Don't bet against U's winning promotion
Colchester United 3 Sunderland 1COLCHESTER United's play-off dream lives on! And so does that unlikeliest of outcomes - the U's in the Premiership!Saturday was another great day at Layer Road, the latest in a long line of memorable encounters this season.
By Carl Marston
Colchester United 3 Sunderland 1
COLCHESTER United's play-off dream lives on! And so does that unlikeliest of outcomes - the U's in the Premiership!
Saturday was another great day at Layer Road, the latest in a long line of memorable encounters this season. U's fans have been so spoilt, over the last couple of seasons, that they now turn up expecting their heroes to produce a shock. Once again, they were not to be disappointed.
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Sunderland might still be destined for the Premiership, but Roy Keane's side will not forget their first ever visit to Layer Road. It was a painful experience.
The U's can now boast the best home record in the Championship, a remarkable statistic when considered that Geraint Williams' men lost their first two Layer Road fixtures last August. They have since suffered just one reverse in their last 20 home games.
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Only two teams in the top 11 have avoided defeat in this corner of north-east Essex. It all means that United are now just one point adrift of the top six, with two games remaining.
Wayne Brown, Richard Garcia and Jamie Cureton were the marksmen on Saturday, in front of the second-biggest crowd of the season (6,042, just 23 less than the visit of Ipswich). Sunderland's sole reply came via veteran midfielder Dwight Yorke.
The U's remain in ninth place, because Southampton (1-0 win over Leeds) and Stoke (held to a 1-1 draw by Hull) also picked up points. But these three clubs are now all level on 69 points, just one below the top six.
No one in the Championship had been able to live with Sunderland since the turn of the year - until Colchester! The Black Cats had won 14 and drawn the other three of their last 17 league games to soar to the top of the table.
Keane had scooped back-to-back manager-of-the-month awards, but the Irishman knew deep down that his side would face a stern test against Geraint Williams' hosts.
The first-half was enthralling, but appeared to be heading for a goal-less stalemate. Garcia tested keeper Darren Ward with a backward header from Kevin Watson's 19th minute free-kick, while the Wearsiders had a series of half-chances, most of them falling to leading scorer David Connolly.
Johnnie Jackson's ankle injury, which caused him to hobble off, led to three minutes of injury-time (according to the fourth official's neon board) at the end of the first-half. Ironically, Brown broke the deadlock in the fourth minute of stoppage time!
Brown has played in every minute of every game this term. He has been a tower of strength at the back, but was annoyed not to have scored - until Saturday.
Yet just as he had netted a crucial winner against Tranmere towards the end of last season, so the U's inspirational centre-half obliged again with a thunderous header from Watson's excellent free-kick.
Sunderland had no time to respond before the break, but they were level within nine minutes of the restart. Dean Gerken did well to block Dean Whitehead's initial shot with his legs, but when Daryl Murphy crossed back into the danger zone, Yorke was unchallenged as he headed into the roof of the net.
Yorke made a name for himself as a striker in his heyday, while playing for Aston Villa and Manchester United, although he has been transformed into a central midfielder at the Stadium of Light. It was his fifth goal of the campaign.
A draw would have been satisfactory for Sunderland, but it was of no real use to Colchester.
That guaranteed a thrilling finale, with the U's raising their game to a new level.
Brown nodded inches wide from another Watson free-kick, shortly after Yorke's equaliser, and Kem Izzet then scooped a shot over the bar after Cureton had his seen his effort blocked by Whitehead.
The excitement was growing, and the noise was deafening when Garcia restored the U's lead in the 82nd minute. Substitute Hogan Ephraim was the creator, and Garcia turned to lash home an unstoppable shot from 10 yards out. It was the Australian's seventh goal of the campaign.
Both U's substitutes were instrumental in the win, and it was Jamie Guy's turn to get in on the act with his surging run on 89 minutes. Guy burst through the middle and slid into the path of Cureton, who was upended by Whitehead for a clear-cut penalty.
Regular penalty-taker, Chris Iwelumo, had been replaced by substitute Guy, so Cureton needed no second invitation to pick himself up and take the spot kick.
Cureton's calm finish boosted his tally for the season to 24 goals, leaving him two goals ahead of Cardiff's Michael Chopra and West Brom's Diomansy Kamara in the race for the Golden Boot.
The race for the play-offs is still alive as well. The U's will have to win their final two games, at rivals Stoke next weekend and at home to Crystal Palace on the last day, to stand a chance of making the top six.
It's a tall order, but I for one wouldn't bet against them.