Impressive start to Championship life

COLCHESTER United's big day may have ended in defeat, but they made their intentions loud and clear - they are not going to be the whipping boys of the Championship.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United's big day may have ended in defeat, but they made their intentions loud and clear - they are not going to be the whipping boys of the Championship.

The U's, with new manager Geraint Williams at the helm, had title favourites Birmingham City reeling on the ropes in an opening day thriller at St Andrews. They deserved a point, at the very least.

In the end, a slick piece of finishing from Danish teenager Nicklas Bendtner, who only arrived on loan from Arsenal on Thursday, proved the difference between the two sides.

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You write Colchester off at your peril this season. They may have the smallest squad in the Championship, with the smallest budget and the smallest income - by far - but they will surprise a lot of teams over the coming months.

Birmingham were playing in the Premiership last season, two divisions above the U's. They are expected to secure an immediate return to the top flight, and manager Steve Bruce has been busy in the transfer market all summer. He handed debuts to six of his new signings on Saturday.

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Yet the Blues, in front of a crowd of more than 24,000, were counting their lucky stars by the end of an eventful afternoon. In truth, the U's had let them off the hook.

It was billed as the biggest game in the Essex club's history, although actually the U's goalless draw at Yeovil on the final day of last season, which wrapped up promotion to the Championship, was far more important in the scale of things. It guaranteed a first-ever season in the second tier of the Football League.

Successful manager Phil Parkinson may have gone - his new club Hull City went down 2-0 at West Brom - as have key players Liam Chilvers and Neil Danns, but the U's did not look out of their depth at St Andrews. They played like an established Championship side, not a lower division outfit with an underdogs tag draped around their necks.

City were nursing a slender 1-0 lead at the break, an advantage that they barely deserved, thanks to DJ Campbell's first goal in seven months since his arrival from Brentford.

U's old boy Danns, who enjoyed a terrific reception from both sets of supporters, had a hand in the opening goal. He swept the ball out to defender Bruno N'Gotty, and the former Bolton centre-back floated over a teasing left-footed cross for Campbell to nip behind Pat Baldwin and head past keeper Aidan Davison.

After half-an-hour of football, the U's had conceded their first goal in the Championship. But they had the resilience and the ability to bounce back, which bodes well for the future.

Ironically, United had come close to scoring from Birmingham's first corner of the game, in the ninth minute. Danns' delivery was cleared, and suddenly the visitors were pouring forward in numbers. Kevin Watson slid the ball into the path of skipper Karl Duguid, who crashed in a shot that keeper Maik Taylor scooped up at the second attempt.

At the other end, City's talented duo of David Dunn and Mikael Forssell, who have both been haunted by injuries over the past couple of seasons, rifled shots into the side-netting. On both occasions, some of the St Andrews faithful were initially fooled into thinking that they had scored.

Davison did well to claw away Campbell's close-range shot on 29 minutes, following hesitancy by both defenders Baldwin and Wayne Brown, although a minute later and the U's keeper was finally beaten by Campbell's delicate header.

Any hopes that City may have had, of strolling to a comfortable opening-day victory, were dashed by Richard Garcia's historic equaliser in the 51st minute.

Greg Halford was the instigator with a marvellous cross-field pass into the path of Duguid. The U's left-winger whipped over a low cross in the direction of the lurking Jamie Cureton and, although defender Olivier Tebily was able to hack away, Garcia promptly smashed a first-time shot into the roof of the net from 10 yards out.

The U's travelling supporters, who were stationed at that end of the ground, went wild with delight. It was as if their team had just won the league!

In years to come, Garcia will be able to say, with considerable pride, that he was the first man to score a goal in the Championship for Colchester. It's just a pity that the visitors could not go on to make their dominance count during the final 40 minutes.

Just as Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had done against the U's last March, in the FA Cup fifth round tie at Stamford Bridge, so Bruce showed his concerns by introducing all three of his substitutes in quick succession. They may not have been of the calibre of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Hernan Crespo, but the city trio of Bendtner, Cameron Jerome and Sebastian Larsson certainly had an impact.

Jerome, a £3m summer purchase from Cardiff City, was only on the pitch for four minutes. He lashed out at Duguid with an arm in the face, and was sent off for violent conduct by referee Keith Stroud, despite the noble gesture of U's defender Brown to plead for leniency.

The Blues had to play the final 20 minutes with just 10 men, but they grabbed an unlikely winner in the 79th minute, thanks to the intervention of another of the substitutes, Bendtner.

Right-back Stephen Kelly swung over a low cross for fellow debuntant Bendtner to convert. The 18-year-old's first shot was blocked by the lunge of Brown, although he dispatched the second with precision.

Bendtner had only arrived at St Andrews on Thursday, as one of three players snapped up on loan from Arsenal. He plundered 18 goals in 24 appearances for Arsenal Reserves last term, and Saturday was an illustration of a Championship club being able to draw on strength in depth, a luxury that is not yet enjoyed by U's boss Williams.

Still, last season's leading marksman Chris Iwelumo was only a foot away from netting an equaliser in the 86th minute. He robbed left-back Matt Sadler and watched as his 20-yarder skidded just the wrong side of a post with Taylor a worried man.

Teenager Jamie Guy had a chance to be crowned a hero in stoppage-time, when latching onto Johnnie Jackson's pass. But his curling shot was not powerful enough to beat Taylor.

A defeat at Birmingham was not unexpected, but the U's squad were left wondering, on the way back to Essex, what might have been.

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