Young crusaders feed the Colchester dream

They can only fantasise about Chelsea's riches but the future is bright

It's Thursday afternoon, and a man wearing a Chelsea shirt walks into the Colchester United club shop. He buys a Colchester shirt, explaining that, as a Chelsea supporter resident in the town, his loyalties are torn ahead of next Sunday's fifth-round FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. His proposed solution will be to cut each garment in half and wear the pieced-together outfit. "Suppose I'll get booed by both sides," he glooms.

Mr Two-Shirts is one of the few in that part of Essex with divided affiliation ahead of the biggest game in the club's 69-year history. Colchester are roaring along near the top of League One, having won 20 of their past 23 games in all competitions, and there are bitter complaints from a club with a crowd capacity of just over 6,100 that Chelsea's allocation of 6,000 tickets is nowhere near enough to cater for the demand.

One reason is that Colchester folk are proud of a team who are a rarity in football these days, increasingly built around the products of a spectacularly successful youth- squad policy. This season, seven of Colchester's youth group have graduated to the senior squad, and two, Greg Halford and John White, have been first-team regulars for some time.

If credit for vision and belief belongs to their manager, Phil Parkinson, he is wise enough to pass on a full share of the plaudits to the youth-team chief, Joe Dunne, an Irish right-back who played seven-and-a-half years for Colchester and has been producing teenage marvels for the past two seasons since a knee injury terminated his own playing days. With the exception of Cameroon's George Elokobi, all the teenagers are from the Colchester area. "Jamie Guy is from the town, the reserve keeper Dean Gerken is from Southend way, Robbie King is a Chelmsford lad and Garry Richards is from Romford," said Dunne. "And of those seven, three can still play for my youth team.

"At this time of the season we are already pushing the next group through, so we are a young side, a lot of 15- and 16-year-olds who will be hardened for next year. We are not overly concerned about results, it's about who we are bringing through, because after three years we aim to move them into the first-team environment. We get them in at eight and run systems from the age of nine to 18."

Word is spreading about the excellent Colchester set-up, with tips about promising kids coming from as far afield as Newcastle, Wales and, because Dunne is from Dublin, Ireland as well. "We are now getting a lot of letters from Europe, but we are not quite that big at the moment," he smiles.

The fast-rising Parkinson was even listed among a group of longer-odds England manager prospects last week, which doesn't surprise the club's chief executive, Marie Partner. Of the 14 managers she has worked with in 19 years at Colchester, Marie reckons George Burley and Parkinson are the best. "Phil has done wonders for us considering he came here not having been in management before," said the woman who started in the ticket office at Layer Road and worked up through commercial manager and club secretary to the top post. "On my first day in the ticket office the manager, Jock Wallace, introduced himself, said he didn't believe football and females went together and forecast I wouldn't last six months."

Marie was not interested in football until, as a 16-year-old in a dancing troupe called Chirpy and the Cheep-Cheeps, she performed at a Colchester United charity event, and then started to go to the games with other teenagers, "to see how pretty the players were". "We all muck in here because we are very strict with our housekeeping," she says. "If the cleaner doesn't turn up I will be the first to empty people's bins. We take it in turns making tea, and I have been known to sweep up after a game because we are a small staff: just 20 of us, apart from the playing squads.

"We operate on a tight budget and never look to spend more than we can earn. You only ever budget for income from the first round of any cup competition, so anything above that is bunce.

"We are still involved in the LDV Trophy, and if we get through the area semi-finals and go to the Millennium Stadium that's another big payday. But obviously the major injection comes from the Chelsea game and television revenues. That's why any small club like ours dreams of pulling out a Premiership side."

The upturn in financial fortunes comes with Colchester poised to move to a new, council-owned community stadium on the outskirts of Colchester by the start of the 2007-08 season, with permission to expand from the planned 10,000 capacity to 18,000. "What's happening to us has been incredible for the town," says Marie. "Prior to this, not many people heading down the A12 to Ipswich and Norwich would pause and think, 'Oh, there's Colchester'. Now this club has brought Britain's oldest recorded town into the 21st century and interested a whole new generation."

Talk of the proposed new stadium brings a gleam to the Irish eyes of Dunne. "Colchester is renowned for its Roman background, but we have no Colosseum to fight in," he says. "This club is like a pocket rocket, ready to go off, and we could really take off when that happens. A new stadium would be like a brand-new heart." A young and vibrant heart, thanks to Joe Dunne and Phil Parkinson.

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