Heartbreak and pride: a day of mixed emotions for the U’s
Football can be a very cruel game – just ask any Colchester United player, or supporter, after a roller coaster ride at Sincil Bank.
The U’s looked set for the play-offs, up until the dying minutes of a mentally exhausting final day of the regular season at champions Lincoln City on Saturday.
John McGreal’s men quite simply played out of their skins to completely mesmerise their hosts, cantering into a three-goal lead before half-time and then playing with terrific maturity during a solid second half.
To snatch the final play-off spot, the U’s needed a minor miracle – they had to beat the champions, and then hope that Newport lost at Morecambe, and that Exeter failed to beat Forest Green Rovers.
But for most of the afternoon, right up until the heartbreak finish, the U’s were indeed sitting proudly in that cherished seventh position.
An opener from Brennan Dickenson (21 minutes), and a clinical brace from Sammie Szmodics (27 and 43) stunned Lincoln, who had only lost one home league game all season and were preparing to celebrate their title-winning season.
Meanwhile, Newport were trailing 1-0 at Morecambe, and Exeter were locked at 0-0 at Forest Green Rovers.
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The dream was very much alive – in fact, suddenly the U’s were the favourites to join Mansfield, Forest Green and Tranmere in the play-off shoot-out.
But then, on 87 minutes, Jamille Matt struck with an equaliser for Newport at the Globe Arena to cruelly nudge the U’s out of the top seven.
By all reports, Newport were second best for most of the afternoon, looking nervous and unable to make much headway.
But Matt’s late goal was enough to end the U’s season, on a low note, after what had ironically been an afternoon of terrific highs.
The U’s saved arguably their best team display until the final day of the campaign.
There have been many highs, including big wins over the likes of Crewe, Northampton and Cheltenham, but in my eyes the better performances were achieved against the better teams.
MK Dons, who wrapped up automatic promotion on Saturday, were outgunned by the U’s (2-0) at the JobServe Community Stadium the previous weekend. That was a home high point.
But Sincial Bank on Saturday hit new heights, especially during a superb first-half display when the U’s outclassed their opponents, winning most tackles, being quicker to second balls and attacking with flair and precision.
It was a joy to behold.
And of course they were topped off by some fine goals.
Brennan Dickenson gave the visitors the lead in the 21st minute by meeting Sam Saunders’ corner with a first-time shot which flew into the bottom far corner of the net. It was an inch-perfect finish from Dickenson.
The U’s away fans were in dreamland when Szmodics doubled the lead, six minutes later, by powering to the edge of the six-yard box to meet Ryan Jackson’s cross with a thunderous header which flew like a bullet past keeper Josh Vickers.
Szmodics was not finished there. He duly chalked up his 15th goal of the season, and his 14th in the league, when charging down keeper Vickers’ attempted clearance in the 43rd minute.
The ball struck Szmodics and then rolled towards an empty net, with the U’s No. 10 having the easy task of helping it over the line.
Three-nil up at the break, and with results elsewhere going for them, the U’s were in the box seat.
They kept their composure during the second period, to finish the job, but alas, one goal at Morecambe killed off their hopes.
So the U’s will be playing in the fourth tier, for a fourth successive season, in 2019-20.
As is always the case, how they might fare will depend on what happens over the summer.
Can the Essex club hold onto their best players?
Leading scorer Sammie Szmodics might well have played his last game for the U’s, while such young talent as Frankie Kent and Courtney Senior will also be the focus of interest from other clubs.
John McGreal already has his own transfer targets, but he will be hoping to hold onto his key assets as well.
The U’s are certainly not far off, in terms of clinching a promotion back to the third tier – they have now finished 8th in two of their three seasons since suffering relegation back in 2016.