Enthralling afternoon ends pointless

COLCHESTER United's hearts were finally broken by a dramatic late comeback from the promotion-chasing Baggies, which leaves them tottering on the brink of relegation.

Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United's hearts were finally broken by a dramatic late comeback from the promotion-chasing Baggies, which leaves them tottering on the brink of relegation.

The U's could well be officially relegated next weekend, regardless of whether they suffer defeat at the hands of neighbours Ipswich.

Their hopeless position, rock bottom of the Championship and 13 points adrift of safety, suggests that Geraint Williams' men have gone down without a fight. But that would be way off the mark.

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Cruel luck has plagued the U's all season, and once again they were left shaking their heads in disbelief following a seven-goal thriller at The Hawthorns. It must surely be a contender for one of the Championship's most compelling games of the season.

The U's were leading 3-2 with just 30 seconds of normal time remaining. Only a seventh victory of the season looked within their grasp, as did a shock second league double of the campaign - Tony Mowbray's high-fliers had been outgunned 3-2 at Layer Road in October.

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Many of the home fans had deserted their seats and were funnelling out of the exits when the unthinkable happened - West Brom scored not once, but twice, to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

Substitute James Morrison rammed home an equaliser in the 90th minute, and striker Roman Bednar then nipped in front of Chris Coyne to nod home Chris Brunt's cross in the third minute of stoppage time to seal a sensational comeback.

If the U's had still been in with a fighting chance of beating the drop, rather than already being marooned at the foot of the table, then Saturday would have been a devastating defeat, from which they would have been unlikely to recover.

As it was, though, their fate had effectively been sealed a week or two before this match. The defeat was still desperately disappointing, but at least they could take consolation from taking West Brom, the best footballing side in the division, to the wire. It was a great game.

United were on the rack from the first whistle, but incredibly they scored twice inside a two-minute spell to make a mockery of their basement status.

Keeper Dean Kiely blundered for both goals. The ex-Charlton stalwart failed to deal with Dean Hammond's 14th minute free-kick, as did his static defence, which enabled Chris Coyne to find the back of the net with the unlikeliest of overhead kicks.

It was a striker's finish from a centre-half - it was also Coyne's first goal in a Colchester shirt since his switch from Luton Town in January.

If the Baggies were left reeling from this shock opener, then they were completely stunned by Medy Elito's first ever senior goal, which doubled the U's lead in the 16th minute.

Again Kiely did not deal conclusively with Phil Ifil's cross, and when his mistimed punch dropped at the feet of Elito, the 17-year-old winger took time to compose himself before lashing an unstoppable left-footed shot into the roof of the net from just inside the box.

The gauntlet had been laid down. Could West Brom respond? The FA Cup semi-finalists did, thanks to an attacking brand of football, so guaranteeing a mesmerising afternoon.

While you could have got favourable odds on Coyne and Elito scoring their first goals for the U's, you wouldn't have become very wealthy betting on Kevin Phillips to score.

Livewire Phillips had already rattled the post with a long-range shot on 22 minutes, before he halved the deficit with a deadly finish in the 36th minute.

Adam Virgo had replaced Pat Baldwin after just five minutes, due to the ex-Chelsea trainee's dislocated shoulder, and it was Virgo's failure to intercept Carl Hoefkens' cross that enabled Phillips to drill home his 20th league goal of the campaign.

Three minutes later and West Brom were level. Chris Brunt had been renowned for scoring some quality goals with his sweet left foot while at Sheffield Wednesday, and the Irishman obliged again with a stunning shot from outside the penalty area, which flew like a rocket past Dean Gerken and into the far corner of the net.

It was one-way traffic, with the U's forced to defend in numbers. Ironically, the Championship's leakiest defence coped well, helped by some smart goalkeeping and another slice of fortune - substitute Neil Clement struck the bar with a looping header early in the second-half.

U's boss Williams was sent to the main-stand by referee Graham Laws, following a difference of opinion with the fourth official, but the Welshman's absence from the dug-out did not prevent his side from taking a shock 3-2 lead in the 75th minute.

Hammond swung over the U's first corner of the game, and although Johnnie Jackson's initial volley was blocked by Kiely, it merely allowed an alert Lisbie to stab home his 16th goal of the season.

For a few minutes, the visitors were in the driving seat. Substitute Scott Vernon was desperately close to adding a fourth, when his angled drive whistled just a foot wide of the far post.

But with the finish-line in sight, United crumbled in dramatic fashion. Morrison and Bednar struck to leave the Baggies still dreaming of automatic promotion and FA Cup glory.

Even West Brom's famous fans from the media, Adrian Chiles and Frank Skinner, would have struggled to write a better script. They both looked a year or two older by the final whistle!

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