Colchester show size does not matter as they set their sights on Premiership

With a ground capacity of just 6,000, the Essex club are dark horses in a wide-open promotion race, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online

It was a worrying day to be manager of Colchester United yesterday. Geraint Williams was not concerned about a Premiership club luring away one of his increasingly admired players, nor did the physio have bad news. Williams was nervous about the high winds.

His office is a hut perched atop a similar temporary structure at the club's decrepit Layer Road ground. When someone walks up the iron stairs outside it vibrates; when a lorry drives past it wobbles; when the wind blows, said Williams, "It's scary".

His office is much as you would expect at a club whose ground holds 6,000 with terracing on three sides and has barely been embellished since being built in 1937, and who were in the Conference 15 years ago.

What you would not expect is that this team are sixth in the Championship, a position which, in May, would mean a place in the play-offs and a shot at being the smallest team in the top flight since Wimbledon.

All this despite Williams, 45, only being given the job a week before the season started, having been caretaker-manager for pre-season while the club interviewed more experienced candidates. He then opened with four league defeats and another in the Carling Cup, to League Two Milton Keynes. To outsiders it is the most remarkable story of the season. "Not to us it isn't," said Williams, as the trucks rolled by and his office shook. "We are just working very hard trying to be as successful as we can. When you look at the size of the club, people inside it are overachieving. That is a credit to everyone."

The home form - 34 points from the last 36 - may owe something to the facilities. Colchester are due to move to a new 10,000-seat stadium on the edge of town, but that is unlikely to happen until August next year. So the possibility of Thierry Henry squeezing into the dark corners of the pokey away dressing room, and Roman Abramovich balancing his dinner on his lap in the boardroom, has been investigated. Early indications are that the club would have to ground-share, probably with Ipswich. Even providing 50 press seats with power and phone lines is a problem. At present, said one senior employee, "if you turn two fan heaters on in the hospitality area you blow the lights. As for the dressing room, Fergie would probably think it about the right size for a boot room."

Tomorrow Colchester reconnoitre Portman Road, their first visit in 50 years to a team who have traditionally overshadowed them but are now nine places below. Williams, who played 264 matches for Ipswich and still lives in the town, will travel with pride, though he notes United's away form is less impressive. He also knows he is just getting started in this game: "In the summer I did my Uefa Pro-Licence with Micky Adams, Lennie Lawrence, Ian Rush and others. They said, 'Until you've been a manager you can't explain the difference'. A few of us who have been in the game laughed and told ourselves they were just saying that to make it sound mystical.

"After those first five matches I knew what they meant. When you are coach you care for the man in charge, you work closely with him, but you go home and say: 'Phew, we weren't good today'. You don't realise he's gone home, he's got the video out, he's analysing it. He's thinking, 'Did I pick the right team? Have I got the right tactics? Did I have the right subs? What do I do for the next game? What do I do for training? All those things. Then you go in on the Monday morning ready to start work and someone rings up and says the bulbs have gone somewhere, or it is too wet to train, so you are ringing round looking for somewhere.

"It was a hard time and I needed the support of people around me. My wife was fantastic. You wake up at 4.30 in the morning to make a cup of tea and she wonders what is going on, you can't eat your breakfast in the mornings. She's never seen me like that but her support was fantastic and so were my children. They were saying, 'Go on dad, you can do it'. You need those people around when you are away from the job. Then you come to the club and you need people who will tell you the truth."

After losing to MK Dons in the League Cup in August, the squad and management had a heart-to-heart - "there were no tantrums, no looking for someone to blame" - and in the next match they beat Derby 4-3 and have climbed the table ever since.

After breaking into the game at Bristol Rovers, Williams made his name at Derby. A tidy defensive midfielder, he played 332 League games for them. But when a knee injury ended his career at 38 the future looked to be in computer programming; he had been combining playing for Colchester with a correspondence course. The then manager, Mick Wadsworth, suggested he take over the reserves.

He has taken to management but knows there are no guarantees. We met a few hours after Adams, his summer classmate, had been sacked by Coventry. "He was there just under two years, and he was the fifth-longest serving manager in the Championship," said Williams in astonishment. "I didn't know that when I took over. If I had, I might not have applied because that is a frightening statistic." Enough to put the wind up someone.

How Partner's commitment saw her win battle of the sexes

Marie Partner did not have the most auspicious start to her career in football. On her first day, working in the ticket office, she encountered Jock Wallace, the grizzled former Rangers manager, then attempting to keep Colchester United in the Football League.

"He didn't agree with females in football and he gave me six months," said Partner. "Eighteen years later here I sit and he has probably twisted and turned in his grave many a time."

Where Partner sits is the chief executive's office. In two decades she has worked her way up from clerk to boss, dealing with 15 managers and six different chairmen. She has also overseen the latter part of the Us rise from non-League (Wallace having only delayed the fall) to the Championship, and the impending stadium move.

Partner first went to Layer Road as part of a teenage dance group, Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep, for a fundraiser. She became a fan, joining after working at a building society. Colchester's FA Cup tie at Chelsea last year prompted various stories about lucky underwear and a request from The Sun to pose in stockings and suspenders. The Essex Businesswoman of the Year turned the paper down.

In the early years there were some boardrooms to which she was not admitted. "Directors at Championship clubs have been surprised when I was introduced as chief executive," she says. But her business acumen has won respect. Colchester are a frugal club, the only one in the Championship not to pay an agent last year. As she said: "I wouldn't walk into Sainsburys with £100 in my purse and put 10 grand's worth of gear into my trolley. That is what a lot of these clubs do. That's why they get a cold."

Small clubs with big aspirations

Wigan, then Reading, have blazed a trail in the past couple of years to show that you do not have to be a big club to win promotion (and survive in the Premiership). However, Colchester are smaller still:

Reading

Ground capacity: Madejski Stadium holds 24,225

Average crowd the year promoted: 20,207

Record transfer: £1.5m for Seol Ki Hyeon from Wolves in 2006

Cheapest ticket: £27 per adult

Wigan Athletic

Ground capacity: JJB Stadium holds 25,138

Average crowd the year promoted: 11,563

Record transfer: £5.5m for Emile Heskey from Birmingham City in 2006

Cheapest ticket: £20 per adult

Colchester United

Ground capacity: Layer Road holds 6,189

Average crowd so far this season: 5,361

Record Transfer: £50,000 for Neil Gregory from Ipswich Town in 1998

Cheapest ticket: £18 per adult

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