U's surprise leaders with gritty draw

COLCHESTER United still have the capacity to surprise the best in the Championship, as Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd found out to his cost.The Hornets started the day eight points clear at the top, and they took less than two minutes to take the lead against a U's side who had lost their last three away games.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United still have the capacity to surprise the best in the Championship, as Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd found out to his cost.

The Hornets started the day eight points clear at the top, and they took less than two minutes to take the lead against a U's side who had lost their last three away games.

A mauling looked on the cards. But it never worked out like that, thanks to a rip-roaring display from the U's, who combined resolute defending with inventive attacking.

Clive Platt grabbed the equaliser on 20 minutes, and his strike-force partner Kevin Lisbie nudged the U's in front inside the first minute of the second period.

A huge shock loomed large, especially when Dean Gerken saved Marlon King's penalty just after the hour mark. King did make amends with the leveller from a bicycle kick just three minutes later, but Watford could not fashion a winner.

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Boothroyd had led his side into the Premier League by winning promotion in 2006, and although their stay in the top flight lasted just one season, they are hot favourites for a quickfire return.

But even the Hornets supremo was surprised by Colchester's refreshing approach, in the face of adversity, at a stunned Vicarage Road.

Boothroyd confessed: “Colchester didn't come here to defend, they surprised me and credit to them. They put their bodies on the line.”

Ironically, the only time that the U's didn't “put their bodies on the line” was from Watford's very first attack, which led to the opening goal. Tricky customer Adam Johnson, on loan from Middlesbrough, received a short corner and shaped to cross into the danger-zone, only for his curling effort to sneak into the net inside the near post, completely deceiving keeper Dean Gerken.

It was doubtful whether Johnson intended to score from that narrow angle. Already the U's faced a mountain to climb, but they conquered it to good effect in what developed into one of the most exciting games of the season.

Watford threatened briefly to run riot, although the U's defended manfully and largely restricted Bothroyd's boys to shots from long-range. Midfielder Kem Izzet was all over the pitch, blocking and knocking opponents out of their stride, while full-backs Karl Duguid and Danny Granville stuck to the task of shadowing dangerous wingers Johnson and Tommy Smith.

The Hornets were to register nearly 30 goals attempts during the afternoon, which is a prime reason why they are the runaway leaders in the division. But the fact that they only scored one more goal is testimony to how well the U's defended.

Manager Geraint Williams handed Bela Balogh his first start as a centre-half, after three appearances at right-back. The Hungarian replaced Matthew Connolly, who was rested for this third game in a week. Balogh and Pat Baldwin formed a strong partnership, with the latter again throwing himself in front of countless shots.

But this was not just about a backs-to-the-wall display. Lisbie and Platt were excellent up front, Mark Yeates was his usual bubbly self down the right, and Johnnie Jackson enjoyed on of his best games of the season on the left flank.

Platt struck with his fifth goal of the season, and his fourth on the road, to give the U's the belief that they could cause an upset. Izzet was the creator, controlling Kevin Watson's pass and floating over a cross which Platt headed firmly against the bar.

The ball flew back into the path of Platt, who took his time before calmly lashing home from eight yards out. It was clear that Watford were not going to enjoy an easy afternoon.

The second half was just 38 seconds old when Colchester took the lead. Izzet was again the inspiration, sliding an accurate pass through for Lisbie to tuck home a low, angled drive into the far corner of the net. It was his sixth goal of the season.

Watford began to lay siege to the U's goal, and they were presented with a golden chance of an equaliser when a combination of Yeates and Duguid brought down Johnson in the box for a clear penalty.

Gerken, though, guessed the right way to smother King's powder-puff penalty low to his left. That penalty save came in the 61st minute, although Watford did level just three minutes later.

Ex-Nottingham Forest striker King had his back to goal when executing an overhead kick that reared up off the ground and over Gerken into the roof of the net. It was his eighth goal of the campaign.

Both sides struck the woodwork in a frantic finale. Lee Williamson clipped the bar with a rising header, while Yeates had another of his wonder free-kicks turned onto the bar by keeper Richard Lee.

It would have been cruel on Colchester to concede a late winner. Again it was only a point, but it confirmed that the U's can mix with the cream of the Championship.

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