Colchester United Season Preview: Walker departs

With the 2018-19 League Two season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Colchester United fan Richard Crick (@richcrick) from Stadium Hoppers (@StadiumHoppers).

Many would see Colchester’s natural level to be the third tier and yet, having finished 13th in the fourth in 2017-18, you’ve arguably regressed every season for the last five years. Surely major questions must be asked of Robbie Cowling and those running the club?

Having had a taste of the Champagneship years every fan still craves a return there. Whilst that probably isn’t our natural homeland there has been many former small clubs who have climbed the waterfall, reached the top and managed to stay there. Every fan wants to see progression and as you rightly highlight it feels like the water is flowing in the opposite direction.

Fans have started to vote a little with their feet, the attendances last year fell slightly and my impression is that season tickets this year will fall on previous years. A lot of academy prospects have come and arguably failed and those who have made the grade have left with little or no compensation.

Last year “Clowning” imagery was starting to gather some traction on social media and fan groups. Personally that’s not the way I want to see my club or chairman portrayed but there’s no doubt there does appear to be some fractions forming against the current ownership. Many, including CUSA (Colchester United Supporters Association) have called for steps to be taken to bring the club and fans closer together, including the idea of a fans sounding board around important topics such as the sudden removal of shuttle buses to the ground but as yet it seems no such thing will be established. If we start performing poorly I do worry tensions could raise quickly or worse still fans start stepping away from the club.

All the above said… we have had a very positive unbeaten pre season and been rumoured to have paid fee’s for a good number of those who have joined the club this season.

John McGreal seemed to switch between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 last season. Which of those systems did you feel worked best?

The majority of the season we played the 3-5-2 with wing backs and Tom Eastman in a very alternative style centre back / right wing free role. When we have the right personal available this looks like a strong option for us. Tom Eastman popped up with a few goals this season and some marauding runs that even Andrei Kanchelskis would have been proud of (I maybe getting quite carried away!).

We do appear very comfortable in this formation and for me it was more of an issue with a lack of creativity in the middle of the park and a clear lack of goalscoring prowess when Guthrie was injured or unavailable and once Sammy Szmodics form died off.

Pre season has seen us use a mix of the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 and in our pre season match against Millwall we looked very solid in the latter formation. We also have a more limited number of quality centre halves – especially with Ryan Innis returning to Crystal Palace.

Having good understanding and practice of both systems could well make us more tactically astute in terms of deciding how we line up against varied opposition and leave managers scouting ahead on games a little less certainty on how we may set up.

You’ve normally had a youth-based recruitment policy. That hasn’t changed a great deal this summer, but are you hoping new signings Frank Nouble and Luke Norris will add a little more knowhow up top?

It does appear that Robbie Cowling and Director of Football Tony Humes have taken some constructive feedback on board and opted for some more seasoned professionals. There’s a lot of excitement around the very highly thought of at this level and man mountain Harry Pell and a hope that he can emulate some former midfield generals like Johnnie Jackson, Neil Danns and Dean Hammond. Also when the fallout from a player leaving causes dismay from the former clubs fans you often know you’re potentially onto a good thing!

I am a little worried that being the 18th club before his 27th birthday does suggest to me that Nouble is potentially a disappointment in the wings – with a similar track record to Cole Kpekwa in succeeding at clubs, or not as the case maybe! As a 6ft 3in target man I can’t see him working naturally with the arguably more talented and harder working Mandron. Whilst he does boast experience for England at U17 and U19 levels a mere 31 goals since his professional career started doesn’t fill me with confidence and nothing I saw in the pre season match with Millwall overly inspired me to think otherwise.

With 13 goals in 35 appearances Norris would have been our leading goalscorer last year had he been in the coveted blue and white stripes, narrowly tipping Sammie’s 12 goals. This season though we’ll be hoping he can seek nearer the 15 – 18 mark if we’re to seriously vie for promotion.

Personally, I’ve always had a slight soft spot for Mikael Mandron; he seems to do a lot of selfless work that allows others to get into goalscoring positions. Do you share that, or would you like him to pose more a goal threat?

Whilst initially I was a Mandron sceptic, his hard work, clear love for the club and tenacity has won me round. As a big centre forward though he’s the man I want on the end of the crosses and too often he’s not been there as he’s drifted out wide or into a number ten type role in search of the ball.

He’s young and with the right coaching he could certainly do a lot of damage, especially at League Two level. It’s no surprise rumours are circulating about some bigger sides both nationally and internationally floating around him. However, this may just be some very creative agent dribble! Personally I’d like to see how he works with Norris in the hope he can up his goal tally this season whilst continuing to create assists for his strike partner – whoever that may be.

Drey Wright’s six-year career with the club has come to an end after he left for St Johnstone, while Sammie Szmodics appeared to struggle for consistency. Will there be opportunities for young, attacking talents such as Courtney Senior?

Whilst Drey at times had his injury and fitness challenges it would be fair to say he was one of the leading stars to come through the Florence Park’s “The Talent Factory” setup. Many fans were critical of his final ball or inconsistent performances but it’s fair to say that on his day he could destroy any football league defender. I think every fan at Colchester United wishes him the best for his career in the Scottish Premier League.

Senior is certainly a man to watch and I was delighted to see him pen a new deal. Whilst the start of his career for us was spent on the injury table when he did finally make an appearance it was worth the wait. He’s got great feet and a good turn of pace, his final ball is at times mixed but certainly a good prospect having come across with his Brentford Youth Coach when The Bees opted to cull their youth sides.

Another pacey wing back who caught the eye in the last few games of the season was Ryan Gondoh. Whilst he only made two appearances he had plyed his trade at our feeder club and scored 7 goals in 21 games from a wing back / wide midfield position. Should he continue to progress he’d certainly be a good case study for championing the purchase of Maldon & Tiptree FC.

You’ve signed two goalkeepers: Bailey Vose from Brighton and Ethan Ross from West Brom. Will you miss the long-serving Sam Walker?

Having made over 200 appearances for Colchester over five years and being the unchallenged at No.1 for the majority of that is a huge testimony to Sam. He seldom made mistakes and whilst sometimes his communication or tendency to leave his line could have been better you could argue he was the best keeper in League Two.

Rumours suggested that he was the clubs highest earner at around £3,000 p/w and sadly for a club of our very limited wage budget that isn’t sustainable – especially when there are prospects like Dillon Barnes and an experienced pro in Rene Gilmartin waiting in the wings.

I have no doubt Sam can and will play at a higher level and he will always be held in high esteem by U’s fans. Whether Dillon Barnes or either new goalkeeper can emulate his years of consistency and success only time will tell. From my understanding we paid a fee for at least one of the two new goalkeepers but yet it does look like Barnes will start the season as No.1 with Gilmartin potentially first choice back up.

Tom Eastman was named Player of the Year for a third season running last term. Given that he’s coming into the peak of his career, are fans grateful for the loyalty he has shown?

Despite his ongoing accolades arguably Eastman doesn’t get the accolades he deserves. His previously mentioned marauding runs and goal tally were significant aspects of our season last year and he really has been a main stay in the team ahead of technically much better players like Frankie Kent and Luke Prosser at times. Ironically, even with his award, had you asked the majority of fans who you’d be most comfortable losing of the three at the end of this season I doubt Eastman would have been on many lips.

Eastman is a professional and joined us at a time when he could have gambled on potentially a more lucrative future at Ipswich Town but opted for a better chance at first team football – a decision seldom made by players at a young age in this era.

Personally I’m a big Tom Eastman fan and I’ll be delighted to once again have him in the U’s colours this season. At 26 he’s still got plenty of years left in him and whilst his already relatively limited turn of pace isn’t going to be getting any better in the years to come there’s no player with a perm I’d rather have worldwide!

Tom Lapslie is only 22 and he’s already made 95 appearances for Colchester. In a largely technical squad, is it important to have one or two players with his aggression and ball-winning qualities?

Tom is a local lad and a very tenacious and professional player. It’s no co-incidence having the insights that he brought with him that Jon McGreal opted for Lapslie as his captain at times across last season – albeit too early in an at times struggling side.

Should rumours be true regarding his wages and attitude he’s a great squad player at this level and would be should we raise it up this year and end up in league one next. Does he have the cutting edge and raw quality to play any higher than this at a team where he isn’t known?

My opinion would be that we’ve produced much more talented players who have struggled to compete for a regular place up the football pyramid – Wordsworth and Gilbey being prime examples.

Even with the likes of Loft, Murray and Stevenson moving on this season I think it’s unlikely he’ll feature too heavily. The likes of Comley adds slightly more class with a bit of bite to the midfield and I can’t see Lapslie cementing a regular team spot this year.

Luke Prosser appears to have had fitness issues since that bad injury he picked up for Southend in 2014-15. Do you see the young, ex-Millwall lads such as Noah Chesmain and Paul Rooney getting an opportunity this term?

Prosser has struggled for fitness for a number of years now, both with us and at former clubs like our nuisance neighbours Southend United. Playing with the three centre backs could mean opportunities for youngsters and with the notion that the club are still keen to nurture young players we may well see Chesmain or Rooney getting a shot.

It’s important to know when to blood these young players, especially when you think about the sort of beasts they could come up against. I know if I was a defensive rookie playing my first few games in front of, at times, a very unforgiving crowd the idea of being roasted continuously by a Jermaine Beckford or being bullied off the park by a John Akinde is unlikely to give me the confidence to settle into the composed ball playing game that at times we’ve strived for.

Cameron James was a great example of a player who appeared a ready made natural replacement for injuries two seasons ago yet at the start of last season appeared to have the feet of Antony Worrall Thompson dancing smashed at a NYE party and hasn’t been seen in the first team since.

You’ve always spoken highly of left-back Kane Vincent-Young. If he were to leave, who in the squad do you feel could replace him?

Having clocked up 70 appearances already and attracting a trial last week from Championship neighbours Ipswich Town I’d be mortified to see him go. Having been a champion of him for several years there is no doubt the potential is there to play at a much higher level and questions have to be asked of the Director of Football as to why he wasn’t signed on a much longer deal sooner.

The club though do appear to be pulling out all the stops to make up for this mistake and at the time of writing KVY is with us. He was in the squad photo for the season and also has joined the pre-season trip to the north west so there must be optimism on both sides that a deal can still be struck. I’m desperately hoping he signs the improved terms and should he start the season well both parties could benefit from having the bargaining chip that he’s both under contract and has a secure deal in place.

Having Brennan Dickenson back will be like having a new player and providing his head is still in the game after such a tough injury I’m sure he’ll prove to once again be a huge asset who can fill that left wingback position should KVY opt for pastures new. For me though the ideal scenario would be Brennan on the left and Kane taking Jackson’s place on the right.

When right-back Ryan Jackson was at Gillingham, he had a very effective long throw. Do you think you utilized that last season?

Not overly. Not since the Greg Halford years have we really had scripted, well worked set pieces. Having seen the majority of goals go in from set pieces in this World Cup surely managers nationwide will be re-evaluating their approach and given that we have two very aerially gifted strikers in Nouble and Mandron this would be a sensible approach.

That said it wasn’t only Jackson’s throws that seldom made the box. His end product for crosses for the majority of the season was nothing short of appalling and I just hope he won’t be using our unique grey and black camouflage print away shirt as an excuse to once again go missing this year!

He does look like a fitter prospect this pre season and it will be interesting to see the impact that has on his overall game.

Colchester aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I feel Lincoln will once again be a very well setup and drilled side who will pose a good challenge for the title. Despite their shockingly poor season last year the MK Dons are a relatively well resourced setup and a strong squad. The stewardship of Paul Tisdale is another factor which will certainly not harm the Don’s in their strive to return to League One.

Should Cheltenham and Exeter manage to keep their jewels in their proverbial chests they could make a claim to be in the promotion hunt but the likelihood of players like Eisa (since departed) and Stockley saying is unlikely.

Where will you finish?

8th- I can’t help but feel that despite us having invested seemingly wisely in bringing talents like Pell and Norris to the club that we’re still likely to have yet another case of play-off disappointment.

This is one of the stronger squads we’ve had in recent years but I’d absolutely delighted to be proven wrong. Pre-season has gone well and if we do manage to keep players like Dickenson and Szmodics fit and on form I do think we could fumble our way into the play-offs.

Thanks to Richard for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Colchester can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.