Colchester United Season Preview: quieter summer

Colchester United finished one point off the play-offs last season. Although they didn’t win promotion, there were positives to take, with better football rewarded with strong home form. Supporter Richard Crick, founder and co-owner of the excellent StadiumHoppers scratch football maps, discusses life at the Essex club ahead of the new season.

After finally accepted our League Two fate in May 2016 there was almost jubilation that for the first time in three seasons we may actually see some Colchester United wins and even runs that as fans we’ve absolutely craved! Last season’s reaction was what we hoped for, a positive outlook, some fresh faces and ultimately a side that looked consistently competitive.

Admittedly this took a while and we had a terrible start to the season. Goals weren’t forthcoming, nor were clean sheets. However you could argue the real hero of our season was Antonio Conte! After the MOTD showcasing of Chelsea’s  3-5-2, Colchester United lined up with the same shape, arguably that was the start of what ended as a “nearly” season for us.

Last summer there was lots of incomings and outgoings at the club, whereas this summer has been much quieter. Are you disappointed by slow transfer business, or do you welcome a summer of stability?

Last season it was exciting to see some real potential come into the club despite the drop in divisions. Craig Slater and Kurtis Guthrie were two great coups and our Director of Football and Head of Recruitment were starting to earn their salt.

This season however it’s more been a tail of who we’ve lost rather than who we haven’t brought in. Whilst it’s still relatively early there’s a lot of work to do to recreate last season’s squad. Whilst the pre-season results have been four wins and four clean sheets, we’re yet to be properly tested and whilst we had depth last season in certain positions, we’re now looking rather shallow.

It’s also frightening to see some of our shining lights from last season move on to what would generally be acknowledged as smaller clubs or lower league. Player of the Season George Elokobi couldn’t agree terms with us, yet has moved to non-league Leyton Orient.

You weren’t helped by injuries last season, with many players including Tom Eastman and Slater ruled out for spells. Should the club’s medical department be looked at?

Eastman was phenomenal when he played, especially compared to last season’s fire set of performances. Sadly at this level players don’t get the treatment or support that is akin to the Premier League. That said, Colchester do invest in a relatively large backroom staff and arguably have one of the finest training setups in the EFL so we shouldn’t be too critical.

Had many clubs had the injuries we sustained they’d have likely capitulated, something we certainly didn’t do. All our injuries seemed to have relatively different reasoning behind it, based on the photos of Newport away we’re lucky only one player (Sammie Szmodics) came away seriously inured.

We really did lose key players though, Guthrie out for almost half a season from a relatively inconspicuous challenge. Owen Garvan had a number of mystery on/off injuries across the season and most of our defence was at some point out!

As a glass half full man though I have to say there were positives too. A large number of defensive injuries lead to Elokobi being recalled and effectively rekindling his career! Cameron James made his first team debut and went on to make over 15 appearances. His confidence and club status has rocketed into the new season and is showing the composure of a player way beyond his 19 years!

New signing Ryan Jackson has also been hindered by injuries, but had good spells at Newport and Gillingham. Do you expect him to be your first choice right-back?

It seem like Jackson will come straight into the side given the void left by Richard Brindley, who has not agreed terms and ended up at Barnet. A lot of fans would have liked to have seen more of Kane Vincent-Young last season who is a really athletic and exciting RWB but he doesn’t seem to have been given his chance.

The fact that Jackson was brought into Gillingham by Justin Edinburgh, who played him previously at Newport, does give me some confidence that he could work out well. I think there’s more excitement though for Dickenson and Kinsella’s new challenger, Cole Kpekawa!

Whilst Cole hasn’t played more than eight first team games for any club he’s been at he does already boast nearly half a million pounds worth of transfer fees to his name! It does concern me when a player has been released twice for “not fulfilling” and I’m going to controversially ring the alarm bells and question whether he’ll have the resilience and ambition to battle for a first team place this season. If he thinks he’s dropping divisions to get into a team amongst lesser players I think he’ll get a serious footballing wake up call!

You scored the second most first half goals in League Two last season (39), but the joint-third fewest (28) after the interval. Would it be fair to say you do better when opposing teams give you more time on the ball?

I do think that’s a fair assessment. We’re arguably one of the few “ball playing” football sides in League Two. We have a few dogged characters like Tom Lapslie, Craig Slater and at times Sean Murray but on the whole we’re a footballing side at heart and don’t always fair well against the so called “lesser sides”.

When up against the top sides we can flourish, we did a double over Luton and gave a goal happy Doncaster side a good pasting too. However against those who close us down, ruffle us up and want to play in the air we can get punished, Newport and Morecambe are fine examples of that!

You out-fouled your opponents in just 28% of your games and, from the highlights, dropped too deep when defending. Do you need a midfielder who embraces the combative side of the game?

As mentioned previously we prefer being on the ball than off it. Slater was missing for the majority of the end of the season as were warriors like Luke Prosser and Eastman.

Lapslie came into his own last season but too often had to carry the weight of Garvan’s lack of legs, despite him not even hitting 30 yet! Arguably another experienced CDM would be no bad thing but personally I’d prefer a like for like replacement for Garvan. Last season’s central midfield capture from Gillingham was meant to provide that but sadly it still looks like Doug could be up in the Loft… sorry…

Chris Porter had a good season last year but has left for Crewe. Are young forwards like Guthrie the answer, or is a natural line-leader needed?

Many fans, myself included jested that Chris Porter’s time to fallow was approaching. However despite a dip in form at one point in the season it can’t be denied that he scored goals and was in general a consistent performer! He’s a little bit like that toy as a child you thought you were ready to hand down to your siblings… and then when you can’t have him back decide you really wanted him! Before our 3-5-2 he often did look isolated. He will undoubtedly be missed and questions can be asked of whether we should have given him the 2-3 year security he was craving.

Whilst at times controversial, Kurtis Guthrie has been a great signing and shows the making of a striker above our level should he manage to curb his attitude a little. He has a very pro active Twitter account which should be closely monitored by the Grammar Police!

Macca Bonne has gone to Orient, a player who was still under contract who came through our academy and whom many believe was never given a real chance! His goals to minute ratio would smash Denny Johnstone out of the water yet he’s always been left out in the cold and it’s something that leaves a sour taste in the mouth, given the clubs philosophy around home grown talent.

Undoubtedly Denny has passion and work rate but whether the talent is there is still out for judgement. He picked up a headed goal in the friendly against a West Ham XI this week though… so bring this back in the End of Season Review but my money says he won’t bet double figures.

Szmodics and Wright are both home grown players with huge potential and an eye for goal and could be looked to as alternatives to Denny and provide cover for any injuries Guthrie could sustain but if we seriously want to return to League One we’ll need a new man up top before August.

Goalkeeper Sam Walker started every game last year. Do you see new signing Rene Gilmartin pushing him for the number one spot?

Whilst Rene’s stated his wish to compete for first team football I think it’s more likely he’ll deputise and mentor one of the leagues youngest and finest keepers, Sam Walker. Whilst Big Sam (who piers over Rene by one inch) didn’t have his greatest season last year I think he’s a near certainty to maintain his status as number one. Gilmartin may get cup games and having a keeper with the experience that Rene has will do doubt create greater competition for our former Chelsea hero though.

It is also sad that after working with so many good young goalkeepers Ademola Bankole, affectionately known as “George” has left the club under what I read somewhere was a backroom restructure. Whether Walker’s dipping performances and the retirement of highly rated Brangrove last year has anything to do with it is one for the conspiracy theorists!

What are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Lincoln have to be everyone’s favourite dark horse! With the way they maintained performances in the league whilst completing a euphoric but very heavy journey in the FA Cup shows they have the stamina that Carlisle and Cambridge  fans would have died for last season! I’ll be surprised if Luton aren’t up there again and  they would have to be my favourites for the top spot!

Where will you finish? You said 10th last summer which was a good shout…

I’m now nearly over that nail biting finale of last season which for around 75 minutes saw us making the playoffs, a near miracle given our bottom of the football league start to the season! For me though the clubs leaving the league are better than those joining it and that can only be a good thing for any side aspiring to promotion.

If we had our squad that started last season I’d go for a confident 4th place! However as yet I’m not convinced the incomings replace the talent or positions lost. Should we manage to get in some quality before the start of the season you can call me on the 4th spot, if the market doesn’t start livening up for us and given the players available currently I’d predict 11th.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

There is reason to think Colchester’s squad has been weakened thus far, with centre-back Elokobi and striker Porter vacating positions that haven’t yet been addressed. Play-off prospects may look a little brighter if Guthrie knuckles down and key players stay fit, but McGreal must strike the balance between finesse and fight. 11th