Set-piece weakness continues to dog U's

JUST four months ago, Colchester United fans would have snapped your hand off if you had guaranteed them a place in the top half of the table by the beginning of March.

Carl Marston

JUST four months ago, Colchester United fans would have snapped your hand off if you had guaranteed them a place in the top half of the table by the beginning of March.

It wasn't so long ago that the U's could not buy a win. The disappointment of relegation from the Championship hung heavy over the club, and the summer move to the unfamiliar surroundings of the Community Stadium had been unsettling.

The departure of former manager Geraint Williams heightened the misery. A second successive struggle against relegation was almost too much to bear.

Confidence was fragile, the defence wobbled, the keeper was making mistakes. This was the familiar tale, week after week.

But speed forward to the present, and the U's are a team transformed. With success comes expectation, which is why Saturday's failure to beat Hartlepool was so frustrating.

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United are no longer relegation candidates. The U's faithful expect to see their team win these days and, more often than not, they have been granted their wish.

Talk of the play-offs has been pinging around the walls of the Community Stadium in recent weeks, a far cry from those dark days in the bottom four.

And if it hadn't been for that dismal start to the season - just one win in their first six league games - then the U's would indeed be right in the mix.

Instead, they find themselves tantalisingly just out of the reach. Eight points is a lot to claw back at the best of times. But with only 13 fixtures to go, and eight of these on the road, the chances are remote in the extreme. Still, it is important to remember the progress that the U's have made, under new manager Paul Lambert. In fact, if it wasn't for the worrying trait of conceding goals from set plays, then they would already be knocking on the door of the top six.

It looked as though Scott Vernon's fourth goal of the season, at the end of the first half, would be enough to beat mid-table Hartlepool. Following on from the midweek 1-0 win over Stockport, it would have set up Lambert's men for a testing week on the road at Huddersfield and Oldham.

Vernon took his goal well. Anthony Wordsworth, enjoying his first league start for more than four months, flicked on Marc Tierney's cross and Vernon was able to control before prodding the ball past keeper Arran Lee-Barrett from eight yards out.

The U's deserved to be ahead at the break. Jimmy Walker had pulled off another of his sensational saves to prevent Sam Collins' header from crossing the line in the 16th minute. It was not quite as impressive as his wonder save to deny Stockport's Johnny Mullins on Tuesday night, but it was still a top-class block.

Otherwise, the home side were dominant, inspired by the quality of Mark Yeates, who was playing in a more central role just behind Vernon. The Dubliner forced the best out of Pool's keeper Lee-Barrett with a cracking 25-yarder at the half-way mark.

The odds were on the U's coasting to victory, following Vernon's 44th minute goal, but they rather lost their way after the break.

A narrow victory still seemed likely until big defender Michael Nelson eluded his marker, Paul Reid, to head home a 71st minute equaliser from Gary Liddle's corner.

The U's could not find a response, although substitute Steven Gillespie nearly stole an 85th minute winner with an angled shot that Lee-Barrett was able to push to safety.

In the end, a point apiece was a fair result. Pools were unhappy that they had not been awarded a first-half penalty, when striker Michael Mackay took a tumble with Alan Maybury in close attendance. And the U's were really the authors of their own downfall, undone by a set piece.

They might be eight points off the play-offs, but they are also a healthy 13 points clear of the drop zone. The U's have indeed come a long way in a short space of time.


COLCHESTER UNITED: Walker 7, Maybury 6, Baldwin 7, Reid 7, TIERNEY 8, Gobern 6 (sub Gillespie, 65), Izzet 7, Wordsworth 6, Hackney 6 (sub Perkins, 90) Yeates 7, Vernon 7 (sub Platt, 73). Unused subs: Coyne, Cousins.

HARTLEPOOL UNITED: Lee-Barrett 7, Sweeney 6, NELSON 8, Collins 7, Humphreys 6, Jones 6 (sub Foley, 68), Liddell 7, Clark 7, Monkhouse 6, Mackay 5, Guy 6. Unused subs: Cook, Henderson, Rowell, Tait.

Referee: Mr Michael Jones (Cheshire) 7.

Attendance: 5,158.

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