Top seven reasons why the U’s WILL finish in the play-offs
- Credit: Archant
Football writer Carl Marston assess the chances of Colchester United finally making the play-offs, after reporting on the U’s 2-1 win at Salford City last Saturday
Colchester United WILL make the League Two play-offs - that is my bold assumption, following last weekend's hard-earned 2-1 victory in the wind and rain at Salford City's Moor Lane.
I have not had the luxury of watching so many U's fixtures these season, as opposed to previous years (and decades!) due to the demands of non-league and the occasional sortie with Ipswich Town, but I have taken enough encouragement from what I have seen to predict a top-seven finish for John McGreal's men in 2019-20.
And let's face it - it's about time that the U's reached the end-of-season play-offs, because they have not had that pleasure for 22 years, since beating Torquay United 1-0 at Wembley in the fourth tier play-off final of 1998.
True, they did clinch another promotion in 2006, after finishing second to Southend in League One to clinch an automatic route into the Championship, where they remained for two years.
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But with that exception, there has been no promotion cheer (or play-off interest) for the U's.
They have threatened, on several occasions, especially under current boss McGreal, but they have always missed out by the odd point, or the odd place, or both.
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Last year, they finished just one point and one place outside the play-offs, when I felt they should have made the top seven following the previous summer arrivals of the experienced trio of Harry Pell, Frank Nouble and Luke Norris.
Sammie Szmodics also had a great season, banging home 14 goals, but the loss of keeper Sam Walker (to Reading) probably cost them a play-off berth, with the likes of Dillon Barnes, Rene Gilmartin and Ethan Ross all struggling to hold down a regular starting berth between the sticks.
Last summer, the U's lost star player Szmodics (to Bristol City), plus talented defenders Frankie Kent (to Peterborough) and Kane Vincent-Young (to Ipswich), and Brennan Dickenson (to MK Dons).
And yet I believe they have a much better chance of reaching the play-offs, with the current class of 2019-20.
Here are seven reasons why:
1 Stronger squad
The U's have far more back-up this season, than previous years, as reflected on the substitutes' bench at Salford. McGreal was able to bring on the experienced trio of Frank Nouble, Tom Eastman and Brandon Comley, while trickster Courtney Senior did not even get on the pitch.
2 Better defence
Only play-off rivals Cheltenham and mid-table Newport have a better goals against record than the U's, who have averaged one goal per game conceded - 35 goals conceded in 35 matches. Eastman and Luke Prosser have been the trusty centre-half partnership for most of the campaign, although summer recruit Omar Sowunmi delivered a man-of-the-match performance when given a rare start at Salford.
3 Settled keeper
After so many years with Sam Walker as the safe and reliable No. 1, the U's struggled in this department last season, and was a reason when they fell short of their play-off target. But Dean Gerken's presence has been crucial, the 34-year-old missing just one of 35 league games since his return to the club from Ipswich. He has made 40 appearances already.
4 More goal outlets
No team outside the top seven has scored more goals than the U's, who have bagged a respectable 49 from 35 games. Once again they have not looked like unearthing a potential 20-goals-plus-a-season striker, but the goals have been spread around. Southend loanee Theo Robinson is in form, and is the leading scorer with 11 goals, followed by Norris (9) and Nouble (5). In addition, six players have all contributed three goals, a good ratio.
5 Better consistency
Up until this month, the U's had not lost back-to-back league matches all season, a prime reason why they have always been knocking on the play-off door. And following the losses to Grimsby and Port Vale, they duly bounced back at soggy Salford last week.
The U's have one of the most experienced teams in the division. Whereas in the past they have had to rely on several younger players, to plug gaps, there is experience all over the pitch, from Gerken in goal, Eastman and Prosser in defence, Pell in midfield and Nouble and co. up top.
7 Good run-in
The U's have already played many of their lofty rivals twice this season, including top-four sides Plymouth, Exeter and Swindon, so the run-in looks kind. For example, their last three matches are against Oldham (home), Walsall (away) and Forest Green Rovers (home), who all look set for mid-table finishes.