This season’s Carabao Cup has been a memorable one for Colchester United, who are in the Quarter-Finals of the competition for the first time since 1974. Manager John McGreal reflects on their journey so far.
The journey started back in August against fellow League Two side Swindon Town, McGreal’s side coming out 3-0 winners, but results that followed in the competition will go down in history with Colchester United fans.
“Everyone including myself, the staff, the Chairman have all been immensely proud of how the players have performed in the Carabao Cup this season and the level of football that they’ve been able to play at. We’ve had some really, really tough games, we've dealt with the teams we’ve faced and now we have a really big game against Manchester United which is our reward, but again it’s one we’re actually really looking forward to."
Reflecting on the Round One tie against Swindon Town, McGreal admitted that his side weren’t really expected to get past the Robins, who currently sit top of the Sky Bet League Two table and top scorers in the division.
“I didn't necessarily expect to win against Swindon in Round One,” he continued.
"You look at them now and they’re one of the best team’s in the division - well drilled, well organised and good in front of goal. After the first 20 minutes we were getting pulled around a little bit so we had to regroup and that’s one of the things I should credit my players for the most because we’ve had to do that a lot throughout this competition - re-adjust to what’s in front of them on the pitch and that’s not always easy."
In Round Two, McGreal’s side travelled to Selhurst Park to take on Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace and defied the odds to make it through to Round Three after a penalty shootout win on the road.
“I had a couple of sleepless nights at first when finding out we were playing Crystal Palace,” McGreal recalled.
"I was thinking what potential team Roy Hodgson could have put out against us but again, you then have to look at it and try and break it down. When you’re a League Two side facing Premier League opposition you look at it as though you’re going to get about 30% possession during the game and they put out a very strong side. We did all of that but at the same time we saw it as a bit of an opportunity to just show them what we could do as well and what we were capable of, because we are a good side.”
Over 1,300 U’s fans travelled to London that night to watch Colchester record their first League Cup win against top-flight opposition since 1979, with Dean Gerken excelling in goal for the visitors.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for us to go to Palace away and we wanted to show what we were about and not let ourselves down. And that’s kind of been a theme throughout really. To get the win away at Palace was fantastic, on penalties too. I think we took about 1,300 fans that night which is brilliant for us.
“The Carabao Cup run that we’ve had has been able to lend itself in the league too. We had a pretty slow start to the league but with these cup games early on, it gave us a little bit of momentum, picking up wins against good sides and things started to pick up in the league."
In Round Three the Essex side were drawn against Tottenham Hotspur and at the time were the lowest-ranked team left in the competition. However they continued to defy the odds, producing a huge upset as they knocked out Spurs to reach Round Four.
“I was really excited to face Tottenham,” McGreal said. "Obviously Mr Potechino was manager at the time and I couldn’t wait to face him and go up against him, it’s not every day that happens. But again I had my sleepless nights. Spurs have world class players, they were in the final of the Champions League, we knew they wanted to do well in this competition and the team they put out was a great team.
“Looking back at that game, I think within the first 30 seconds they could have scored. I remember thinking ‘this could be a long night’. But again my boys stuck to the game plan, we only got about 20% of the ball but we had that lady luck again which sometimes you need. Gradually we grew into the game, got more belief and confidence and just sort of relaxed heading into the penalty shootout."
After overcoming Crawley Town in Round Four, Colchester United have earned the right to be in the Quarter-Finals, producing two significant upsets so far. They are the first side from outside the top flight to win penalty shootouts against two top-tier sides in the same League Cup campaign since Bradford City in the 2012/13 season. They went on to reach the final that season.
But is a third upset too much to ask of John McGreal’s side?
“It’s going to be an unbelievable feeling. I actually played at Old Trafford a couple of times, I was very fortunate to play there as a player. You just don’t realise how big the stadium is and the history that it has until you play there.
“We’ve got to take confidence from beating two Premier League sides already into the game at Old Trafford, how could we not? We've got past two fantastic sides with two fantastic managers and now we face Manchester United. They’re the biggest club on the planet with the exception of Real Madrid in my opinion.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable moment but we have to draw strength from what we do ourselves because no one else is going to help us. It’s going to be a huge task, there’s no question there but we’re hoping that we go into it with a bit of form.
And the fans are expected to travel north in numbers too…
“The fans have been brilliant for us all season, especially in the Carabao Cup,” McGreal concluded.
"This competition has been brilliant for us, it’s definitely had a knock on effect into the league and our form there and for the fans too. They’ve followed us to Crystal Palace, Crawley Town and we could have sold the ground out three times over for the Spurs game. And now to Old Trafford, to go over to Manchester on a Wednesday night the week before Christmas - it’s just fantastic from everyone and this game is a reward for them as well, they deserve it.
"It’s a competition that has really done us well this season and probably been the highlight so far.”
Quarter-FInal ties will take place across Tuesday and Wednesday next week as sides look for a place in the Semi-Finals.