The opening day of the season must feel like a long time ago now for supporters of Colchester United Football Club. Back in August, they started their League One season in style with a 7-1 win at Carrow Road against a Norwich City team that was playing its first match outside of the top two divisions in almost fifty years. It was a result that sent tremors through both clubs. Bryan Gunn was sacked as the Norwich City manager, but Colchester chuckling was cut short when their manager, Paul Lambert, was selected to replace him. Norwich have only lost three times since then and sit comfortably in the automatic promotion places, while Colchester themselves continued to build upon their start to the season and sit in fourth place in the table.
Under normal circumstances, things wouldn’t normally be this tense between Colchester and Norwich. These are, after all, two clubs that would usually be united in their lack of admiration for Ipswich Town who now sit above both of them in the current East Anglian “bragging rights”. The atmosphere, however, has soured since August. Colchester reported Norwich to the Football League over the departure of Lambert and have limited the number of tickets available to away supporters for this match to less than 2,000, even though they gave 3,000 to the cumbersomely-named Weston Homes Community Stadium at the end of August. It’s still almost twenty per cent of the tickets, though – a higher proportion than many away supporters receive for league matches.
The snow has finally started to thaw across the south and east of England, but there are still small piles of it around a sodden pitch at the Weston Homes Community Stadium this afternoon. The boos for Lambert’s arrival are predictable enough, and the opening exchanges belong to Colchester – a low shot from Anthony Wordsworth bings a fine save from the Norwich goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Conditions are difficult, with the ball constantly holding up on the soaked pitch. After sixteen minutes, though, Norwich break the deadlock with a low shot from Chris Martin that squeezes into the bottom of the corner. Minutes later, Marc Tierney has a kick at Wes Hoolahan and all hell breaks loose. Referee Mike Dean books four players as any number of Colchester and Norwich players that obviously weren’t involved in the incident in the first place.
It is Colchester United whose concentration is affected more by the incident. Grant Holt’s speculative ball through the middle is completely misjudged by Colchester’s Danny Batth and Martin lifts the ball over the Colchester goalkeeper Ben Williams to double their lead in first half injury time. Norwich, then, go in at half-time with a two goal advantage – possibly slightly flattering – and it doesn’t take long for them to put the result in any doubt at the start of the second half. Four minutes in, a free kick is sloppily defended by Magnus Okuonghae and Gary Doherty thrashes the ball into the roof of the net to make it 3-0.
It’s now a damage limitation exercise for Colchester, but their lack of discipline is making this difficult. A needlessly conceded free-kick leads to the ball being swung into the Colchester penalty area, where the accident-prone Okuonghae drags Grant Holt down to give Norwich a penalty. Hoolahan thumps the ball against the penalty bar and sees his rebound disallowed because no-one else has touched the ball. Norwich don’t have to wait very long for the fourth goal, however, as Baldwin gives the ball away on the edge of the penalty area, allowing Oli Johnson to break free and rolls the ball in for his first goal for the club. Yet more poor defending, this time again from Baldwin allows Grant Holt in. He rounds the goalkeeper to make it five. Just to complete a throughly miserable afternoon for Colchester, substitute Ian Henderson – a former Norwich player – gets himself sent off in stoppage time for an appalling challenge on Darel Russell.
Such a shambolic performance from a team in fourth place in the table was surprising, and Colchester United only really have themselves to blame for the size of the final scoreline. From a managerial and organisational point of view individual errors cannot usually be counted for and conditions were poor, but the home side only really have themselves to blame for allowing Norwich City to get their revenge for their thrashing on the opening day of the season. It is to be hoped that the unpleasantness that has festered between the two clubs this season will now dissipate when the matter of the compensation package for Lambert is concluded. Norwich City, meanwhile, continue to look likely to win promotion back into the Championship at the first attempt, and their good day at the office is further enhanced by the news that Leeds United were upset by struggling Exeter City, cutting their lead at the top of the table to three points. Whether Colchester United will be playing them again in the league next season may depend to a great extent on how they respond to this particular setback.