U's clawing way to safety in small steps

COLCHESTER United are taking small steps, if not giant strides, towards fending off relegation this season.

Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United are taking small steps, if not giant strides, towards fending off relegation this season.

The U's remain in the bottom three, and in big danger of sliding into League One, but their performances and results since the turn of the year have suggested that they can still be a Championship club when they move to their new stadium next term.

Geraint Williams' men ended 2007 in dire straits, having just suffered a depressing 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Blackpool to stay marooned at the foot of the table.

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By contrast, the first two months of 2008 have lifted the gloom hanging over Layer Road. Results have improved, beyond all recognition, and the influx of new players has transformed the U's into a strong, well-balanced squad.

They are now a tough nut to crack. In fact, disregarding the FA Cup defeat to Peterborough, the U's have suffered just one defeat in the league this year, a narrow 1-0 loss at Barnsley.

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Two wins and four draws from their last seven league fixtures has seen the U's rise from 24th to 22nd spot. That still leaves them in the relegation zone, but they are now only one point adrift of safety.

And there could be more improvement to come. New recruit Dean Hammond, signed on transfer deadline day from Brighton, is yet to make his debut because of a calf injury.

The former Seagulls midfielder travelled with the rest of the squad to Humberside, and although he didn't make the final 16-man squad, he still warmed up with a series of sprints in the KC Stadium before kick-off. He might yet provide the final boost that the U's require to protect their Championship status.

Saturday's encouraging 1-1 draw was also achieved with the club's two most experienced outfield players, Teddy Sheringham and Kevin Watson, sitting on the bench all afternoon. Furthermore, the U's two leading scorers, Kevin Lisbie and Mark Yeates, have both missed the last two games due to ankle and shoulder injuries respectively. The duo should be back in contention next weekend, so the future looks bright.

Johnnie Jackson was again the star performer against Hull, to complete a memorable week both for himself and the team.

Fresh from his deflected free-kick in the previous weekend's 1-1 draw at Burnley, and a marvellous late winner against Preston in midweek, Jackson obliged again with a stunning strike early in the second-half against City.

It was a lead that the U's deserved, because they had created two of the three best chances during the first period. Jackson headed inches over from Karl Duguid's cross on 10 minutes, and Clive Platt nodded over the bar and onto the top of the net from Kem Izzet's delivery just after the half-hour mark.

Hull badly missed the services of their leading scorer Dean Windass in attack. The 38-year-old was sidelined after undergoing minor surgery on his knee, and City manager Phil Brown's decision to play just one out-and-out striker in the first period backfired. Dean Gerken was not seriously tested until he superbly blocked Ryan France's goal-bound shot with his legs in first-half stoppage time.

Jackson struck in the 47th minute.

The former Tottenham midfielder pounced onto Scott Vernon's lay-off to crash home a stunning shot from just outside the penalty area, with his least favoured right foot! Keeper Bo Myhill might have got a faint touch, but the ball still fizzed past him and clipped the underside of the bar on its way into the net.

The U's would surely have been celebrating a seventh win of the season, and their first back-to-back triumphs of the campaign, if Izzet had managed to bury a good chance in the 51st minute. Izzet was a hive of activity all afternoon, but he was disappointed to drag his shot wide with just Myhill to beat.

Hull rallied to net an equaliser in the 64th minute. Fraizer Campbell headed home Jay-Jay Okocha's free-kick, and a late Tigers onslaught looked on the cards.

That never materialised, although the script of ex-U's stalwart Wayne Brown scoring the winner against his old club nearly came true in the dying minutes.

Fortunately, Gerken was a match for Brown's close-range shot, following a free-kick routine, so ensuring that the U's inched up one more rung on the Championship ladder.

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