A rough guide to... Colchester United

Cod Almighty | Article

by Alistair Wilkinson

1 August 2016

Hopes are high that Colchester can achieve an immediate return to the third flight. But Al suggests that the Us remain in the shadow of one of football's archetypal 'hard men'.

How are you?

Colchester United are a rare breed: an Essex professional Football League team. There are two of them, Southend being the other, and so we are kindred spirits in the representing-your-county stakes as we finally rejoin Scunthorpe United in the Football League to make two teams from Lincolnshire.

I suppose that makes us rare, scarcely seen but often mentioned and unlikely to breed. If we were animals, we'd be pandas. Although a lack of regard for all four mentioned clubs probably means we're more like vaquitas. Who? Endangered porpoises, of course.

What have you been up to?

Colchester United were formed in 1937, gaining election to the Football League in 1950. Their birth was a result of Colchester Town's refusal to turn professional. Once the Us were firmly established as the number one side in Colchester, they moved into Layer Road and made reserve team players of the original inhabitants. That left Colchester Town unable to finance their £300 debts, forcing them to fold. A brutal, bloody birth that began a tepid footballing life of promotion and relegation between divisions three and four that has continued to this day.

That's slightly harsh; there is more to say, but even their own fans admit that they are a disregarded, perhaps taken-for-granted club, to whom others rarely give much notice. Although famous fans radio DJ Steve Lamacq and England cricket captain Alastair Cook do lend a glimmer of chic.

More interesting times: relegation to the Conference in 1990, selling Layer Road to pay off debts, a return to the Football League in 1992 (beat us by four years and they won the FA Trophy in the same year) and then their highest ever finish of tenth in the Championship in 2007 created an interesting millennial period. 2007 also saw their best bragging rights as they finished above Ipswich, Norwich and Southend, winning the Pride of Anglia title – an annual competition between Anglian football clubs for who can finish highest – for the first and only time in their history. And all this despite having the lowest attendances in the division.

The following season was their last at Layer Road, and, sadly, relegation was the farewell. So it was for football in the third flight that they moved in to their new ground, The Colchester Community Stadium, now the Weston Homes Community Stadium, a sparkly, spangly, steep-sided thing that looks much more like a football ground than we usually see with new stadia. So props for that. Can we get in touch with your designers? And builders? And council?

A certain Paul Lambert came to the club after discontented mumblings of mediocre management. He would oversee a 7-1 thrashing of East Anglian rivals Norwich City at Carrow Road. The Us manager was immediately poached by the Canaries, who then ran away with the title, including a 5-0 win at the Community Stadium, and went on to take Norwich to the Premier League in successive promotions. Colchester remained in the third division until last season when they were relegated back to the fourth for the first time in 18 years.

Away from the league, their cup successes have been as rare as Essex and Lincolnshire Football League clubs: they preceded us to the Football League Trophy in 1997, losing 4-3 on penalties to Carlisle and they famously beat Don Revie's Leeds in 1971, leading to an FA Cup quarter final at Goodison Park where they lost 5-0.

So what do Colchester fans have to get them out of their seats? They will renew their rivalry with Wycombe Wanderers and Luton Town this season and they will probably be glad to have a break from Southend United after their 3-0 defeat in February this year. Other rivals include Norwich and Ipswich but in their current state they can only dream of playing them with three points at stake.

What kind of a season did you have?

It didn't start well. A draw at home to obviously-going-to-be relegated Blackpool is portentous. More peril was to follow as they won just five points from five draws until their first win away at Sheffield United on 15 September. Things were looking up as they also won the next three. But it proved to be a dead cat bounce. There were frugal celebration at New Year as the Us stared blankly at the 27 points they had amassed. Six more points in January and February must have had players and fans coming to terms with their slow slide to third flight death.

But hope is a cruel thing and that dead cat was made to bounce again. March began with an away win at Bradford and finished with another away win at Coventry. In that month the Us gained 10 points, dragging them within seven of safety. Did I say hope was cruel? We already knew it, they already knew it, but just in case, the feeling was hammered home as they won just one more game. The stats tell the story in ruthless clarity: they scored 57 goals and conceded 99; they won just nine games and lost 24.

How are you feeling?

John McGreal has quite a task on his hands. Appointed in May after the departure of last season's custodian Kevin Keen, he has risen through the coaching ranks at CUFC to take control of the first team in a time of disappointment and expectation. (See Groves, Law, Rodger, Slade, Newell, Woods.) According to one Mr Positive on a Us messageboard, they're going straight back up and according to McGreal himself the future is bright.

Of his new signing, "dynamic" former Kilmarnock midfielder, Craig Slater, the first-team coach is full of praise and expects him to "move through the divisions with the club." Setting himself up for a fail or realistically aiming high? It may be the latter as he is gathering an impressive-looking squad for the season ahead that has some Us fans displaying open optimism – always a danger for football fans.

Sam Walker, or 'Big' Sam Walker as he must surely be known, is their 6'6" keeper, formerly of Chelsea. (BSW made a grand total of zero appearances for the Blues, spending his Bridge career out on loan at various southerly clubs.) Injured for all but an hour of the 2015-16 campaign, BSW's absence is, anecdotally at least, the common cause of their failure last season; and the miserable total of six clean sheets seems to support those anecdotes. In the two previous seasons he had been an ever-present and so, at the very least, is the kind of talisman that team and fans can rally around.

In front of BSW, the Us have some impressive names in their defence: full-backs Brindley and Briggs bring some always appreciated alliteration and the latter became the Premier League's youngest ever player when he turned out for Fulham at the tender age of 16 years and 65 days. An impressive selection of centre-backs, including flesh-wall and former Wolves man George Elokobi and regular fans' awards winner Tom Eastman, will be led by Luke Prosser. He has signed from rivals Southend and is a tall, 6'3", experienced defender who has won two promotions from the fourth division with Southend and Northampton.

In midfield pacy winger Drey Wright has a chance for the romantic story of the season: he's been hit with injuries in the last two seasons but a strong showing in the second half of last season means he's hoping to finally make his name now. In central midfield the Us can choose from Loft, Garvan and the already-mentioned Slater. New signing Loft brings experience and a history of promotions and Garvan played successfully for Crystal Palace.

Anecdotal evidence of colossal keepers aside, it was Colchester's scoring record that surely sealed their doom last season. They failed to score in 13 games and their 57 goals were spread around the team with only George Moncur managing double figures. Moncur has gone. The club have signed Guthrie, Forest Green's second top scorer last season behind Jon Parkin, and Johnstone, a young striker who graduated through Celtic's academy but is yet to make his mark. Other than that they rely on last season's marksmen, Porter and Bonne, neither of whom are prolific. Their hopes may rest in attacking midfielder Szmodics, a product of their own youth system and highly regarded by staff and fans alike.

Their chances for this season? A solid defence, a capable, pacy and inventive midfield and a lack of a proven goalscorer up front. Sounds like play-offs to me.

Where are you from?

We share the east coast but Colchester is a far and distant place. Expect to spend the best part of four hours getting there. Choose from a trip down the A1 or a more direct route via the A17 that knocks off 30 miles but adds on 10 minutes. The agony of choice. Not good for a night fixture.

Colchester was once the Roman capital of Great Britain and attracts 4 million visitors a year, so there are plenty of places to eat and drink and lots to see. There's a zoo, a Norman castle and picturesque streets in which to stroll. The town centre has lots of restaurants and cafes, national chains and a few local businesses. Pubs-wise, the CAMRA award-winning Victoria on North Station Road comes highly recommended and is next to the train station; the also highly recommended Shuttle Bus will deliver you to the ground for £2.50. An honourable mention goes to The Bricklayers, also near the station. The Dog and Pheasant is the nearest to the ground but described as "pretty grim" by CUFC fans. There is a warning against the Greene King IPA served in the ground: "Urgh!"

You must be so overwhelmed by Roy McDonough

Roy McDonoughThe baddest of the bad, Roy McDonough was sent off 22 times in his career, creating a heady mix of violent anecdotes that few would condone but many love to read about. His book, Red Card Roy, details his career of alcohol, sex and football, the 20 pints in a night, the 100 goals, the challenges on and off the field and 400 women. The battling, bloodied 'baller was a tabloid writer's dream, almost impossible to write about without falling into cliché (and I do avoid those like the plague!).

But I can admit to nostalgic wobbles when I remember the personalities that seem to have disappeared from the game. If all we have now are faded memoirs, grainy YouTube footage and Joey Barton for our aggressive thrills and spills then we have lost something.

It wasn't, however, just kicking people that makes McDonough so special to the CUFC fans; his second spell at Layer Road was as player-manager and it was he who took them to that Conference title and FA Trophy win in 1992. He was the kind of football man that seems able to carry an entire club on the strength of his personality, his charisma and, I assume, his terrifying authority.

Another assumption I make of the man, and I use the word man very deliberately, is that he has left a long shadow over the club, from which players and fans are yet to emerge. For McDonough, masculinity, the need to be a man on and off the field, seemed to drive him. In his comments about other teams' players and his own there are many references to what many would consider masculine virtues of strength, bravery, aggression. The comments conclude – perhaps cynically – that without these qualities a man cannot be honest, that he is somehow not enough.

It's an attitude that probably belongs in the past, and, as Mirror writer Mike Walters said, McDonough's career was "a caveman's rampage" and so belongs in a dark and distant time of muddy fields and muddier, bloodier tackles. But until we can leave those fond memories of men and their masculine game behind, the fans of all clubs, not just Colchester United, will compare current players and managers to the ghosts of McDonough, Hunter, Bremner, Smith, Waters, and find them wanting.

The picture of Roy McDonough is reproduced, with our thanks, from an interview with him on the site Colchester 101