Proud achievement as U's lead way

THE winds of change are blowing through East Anglian football and for the first time in more than 50 years Colchester United are the area's top dogs.The 4-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday meant the U's, so often regarded as the minnows of the region, are six places above Norwich City who in turn are one ahead of Ipswich Town.

By Derek Davis

THE winds of change are blowing through East Anglian football and for the first time in more than 50 years Colchester United are the area's top dogs.

The 4-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday meant the U's, so often regarded as the minnows of the region, are six places above Norwich City who in turn are one ahead of Ipswich Town.

If we stretch the geographical boundaries a little and include Southend United in our own eastern league, then the U's are way out on their own.

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It would be an amazing achievement if the season finished with Colchester top of the pile, but it is not impossible and it would represent quite a shift in the local power base.

With only a quarter of the season gone there is still a lot of football to be played and more than 100 points to be fought for, but Geraint Williams has got his settled side organised and hard to break down, never mind beat.

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With Peter Grant taking over at Norwich the hope at Carrow Road is that their team, many of whom were playing in the Premiership a couple of years ago, will undergo a revival and challenge for the play-off places.

Ipswich, who are struggling for form and any sort of consistency, have similar aspirations. At Roots Hall, Southend are finding life in the Championship every bit as tough as they thought it would be, and they will be hoping to get something from Ipswich Town this weekend.

Like Colchester, just staying in this division would be an achievement this season for the Shrimpers, but like the U's Southend have ambitions to consolidate and progress with a new stadium in the offing.

At Layer Road success this season is measured by

Reaching the 40-point mark, which usually guarantees safety, and they are nearly halfway towards that.

Beating Ipswich - that box is ticked.

Beating Southend - that will have to wait until November.

Achieving an average attendance of above 5,000 - and they are on track for that too.

If the size of a club is measured in the size of its stands then Ipswich, with a 30,000 maximum capacity, edge out Norwich and then Southend come above Colchester.

If it is measured on the size of your debt, with the least owed being the best, then Colchester, who are in the black, would outstrip Ipswich, although Norwich run a tight ship and now that Ron Martin has complete control at Southend, they have some spare cash, and the sale of Roots Hall would finance their move to new stadium.

But purely on points at the moment it is Colchester and the frightening prospect for Town fans is that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they continue to spiral downwards, while their 'little' neighbours steadily climb in an upwards direction.

Karl Duguid summed it up perfectly in the aftermath of their 1-0 win over Ipswich, when he said: “It is not the size of your ground that matters but the quality of your players, and we are showing we are good enough to be in this division.”

So how has this change come about and why are Colchester now - as I write - the top team in East Anglia?

The reasons are probably two-fold and the good practice and decision making at Layer Road are instrumental in the U's rise.

Geoff Harrop's eye for a raw diamond, subsequently cut and polished by Steve Wignall and then Steve Whitton, made the club a very welcome £2.25m as Lomana Lua Lua went from being a gymnast who kicked about with his mates to a Premiership star.

But the prudent use of the cash epitomised the good housekeeping prevalent at Colchester and chairman Peter Heard's decision to employ an unknown coach from Reading proved inspirational.

Phil Parkinson, helped in no small way by Geraint Williams, moulded a team with a work ethic and organisation that matched their bigger-spending opponents.

Shrewd moves into the market added quality and all of a sudden Colchester were a side that not only put together impressive, and money-making cup runs, but also found a consistency to mount a serious promotion challenge.

The players that came through at Layer Road were a mixture of well grounded youngsters coming through the system, experienced professionals who were still hungry but not cash-driven and players rejected or unwanted elsewhere with a point to prove.

On and off the pitch Colchester are well organised, solid and steady without being spectacular. They do things the right way, looking after their own, and work very much hand in hand with their staff, supporters, sponsors, local media and, of course, players.

They have taken things step by step, not spending money they have not got. They have enjoyed their high points without getting arrogant and becoming aloof.

In many ways Ipswich did it the same way, only first of course, and in the 50 years since they were promoted from Division Three (South) at the expense of Colchester they have scooped the old Division One title, won the FA Cup and triumphed in Europe in the UEFA Cup.

They have twice tasted Premiership football and after being in the dumps in the early 1990s rose from the ashes to enjoy further success. David Sheepshanks' famed five-year plan went perfectly as they got to the promised land, improved Portman Road by rebuilding two stands in a stadium that can now hold 30,000 and host international football.

But conversely the success brought about failure.

In a bid to improve on finishing fifth in the Premiership and qualifying for Europe Ipswich spent what in hindsight turned out to ridiculous money for imports that succeeded only in disrupting a tight-knit dressing room and putting the club in dire financial straits.

Relegation came at a time when the transfer market was at a low and the windows were introduced, meaning Town were a sitting duck and collapsed into administration.

The stands that are now rarely filled have become a millstone round the neck and falling attendances reflect how disgruntled some fans feel. Last season the team finished 15th in the Championship - the lowest for 40 years.

The board have worked hard to provide a fighting fund for the manager to achieve promotion this season or next. Joe Royle's departure brought about a period of instability and after so many short-listed managers didn't get the job, the club took a gamble by appointing rookie Jim Magilton.

Colchester also appointed from within, and both clubs got off to a poor start. This was followed by a change of fortunes but while Colchester have continued to move upwards, Town have slumped since that loss at Layer Road and the message emanating from each club is in stark contrast to the other.

It is still early in the season and while form is fickle, and class permanent, Colchester United are top dogs at the moment. We will see if they have to class to maintain it, or if Ipswich and Norwich, or even Southend, can redress the balance.

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