U's still living the dream

COLCHESTER United's dream season just keeps getting better and better. And there's no sign of it ending!Championship visitors Derby County were brushed aside 3-1 in almost nonchalant fashion on Saturday, as the U's coasted into the fifth round of the FA Cup for the second time in the last three years.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United's dream season just keeps getting better and better. And there's no sign of it ending!

Championship visitors Derby County were brushed aside 3-1 in almost nonchalant fashion on Saturday, as the U's coasted into the fifth round of the FA Cup for the second time in the last three years.

The Rams were left chasing shadows. On-fire Neil Danns scored a brace and on-song Richard Garcia added the third, in front of a sell-out capacity Layer Road crowd.

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These are thrilling times in this corner of north-east Essex. Phil Parkinson's men are taking it all in their stride but even the U's boss can't stop pinching himself that his side have won 18 of their last 20 fixtures.

It is a staggering achievement for a “small” club like Colchester to sustain such a run, which stretches back to the middle of October. United are simply in unstoppable form.

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There is, not surprisingly, a real buzz about the place at the moment. All the tickets for Saturday's FA Cup fourth round clash were snapped up by the beginning of last week - confirmation, if it were needed, that the club is crying out for a new ground.

If all goes well, the U's will finally move from their Layer Road stadium for the start of the 2007-08 season. Who knows at what level?

On Saturday's form, they look good enough to grace the Championship.

Members of the national press converged on Colchester, to judge for themselves the credentials of this team-of-the-moment, the team who could rightly claim to be the in-form side in England - and that includes Chelsea and Reading!

BBC's “Match of the Day” and Sky TV were also represented, and everyone left feeling convinced that the U's had a very special squad this season. They also agreed that Derby were a club in freefall.

United had to cope without their experienced quartet of keeper Aidan Davison, defenders Wayne Brown and Liam Chilvers, and midfield maestro Kevin Watson, who were all sidelined through injury.

Yet each of their deputies rose to the challenge. Stand-in keeper Dean Gerken impressed for the second time this week, following his clean-sheet at Cheltenham in the LDV Vans Trophy on Tuesday night, while Pat Baldwin and Garry Richards were supreme at the heart of defence, and Kem Izzet covered every blade of grass in midfield.

The first-half was scrappy, played in brutally cold, windy conditions, but the U's always looked to have the edge. The only surprise was that Derby folded quite so dramatically in such a short space of time.

The Rams, who might soon slither into a relegation battle, lost their lone striker Paul Peschisolido to a groin strain after 38 minutes. With him went their best chance of hurting the hosts, not least because he had dumped the Essex club out of the FA Cup at the fifth round stage two years ago when in the colours of Sheffield United.

Phil Brown's side, still reeling from a 6-1 defeat at Coventry City the previous weekend, did have one good chance to take a first-half lead. Dangerous Spanish midfielder Inigo Idiakez had an initial shot blocked by Richards and then rifled in a similar stinging effort that Gerken did well to parry.

But otherwise, Colchester were in the driving seat. Greg Halford capped a strong run with a 25-yard drive that keeper Lee Camp managed to divert around his post, with the ball having reared up awkwardly in front of him.

However, Camp was powerless to prevent the U's from taking a 44th minute lead, to leave the Layer Road crowd in good spirits at the interval.

John White, who enjoyed a fine afternoon at left-back, launched a cross into the penalty area. Chris Iwelumo turned to hook the ball goalwards and livewire Danns swept home from just outside the six-yard box, via the far post.

It was Danns' 12th goal of the season, but that tally was soon boosted to 13 as Colchester took a grip of this cup-tie early in the second period.

Derby didn't know what hit them. The second goal was another product of a long throw routine, this time delivered by Halford. Rams defender Andrew Davies was able to block Garcia's snap shot but Danns needed no second invitation, as he tucked home the rebound from eight yards out.

There was just a suspicion of offside, with Iwelumo lurking in the six-yard box, but the goal was allowed to stand after a quick discussion between referee Brian Curson and his assistant.

Danns' latest strike, his seventh during the month of January, arrived in the 52nd minute. Just six minutes later and the game was effectively killed off as a contest by a third goal.

Garcia met Halford's terrific cross with a goalbound header that Camp parried but could not hold onto. The Australian attacker reacted quickly to poke home the loose ball.

It was Garcia's sixth goal of a truncated season, and his fourth in three games. His brace against Port Vale the previous weekend had installed the U's in the automatic promotion places, while his winner at Cheltenham had edged them to within one step of the Millennium Stadium, in the LDV Vans Trophy.

The damage had been done. The U's were in cruise-control, although Derby did grab a consolation goal with 11 minutes remaining.

Halford was adjudged to have shoved substitute Lee Holmes in the back and Tommy Smith crashed home the penalty.

The U's made sure that the Rams did not threaten again and Camp was busy beating away Karl Duguid's fierce drive in the 82nd minute, and then preventing Gareth Williams' attempted chip from chalking up a fourth in the 86th minute.

There were scenes of jubilation at the final whistle. The players celebrated in front of their ecstatic fans, and there's promise of much more to come this season.

A lot, though, might depend on the next two days. The transfer window closes at midnight on Tuesday, and Parkinson is praying that he still has the whole of his successful squad intact on Wednesday morning.

The U's have already tasted league and cup glory this term. It would be a pity if they were to be denied a chance of promotion by the loss of one or two of their stars this week.

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