Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 13th; W 16 / D 14 / L 16 / F 53 / A 52 / Pts 62
As you’d expect finishing 13th and winning the same number of games as they lost, Colchester United’s season was quite mixed, with a low total of goals scored and conceded to boot. August and September weren’t kind to The U’s, yielding just three victories, although one of them was emphatic (5-1), teaching Forest Green Rovers a harsh lesson in what it took to be competitive in the EFL. The run-up to Christmas saw fortunes change, and the bulk of their triumphs were accrued during that period. The early months of 2018 were mostly characterised by low-scoring draws, giving John McGreal plenty of food for thought for the following season, as by this point, they were practically assured of fourth tier football, and were highly unlikely to trouble the top seven. Proceedings tailed off somewhat during the denouement, but there was still plenty of cause for optimism as the curtain fell on the campaign.
Top Goalscorer: Sammie Szmodics (12 goals in 29 starts/2,697 minutes)
Top Creator: Drey Wright (8 assists in 38 starts/3,366 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: John McGreal; I remember him from the ‘nearly’ side that were Tranmere Rovers in the early-to-mid-90s, lining up alongside the likes of John Aldridge and Eric Nixon; three times in a row, they lost out in the ‘old’ Division 1 play-offs, and the defender spent the peak years of his career in a white and blue jersey, amassing well over 200 appearances for the Birkenhead outfit. He sought a new challenge in 1999, and found it in the guise of Ipswich Town, helping them to win promotion to the Premier League, succeeding where he and his teammates back on the Wirral had failed so cruelly.
The Tractor Boys took the top flight by storm, finishing in an astonishing fifth position, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, as it was known at the time, and reaching it once more by virtue of the Fair Play rankings. The latter half of his stint at Portman Road was plagued by injuries, and he moved to Burnley in 2004, spending three years at Turf Moor. Upon release, and ironically failing to gain a contract after a trial at Colchester, McGreal started studying for his coaching badges, returning to the Suffolk side in an academy role.
He slowly climbed the ranks there, and in 2015, he was named as interim manager at United, overseeing a single game: a 5-1 defeat against Burton Albion. Subsequently, he became reserve team coach as part of Kevin Keen’s backroom staff. However, the latter left after their relegation to League Two at the end of that term, and McGreal was named as his permanent successor. In his nascent campaign, he steered the U’s to eighth, helped along by the goals of Chris Porter. Shorn of such a reliable source, they fell back slightly in 2017/2018, but he’s been backed in the transfer market during the summer.
Ins: Harry Pell (Cheltenham Town), Noah Chesmain (Millwall), Frank Nouble (Newport County), Ethan Ross (West Bromwich Albion U23s), Luke Norris (Swindon Town), Bailey Vose (Brighton & Hove Albion U23s) & Aaron Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan).
Outs: Doug Loft (Shrewsbury Town), Danny Jonhstone (Greenock Morton), Sam Walker (Reading), Craig Slater (Partick Thistle), Sean Murray (Vejle), Tommy O’Sullivan (free agent), Drey Wright (St Johnstone) & Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (Bromley).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: I don’t think Dillon Barnes is nailed on to be #1 following the departure of Sam Walker to Reading in the long-term, but will be between the sticks for at least a while yet. His reflexes are his strongest suit, and he should line up behind a three-man backline, with the wider centre backs splitting off when Colchester are in possession, plugging the gaps left by the wing-backs who will be so high up the pitch as to resemble wide midfielders. Tom Eastman is an accurate passer with raking balls forward to the front or to the playmaker in the side, which will undoubtedly be Harry Pell. Frankie Kent is the youngest of the trio, and will hold fort close to Barnes. Luke Prosser is both tall and strong, and relishes putting these attributes to the test.
Defensive midfielder Tom Lapslie will work hard to ensure that the middle third of the pitch isn’t vacated by the forays forward by his teammates, organising them and covering when gaps are left with his customary sliding tackles. Brennan Dickenson has all the requisite skills to make the flank his own. He’s extremely quick, agile, and possesses good balance. Added to that, his early crosses can be laser-like, so he’ll need to be closed down by his opponents well before he reaches what would normally be considered dangerous territory. On the opposite side, Kane Vincent-Young’s qualities are not too dissimilar, and he can do so on either wing, owing to his favourable left foot.
Behind the front three, Pell will look to play angled through balls, both on the ground and over the top, in an attempt to disrupt the defensive line as much as possible, forcing them back; in doing so, he’ll have more room to operate in. He enjoys taking long shots, especially from direct free-kicks, and being the heartbeat of the team. Sammie Szmodics is technically brilliant, and is at his best when running straight at defenders. Another player in the ranks who tries his luck from range, he’ll have good options to pick out if he decides to look for a pass.
Competition for his spot could come in the form of Frank Nouble, who, although usually a striker, does operate wide left sometimes, and uses his physical prowess to dominate his marker. Mikael Mandron will be the target man if selected, operating in the half-space to create space for others. Luke Norris should be fit for the opening game on Saturday after overcoming a groin problem. Whilst not the largest in stature, he will go toe-to-toe with any centre back and fancy his chances of besting them. More importantly, he rediscovered his scoring touch at Swindon Town, and should be fashioned with numerous opportunities every match to trouble the leaderboard in 2018/2019.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion; I don’t know if this represents a bold call, but as I’ve said several times during these previews, none of the ‘existing’ League Two sides really have much to fear from those relegated from the tier above, with the possible exception of Milton Keynes Dons. Largely, McGreal has replaced those who’ve left the Colchester Community Stadium with better, more tactically flexible alternatives. In Pell, Szmodics and Norris, they have three of the most deadly individuals in the league, and depth in every position. Some might consider the Essex side less fashionable than the favourites to win the title in 2018/2019, but I believe they have a good a chance as anyone to lift the trophy come May. Bet against them at your peril.