Colchester United comment: good start, bad ending
It is still mathematically possible, of course, but Colchester United fans are facing up to the prospect of their team missing out on the League Two play-offs after a miserable last couple of months.
The U’s slithered to a 2-0 defeat at Bury on Saturday, undone by a brace of second-half headers from striker Dom Telford, on 50 and 66 minutes.
It was the Essex club’s fifth defeat in their last six outings, and an even more depressing statistic is that they have failed to even score a goal in those five losses.
Over the last couple of months, following on from a 3-0 home win over Cheltenham which saw the U’s climb to fourth in the table – and with an outside chance of even securing automatic promotion – John McGreal’s men have won just twice in 10 games.
That is relegation form, not promotion form.
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They have gone from a position of challenging the top three, to a position of sitting five points adrift of the top seven, with just four fixtures remaining.
The U’s will not give up the ghost until it is impossible for them to make the play-offs, but most supporters seem to have accepted that fourth tier football will again be on display at the Jobserve Community Stadium next season. They are not wrong.
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Lack of goals
The U’s were scoring goals for fun during the first three months of the season, hammering Crewe 6-0 and scoring three or more goals against Cheltenham, Cambridge, Oldham, Yeovil and Crawley, all by mid-October.
But the goals have largely dried up since then, with the U’s netting three or more goals in just five games over the last six months.
So what has happened to cause this down-turn?
Luke Norris’ ankle injury, suffered in early November, certainly had an effect. He has not looked the same player since his return, and has now gone half-a-year without scoring.
Likewise, leading scorer Sammie Szmodics has blown hot and cold.
Although he has scored 12 goals during the season, he has been out-of-sorts of late and mustered just one goal in the last 10 games.
When Szmodics isn’t on fire, the U’s do tend to struggle.
Mikael Mandron, often just a bit-part player this term, has contributed just a couple of goals, while even the powerful Frank Nouble has threatened more than his current tally of eight goals suggest.
A failure to score goals, and certainly a failure to take the lead and so settle the nerves, has been a big factor in the U’s drifting off the promotion pace.
Bury was a case in point on Saturday.
The visitors started brightly and Courtney Senior had a cross-cum-shot cleared off the goal-line inside the first minute.
Tom Lapslie forced a great save from the impressive Joe Murphy in the Shakers goal on nine minutes, and even after Bury took the lead, early in the second half, there were chances to grab an equaliser about Telford put the game to bed with his second.
Murphy kept out a goal-bound drive by Ryan Jackson, while Sam Saunders rattled the bar with a thunderous long-range shot.
So near and yet so far – a bit like the U’s 2018-19 season, I fear.
Errors at the back
It remains the nightmare combination – not scoring at one end, leaking goals at the other.
A set piece was the U’s downfall yet again, as Nicky Adams’ deep corner was allowed to sail over to the far post, over the head of stranded keeper Rene Gilmartin, with Maynard nodding back across goal for an unmarked Telford to head home from point blank range.
The Shakers, beset by off-the-pitch problems (players’ wages not paid from March, plus a winding-up petition lodged against the club), exploited holes in the U’s defence to double the lead after the hour mark.
Maynard was able to create enough space to deliver a cross from the right flank, and Telford did the rest with a stooping header.
Bury had lost their previous three matches, to slip out of the top three, but they took full advantage of the brittle U’s to soar back up to second spot.
The U’s must simply win their last four games, and hope that at least two of the teams above them slip up, not once but twice.
They are still ninth, but now level on points with 12th-placed Newport, who have a game in hand.
Time is running out.