Super-sub Richards heads U's winner

GARRY Richards proved there is life after Greg Halford, as he grabbed the winner with his first ever senior goal to sink Preston at Layer Road last night.

By Carl Marston

GARRY Richards proved there is life after Greg Halford, as he grabbed the winner with his first ever senior goal to sink Preston at Layer Road last night.

Despite Halford's departure to Premiership side Reading just a few hours before kick-off, for a £2.5m fee, the U's still produced a top-quality performance to continue their amazing sequence of results on home turf.

And Richards was the unlikely hero. Dropped from the side after an indifferent performance at Ipswich, to make way for new recruit Matthew Mills, the young defender appeared as a 62nd minute substitute and hit the back of the net just four minutes later.

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Central defender Richards nodded home Kevin Watson's precise corner, and wheeled away to celebrate with arms raised in delight. It was a terrific moment for the 20-year-old former youth teamer.

Richards also weighed in with some vital interventions at the other end, to keep high-flying Preston at bay, but in truth Paul Simpson's men never looked like finding an equaliser.

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This was Colchester's 12th victory from their last 13 home fixtures - the other one was a 1-1 draw against Leicester City.

That amounts to a superb record of 37 points accumulated from a possible 39 at Layer Road since mid-August.

While Preston were unchanged from the side which won 2-0 at Crystal Palace in the FA Cup last weekend, U's boss Williams made four changes, the most since he became manager last summer.

In addition to the loss of Halford, the U's were also without right-winger Richard Garcia, who was nursing a thigh injury. His place was taken by Jonnie Jackson, with John White filling the void left by Halford at right-back.

Matthew Mills, signed on loan from Manchester City last Friday, was handed his U's debut at the heart of defence alongside Wayne Brown, while striker Jamie Cureton was back after missing the defeat at Ipswich with a tight hamstring. Defender Garry Richards and front-runner Hogan Ephraim were relegated to the bench.

Preston believed U's new boy Mills was guilty of chopping down David Nugent in the box just eight minutes into his debut.

Dean Gerken parried a fierce shot from Michael Ricketts, and Nugent was felled while trying to pounce on the rebound. Referee Chris Foy waved away appeals for a penalty, and merely awarded a corner instead.

Despite all the disruption with team selection, the U's still looked confident during the early stages. In fact, Kevin Watson was close to an opening goal on 11 minutes when crashing in a left-footed shot that keeper Andy Lonergan did well to smother.

Centre-half Mills impressed by finding Chris Iwelumo with a precision ball, from 30 yards away. Iwelumo nodded into the path of Cureton, but he was closed down before he could shoot.

The Layer Road faithful held their breath when danger-man Nugent burst clear in the 27th minute. The £6m-rated striker capped a strong run with a low drive that skidded just inches wide of Gerken's far post.

Four minutes later and Nugent was threatening again, although this time Mills matched him stride-for-stride, forcing Preston's leading marksman wide and eventually winning a goal-kick.

United came close to breaking the deadlock in the 33rd minute. Kem Izzet scampered on to Jackson's lay-off and kept his balance to lash in a goalbound shot which deflected wide.

That prompted the first of three quickfire corners. From the third of these, Iwelumo controlled Watson's delivery at the far post before rifling in a shot that looked destined for the net, only to cannon off a defender and roll wide.

Izzet was not afraid to shoot from any distance, and he caused a stir with a 25-yard thunderbolt that worried keeper Lonergan as it flashed wide of target.

Midfielder Izzet turned creator on 44 minutes, setting up Cureton on a plate with a well-timed pass on the right edge of the box. Alas, Cureton's finishing let him down as he sliced his shot wide.

The U's had certainly enjoyed the better chances in the first period, as was confirmed by Cureton's injury-time effort that soared a yard over the bar. Preston were glad to get to half-time with a clean-sheet.

The visitors showed more urgency at the start of the second period, and Nugent left Chris Barker trailing in his wake with a storming run down the right flank.

The in-form striker had two team-mates queuing up to provide the finishing touch, inside the six-yard box, but the final cross was beyond both of them with Izzet mopping up.

Action switched to the other end in the 55th minute.

Livewire Izzet prodded into the path of Jackson, who saw his shot well blocked by Lonergan - the Preston keeper had rushed off his line to narrow the angle. It was a terrific save.

Iwelumo was looking to increase his tally of 14 goals for the season, and he was not far adrift with a towering header which ballooned over the bar and on to the top of the net, following Watson's fifth corner of the evening.

Strike-force partner Cureton should have done better on the hour mark.

He waited patiently for Duguid's high cross to drop, but then volleyed it horribly over the bar from 10 yards out.

Debutant Mills had enjoyed a good evening at the heart of defence, but was perhaps lacking a little match fitness, so Williams replaced him with Richards in the 62nd minute.

And it was to prove an inspired substitution, because Richards was celebrating his first ever senior goal just four minutes later.

The 20-year-old lunged forwards to head home Watson's accurate corner, his effort looping beyond Lonergan and into the net before a defender could react on the goal-line.

The U's could have doubled their lead on a couple of occasions, although both times the luckless Jackson had goalbound shots charged down by defenders.

The game had opened out, since Richards' opener, and Lilywhites midfielder Paul McKenna should have done better when blasting over from point blank range, following Nugent's excellent cross in the 75th minute.

Richards was impressive as a defender when heading powerfully away from a dangerous corner, but it was Colchester who continued to look the more likely to score again.

Cureton was just a whisker away from a goal in the 80th minute, when his angled drive whistled inches wide of the upright, and Lonergan then denied Duguid with a superb save, from which Iwelumo nearly squeezed home the rebound.

Substitute Simon Whalley tried his luck from the edge of the box in the final minute of normal time, but Gerken was untroubled, and the U's were in complete control during the four minutes of stoppage time.

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