No taking the shine off fantastic season

Colchester United 0 Crystal Palace 2COLCHESTER United's fantastic first-ever season in the Championship ended in a rare home defeat, although Layer Road was still in a party mood yesterday afternoon.

By Carl Marston

Colchester United 0 Crystal Palace 2

COLCHESTER United's fantastic first-ever season in the Championship ended in a rare home defeat, although Layer Road was still in a party mood yesterday afternoon.

Goals from former Ipswich Town striker James Scowcroft after 11 minutes and midfielder Ben Watson on 69 minutes sealed an impressive win for Crystal Palace.

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The U's spurned countless chances and leading scorer Jamie Cureton will wonder just how he failed to add to his tally of 24 goals for the season.

However, the 31-year-old still had the consolation of winning the Golden Boot award for finishing as the top scorer in the Championship, and he also scooped several of the U's player-of-the-season trophies.

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Wayne Brown, Kem Izzet and Dean Gerken were also among the prize-winners at the end-of-match presentation to seal a memorable campaign. Brown actually achieved the feat of playing in every single minute of every single match.

The U's had started the day needing to beat Palace by a five-goal margin, as well as hoping for both Southampton and Stoke to lose, and for Preston to fail to beat Birmingham, in order to sneak into the play-offs.

It was always an unlikely scenario and, in the final analysis, it was Southampton who took the final play-off berth. The U's finished in 10th spot, with Sheffield Wednesday leapfrogging them thanks to their win over Norwich on the final day.

Both sides were commited to attack and the U's almost broke the deadlock within the first minute. Cureton burst onto Brown's excellent through ball and tried to steer his shot beyond onrushing keeper Julian Speroni and into an unguarded net. Cureton managed to beat Speroni only for the ball to roll agonisingly wide of the far post.

Palace continued to soak up some early pressure. Speroni made a hash of an attempted punch to concede a fifth minute corner but the Argentine made amends by catching the ensuing delivery from Kevin Watson.

However, it was the visitors who took the lead, against the run of play, on 11 minutes. Scowcroft was left unmarked to head home Carl Fletcher's accurate cross, the ball soaring over a stranded Dean Gerken and into the roof of the net.

It was Scowcroft's fifth goal of the season but his first since last November.

The U's were desperately close to forcing an equaliser in the 12th minute. Chris Iwelumo flicked on Richard Garcia's long throw only for Cureton's spectacular overhead kick to be superbly turned away by the agile Speroni.

Not surprisingly, the chances continued to flow at both ends. The Londoners caused a stir when Ben Watson flashed a header inches wide of the far post and Fletcher rattled the woodwork with an 18-yard thunderbolt in the 21st minute. His shot crashed off the bar and ballooned to safety.

Iwelumo was perhaps playing his last game in a Colchester shirt - his contract expires this summer. The Scotsman tried to add to his tally of 18 goals on 23 minutes, and was unlucky that his low drive was deflected into the arms of Speroni.

Two minutes later, and it was Gerken who was at his best to save Clinton Morrison's effort from point-blank range. That was a tremendous block from the U's keeper, who had played every game since the start of December.

Both teams were playing with terrific freedom. Garcia was just inches away from stabbing home George Elokobi's low cross in the 33rd minute with an empty goal beckoning while, at the other end, Morrison scuffed a shot wide when really he should have scored.

United finished the first half on top but could not fashion an equaliser. Cureton created a chance by stealing onto Karl Duguid's well-weighted pass but defender Leon Cort hacked away before Iwelumo could convert.

Skipper Duguid set the tone for the second period by embarking on a powerful run down the right flank within a minute of the restart. He cut inside before smashing a 20-yarder wide of the far post.

Gerken was required to make another top-notch save in the 48th minute.

Scowcroft was again the danger-man, connecting with a downward header that the U's custodian did well to parry.

Speroni was matching Gerken, save-for-save. He performed heroics to block Cureton's goalbound shot, after Iwelumo had helped on Gerken's huge clearance, and the U's leading scorer was thwarted again from a tight angle on 55 minutes.

The game was effectively over as a contest when Ben Watson doubled Palace's lead in the 69th minute. Watson met substitute Tom Soares' cross with a low drive that rolled under Gerken's body and over the line.

That goal knocked the stuffing out of the hosts and Jobi McAnuff should have put Palace three up in the 73rd minute, only to head over the top from point-blank range.

It was just not Cureton's day. He nearly squeezed home Hogan Ephraim's cross at the far post but was denied by a defender's clearance and then watched as Duguid lashed a shot wide of target.

The U's frustrating afternoon was summed up in the dying minutes when Brown failed to slot home from a couple of yards out, after Cureton's header across goal had hit the post.

It was a sad way to end the season but it didn't take the gloss off what had been a fantastic first-ever campaign in the Championship.

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