U's now facing biggest crisis of season

A SUDDEN spate of injuries is threatening to derail Colchester United's relentless progress in both league and cup competitions. It is the biggest crisis of their season.

By Carl Marston

A SUDDEN spate of injuries is threatening to derail Colchester United's relentless progress in both league and cup competitions. It is the biggest crisis of their season.

The U's shot to the top of League One, following a 2-1 win over visiting Port Vale on Saturday. It was their 16th victory from their last 18 fixtures.

But that latest success was achieved at a heavy cost, with no fewer than five injuries, all of which could have a bearing on how they fare over the coming weeks.

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Midfielder Kevin Watson, defenders Liam Chilvers and Wayne Brown, keeper Aidan Davison and leading scorer Chris Iwelumo all face spells on the sidelines.

Suddenly, manager Phil Parkinson is charged with the task of fielding a patched-up team, starting with tonight's visit to League Two side Cheltenham Town for an LDV Vans Trophy southern area semi-final tie.

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At least United have strength in numbers this season. Several players have been waiting for their chance to break into the side, and now it is the turn of the likes of Kem Izzet, Dean Gerken, George Elokobi, Garry Richards and Richard Garcia to make an impression.

The U's are homing in on a possible first-ever appearance at the Millennium Stadium. If they can continue their winning run at Whaddon Road, then they will be just one step away from a trip to Cardiff.

The initial prize is a two-legged Southern Area final, against either Swansea City or Walsall, followed by a final against the Northern champions.

Parkinson made wholesale changes for the previous round, at MK Dons (2-1 victory), and he will have no other choice but to repeat that ploy at Cheltenham, due to all the absentees.

In addition to the five new injury victims, left-winger Mark Yeates serves a one-match suspension for accruing five bookings.

The early impressions are that midfielder Watson will be out of action for between four and six weeks, after being stretchered off with a knee injury during the dying minutes of Saturday's win over Port Vale.

Skipper Watson has been a key player for the U's this term. He makes the midfield tick, and is the regular taker of both corners and free-kicks.

Initial fears were that the 32-year-old had sustained serious ligament damage. It now appears as though he has suffered a medial ligament injury, rather than the more serious cruciate damage.

Meanwhile, Parkinson's first-choice centre-half partnership of Chilvers and Brown are both undergoing operations this week.

Chilves travelled to Munich, Germany, for a hernia operation yesterday. The former Arsenal trainee has earmarked February 18, and the visit of Hartlepool, for his return, which means a three-week absence.

Brown could be out for at least a fortnight, after having an operation that is not football related, while Davison is set to be missing for two or three weeks with a strained hamstring, sustained against Vale.

Finally, target-man Iwelumo, who had a one-month loan spell at Cheltenham back in 2001, scoring once in four appearances for the Robins, will miss a return to his old club due to a knee problem.

“We had been fairly lucky with injuries this season, until last weekend,” admitted Parkinson last night.

“However, I look at it as a chance for some of the other lads, with fresh legs, to make an impact in the team.

“I was planning to let Jamie Guy and Robbie King have some work experience on loan at Cambridge, but I'll have to rethink that now, after all the injuries,” added Parkinson.

Teenagers Matt Paine and Craig Hughes are also added to tonight's squad. Centre-half Paine was an unused substitute in the previous round at MK Dons, while front-runner Hughes will be joining the first team squad for the first time.

Garry Richards and Pat Baldwin are set to be the new centre-half partnership. They will probably both play at Cheltenham, although Parkinson cannot afford any more injuries, especially as the club have a glamorous FA Cup fourth-round tie against Derby County this Saturday. That game is already a sell-out.

Izzet will relish an opportunity to fill Watson's boots in midfield, and Sam Stockley will be hoping to regain his place in the side, especially if Karl Duguid is required for a more attacking role in the weeks ahead.

The U's have already achieved so much this season, against the odds, and they don't want that hard work to go to waste. The squad might be stretched to the limit, but you write off Colchester at your peril!


CHELTENHAM TOWN: Higgs, Gill, Caines, Townsend, Duff, Lelligan, Finnigan, Bird, Wilson, Guinan, Odejayi, Gillespie, Spencer, Brown, Armstrong, Wylde and Turner.

COLCHESTER UNITED: Gerken, Stockley, Richards, Baldwin, Elokobi, Duguid, Izzet, King, Williams, Garcia, Guy, White, Halford, Danns, Paine, Hughes and Cousins.

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