COLCHESTER United’s latest campaign was, in part, riddled with chaos and identity searching, illustrated by the perspectives shared by each of their three permanent bosses.

It was a season that could only be truly defined following the final matchday, with the U’s only just fending off relegation to the National League.

Ben McCarthy looks back at some of the post-match perspectives of the club's respective head coaches, shared with the wider world throughout the season.

Back in August, Colchester’s first league match of the season ended in a 2-1 defeat at Bradford. Ben Garner, the head coach at that point, acknowledged his side needed to “learn very quickly and needed to “play a lot better”. This, in many ways, was to be expected, with the side being noted for its youth and inexperience.

Yet, three days later, Garner didn’t get the response that he wanted, with the U’s falling to a 2-0 home defeat to AFC Wimbledon. His response was striking.

He said: “We didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t compete enough, we were second best. I think we’ve got too many [players] at the moment who think that they can turn up and play and [think] it’s easy- and it’s not.”

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In that same week, Colchester welcomed MK Dons to the JobServe Community Stadium. Despite a frantic game which Colchester led as late as the 87th minute, they would eventually lose 3-2. Post-match, Garner despaired at the ‘lack of seniority’ shown by his team.

He said: “We were so young at the end; we were so young on the pitch. We were missing four of our senior players today and it was shown in the closing stages. If we had been more clinical, it would have seen us through, I’m certain of it. But even so, at 2-1, we have to manage the game better. I’m looking at the bench and we have no seniority, but we still should see that out.”

Colchester ended both August and September with a win and had seemed to put their slow start behind them. The latter was courtesy of a 5-4 win over Notts County, where Garner credited his side’s “togetherness and work rate to see it [the game] through at the end.”

Gazette: Ben Garner

But very quickly, the highs of this result ebbed away. Bottom side Forest Green Rovers inflicted a 5-0 defeat upon Colchester in mid-October, their third loss in succession. It was both a puzzling and painful result, not least for Garner.

That day, he said: “There’s a losing culture at the club and there has been for a long, long time now. We’ve got to try and turn that around. That has been a lot harder than I expected it to be, but I still want to do it.”

The impact of Garner’s assertion dwarfed his criticism of parts of the squad just two months beforehand. That night in August, at home to Wimbledon, could most definitely have been viewed in the context of a young U’s squad being complacent at the start of the campaign.

With the season in full swing, questions needed answering on a day in which Colchester were jeered and humiliated which, according from Garner, somewhat came from their own travelling support.


The U's identity was one of a vicious cycle in this moment, something that Garner’s tenure did not recover from.

A week later, after a crushing 2-1 defeat to Harrogate, he couldn’t ignore his side’s ‘horrible’ trait.

He said: “We’ve got this horrible habit of shooting ourselves in the foot at the moment, even when we are much the better side and in complete control of the game. There’s no way we should lose the game, but we’ve managed to do it. There must be an underlying reason why these things keep happening. We’ve got to try and rectify it.”

Garner had no time to rectify it, as within two hours of those comments, the club had announced that he was dismissed as Colchester United head coach.

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Matthew Etherington was swiftly drafted in as interim head coach, and then eventually as permanent head coach.

His tenure started with two wins at the back end of October, the first of which being a hard-fought 3-2 win at Grimsby. The former Spurs, Stoke and West Ham player was very open about his approach that night, which gave Colchester a much-needed boost.

He said, “I said to the players: ‘we can go through all the tactical stuff that we want and yes, it is important, but heart and desire, especially with the position that we’re in right now, is the most important thing.’ I think they showed that in an abundance tonight.

"The effort they put into that performance was nothing short of brilliant.”

Gazette: Matty Etherington

A fortnight later and the U’s had their third league win in succession, with a 3-1 triumph over Swindon Town, leading Etherington to declare that “there’s character in this group,” a trait and an overall identity, which may not have been so evident just a matter of weeks prior.

But that ‘character’ was tested as the winter season gathered full momentum. A fourth league loss in a row was endured when Crawley Town toppled Colchester 2-1 in North Essex; that evening, Etherington was confident of what ‘the difference’ was.

He said: “In the first half, we had two big opportunities, if we take them, the game looks very different.

"We’re not getting the key moments right at the minute. Going back to the start, when I took over, we got the key moments right in both boxes and we’re probably not at the minute and that’s the difference.”

He was also confident that the side’s mental aspect was not lacking, he added: “I can’t go in there [the dressing room] and [criticise] the players in terms of what they’re giving us, in terms of endeavour, I’d defy anyone to tell me differently.


“The squad are together, there’s no worry there, I just think we need a little more quality at times, a little more calmness and we need to be better in both boxes.”

These issues only enlarged as December wore on, a ‘really poor second half,’ according to Etherington, contributed to their 5-3 defeat to AFC Wimbledon in their last match of 2023.

Very quickly, Colchester’s future looked to be unaligned with their latest head coach, who conceded: “what will be will be with me.”

Colchester’s first match of 2024, on New Year’s Day, was to be the last of the Etherington era, following a 1-0 home loss to Gillingham.

Danny Cowley took over the reins and in light of a 2-2 draw at Swindon, where the U’s came from 2-0 down, in his first game in charge, his character and values were clear.

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Cowley said: “After the second goal, you have a decision, you either become the victim or you become the fighter, you either go under or you stand up and you’re counted.

"Credit to the players because they showed a huge amount of determination, a real resilience and a lot of fight. You can’t beat the man who never gives up.”

A 3-3 draw at home to Forest Green, four weeks later, exemplified his approach more. The U’s netted three times in five minutes to lead Rovers but were swiftly pegged back.

Cowley implored the squad to embrace a new mentality, in a somewhat similar way to what Ben Garner had called for beforehand, by saying: “Our mentality has to be fourth goal.

Gazette: Danny Cowley (right) and Nicky Cowley

"We’re 3-2 up, we have all of the momentum, we’re by far the better team and we have to go and find the fourth goal and we didn’t.

“This is the new Colchester United, these are new beginnings, and we find the third goal and we get into the lead, we find the fourth goal, and this is how we have to play- with that mentality and that focus.”

Nearly two months later, Cowley had his second win as Colchester boss and his first at home, courtesy of a rocket of a Jay Mingi strike in stoppage time, against Newport County.

Amid the relegation scrap that they were still tangled in, the Colchester head coach was optimistic, and said: “They’re [the squad] improving, they’re getting better.

“I said to them before that I’ve been really proud of them, in the week leading into the Mansfield game I’ve seen a few of them really step up.

"Some of our young players have become a bit more streetwise, some of our older players have really taken the responsibility of leading, really owning the moment that we’re in.”

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Eight days later, Cowley’s pride turned to ‘anger’ as Colchester relinquished a one-goal lead at home to Wrexham, who were chasing, and eventually secured, promotion.

Post-match, Cowley affirmed: “Playing for 60 minutes is not enough if you want to win, you have to play for 90 minutes. I’m really angry this evening. The players don’t deserve credit.”

Cowley’s anger on the 6th of April, may have traced back to a new culture that he looked to install at the club, given his previous successes, particularly as Lincoln City manager.


Once again, calls were made for a cultural shift at Colchester United, and identities were being challenged in a vein not too dissimilar to what Ben Garner had attempted a matter of months beforehand.

Cowley said: “I’m a winner, I’m used to winning. My life is a lot better when we win, and this football club will be great again. But we have to absolutely demand standards and that means playing for 90 minutes. We need to step up and feel the pain of tonight.”

For the next three weeks, Colchester’s EFL status remained under threat, which was not helped by three home losses in April.

But on the last day, a 1-1 draw with Crewe was enough for Colchester to prolong their stay in League Two for another year.

Amid the relief, Danny Cowley was still defiant and vowed not to experience such a run-in again in his career, he said: “It has been like torture this week because I know how much this club means to the people that work here but also our brilliant supporters.

"I’m never getting involved in another relegation battle again. I’m so excited for what the future brings to the football club, it has so much potential, we have to take a lot of learning from this season.”