Garcia double sends U's top

IN LESS than five months, Colchester United have been transformed from relegation no-hopers to League One leaders. It is a remarkable turnaround.The U's chalked up their 16th win from their last 18 games, thanks to supersub Richard Garcia's instinctive brace in a 2-1 defeat of mid-table Port Vale on Saturday.

By Carl Marston

IN LESS than five months, Colchester United have been transformed from relegation no-hopers to League One leaders. It is a remarkable turnaround.

The U's chalked up their 16th win from their last 18 games, thanks to supersub Richard Garcia's instinctive brace in a 2-1 defeat of mid-table Port Vale on Saturday.

Southend, the previous leaders, were held to a goalless draw at improving Tranmere, enabling the U's to rise to the top of the table. No wonder there were scenes of jubilation at the final whistle!

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As has happened so often this season, the Phil Parkinson's men displayed tremendous reserves of energy and enthusiasm to snatch all three points with a late winner, just when it looked as though they would have to settle for a point.

Garcia had broken the deadlock with his very first touch of the ball. Appearing as a 73rd-minute substitute, the Australian steered home from close range after the excellent Chris Iwelumo had nodded on Greg Halford's long throw. He had only been on the pitch for 60 seconds.

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United may have grabbed the elusive goal, but that was not the end of the story. Another good-sized Layer Road crowd (the second biggest of the season) were put through the mill. They certainly received their money's worth.

Vale, who had been unbeaten in 2006, were handed a lifeline when referee Phil Joslin ruled that Wayne Brown had handled in the penalty area. It looked a harsh decision, and it was definitely a very soft penalty to concede.

Striker Michael Husbands stepped up to ram home the 79th-minute penalty, and so bring the scores level. It would have been easy for heads to drop, but not Colchester. They don't know when they're beaten, and they don't even accept a draw!

Garcia obliged with the winner in the 87th minute. Iwelumo was again the creator, forcing keeper Mark Goodlad into an acrobatic save from his goalbound toe-poke. The alert Garcia did not need a second invitation, pouncing to head home the loose ball. It was his fourth goal of an injury-ravaged season.

The Layer Road faithful were in raptures, but their emotion soon changed to one of anger as they watched as their star midfielder Kevin Watson was helped on to a stretcher.

Vale midfielder Sam Togwell, who had been booked for a foul on Garcia in the 76th minute, ploughed into Watson with a badly-timed tackle in the last minute of normal time.

The challenge left Watson writhing in agony on the floor. It did not take long for physio Stuart Ayles to call for a stretcher - the former Reading midfielder had twisted his knee, and the fear was that he had suffered some serious ligament damage.

Remarkably, referee Mr Joslin did have a chat with Togwell, but instead of showing him a second yellow and ensuing red card, the Crystal Palace loanee escaped with just a stern lecture.

In fact, it was the U's and not the Valiants who had to survive the three minutes of injury time with just 10 men - Parkinson had already used his allotted three substitutes, including deputy keeper Dean Gerken, who had replaced the injured Aidan Davison midway through the second period.

Colchester were determined to preserve their slender advantage, and they successfully played out the rest of the game in Vale's half of the pitch. There was tremendous relief at the final whistle, for players and supporters alike, and that soon turned to one of sheer joy when it was announced that Southend had only drawn at Prenton Park. The U's were indeed top of the league!

Back at the end of August, the U's were down-and-out in 22nd position, following a 3-1 defeat in the Essex derby at Southend. Since then, they have only lost three of their last 27 fixtures.

The statistics speak for themselves. Saturday's success over Port Vale was their ninth home win on the trot, and their second league double of the campaign following six-out-of-six points from their two clashes with Blackpool.

The Layer Road club can boast the best defensive record in League One (just 27 goals conceded from 28 league games). They have also scored in all but one of their last 17 games, the exception being the 1-0 defeat at Swindon on Boxing Day

For most of Saturday afternoon, it seemed as though United might draw a blank. They had a healthy 15 goal attempts in the first half, but most of these were from outside the penalty area and of no real threat to keeper Goodlad.

The closest they came was in the sixth minute. Right-back Karl Duguid charged through the middle on a powerful run and let fly with a rasping shot that Goodlad did well to divert on to a post.

Halford and Mark Yeates took turns to shoot from distance, without much effect, although the hard-working Gareth Williams forced Goodlad into a finger-tip save from his angled drive.

The visitors had a glimmer of hope just three minutes into the second half. Davison caught Chris Birchall's inswinging corner, only to lose his balance and topple over his own goal-line. Vale players thought that the ball had crossed the line before Davison released his grip, but neither the referee nor the assistant referee agreed.

It later emerged that Davison was struggling with a strained hamstring, and that prompted his early departure on 69 minutes. His replacement, Gerken, could not keep out Husbands' late penalty, but fellow substitute Garcia had the desired impact at the other end.

The U's are on a roll. When will it end?

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