Life beyond Chelsea? Barnsley next week

Glory today for Colchester, business tomorrow
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The Independent Football

As a club who need to watch the coppers, never mind the banknotes, Colchester United learned long ago to steer a modest course. They train, courtesy of Essex University, on the campus at Wivenhoe and use a small, all-glass pavilion there as combined restaurant and relaxation room afterwards.

This afternoon, financial shackles are temporarily cast off as Colchester step into one of football's biggest glass houses, Stamford Bridge, minnows aspiring to sock it to Chelsea, the country's best team, in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

Town and club are gratefully tipping the cap in the direction of their enterprising young manager, Phil Parkinson, for a season in League and Cup which has transformed fortunes. Most people say today's game is the culmination of that transformation but, asked how he would celebrate if the unthinkable happened and his side won, Parkinson said: "Get back on the coach and start planning for Barnsley away next Saturday."

Parkinson regards the Chel-sea game as "a payday", a windfall which pays the wage bill for the whole season and a stroke of fortune which has enabled him to keep together his mix of kids and rejects as a unit rather than give in to purchasing predators. Neil Danns, the chirpy Liverpudlian who leads Colchester's scorers from his midfield base and became the only player in the squad who commanded a fee when he joined from Blackburn Rovers, would probably have been sold to Luton in last month's transfer window but for the Chelsea game's revenue, and Danns, for one, is happy about that.

Confiding that he had acquired 15 tickets for his family and friends today, he went on: "I haven't gone as far as setting my socks on fire or plucking out my body hair with rusty tweezers, but it has been difficult to accept what is happening. This is what we have deserved this season, a big tie like this."

Having arguably done more than anyone else to get Colchester where they find themselves today by scoring five times in the four previous rounds, Danns - who played with Damien Duff in their Blackburn days - said: "It will be nice to be on a big stage again, and if I can bag one against Chelsea it would be something that would last a lifetime, one of my greatest achievements."

Even Danns is not quite as far in orbit round the moon as the central defender Pat Baldwin, released three seasons ago by Chelsea after 10 years (from the age of nine to 19) spent in the youth development scheme there. Best thing that ever happened to him, reckons the 6ft 3in 23-year-old on reflection, but he agrees that was not quite how he felt at the time.

"I thought my world was going to end, it messed me up for a few months, but it was probably the right thing for Chelsea to do. I was at an age where I couldn't play youth football any more, the centre-backs in front of me at the time were Marcel Desailly and John Terry, and behind me there was Robert Huth. But I sorted myself out, came out the other side determined to prove myself, and I have done that."

Baldwin, who comes from Barkingside, took himself off for trials with Charlton, Crystal Palace, Bristol Rovers and Luton, but was happy to be promptly offered a contract by Colchester. So well he has done there subsequently that he was the club's Player of the Year last season, and reclaimed a first-team place just in time for the third-round win over Sheffield United, a spot he has held down since.

Will he be carrying hard feelings with him to Stamford Bridge today? "There is no point. Things like that happen all the time to loads of players, and I have come through it and found a level I am comfortable with. I am quite glad it happened to me, it has made me a better and more determined person."

Any animosity towards Chelsea, he feels, can be expressed by his brothers, Danny and Paul. "They are mad West Ham fans, so they will be rooting for me extra-special." And what will be special for Baldwin is the chance to actually play on the Stamford Bridge pitch, something he never managed in those 10 years with Chelsea.

As for an upset, he pulled a face and warned: "Since Chelsea lost last week we are going to get a backlash. They will also be wanting to do well ahead of Tuesday's game with Barcelona. But it's a one-off, we have nothing to lose as underdogs."

Parkinson's warning is that his players need to be disciplined. "If we switch off we are going to get punished," he said. "That's the difference between League One and a team like Chelsea."

And if they do get punished, or merely beaten, there is always the enticing consolation of a return to their promotion push, starting at Barnsley on Saturday.