on the left. Both might not be available next season.

Kevin McLeod and Johnnie Jackson are alternatives on the left wing, but otherwise the U's are thin on the ground. Jackson is also a useful deputy in central midfield for the strong partnership of Kevin Watson and Kem Izzet.

But it is the attack department that is in desperate need of strengthening. Target man Iwelumo will be a tough act to follow, having scored a total of 36 goals in his two seasons at Layer Road. And of course Cureton, if the U's worst fears are realised, will be even harder to replace.

Meanwhile, the highlight of Colchester United's pre-season campaign will be a home match against Premiership side Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, August 4.

The U's have already arranged friendlies at Cambridge United (Tuesday, July 24) and Gillingham (Tuesday, July 31).

The U's confirmed yesterday that they will be entertaining a Liverpool XI in a pre-season friendly at Layer Road on Saturday, July 28 (3pm). It is likely to be a team of fringe players, because Liverpool will be taking part in a round-robin tournament in Hong Kong at the same time.

U's defender John White, has signed a new improved and extended contract. Right-back White, who turns 21 next month, was the U's young player of the year in 2005-06. He started eight league games in the Championship last season, with eight other outings as a substitute.

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