U's left with 'if only' feeling again

Scunthorpe United 0Colchester United 0“IF ONLY” is one of the most common phrases in footballing vocabulary. Colchester United had every right to vent their frustration with a few “if onlys” in north Lincolnshire on Saturday.

By Carl Marston

Scunthorpe United 0

Colchester United 0

“IF ONLY” is one of the most common phrases in footballing vocabulary. Colchester United had every right to vent their frustration with a few “if onlys” in north Lincolnshire on Saturday.

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The U's kept their third clean-sheet on the trot to collect another vital point from a tricky trip to Scunthorpe. They remain in the thick of the promotion race, with genuine hopes of snatching second spot rather than just grappling for a play-off berth.

And yet it could, and should, have been so much more. The results elsewhere were so favourable that the U's would have risen into the second automatic promotion slot, “if only” Billy Clarke's 88th minute goal had been allowed to stand.

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In truth, a point apiece was just about the fairest outcome. The U's created a few more chances than their hosts, but visiting keeper Aidan Davison was forced into the better saves.

However, the Essex side thought that they had sealed a valuable away win, to crown another strong defensive performance, when Greg Halford nodded down a free-kick for the tigerish Clarke to poke home from six yards out.

The U's supporters behind Paul Musselwhite's goal began to celebrate in earnest, along with Clarke and his new team-mates, but their celebrations were abruptly halted by an assistant referee's flag. In his opinion, 18-year-old Clarke was standing in an offside position.

And so Colchester had to be content with a point, rather than all three. When news filtered through that none of their play-off rivals, with the exception of fast-improving Oldham Athletic, had notched a victory, it became apparent that Phil Parkinson's men had missed a chance to steal second place, at least for a week.

Of course it was heart-warming news to hear that Brentford and Swansea had both suffered surprise defeats, and that Huddersfield and Barnsley had been held to draws.

It keeps the promotion-pot boiling. Leaders Southend stretched the gap between themselves and the pack to eight points, with a convincing 3-0 win over Hartlepool. But just three points separate the next six teams. The battle for promotion is almost certain to go to the final day.

Colchester, after a dreadful run of seven defeats and one draw in eight fixtures, have dragged themselves back on track with three solid displays. They are once again proving difficult to beat.

And there were signs at Glanford Park that the goal-scoring knack will soon return again, not least because Ipswich Town loanee Clarke gave a taster of what is to come with a sparkling cameo during the final half-hour.

Clarke, signed from Town on transfer deadline day last Thursday, replaced Tony Thorpe after 61 minutes. The U's substitute was lively on the ball and quick to turn defenders. His late disallowed goal also confirmed that he has the ability to take chances at this level.

Manager Parkinson may even consider starting with Clarke next weekend, when promotion rivals Brentford are due in town. Fellow new recruit, Jamal Campbell-Ryce, was not involved at Scunthorpe, although the Rotherham loanee winger is set to play for the Resevres this week to prove his fitness.

Thorpe had just once scoring opportunity against the Iron. The U's striker latched onto a pass from Mark Yeates - the Irishman impressed all afternoon - but could not beat Musselwhite with his 10th-minute effort.

Davison had a bigger test on 23 minutes. Talented front-runner Andrew Keogh met Matt Sparrow's free-kick with a goalbound header that the U's keeper managed to turn around his post. That was the first of three excellent saves from the experienced custodian.

The second arrived in the last minute of the first period. Again Keogh was the danger, benefiting from a strong run by left-back Michael Rose before unleashing a stining drive that Davison blocked, and then mopped up.

The U's enjoyed just as much possession as their hosts, but it was not until Clarke's arrival that they began to mount some sustained pressure. Yeates cracked in a 65th minute volley that Musselwhite was relieved to catch, and both Chris Iwelumo and Greg Halford had goalbound shots blocked by defenders.

Davison pulled off his third top-class save of the afternoon on 73 minutes. Iron skipper Andy Crosby unleashed a 25-yard thunderbolt which caused the U's keeper to react smartly to palm the ball to safety.

Six minutes later and Greg Halford ballooned a header from Karl Duguid's cross over the bar from close-in. That was a missed opportunity, and although Clarke took his in the dying minutes, an assistant referee's flag robbed him of a debut goal.

The U's have eight games left, four at home and four away. It promises to be an exciting last six weeks of the campaign.

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