U’s and me: The case for the defence, past and present
The basis of any successful team is a sound defence, which usually means a settled back four.
When Colchester United clinched automatic promotion to the Championship in 2005-06, defenders Wayne Brown (45 first team appearances, league and cup), Liam Chilvers (40), Pat Baldwin (34) and John White (41) were all regulars throughout the season.
And the following campaign, when the U’s achieved their highest ever Football League finish – 10th in the Championship – it was no coincidence that new manager Geraint Williams was again able to call upon a regular back four.
Brown never missed a league game at centre-half, while fellow centre-back Baldwin only sat out eight league games. Chris Barker chalked up 38 league appearances at left-back, and Greg Halford played 28 games, mostly as a right-back, before his departure for Reading.
Fast-forward to this season, currently a troubled one, and the contrast could not be more acute.
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The U’s, who parted company with former manager Joe Dunne at the end of August, and installed Tony Humes as the new boss almost immediately, are stuck in the relegation zone.
They are fourth-from-bottom, despite the free-scoring form of their striker, Freddie Sears (12 goals), and their plight can at least be partly explained by the defence.
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The U’s have simply been unable to field a settled back four all season, and that worrying trend looks set to continue for the weeks and months ahead.
Only two clubs have conceded more goals than the U’s in League One this season – the bottom two of Crewe and Scunthorpe.
And to date, the inconsistent U’s have had to call upon the services of a huge number of different defenders, even though the season is not yet four months old.
Magnus Okuonghae, Frankie Kent, Tom Eastman, Sean Clohessy, Elliott Hewitt, Ben Gordon, Michael O’Donoghue and Cole Kpekawa have all featured in the back four to date, and more are set to follow.
It is a depressing tale of woe.
Club skipper Okuonghae has undergone an operation, after rupturing his Achilles tendon during the closing minutes of last Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Coventry City, and is expected to be out for the rest of the season.
Fellow centre-half Kent is currently nursing a knee injury, which will also require an operation. He is unlikely to return before February.
To make matters worse, right-back Tosin Olufemi injured himself in pre-season.
Like Okuonghae, the unfortunate Olufemi ruptured his Achilles (in a pre-season friendly at Bishop’s Stortford) and so underwent an operation. He will not return until next year. And back-up centre-half Josh Thompson, sent out on loan to Tranmere Rovers to get some much-needed first-team experience under his belt, damaged his hamstring earlier this month and so is set for another stint on the sidelines.
Manager Humes has therefore spent much of his time trying to bolster his beleaguered, battle-weary defence, in recent weeks.
Teenager James Harney, who can play at centre-half or right-back was recruited on a youth loan from West Ham a fortnight ago, although the 18-year-old is yet to feature in the first team.
Kpekawa impressed on his debut against Coventry last weekend, operating as a left-back following his loan switch from QPR, while only this week Humes made another raid in the loan transfer market to bring in Will Packwood on loan from Birmingham City.
American-born Packwood should be the latest to figure in the U’s back four, away at MK Dons this Saturday.
As Humes was quick to say, after last weekend’s home defeat and Okuonghae’s injury blow, now is not the time for players to start feeling sorry for themselves.
But if the U’s can again cheat relegation this season, with all the defensive woes that they have already suffered, then it will be no mean feat.