Tottenham Hotspur have an FA Cup match Saturday at 12:45 p.m. GMT (7:45 a.m. ET) at Colchester United, a small club on England's southeast coast. I reckon most Spurs fans don't know much about them except that they're currently in the relegation zone in League One, and Spurs should probably crush them.
But that's perhaps doing them a bit of a disservice. The beauty (some might say "magic") of the FA Cup is that sometimes it gives clubs like Colchester an opportunity to host some of the giants of the Premier League on their own humble ground. While the U's have never ascended higher than the Championship ever, they're a club with 78 years of history and a stadium that seats only 10,000. We wanted to find out more about them, and we are fortunate to have a bit of a club expert within the network.
Arron Duckling is manager of and writer for Barca Blaugranes, SB Nation's massive FC Barcelona blog, but he's also an Englishman, Colchester native, and a big U's fan. He reached out and offered to answer some questions for us about the U's, the match, and the club.
CFC: Honestly, we’re Spurs fans and know very little about Colchester United. What can you tell us about the club that we might not otherwise learn from Wikipedia? What’s the fan support like?
Arron Duckling: I think you guys are in a similar situation to most football fans in England to be honest; as far as League One clubs go, Colchester United aren’t exactly one of the most popular or well-known. Unlike some of the clubs that find themselves in the third tier at the moment (I’m looking at you Sheffield United, Wigan Athletic and Coventry City), we’ve always been a small, local club and as we’ve never come into any serious money, or had a sustained period in one of the higher tiers, that’s never changed.
The club has always attracted a small but loyal support and the atmosphere at our old stadium, Layer Road, used to be pretty intimidating for visiting teams which served us well in our first season in the Championship about a decade ago. The only downside was that it really was a dilapidated old dump, so we capitalised on the Championship revenues to build a new stadium outside of town which, coupled with the relegation back to League One, has been a bit of a ‘turn-off’ for some of those fans.
Typically, we struggle to fill much more than 35-40% of the 10,000 seater stadium for a typical game, although you’ve helped us sell it out for the weekend. Just as a taster in case anyone is making the trip, I was there over the holidays for a Boxing Day clash with rivals Southend United, and the attendance was great that day as well – but the Colchester fans were pretty quiet (à la the Emirates), so we haven’t been able to replicate that ‘intimidation factor’, unlike what you might see in some of the other David vs Goliath clashes.
Of course, we’ve had our brief moments in the national spotlight, the most famous of which was our run to the quarter-finals of the 1970/71 FA Cup. We beat Don Revie’s all-conquering Leeds United at our old stadium Layer Road, and to this day, it’s probably been the club’s best achievement, or at least a close runner-up to the two years we spent in the Championship about a decade ago, but those have very much been fleeting moments of success. We’re dreaming of another upset this weekend, but dreams rarely come true when you’re toiling at the bottom of the table.
CFC: Spurs’ biggest connection to Colchester is when former Spurs academy player Kenneth McEvoy went on loan there for a brief spell at the beginning of the season. Was there a reason that this loan didn’t work out?
AD: It’s going to sound strange for me to suggest this given his pedigree as an academy player at Spurs, but I think the rationale behind his lack of playing time was quite simple: we just have a lot of talent in midfield. I think our hand was forced as well by our circumstances at the time; the club was in the midst of another relegation battle and sometimes, especially in League One, you need players with a little more experience, and maybe a little more physicality as well.
On that note, Bongani Khumalo really worked out well for us at the tail-end of last season, so even if his spell at White Hart Lane wasn’t at all what it could have been, thanks for sharing him with us!
CFC: Colchester doesn’t seem to have had the best of times in League One this season and are currently bottom of the table. Do you think the club can avoid the drop this year, and what will it take to do so?
AD: It’s gone down to the wire in each of the last two seasons, and while we’ve managed to fight off the drop on the last day each time, there’s always been that nagging thought that we were only delaying the inevitable. This season has had some bright moments including a stretch where we somehow dominated some of the sides at the top of the table, but mostly it’s been one crushing defeat after another.
I think we have the talent in our squad to beat the drop; some of our players really are destined for good careers in the Championship, or beyond, but beating the drop requires a lot more than talent. We need to get a little meaner at the back; playing good football is great, but sometimes you need to have an ugly side to your game to grind out results. Finding that balance would go a long way, plus confidence is a huge factor in the lower leagues when you can’t rely on a star player like a Harry Kane, or a Sergio Aguero to turn things around. You have to take it one game at a time and breaking this winless streak will go a long way to showing the squad that they can do it.
CFC: How do you expect Colchester to come out and approach the match tactically? How do you beat a club like Spurs?
AD: How do you beat a club like Spurs… it goes without saying that there is a gulf between the two teams, so I think Colchester’s best hope on Saturday is either a) complacency, or b) that Spurs, well, do a Spurs. All things being equal, it’d be a huge surprise to everyone if you didn’t qualify for the next round at a canter. Even with a new manager in Kevin Keen, we’ve been approaching our matches with the same philosophy we’ve always had: to go out and try and play reasonably nice football.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not trying to be like Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, but we’re also a long way removed from the stereotypical long-ball approach that you might associate with a team in the bottom half of the third tier. We like to get runners forward from midfield (Moncur especially), and given all the money our chairman has invested in our youth academy and training facilities, I think we’ll use this match as an opportunity to (try and) demonstrate that we can play good football in the hope it might attract some more support from the local fans, and catch the eye of any free agents or potential loanees that might be out there and available.
CFC: Who on Colchester’s team should Spurs be most wary of? Are there any players in particular you’d advise Spurs fans to watch?
AD: The list starts and ends in midfield: keep an eye on George Moncur and Alex Gilbey.
Gilbey is a local lad, he was born in Colchester, went to school locally and joined the club’s academy at a young age. He’s worked his way up through the ranks and established himself as arguably our most consistent player. In terms of playing style, Gilbey is very much an all-rounder. He’s hard-working, likes to get stuck in and can actually dictate the tempo in midfield if he’s given the chance. The new coach said that Gilbey has the making of a Premier League player, and it’s hard to disagree, especially if he can impress on Saturday.
Moncur on the other hand is the livewire and typically he’ll be the one who provides the spark and that touch of quality that our offense needs over the course of the 90 minutes. His father was a midfielder at West Ham, and George went through the ranks there (representing England youth teams along the way) but he never made that breakthrough into the first team. He’s our top-scorer, and I’d like to think of him as our Frank Lampard, or our Dele Alli, so watch out if he’s given space to rattle off a shot at the edge of the box.
A brief mention too for Tom Eastman, who can be an absolute rock at the heart of defense and for Marvin Sordell, purely because he used to be an England Under-21 international alongside Danny Rose, Stephen Caulker and Andros Townsend. It’s been a downhill slide for him ever since so whether he actually starts on Saturday though is a different matter…
CFC: It’s expected that Spurs are going to heavily rotate the side for this match, since they have a Premier League tie at Norwich coming up on Tuesday. With that assumption, do you feel at all confident that Colchester could nick a result in the Cup?
AD: Based on how this season has gone? I don’t think Colchester United fans are confident at the best of times, let alone at the moment. What I am confident about though is that we will give a good representation of ourselves on Saturday, and that we’ll leave it all out there on the field. I know it sounds clichéd, but this is a huge occasion for the club, and I think we’ll surprise a few people with the way we approach the game (i.e. with a positive, pass-first approach) even if the end result is unlikely to raise any eyebrows.
Thanks very much to Arron for his extraordinarily in-depth answers to my relatively ignorant questions about his club. Arron writes for Barca Blaugranes, SB Nation's FC Barcelona blog, and he's also on Twitter: @arduckling. Colchester United vs. Tottenham kicks off at 12:45 p.m. GMT (7:45 ET) on Saturday, January 30. It's televised on Fox Sports 1 in the USA.