Injury curse and other Talking Points from Colchester United’s Cup exit at Accrington
- Credit: Richard Blaxall
What could go wrong, did go wrong, for out-of-luck Colchester United at Accrington Stanley on Saturday.
The U’s had limped out of the Cup at the same first round stage of the competition last season, humbled 1-0 at home by non-league Oxford City, but although the result was the same, the performance was very different at the Crown Ground.
Up against League One high-fliers, rather than non-league minnows, the U’s bossed this game for the first 25 minutes, but failed to take some very good chances.
Their cause was not helped by early injuries to centre-back Tom Eastman and keeper Rene Gilmartin, which seemed to knock them off track a little bit, and in the end a deflected goal by midfielder Dan Barlaser proved sufficient for Stanley to progress into round two.
Manager John McGreal insisted that he was “proud” of his side’s performance, and they certainly didn’t let themselves down against opposition who were crowned League Two champions only a few months ago.
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A Cup exit is always a bitter pill to swallow, but McGreal will be even more concerned by his current growing injury list, which includes leading scorer Luke Norris from the previous weekend’s home win over Swindon Town.
The next few weeks will be a big test of the U’s squad, and their promotion credentials.
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The U’s have now lost their last four FA Cup games, and exited at the first round in three successive years at the hands of Chesterfield, Oxford City and now Accrington.
But it could have been so different if the visitors had cashed in on their early dominance in the north-west.
Accrington, just outside the League One play-offs on goal difference, and with experienced manager John Coleman resisting an urge to rest any first-team regulars, were on the rack at times.
Harry Pell and Sammie Szmodics rained in early shots, which keeper Connor Ripley had to palm away to safety, but it was Frank Nouble who had the best opportunity to break the deadlock, on the quarter-hour mark.
Operating as a centre-forward, in the absence of marksman Norris (ankle injury), Nouble burst through on goal, benefiting from Brennan Dickenson’s well-weighted pass. The former Ipswich Town front-runner had only Ripley to beat, but the keeper managed to divert the shot over his bar, the ball rearing up off the turf.
In hindsight, that was a turning point in the game.
Accrington gained a foothold for the rest of the first half, took the lead when Barlaser’s shot deflected off Pell to wrong-foot substitutes keeper Barnes on 35 minutes, and then threatened to put the game to bed in the second period before the U’s staged a late rally.
Szmodics had a goalbound shot diverted wide, in stoppage time, but Stanley had done just enough to sneak through.
But you were left with a feeling of what might have been, had Nouble’s one-on-one seen the U’s get their noses ahead.
The U’s had been enjoying a relatively injury-free season, after the perils of previous campaigns, but the last couple of weekends have seen injuries to three key players.
Luke Norris, Tom Eastman and Rene Gilmartin are more than just valuable squad players – they are pivotal to what McGreal is trying to achieve in 2018-19.
Norris leads the front-line with power and purpose, and has already bagged eight goals, while Eastman gives McGreal the option of operating with three centre-halves, or a flat back four, together with Frankie Kent and Luke Prosser – without Eastman, who is closing in on 300 first-team appearances for the U’s, a three-man rearguard is not really an option.
Keeper Gilmartin, meanwhile, has only conceded two goals in his seven outings in all competition, so he too has had a big impact.
Eastman will hopefully be back in the fold quickly, after suffering a nasty clash of heads at Stanley (he had a big lump to his head), but Norris will be out for a few weeks, at least, and Gilmartin will probably have to nurse a sore hamstring for a week or two.
Of course the U’s do have replacements. The promising Barnes has already played 14 games this season, and has looked the part in goal, while Prosser and Kent are a regular centre-back combination, and either Nouble or Mikael Mandron can fill Norris’ shoes.
But it is not ideal.