It’s sometimes easy to forget that Colchester is in Essex, constrasting as it does with the hinterland of all-pervading Thurrock. And as a Football League town, it is something of an outpost. As a child, I remember being taken to Colchester Zoo, learning about the town’s Roman history and later, in 1971, watching Ray Crawford inspire United to an earth-shattering (and enjoyable for most) FA Cup giant-killing against Don Revie’s Leeds United. That win is still marked at the club in the form of a giant photo from that game.
Equally, there’s a lot of references to Colchester’s Watney Cup win of 1971. A largely forgotten competition, Colchester won it against West Bromwich Albion, beating them on penalties after a 4-4 draw at United’s old Layer Road ground.
Colchester were mostly seen as an old Football League fourth division side and in 1990, they fell through the trapdoor into the Conference. They won their way back, however, in 1992, winning the non-league double of Conference and FA Trophy. In 2006, they achieved a remarkable promotion to the Championship, but by 2009, they were in League One, where they have stayed ever since. On the opening day of 2014-15, they hosted Oldham Athletic.
If the sceptics get their way, Colchester will not be there for much longer. The club is invariably on most people’s list for relegation and the 2014-15 campaign is no different, the experts are tipping the Us for a season of struggle. In 2013-14, they finished 16th, six points clear of the relegation zone. The previous year, they only secured survival on the last day of the season.
The lack of confidence in Colchester’s chances in the new campaign stems from the loss of a few players. For a team that struggled, they conceded only 61 goals, but in the close season, they lost full backs Brian Wilson (to Oldham), Ryan Dickson (to Crawley) and Alex Wynter (back to Crystal Palace from his loan period).
Manager Joe Dunne has been active in the market, though, and defenders Sean Colhessy (Kilmarnock) and Ben Gordon (Ross County) have been lured from Scotland. Dunne also looked to non-league football to sign Dan Holman from Braintree Town. Dominic Smith, a striker from Crewe and goalkeeper Chris Lewington from Dagenham were also signed in the summer. All Dunne’s signings were free transfers. The most significant signing could yet be George Moncur of West Ham, who has agreed to a loan period that runs until January 2015.
Layer Road, their old ground, was more akin to an up-market non-league home, so when the club moved to the Weston Homes Community Stadium, it represented a fresh start in many ways for Colchester. It’s an out-of-town site, but Colchester is hardly a sprawling metropolis. Nevertheless, a bus service ferries supporters out to the ground, which is strangely remote in its appearance.
Many new grounds struggle to stamp their character on the club and Colchester’s is certainly one that comes into the “functional” category. A pavement-style café adds a touch of the bizarre to the vista that greets you and an electric car charging station tells you that Colchester are trying to be very au courant about things. But there is no matchday buzz around for the opening day of the season, not until Oldham Athletic’s fans arrive – with no pub in reasonable distance, the Latics travelling band have probably been filling-up in town.
Oldham also struggled in 2013-14 although they ended the season with a 10-match unbeaten run. They have had something of a revolving door on Boundary Park in the summer, with about 10 players coming in and seven going in the opposite direction. They were starting their 18th consecutive season in the third tier of the English game – quite a statistic given the transient nature of the lower divisions. Manager Lee Johnson, like his Colchester counterpart, was appointed during 2012-13.
The game was not a classic, by any means, but was entertaining. Colchester made the early running and in the seventh minute took the lead through their skipper, Nigerian centre half Magnus Okuonghae. A Craig Eastmond cross was dropped by Oldham goalkeeper Rachubka and Jabo Ibehre was quick to seize the ball, but unable to get his shot in. It rolled to the formidable Okuonghae, who shot home from 10 yards.
But the early good work was wasted by some sloppy defending. Tom Eastman and Sam Walker didn’t seem to know what they were doing when the ball was played into the penalty area and although Jonathan Forte deserves credit for his persistence, he shouldn’t really have been allowed to equalise in the 18th minute.
Forte gave Oldham the lead five minutes from the interval, firing past Walker from close range after a dangerous ball across the area by former Colchester man Brian Wilson. So Oldham went in at half-time 2-1 ahead and looked in control.
Colchester returned in much better shape and dominated the early period of the second half. George Moncur, who had come on in the first half as substitute, netted Colchester’s equaliser in the 58th minute. Freddie Sears, the home side’s best performer, shot against a post and Moncur sent the rebound high into the net from an acute angle.
And that was it. A 2-2 draw that sent the 4,000 crowd back up the United Way in reasonable spirit. We’ll watch Colchester’s progress with interest.
Footnote: In the early 1990s, a son of my cousin played one Football League game for Colchester United. His name was Justin Booty, not a common surname. Leaving the ground, I saw someone wearing a Colchester shirt with the name “Booty” on the back. It crossed my mind that the two people, one elderly(possibly about the age of my cousin), one young, may just have been related to me. I shall never know!