Heartbreak for U's after last-gasp goal

THE barren run continues, and the goal-drought shows no signs of ending. Colchester United are in a rut, and they must find an escape route soon to avoid tumbling out of the promotion race altogether.

By Carl Marston

THE barren run continues, and the goal-drought shows no signs of ending. Colchester United are in a rut, and they must find an escape route soon to avoid tumbling out of the promotion race altogether.

The U's are in still a healthy league position, despite the latest defeat at promotion rivals Oldham Athletic on Saturday. A fantastic three-quarters of the season has seen them mix with the big boys at the top of League One, and the odds of them at least reaching the play-offs are still in their favour.

But there is no doubt that Colchester, bereft of luck, must halt the slide soon. They have not won in seven matches, and no U's player has scored a goal in 11 hours and 15 minutes of football. That is a long time!

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Nothing went right at Boundary Park. More than half the team were struggling with a stomach bug, blamed on a meal in the hotel the previous night, and the U's then struck the woodwork in the first half, had midfielder Kem Izzet sent off in the second, and conceded a goal in the third minute of stoppage time.

You have to feel for manager Phil Parkinson and his players. With the exception of the 3-0 home defeat by leaders Southend the previous weekend, the U's have not been playing badly.

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They struck the woodwork three times, and had two goals disallowed, in the 2-0 defeat at Huddersfield. They were also unlucky to draw a blank at home to Walsall, and again at Barnsley, when they were undone by another late goal.

This tale of woe, or rather tale of misfortune, has seen United slither out of the automatic promotion places, to the very edge of the play-offs.

They were top of League One for three weeks at the end of January and beginning of February. Now, however, following last weekend's round of matches, they trail Essex rivals Southend by a massive 11 points, and are five points adrift of second-placed Brentford.

At least the U's still have games in hand over most of their rivals. They don't have this advantage over Brentford, although they will have a chance to cut the deficit when the Bees come to Layer Road on April Fools Day.

They have 11 league matches left, which means a further 33 points are up for grabs. United must stick to their guns and weather the storm - their season is still very much alive.

It's just unfortunate that the U's recent defeats have all been against their key rivals - Huddersfield, Barnsley, Southend and Oldham. Ronnie Moore's men did not play well against Colchester, but Richard Butcher's late firecracker has reduced the gap between themselves and the U's to just three points.

Aidan Davison was the busier of the two keepers on a cold afternoon in the Pennines, but it was United who had the more clear-cut chances.

Izzet could have broken the deadlock in the 11th minute. Mark Yeates, who again displayed terrific skills on the ball but without a ruthless finish, delivered a good cross from the left flank, from which Izzet stabbed over the bar from six yards out.

Yeates created a chance for himself on 22 minutes. The Tottenham loanee turned inside the box and lifted the ball over two covering defenders, only to scoop his shot over the top with Latics keeper Lee Grant untroubled.

Danns should have been the first Colchester player to celebrate a goal in seven matches, when exchanging a slick one-two with Chris Iwelumo in the 26th minute. Danns had just Grant to beat, which he did with a ferocious shot, although the ball rose steeply to thud off the bar rather than soar into the net.

That was the turning point. It was not until the last kick of the game that the Essex visitors carved out another good opportunity to score.

Oldham, who had won their three previous games, forced the pace in the second-half. Former U's centre-half Guy Branston, who had enjoyed two loan spells at Layer Road from Leicester City at the beginning of his career, met Richie Wellens' corner with a thunderous header that flew into Davison's arms.

Otherwise, though, the Latics did not pose a serious threat. Izzet was unlucky to be booked for his tackle on Chris Taylor in the 56th minute, but that was to have repercussions - the U's midfielder lunged at Wellens with an 86th-minute challenge that led to a second yellow and ensuing red card.

The visitors therefore had to play the final four minutes of normal time, and five minutes of injury time, with just 10 men.

Just when it looked as though Parkinson's men would hang on for a precious point, to retain their six-point gap over Oldham, up stepped Butcher with a dramatic winner.

There were 93 minutes on the clock when midfielder Butcher rounded a couple of U's defenders and beat Davison with a powerful 15-yard drive that flew into the roof of the net.

There was still time for Colchester to equalise, and Greg Halford could have been crowned a hero when benefiting from Sam Stockley's cross and Karl Duguid's knock-down. However, the U's under-20 international scooped his close-range shot over the bar, with an empty goal beckoning.

That was the last kick of the game. The U's cannot buy a goal at the moment, but they must pick themselves up for tomorrow night's big Layer Road showdown against Swansea City in the second leg of the LDV Vans Trophy southern area final.

If the U's can successfully overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in south Wales, then they will make their first-ever appearance at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, in the final against northern champions Carlisle.

The last month at Layer Road has been depressing. But it's not been desperate. There is still time to make this a season to remember, not just for the big day at Chelsea, but for a lot more besides.

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