In the first edition of Round & White’s ‘Road To The Promised Land’ column, Bruce Halling looks at where things have gone wrong for League One strugglers Colchester United.
As a club, Colchester have enjoyed the most successful years in their history over the past decade. Promotion to the second tier for the first time in 2006 was followed by the club punching well above their weight in finishing 10th in their first season in the second tier, despite an average attendance of just 5,466. Like many clubs who find themselves in similar situations, the U’s suffered from the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ and were relegated to League One in 2008, and have since been consistent top-half finishers.
This season, however, has seen the club get off to their worst start for a number of years, having failed to win any of their opening seven games and have only scored five goals in the process – all at home, incidentally. With no change in management over the summer and no major upheaval of the playing staff – a large number of first team players from the side which achieved a 10th place finish last season still remain – just what is going wrong at the Weston Homes Community Stadium?
For me, there are two main issues here, and it’s difficult to talk about one with mentioning the other. Off the field, chairman Robbie Cowling has been gradually reducing his financial input into the club’s budget over the last couple of seasons – he has been effectively bankrolling the club since taking charge several years ago and is currently working towards aims which place more emphasis on financial sustainability in the long term than ambitions of successes in the short term. To illustrate this point, the playing budget that manager John Ward has to work with this season has been reduced by approximately £300,000, meaning that extending the contracts of players whose deals expired in the summer was going to be a difficult task, and inevitably key players such as Ben Williams and Kayode Odejayi were released. Defender Magnus Okuonghae initially left the club also, but after failing to land a deal at a higher level, chose to re-sign with the U’s.
You can already begin to see the effect that this may have on the club’s successes on the field, with the club being unable to make like-for-like replacements. As an example, Mark Cousins, former understudy to Williams, has been elevated to number one keeper for this season, leaving the club without an experienced backup. If Cousins stays fit, I don’t see this being a major problem for Colchester, as Cousins is a more than capable goalkeeper, and has always performed well when called upon in the past.
The fundamental problem, in terms of playing staff, is now in the final third. This is now a side which has a serious shortage of goals in it, and I believe it is this that has hindered the club’s progress in the opening weeks of the season. They have drawn four games so far, and of their three defeats, two have been by a single goal. With more potency in the final third, their record could easily read three wins, two draws and two defeats, and that would currently see the club sit on the fringes of the playoffs, rather than in the relegation zone.
If I were looking at the squad from a fans’ perspective, I would be immensely frustrated with this fact especially given as the club has more attacking options this season than it did in the previous campaign. The problem seems to be the age-old argument of quantity over quality which Colchester seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of. The attackers that left the club were very good players for this level. Steven Gillespie was undoubtedly the best natural finisher at the club, and for my money one of the better strikers in the division over the past couple of seasons, but suffered from a string of injury problems which restricted the amount of time he spent on the pitch. He made 32 league appearances for the club last season, scoring 11 goals, but far too many of those appearances either started from the bench or saw a half-fit Gillespie struggle to get into the game and either limp off or be replaced, and I can’t blame John Ward for taking the money that was offered to him by Fleetwood for the player’s services. Given the budget Ward now has to work with, Colchester can’t afford to have an injury-prone striker on the books, no matter how good he may be. On the other side of the coin, Kayode Odejayi was the type of player that lent himself perfectly to the type of game that Colchester like to play, and while Odejayi didn’t score as many goals as perhaps he ought to, he more than made up for it with his overall contribution to the team’s play, holding up the ball and providing a good link between midfield and attack. His contribution to the side is undoubtedly being missed this season.
With those two players gone, Colchester desperately need attacking players who can contribute goals, and plenty of them, and I’m not really seeing that from the players that have come in so far. Clinton Morrison has never been a striker who will lead the line in terms of goals, and yet he finds himself as the only proper centre forward with experience at the club. I might be told a hundred times about Ian Henderson but he just doesn’t play like a striker. I think he would be better utilised as a winger or attacking midfielder, as he can score goals, but he just doesn’t score enough to be considered as a striker capable of leading the line. Add to the equation Freddie Sears, who has just five senior goals in over a hundred appearances, and Gavin Massey, who scored two of his three career Football League goals against Colchester for Yeovil Town last season, and you can begin to see the scale of the problem that Colchester face this season. I’m not convinced there’s any money left in the budget either, and if there is, it’s certainly not enough to get in a striker who will score twenty goals this season as I feel that’s what is needed.
It isn’t necessarily a doomsday scenario, however. Over the last couple of seasons, Colchester have been a side who get a number of goals from midfield, so if the likes of Anthony Wordsworth and Andy Bond can chip in and bag some goals this season, that would be a massive help for the side. The club, particularly under John Ward’s leadership, has also been quite good at spotting good young players and nurturing their talent, with the likes of Ben Coker, Bond and Tom Eastman having broke into the side in the last couple of seasons and now performing solidly at this level. If Ward can do the same with the younger forwards in the side, and get them scoring goals regularly, that may be the key to Colchester’s survival in this division.
With the start the club have made this season, anything beyond the consolidation of their place in this division would be an ambitious aim. Quite frankly, I think Colchester are going to do well to avoid relegation this season. Whether they are able to do so or not remains to be seen.