Impossible dream just that for U's now

COLCHESTER United's brave bid for a play-off spot, and an unlikely route into the Premiership, was alive and kicking at half-time on Saturday.The unthinkable was still possible.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United's brave bid for a play-off spot, and an unlikely route into the Premiership, was alive and kicking at half-time on Saturday.

The unthinkable was still possible. The U's were beating hosts Stoke City, and deservedly so. But the wheels came off the bandwagon in a frantic second-half, effectively killing off those far-fetched dreams of the top-flight.

It was a cracking game, played at a ferocious pace with tempers frayed. So much was at stake, and you just felt that if Geraint Williams' men had scored a second goal before the break, then they would have been in an exciting position going into next Sunday's final match against Crystal Palace.

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Chris Iwelumo silenced his former supporters by first earning, and then converting, a 38th minute penalty against his ex-club. The Britannia Stadium faithful had given the Scotsman a good reception before kick-off, mindful of his services over a four-year period, but they weren't happy to see him threaten their team's play-off chances. The U's were terrific in that first-half, but they ultimately had no answer to Stoke's stunning response during the first 20 minutes of the second period. All of a sudden, the U's play-off hopes were in tatters.

Three goals in a nine-minute spell from Darel Russell, Mamady Sidibe and Danny Higginbotham turned the game on its head. There was no way back for plucky Colchester, especially when Chris Barker was sent off for lashing out at Lee Hendrie with 12 minutes remaining.

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Hendrie had been a thorn in the U's side all afternoon, more for his continual back-chatting than his play on the ball. United's players began to lose their composure for the first time this season - they still have the best disciplinary record in the Championship.

As it stands, the U's are now three points adrift of the top six, with one round of matches remaining. Their goal difference is also inferior to that of Southampton (sixth) and Stoke (seventh), so it would require an exceptional set of results for the Essex club to finish in the play-offs next Sunday.

It won't happen, but this has still been a marvellous season at Layer Road. To confirm what they have achieved, Essex neighbours Southend, who pipped them to the League One title just 12 months ago, were officially relegated on Saturday.

Southend's plight should also have been Colchester's, or so most people thought, at the start of the season, especially after they lost their first four league games. The fact that the U's are guaranteed a top 10 finish, in their first ever season at this level, speaks volumes.

A crowd of more than 20,000 were richly entertained, although there was too much at stake to really enjoy the occasion. Nails were chewed and fingers were crossed. The U's charged out of the blocks and produced their best 45 minutes on the road this season. Stoke were hanging on at times. It was just a pity that so many chances went begging.

Iwelumo nearly broke the deadlock after just six minutes, when volleying wide at the far post from Hogan Ephraim's deep cross, and Stoke keeper Steve Simonsen produced heroics to claw away Jamie Cureton's attempted lob. Simonsen has been ever-present for the Potters this term, and he was excellent all afternoon.

The ex-Everton keeper denied Iwelumo again in the 11th minute. The U's target man was unmarked when meeting Chris Barker's cross with a downward header that Simonsen managed to block.

Stoke weathered the storm and they benefited most from a hold-up in play on 25 minutes. The two sets of players clashed, after Pat Baldwin fouled Hendrie. U's defender Baldwin was booked, as was U's skipper Karl Duguid and Stoke left-back Adam Griffin for an off-the-ball skirmish.

The rhythm was lost, and more importantly Baldwin and Duguid were suddenly walking a tightrope on yellow cards - they were already having difficulty in coping with the pace and power of Ricardo Fuller.

Gerken made one superb save to thwart danger-man Fuller in the 36th minute, and two minutes later the U's were ahead, prompting the delighted away fans to start dreaming of Wembley, and Old Trafford!

Ephraim had a fine game on the left flank, and it was his run and pass that ended with Iwelumo being tripped by Salif Diao. It looked a clear-cut penalty, and Iwelumo picked himself up to convert the spot kick for his 18th goal of the season. He resisted any celebration in front of the Stoke fans, in respect of his past connections.

Just before half-time, Hendrie was in the spotlight again. This time the Aston Villa loanee had an altercation with Baldwin off the ball, and the U's defender was relieved not to be shown a second yellow and ensuing red card.

A Stoke revival was always a possibility, but the quickness with which the game changed caught everyone by surprise. Ex-Norwich City midfielder Russell headed home the equaliser in the 53rd minute, after Sidibe had nodded Liam Lawrence's cross back into the six-yard box.

And it was 6ft 4ins Sidibe who drilled City ahead just four minutes later. The Mali international beat Gerken from the edge of the box with a low, skimming shot.

Colchester tried to respond. Iwelumo nearly doubled his tally in the 59th minute, only for Simonsen to get the faintest of touches to his shot, and Baldwin then hoofed wide from the following corner.

The game was effectively over as a contest when skipper Higginbotham nodded home from point-blank range on 62 minutes. That killer third goal stemmed from Hendrie's corner and Fuller's flick-on. Barker was dismissed on 78 minutes, after the assistant referee spotted him raising an arm into the face of Hendrie. The U's have only picked up two red cards all season, both of them incurred by Barker.

There was never any prospect of a late Colchester rally. Still, the U's have one more home game to look forward to next Sunday, against Palace, to bring the curtain down on a memorable campaign.

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