Andrew Bennett reporting from among 1098 U's fans at the Weston Homes Community Stadium:
Football stadia aren’t what they used to be, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Today saw United’s first ever visit to Colchester’s Weston Homes Community Stadium, which opened in 2008, evoking memories of many trips to their previous home, Layer Road. In many ways the old place was awful: an intimidating location, rickety wooden stands, toilet facilities which would have shamed a medieval plague house, and I still have nightmares about the grey, tepid “burger” I was served there back in the Nineties.
Nonetheless, the old dump oozed character and invariably made for a fine, combative atmosphere. By way of contrast, the new ground seems to have been made of Lego, with four near-identical stands which lack any character whatsoever, and as with any stadium whose capacity is too big for its occupants, its half-empty seating drained the place of any atmosphere and made the game resemble a pre-season friendly.
It wasn’t all bad, though, by any means. Its out-of-town location did not make it suitable for any nearby pubs, but spaces in the park and ride opposite were plentiful and the facilities for supporters were more than adequate, with a café and refreshments bar open to home and away fans alike which allowed them to mingle outside in the sunshine, and acceptable food and drink in the away end of a traditional nature (i.e. nothing silly like house wine), including a comfortingly well-cooked burger and non-defrosted roll. It won’t win any haute cuisine awards, but was absolutely fine for our purposes.
It is hard to believe now, but ten seasons ago Colchester finished 10th in the Championship, seven points short of a playoff place for the Premier League. They could not defy gravity for long, finishing bottom the following term, and after eight seasons of diminishing returns in League One they now find themselves in the bottom tier and reunited with their fellow U’s from the next county. I must confess I was not familiar with any of the names in their 18-man squad today, but our clubs have moved in different circles for 14 years.
United line-up: Norris; Long, Legge, Dallison, Taylor; Mingoia, Berry, Dunne, Maris; Pigott, Williamson
On the bench: Gregory, Adams, Roberts, Clark, Keane, Newton, Elito
Shaun Derry made four changes from the team which started Tuesday’s triumph over Wednesday, reinstating Will Norris for David Gregory in goal, giving first starts of the season to Greg Taylor and George Maris in place of Blair Adams and Medy Elito, and Leon Legge was recalled to replace Josh Coulson, absent because his wife had gone into labour with little Harry.
The team started the game in the 4-4-2 formation which they employed in midweek, but fairly quickly was adjusted to a 4-1-4-1 with James Dunne holding, Maris moving inside and Ben Williamson switched to wide left. There was little sign of the flowing attacking football which eliminated their higher division opponents, however, and they fell behind inside 8 minutes.
It all stemmed from a United free-kick; when it was cleared they regained possession but gradually passed it backwards until Maris knocked it back to Norris. His pass, like so many to come from his colleagues, was underhit, Norris’ clearance went straight to Chris Porter in the centre circle, and all of a sudden the U’s were on the retreat. Porter found Sammie Szmodics, he fed Brennan Dickerson, and his fine strike from the edge of the box flew past Norris and in at the far post. 1-0.
There was immediate evidence of disharmony in the United ranks as Norris bawled out his team-mates who promptly answered back, doubtless pointing out that it was his poor clearance that had set Colchester on the attack in the first place. Two minutes later it might have been even worse for the U’s when Szmodics thundered a shot in on goal, but Norris partially redeemed himself with a splendid leaping tip over the top.
United almost responded on 16 when Joe Pigott wriggled through to aim a carefully placed shot at goal from ten yards, but Sam Walker dived low to his right to make a fine save. Thereafter, though, all the pressure belonged to Colchester as they opened up the U’s defence almost at will. The hosts found easy pickings down the flanks, where exposed fullbacks Long and Taylor offered their opponents far too much space and cross after cross rained into the box, and the whole United team looked strangely out of sorts, failing time and again to execute even the simplest of passes.
Even more disturbingly, on several occasions when United did have the ball, a player would look up, scan the horizon and fail to see anyone making himself available, culminating in a hopeful hoof forward and loss of possession. Colchester were no great shakes, but United seemed set on making them look like Barcelona as they allowed them to run through and past their midfield time and time again.
Somehow, though, the hosts were unable to increase their lead. Szmodics fell feebly under Legge’s challenge in a transparent attempt at gaining a penalty which fooled nobody, Richard Brindley fired wildly over on 20 and a series of corners could not yield any further decent goal chances, the U’s throwing bodies in the way to block any such attempts.
United were just clinging on, though, with Luke Berry and Maris ineffectual in the centre of midfield, Piero Mingoia isolated on the right and Williamson looking unsure as to where he should be running on the left, while the back four was creaking and groaning like a Tudor warship in a force ten gale. And there just seemed to be no fight or energy running through the team, just 11 introverts climbing into their shells and not communicating with each other.
Derry tired of his team’s lame duck performance thus far and did not even wait until half-time to make his first change, making his point forcefully by withdrawing Tom Dallison on 42 and replacing him with Mark Roberts, although in truth he could have withdrawn just about any player on the park. The substitute made a good diving block from Szmodics’ shot as the first half came to an end, then the team retired to the dressing room where doubtless Derry had already thoroughly warmed up the hairdryer.
The manager made a further change at the start of the second half, replacing the disappointing Maris with Conor Newton. The shape of the team remained the same, though, and the pattern of the game remained duly unchanged, Dickerson firing wide and Porter’s dangerous run and cross cleared just the right side of the post by Legge. Norris dived low to stop an angled Tom Eastman drive on 55, then Porter headed wide from Drey Wright’s cross.
United still looked lethargic and out of sorts, but Derry’s options were limited by having his only two fit strikers already out on the pitch, so in desperation he withdrew Williamson for Elito on 58. It almost paid off six minutes later when Pigott crossed from the right and found the erratic winger in the middle, but his header cannoned off the bar and out of play. If only the roles had been reversed.
That was as good as it got for the U’s, whose collective and individual performances declined thereafter in a morass of negativity and tentativeness, passes still going astray and no-one appearing to really want the ball. A better team than Colchester would have punished them more thoroughly. Eastman’s header on 65 lacked the power to trouble Norris, then Doug Loft replaced Szmodics, while Wright was shown the first yellow card on 69 for dissent after Brindley was penalised for a foul on Mingoia.
The hosts’ second change saw Denny Johnstone enter the fray in place of Porter on 71. A rare shot from United saw Pigott fire over two minutes later, then Johnstone shot wide at the other end, and somehow a U’s side playing like a gurgle of drains entered the final ten minutes still just a goal down.
Their weakness down the flanks, however, finally cost them dear eight minutes from time when Sean Long gave Lewis Kinsella all the time and space in the world to pick his cross and he found Johnstone, completely unmarked in the middle, to power a header past the helpless Norris. 2-0.
It was almost a relief to the disgruntled United supporters; it’s the hope that kills you, and that had now been swept irrevocably away. Colchester, without a win thus far this season, had looked happy to sit on their lead from early on and must have been delighted that it was so easy to do so. Taylor headed a free-kick wide on 87 and Berry, who had utterly failed in his role as captain, was booked for a stupid foul on Kurtis Guthrie three minutes later, thanks mainly to the Colchester man’s preposterous overreaction, tumbling to the floor and rolling over and over again as if he was lying on a steep slope.
Craig Slater replaced his thespian colleague for the five minutes of added time, during which far from chasing the game, a disinterested-looking United side seemed content to pass it sideways to each other on the halfway line. Their wretched capitulation was deservedly greeted with boos at the final whistle
It is difficult to say just how the team which put Sheffield Wednesday to the sword four days ago could suddenly morph into a collection of shrinking violets, how energy could turn to lethargy, how attitude could turn to torpitude. A really good side at this level, like Portsmouth or Luton, would have put them to the sword by five or six goals and Derry could not explain it afterwards, although to his credit he did not make any excuses for his team’s “horror show.” What we do want, though, is for him to know how to do something about it, and swiftly, with a trip to Doncaster in the offing next week. The lop-sidedness of his squad does not help, but for goodness’ sake, surely these players could not perform this badly again unless they were severely tranquilised. If they do not play (again) like they have spent all the previous night on a pub crawl, that will at least be some sort of improvement.
At least Channel 5’s ‘Goal Rush’ programme raised a wry chuckle later on. Their brief highlights consisted of Dickenson’s goal, Pigott’s saved shot and Elito’s effort hitting the bar, after which the voiceover stated “Colchester rode out the storm” and showed their second goal for the most misleading 30 seconds ever. A storm? An earwig blowing off would create more wind than United did today…
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