Meet the opposition: How Old Trafford-bound Colchester used the EFL Trophy as their route to Wembley

Tom Eastman, celebrating with fans on the pitch after Colchester United's victory over Tottenham in

Tom Eastman, celebrating with fans on the pitch after Colchester United's victory over Tottenham in the Carabao Cup. Eastman should feature against his old club Ipswich Town Picture: STEVE WALLER - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

Colchester United reached the final of the EFL Trophy, then known as the Auto Windscreens Shield, back in 1997. CARL MARSTON remembers it well, ahead of tonight’s group match against Ipswich Town.

Luke Norris, the U's leading scorer this season with six goals. Picture: STEVE WALLER

Luke Norris, the U's leading scorer this season with six goals. Picture: STEVE WALLER - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

SUCCESS IN THE TROPHY

Colchester United are no strangers to reaching Wembley in this competition, although you do have to go back 22 years.

The U's, in the fourth tier under manager Steve Wignall, made the final of the then-named Auto Windscreens Shield in 1997 thanks to an impressive run during the knock-out stages - those were the days when there were no preliminary group phases.

I have a clear memory of all those games, leading up to Wembley, mainly because the early rounds were all on the road.

U's boss, John McGreal, pictured during the post match press conference after his side had knocked T

U's boss, John McGreal, pictured during the post match press conference after his side had knocked Tottenham out of the Carabao Cup. Picture: STEVE WALLER - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller


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The first round, an East Anglian derby at Cambridge United, saw ex-Ipswich Town man Steve Whitton bag an 89th minute winner in a 1-0 success at the Abbey Stadium.

There weren't big celebrations that day, but Whitton's late goal paved the way for a 3-2 win at Millwall in the next round, thanks to Paul Buckle's 'golden goal' in extra-time, followed by a 1-0 victory at Brentford via Paul Abrahams' 35th minute winner.

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The U's were finally drawn at home in the southern section semi-finals, against Northampton, where goals from David Greene and midfielder Buckle ensured a 2-1 win, no mean feat when considered that on-loan keeper John Vaughan was sent off in the 22nd minute.

The two-legged southern final, against Peterborough, saw the U's recover from a 2-0 deficit from the first leg at London Road, to win 3-0 at Layer Road and so 3-2 on aggregate - it was another 'golden goal' finale, Abrahams rifling home a sensational winner in the 100th minute to spark a jubilant pitch invasion.

The Wembley final, against Carlisle United, was by no means a cracker. It ended 0-0, and the U's lost the penalty shoot-out 4-3, Karl Duguid and Peter Cawley missing their spot kicks.

TOWN CONNECTION

As usual, there are many Ipswich associations in the U's camp, starting with head coach John McGreal, who was a trusty centre-half for Town between 1999 and 2004.

Centre-half Tom Eastman played 10 league games for Town, under manager Roy Keane, ironically as a right-back rather than in his favoured central defensive position, before signing for the U's in the summer of 2011.

Eastman has gone on to rattle up 304 league games for the U's, and 338 in all competitions, winning the player-of-the-year award on three occasions, in 2014, 2015 and 2018. Keeper Mike Walker is the only other U's player to win the award three times, in the early 1980s.

Fellow defender Omar Sowunmi, a summer signing from Yeovil, started his career in the Ipswich Academy and was handed a one-year deal as a professional before moving on to Yeovil in 2015.

The 24-year-old has only made five appearances to date for the U's, with three starts, two of these in the EFL Trophy against Gillingham and Tottenham Under-21s.

But Sowunmi did appear as a substitute, at the start of the second half, during last Saturday's 2-0 home defeat to Coventry City in the FA Cup.

U's first choice keeper, Dean Gerken, who was at Ipswich for six seasons before his return to the Essex club this summer, has been rested for the previous two EFL Trophy games, with Ethan Ross being given a chance.

Likewise, front-runner Frank Nouble, who had two seasons at Portman Road (2013-15), has not featured in the competition so far.

THIS SEASON

The U's only missed out on the League Two play-offs by one place and one point last season, and were actually in the play-off zone while winning 3-0 at champions Lincoln on the final day, until Newport County's 87th minute equaliser at Morecambe edged them out into eighth.

This season, they again sit just one point and one place outside the play-offs, winning their last two league games against Newport (3-1) and Mansfield (3-2).

But of course all the attention has been on their sensational Carabao Cup run, which has included penalty shoot-out wins over the Premier League duo of Crystal Palace and Tottenham. They visit Manchester United in the quarter-finals on December 18.

LEADING SCORERS

Striker Luke Norris is the only U's player to have so far scored more than three league goals. He is on six, in all competitions, having netted in the 1-1 draw against Tottenham Under-21s in the EFL Trophy last month. He also scored in the penalty shoot-out, which the U's lost 6-5.

Southend United loanee Theo Robinson has four to his name, including one in the EFL Trophy 3-2 success at Gillingham in September.

Defender Eastman, Courtney Senior and striker Nouble have all scored three goals.

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