Strong-looking Colchester United kick off their pre-season campaign at Maldon & Tiptree

Denny Johnstone, who will return to Colchester United's first-team for today's friendly at Maldon &

Denny Johnstone, who will return to Colchester United's first-team for today's friendly at Maldon & Tiptree, after a long-term injury. Picture: RICHARD BLAXALL - Credit: Richard Blaxall/Focus Images Ltd

Hope always springs eternal at the start of any season, beginning with the very first pre-season friendly, and this year will be no exception at Colchester United.

Frankie Kent, who should feature at Maldon & Tiptree today after being sidelined since February with

Frankie Kent, who should feature at Maldon & Tiptree today after being sidelined since February with an ankle injury. Picture: PAGPIX

Yet there is a slight difference to previous years, in that there is a real familiarity to the squad of 2017-18 – changes have been few-and-far between over the summer.

Experienced keeper, Rene Gilmartin, the ex-Walsall and Watford custodian, was signed only yesterday in the dual capacity of back-up keeper and also goalkeeping coach, but the 30-year-old Dubliner has been one of only two new recruits.

The other new signing, Ryan Jackson, was snapped up as a replacement right-back for Richard Brindley at the end of last month. The 26-year-old had spent the previous two seasons at Gillingham.

The U’s will make further senior signings, before the season begins (with a trip to Accrington Stanley on August 5), but there will not be the wholesale changes of last summer, or indeed previous campaigns.

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Left-back Matt Briggs and fellow defender Lloyd Doyley were not offered new deals at the end of last season, while keeper Dean Brill, centre-half George Elokobi, striker Chris Porter and defender Brindley all turned down offers of new contracts, and so have left.

But despite these departures, the U’s have a good deal of strength in depth, in their squad, mainly due to the number of players returning to first-team action after long-term injuries.

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The U’s failure to reach the League Two play-offs last term, following their relegation in 2015-16, can be attributed to that crippling list of lengthy injuries.

Frankie Kent, Luke Prosser, Doug Loft, Sammie Szmodics, Denny Johnstone, Lewis Kinsella, Craig Slater and Kurtis Guthrie all missed large chunks of last season, and all will be champing at the bit to make up for lost time.

Four of those long-term absentees should feature today, at Maldon & Tiptree – Kent, Slater, Szmodics and Johnstone – while midfielder Loft and left-back Kinsella both returned to the fold before the end of last season.

Centre-half Kent damaged his ankle in the 2-1 home win over Barnet, on February 11, while midfielder Slater and striker Johnstone were both sidelined after picking up injuries in the following weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Accrington (February 18).

Johnstone had a knee problem, and Slater required surgery due to a double hernia and ongoing groin problem. Attacking midfielder Szmodics should also play for 45 minutes at Park Drive, after breaking his leg in the 2-0 loss at Crewe in mid-March.

Only Brennan Dickenson remains a long-term absentee – the left wing-back/left winger might not return until the turn of the year due to cruciate ligament damage sustained in a training session in April.

To that end, U’s boss John McGreal will surely need a new left-sided specialist, to replace Dickenson, and also an experienced striker to make up for Porter’s depature for League Two rivals Crewe (on a two-year deal).

He has time on his side – it is four weeks until the start of the season – so there is no panic.

The Essex club have also been linked with moves for 20-year-old wingers Connor Hunte (former Chelsea apprentice, and ex-Wolves) and Ryan Gondoh (non-league, last at Carshalton).

Both might feature today, in the U’s first pre-season friendly at Bostik (Isthmian) North hosts Maldon & Tiptree. The U’s will be wearing their new away kit (for 2017-18) in this game.

Ticket prices for today are: £5 for adults, £2 for over-65s and under-16s.

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