Just two wins away for U's

CHAMPIONSHIP football moved a step nearer to becoming a reality for brave Colchester United, following a magnificent away display at free-flowing Bournemouth on Saturday.

By Carl Marston

CHAMPIONSHIP football moved a step nearer to becoming a reality for brave Colchester United, following a magnificent away display at free-flowing Bournemouth on Saturday.

There was so much at stake for Phil Parkinson's men, especially as the two teams who are hot on their heels, Brentford and Huddersfield, both posted away victories.

In the end, it was centre-half Liam Chilvers and new boy Scott Vernon who were the unlikely heroes. Chilvers broke the deadlock early in the first half, and Vernon regained the lead early in the second, to seal the U's first away success since January.

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The picture is now clear. United are already guaranteed a play-off spot, following their triumph on the Dorset coast and the failure of Barnsley, Swansea and Nottingham Forest to pick up maximum points from their away day excursions.

But no one is talking about the play-offs at Layer Road. Quite simply, little Colchester will be playing in the Championship next season, if they can beat Rotherham (at home) and Yeovil (away) in their final two matches.

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A win and a draw might also be sufficient, but only if third-placed Brentford fail to win one of their last two fixtures - they are at home to relegation-threatened Hartlepool next Saturday.

It is becoming a very nervous business watching the U's these days. You can't really sit back and savour the moment. United cannot afford a slip-up, to fulfil their dream of playing in the second tier of the Football League for the first time in their history next season, so officials, supporters and even newspaper reporters are forced to bite their fingernails and mop their furrowed brows.

The news before kick-off was not encouraging. First choice keeper Aidan Davison, who had not missed a league match since August, had not even made the journey to the south coast, due to an acute bout of food poisoning, while Ipswich Town loanee striker Billy Clarke was sidelined with a tweaked hamstring.

That handed a first league appearance, since the 3-1 defeat at Southend on August 29, for reserve keeper Dean Gerken, and only a second start for front-runner Vernon since his loan move from Blackpool.

But all was forgotten when Chilvers nodded the visitors in front after just five minutes. Wayne Brown floated over a free-kick from the right flank, and fellow centre-half Chilvers rose at the far post to glance home a pinpoint header.

It was Chilvers' second goal of the season, following his effort in the 1-1 draw at MK Dons in the U's second away fixture of the season. For just a moment, there was the satisfying prospect of Colchester easing to a comfortable win, treating their travelling fans to an enjoyable afternoon in the spring sunshine.

But any such bright hopes were extinguished by Bournemouth's quick response. Stephen Cooke burst into the penalty area, with Brown losing his footing, and the Cherries midfielder gave Gerken no chance with a clinical finish from 12 yards out.

Poor Gerken had hardly touched the ball, before he was picking it out of his net, but the U's 20-year-old was not to be beaten again. He never put a foot wrong.

The Cherries had only lost four home league games all season, and they virtually secured their League One status with a goalless draw at Port Vale on Easter Monday. Sean O'Driscoll's men were therefore able to play with a good deal of freedom.

Gerken blocked big man Steve Fletcher's goalbound header on 25 minutes, and then produced a superb save when palming away a low drive from Stephen Purches on the half-hour mark.

Yet it was Colchester who created the better first-half chances, most notably a powerful header from Greg Halford which keeper Gareth Stewart blocked, and an acrobatic overhead kick by Neil Danns which cannoned wide off a defender.

The U's bombarded the Bournemouth box with deep crosses, inswinging corners and long throws, in an attempt to take advantage of the home side's lack of height at the back. That has been a weakness of all Bournemouth teams in recent years. And it was an excellent cross, delivered by U's skipper Karl Duguid in the 51st minute, which was to prove the Cherries' downfall.

Duguid's lightning pace enabled him to outsprint his marker and whip over a cross, which Vernon had time to control before smashing an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net.

The U's were once again in charge of their own destiny. They had opportunities to make the game safe, and Mark Yeates was unlucky with a delicate chip that dropped just a foot over the bar.

Predictably, though, the nerves became more frayed during the closing minutes. Goalscorer Chilvers turned villain when miscuing an attempted clearance in the 84th minute, the ball dropping dangerously inside the penalty area. James O'Connor had just Gerken to beat, but he blazed over the top.

And leading scorer James Hayter, who rarely looked like adding to his 20 goals for the season, nearly pounced in stoppage time, only for the excellent Brown to head calmly back to Gerken.

Conceding an equaliser so late in the day would have been heartbreak for the U's, and would probably have condemned them to the play-offs.

As it is, the U's remain the favourites to take the all-important second place, though leaders Southend are now only three points clear after their shock home defeat by Doncaster.

The Shrimpers are not certain of promotion themselves.

Roll up for more unbearable tension at Layer Road next weekend!

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