Remarkable U's go down in history

THERE was no promotion to celebrate, and no trophies to parade, but the 2006-07 season will go down as the most remarkable in the history of Colchester United.

By Carl Marston

THERE was no promotion to celebrate, and no trophies to parade, but the 2006-07 season will go down as the most remarkable in the history of Colchester United.

This was the season when everyone sat up and took note of the “underdogs” and “party-poopers” from Layer Road.

Renowned in the past for springing the odd surprise in the cup, as well as possessing one of the most antiquated stadiums in the Football League, the home of the U's suddenly became the magnet for high-profile managers, well-paid players and hoards of national newspaper journalists.

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True, Phil Parkinson had guided the unfashionable U's to a first-ever promotion to the Championship, thanks to a marvelous 2005-06 campaign in League One, but few gave the Essex club a chance of coping with the rarefied air pervading the second tier of the League.

Before a ball had been kicked, and even before Parkinson had departed in favour of Hull City (a doomed partnership), the U's had been dismissed by bookmakers and football pundits alike as relegation fodder.

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The general consensus was that Geraint Williams' inexperienced squad would prop up the table all season. The only talking point was whether they would be relegated by Christmas!

Eight months on and those seeds of doubt seem a little misplaced. The U's were not down by Christmas. In fact, if anything, they looked promotion candidates.

This really was an incredible season. For three weeks, the U's were on course to fulfil all the summer predictions. They had lost their first four games in the Championship, and suffered a fifth straight defeat at League Two hosts MK Dons in the first round of the Carling Cup.

The signs were ominous. The Dons had not even played a full-strength side against the U's. It was going to be a terribly long, hard season, or so we thought. Actually, it has flown by!

United did not look back from the moment that they held on for a cracking 4-3 victory over Derby County on August 26. Their first-ever Championship points were in the bag, followed a fortnight later by their first away points, courtesy of a 2-1 win at disbelieving Steve Cotterill's Burnley.

The U's had spent the whole of August in the drop zone, yet by the end of 2006 they were in the play-off places. They remained in contention for a top-six berth right up until the final weekend of the campaign.

You can list a large number of factors in Colchester's success. The obvious one is the prolific strike-force of Jamie Cureton and Chris Iwelumo, who plundered 42 goals between them.

They were the most lethal partnership in the Championship, and Cureton claimed the Golden Boot for his 24 goals - the likes of Cardiff's Michael Chopra, West Brom's Diomansy Kamara and Southampton's Grzegorz Rasiak could not keep up with the 31-year-old dynamo.

A lack of injuries and suspensions was vital. With the exception of long-term casualty Marino Keith, who announced his retirement midway through the season, the U's escaped any serious injuries.

Seven of the team played at least 38 games, showing a terrific level of consistency. Furthermore, only Chris Barker (two red cards) and Richard Garcia (five yellow cards) served any suspensions.

Then of course there was the Layer Road factor. Before the final day defeat of the season, at the hands of visiting Crystal Palace, the U's had only lost one home game since last August.

The big guns, like Ipswich, Southampton, Stoke and Wolves all perished, as did champions-elect Sunderland, who suffered their only defeat since the turn of the year at Colchester's humble home.

Former Premiership stars like Lee Hendrie (Stoke) and Darren Huckerby (Norwich) didn't fancy the experience of playing in front of a crowd of less than 6,000, not least because most of them were only a few feet from the pitch!

In the final analysis, only promoted Birmingham City could boast a better home record - Steve Bruce's men accumulated 50 points at St Andrew's, as opposed to the U's 49 at Layer Road.

The role of new manager Williams, officially appointed only a week before the new season started, cannot be under-stated, and nor can the impact of his assistant, Mick Harford.

Loan players also made a contribution, especially Cardiff City left-back Barker and West Ham teenager Hogan Ephraim.

Skipper Karl Duguid was his usual inspirational self, as was the defensive duo of Wayne Brown and Pat Baldwin, and the midfield duo of Kevin Watson and Kem Izzet.

The team also coped well with the loss of star man Greg Halford, who moved to Premiership club Reading for a club record £2.5m in August.

And let's not forget three key men of the previous season, Neil Danns (to Birmingham), Liam Chilvers (to Preston) and loanee Mark Yeates (to Hull), who all left last summer.

Against all the odds, the U's did more than just avoid relegation, a fate suffered by their Essex rivals Southend. They became the Pride of Anglia. Not only were they in the same division as Ipswich and Norwich for the first time since 1957, but they finished above both of them.

In fact, the U's were above Town and the Canaries throughout the second half of the season, finishing in 10th spot, four above Jim Magilton's side and six ahead of Peter Grant's men.

U's supporters will never forget the 2006-07 season. Naturally, the bookmakers and pundits will be predicting “another” campaign of struggle from this August.

But then they have been tipping Colchester for relegation ever since 1998, the year that they clambered out of the bottom division.

As the Layer Road faithful know well - you underestimate Colchester at your peril!

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