What a year for U's

COLCHESTER United will be disappointed to see the end of 2006. It has arguably been the best year in the club's history.The curtain comes down on 2006 at Layer Road this afternoon, with the visit of Wolves.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United will be disappointed to see the end of 2006. It has arguably been the best year in the club's history.

The curtain comes down on 2006 at Layer Road this afternoon, with the visit of Wolves.

The U's will be gunning for an 11th successive home victory, which would move them to within one of the club record (12) set only last season.

The last 12 months have been amazing, with an FA Cup trip to Premiership champions Chelsea, promotion to the second tier of the Football League for the first time, and now a high-flying position in the Championship.

Some big-name clubs are currently trailing the seventh-placed U's, including Sunderland, Ipswich, Norwich and today's visitors Wolves.

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A total of 40 points accrued from 25 games is more than anyone could have hoped for, especially as Geraint Williams' men lost their first four fixtures at their new level.

Surely 2007 cannot match the achievements of 2006?

The U's have set some very high standards, and have continued to confound the football world. ]

But there is no reason why the next 12 months cannot be just as exciting for the Essex club.

The statistics speak for themselves. The U's have won 23 of their 47 league games in 2006 (with today's game still to go), picking up 71 points at an average of 1.7 points per game.

They began the year in fourth spot in League One, with Phil Parkinson at the helm.

By the middle of January, they were topping the table - all seven games in January were won.

February was crammed with incident. A run of 12 successive home wins was finally ended by Walsall's goalless draw at Layer Road, but all attention turned to the FA Cup when the U's visited Chelsea for a fifth round tie.

A crowd of 41,810 witnessed a brave performance from Parkinson's men in a 3-1 defeat.

Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho netted an own goal to give the U's a shock lead, and Chelsea only took a grip of the contest following the introduction of substitutes Frank Lampard, Hernan Crespo and Joe Cole.

March was perhaps the low point of the U's year. It yielded just one win in seven games, as well as an exit from the LDV Vans Trophy at the hands of Swansea in a two-legged southern area final.

That denied the U's a trip to the Millennium Stadium, perhaps a blessing in disguise? Swansea went on to miss out on promotion.

Colchester had dropped to sixth by mid-March, but one last final push in April saw them power back up to the second automatic promotion slot, behind Essex rivals Southend.

The U's dug deep to grind out some precious wins over Tranmere, Bournemouth and Rotherham, as well as bouncing back from two-down to draw 2-2 at Chesterfield.

Thankfully, May featured just one game! A goalless draw at Yeovil Town ensured that United clinched promotion to the Championship, without having to endure the lottery of the play-offs.

Two days later and the whole squad celebrated with a parade of the town in an open-top bus, and a civic reception at the town hall.

It was a massive moment in the U's history. By contrast, Brentford, who were neck-and-neck with the U's for second spot during the second half of the season, missed out on the play-offs and have never recovered.

They lost their manager, Martin Allen, to MK Dons, and also bade farewell to several of their best players over the summer, including Jay Tabb and Michael Turner.

While the Bees look odds-on for relegation this term, squatting in the League One basement with financial problems to boot, their former rivals Colchester are going great guns in the Championship.

Of course last summer was just as unsettling for United. Parkinson handed in his shock resignation and was eventually appointed the new manager at Hull City (he was sacked from that post earlier this month).

A long search began for his successor, until caretaker boss Geraint Williams was given the job on a permanent basis just a week before the start of the new campaign.

Star players Neil Danns, Mark Yeates and Liam Chilvers had all departed to pastures new, and the net result was a depressing August.

All the national football pundits had written off the U's as relegation certainties, even before a ball was kicked, and their pessimism seemed spot-on when five defeats in a row left Williams' men in 23rd position, and out of the Carling Cup. However, there was a glimmer of hope at the end of August, with a breath-taking 4-3 home success over Derby, thanks to a hat-trick from Jamie Cureton.

And the U's have not really looked back since that ground-breaking seven-goal thriller. In fact, they have been transformed from whipping boys to play-off candidates!

It has been excitement all the way. September culminated in an historic 1-0 win over East Anglian rivals Ipswich Town, the first time the two clubs had met in a league fixture for 49 years. That lifted them to 13th in the table.

The U's then burst into the top half of the table during October, bolstered by a 4-0 rout of Sheffield Wednesday and a 2-0 success over George Burley's Southampton.

The excellent home form continued into November. Bogey side Southend were finally beaten (3-0), and Parkinson's long-awaited return to Layer Road, as the manager of Hull, ended in humiliation for the old boss. Chris Iwelumo bagged four goals in a thumping 5-1 victory.

This month has seen the U's pick up some points on their travels, at Cardiff (0-0) and Crystal Palace (3-1), as well as inflicting heavy defeats on visiting Stoke and Luton.

And so Williams' super-confident side find themselves on the edge of the play-offs, a remarkable 19 points clear of the relegation zone!

2006 will never be forgotten. The club turned professional in 1937, was elevated to the Football League in 1950, and have enjoyed several promotions and some terrific FA Cup giant-killing victories.

They beat Leeds in 1971 (FA Cup fifth round tie), and regained their League status by winning the Conference/FA Trophy double in 1990. But this year will take some beating!

carl.marston@eadt.co.uk

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