New year, new U`s
It`s sometimes easy to dress football up as something it`s not - a life and death battle, maybe, or a celebrity parade. The nation`s sport of choice, however increasingly driven by exterior narrative and hype, has still managed to prove itself as authentic in Essex though, because of achievements by Colchester United and Southend over the past year.
England`s world standing in sport has taken a battering in 2006, painfully in Germany during the World Cup - and more recently at the Ashes - which seemed confirm that the English are destined for perennial failure. Certainly, the summer`s footballing showdown in Germany, in a tournament of rank diving and deception, appeared to paint football as a sport literally tripping over it`s own ego.
Football has been put into perspective by other events in sport this past year, too, such as those in Golf, Boxing or Horseracing. Think Darren Clarke winning at the Ryder Cup, of Joe Calzaghe`s form in the ring, or of Desert Orchid`s sad passing from the world of the steeplechase. These events all shared in the capacity to inspire the watcher through sheer impact of a singular spirit, sitting in stark contrast to scorer`s sloppy showing in team play on the World Cup stage.
The patience might have broken in Germany, but football offers a drug far stronger than provided by other sports that vie for the attention - and especially if you live in Essex. The past year has seen unexpected back-to-back promotions for Southend, while they also beat Manchester United in the Carling Cup. Freddie Eastwood`s thunderbolt free-kick in that tie acted as an ideal repost to all those mocking his Romany lifestyle.
The Colchester United story though, is hardly one that needs re-telling. A dream promotion from League One became a reality at Yeovil on the final day of last season, after some fine form since the turn of 2006.
That 9-1 victory over non-league side Lemmington in the FA Cup last November was the start of some fine form that spearheaded the promotion charge. It seemingly taught Colchester how to perform an invaluable pincer movement translatable to almost any opposition. It also dared them to dream, and attempt to break records. The Lemmington score, for example, now sits proudly as joint best of all-time in the Colchester record-books.
It was during that period - (included going a two-month period unbeaten) that the squad really began to enjoy - rather than tolerate - playing football for a living.
A focused push up the table helped them take League One almost by stealth, as they went on an amazing run of 13 home games undefeated, until suffering a bad loss, against fellow high-flyers Southend on their home turf.
The spring brought out it`s own collection of rolling drama, as Colchester went through a fairly baron spell, only salvaged when Brentford bottled it at the last moment, thus allowing the U`s to snatch the second automatic promotion spot. Sandwiched in between all that was a fantastic day out at Chelsea where Colchester earned a £1 million windfall for troubling to crusade to the capital.
The (now former) goal-machine, Neil Danns, summed up the euphoric felling of a whirlwind season on an SGR re-mix of the U2 track Beautiful Day by saying "This has been amazing, and I just want it to keep going and going." Finally, the world was waking up to Colchester`s wrongful portrayal as just another Essex joke, while the club claimed to the dizzy heights of the Championship.
New league, new sponsors, finally a new ground (confirmed in November), the U`s were ready to compete on a higher plain. Or so it seemed, until the pomp of a Big Top arrival turned into a media circus, with boss Phil Parkinson leaving for Hull City. At the time, the tabloid press revealed the motivation to be 'more money`. As with Lee Hendrie`s recent bragging about owning a Ferrari during the Stoke game, it showed Parky as someone who apparently knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
Life was not all roses for the club who will celebrate a 70th anniversary in 2007. Not at least until the football began again. As fellow writer C02 put it on this website: "This season just reminds me more and more of the last. Novice manager, shocking start, squad looking paper-thin, favourites for relegation. Then comes the turn around."
More records have been set, or replaced, during this last calendar year than at any other time. Colchester enter the FA Cup as part of the aristocracy for the first time in '06/`07, placed straight into the pot for the 3rd round draw (getting Barnet).
The division`s most productive strike paring of the Championship in Chris Iwelumo, (who became the first U`s player to score four goals in a game since 1991, grabbing them against Hull) and Jamie Cureton are now pushing for international honours. The former stated his belief that Scotland manager Walter Smith "doesn`t even know where Layer Road is," while 31-year-old Cureton is in contention for a Welsh call-up.
No review of these heady times would be complete without the mention of gratitude for our very own one-club man Karl 'The Destroyer` Duguid. His triumphant return to action after several horrific injury problems saw him captain his beloved team to a silver gong of promotion last May.
As the adventure on the Championship roller coaster speeds on into 2007, many fans still want to know when they will awake from the dream. The vital signs look good for Colchester United, as a year of unprecedented success has seen Essex again fall in love with the beautiful game.