Midweek, miles away from home and with only a smattering of hardcore supporters huddled inside the stadium.
These are the games, Nigel Clough explained earlier this week, when managers really do learn plenty about their players.
Sheffield United’s lack of cutting edge going forward has long been apparant and, for extended periods, was again in evidence last night.
But what the visitors lack in attacking invention, they more than make up for in terms of character, determination and good old fashioned guts.
Seemingly dead and buried after goals from George Moncur and Freddie Sears had given Colchester an apparently unassailable lead, Stefan Scougall’s introduction as a second-half substitute proved the catalyst for a remarkable comeback - which was completed when Ben Davies converted an 87th minute penalty, after Alex Gilbey had felled the precoucious young Scot.
With both teams previously recovering only a point apiece from losing positions this season, Clough and Tony Humes had stressed the importance of landing the first decisive blow.
Moncur, scrambling home at the second attempt after his initial attempt was saved, ensured that honour fell to Colchester who had already seen Gilbey strike the woodwork.
When Sears doubled their advantage following a rare miscalculation by Mark Howard, United’s five match unbeaten run in all competitions appeared at an end.
But Davies, who reduced the deficit from an acute angle with only seven minutes remaining, had other ideas.
Ryan Flynn duly levelled 120 seconds later before Davies, claiming his second of the evening, delivered the coup-de-grace.
Colchester were stunned. Clough and the travelling support absolutely ecstatic.
United, without the injured trio of Jamie Murphy, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jose Baxter, rewarded former Tranmere Rovers captain James Wallace with his full debut in a midfield also containing defender Bob Harris.
Inevitably, given the scale of the reshuffle forced upon Clough and his staff, the lines of communication between colleagues were blurred at times, with Moncur sending Howard scampering across his line as early as the first minute before Neill Collins was forced to intervene when Sears darted clear.
Humes, taking charge of his first fixture at home since being appointed as Joe Dunne’s successor earlier this month, was Colchester’s academy director before answering chairman Robbie Cowling’s call.
Three minutes after Moncur’s shot had found its way through a crowded penalty box Gilbey, one of the youngsters he guided through the ranks, came within the width of a post of handing Colchester the lead.
Nevertheless, despite those two scares, there were moments of promise for United during the opening exchanges, too, with Michael Higdon inches away from connecting with Wallace’s expertly-flighted cross and Michael Doyle flashing a long-range drive just wide.
Colchester, though, continued to look the more threatening with Sanchez Watt finding the back of the net after 15 minutes, only to be adjudged offside.
Despite enjoying long periods of possession, Clough’s demeanour on the touchline confirmed United were in danger of becoming the architects of their own downfall. His face grew redder and language more blue with every long ball which sent Sears and Watt bearing down on Howard’s penalty area.
So, when Moncur scored his third of the campaign after 31 minutes, it provoked an absolutely furious response on the United bench.
Howard did well to prevent the former West Ham trainee’s initial shot finding the back of the net but was powerless to keep out the rebound.
As United continued to labour, Davies’ crossing ability became an increasingly important weapon in the armoury.
Higdon, with McNulty also bearing down on Sam Walker, forced the Colchester goalkeeper to smother during the dying embers of the first-half while Alcock, soldiering on despite taking a huge whack soon after Moncur had pounced, also went close.
Jay McEveley, whose fractious first-half display had been compounded by a 39th minute caution, was withdrawn during the interval, with Louis Reed entering the fray.
McNulty, whose industry and persistence will have spared him from Clough’s wrath, drilled a low shot into the side-netting five minutes after the restart as United finally prised Colchester’s rearguard apart. It marked a seachange in the flow of the game and a sustained period of pressure ended with Higdon’s effort, from another Davies centre, being cleared by Frankie Kent.
United, however, were already fortunate not to be further behind.
Moments earlier, in the 56th minute, a rare moment of hesitation from Howard allowed Sears to pounce on another long punt forward but Collins, aware to the danger, had tracked his run and hacked off the line.
Sears made no mistake after taking advantage of Howard’s failure to decisively gather Alcock’s header before Davies and Flynn turned the match on its head; the latter prodding home Harris’ centre.
colchester united: Walker 6, Gordon 6, Watt 7 (Vose 66, 6), Gilbey 7, Sears 7, Eastman 6, Clohessy 6, Massey 7, Moncur 7, Kent 6, Szmodics 6 (Lawrence 76). Not Used: Lewington, Wright, Eastmond, Holman, Bonne.
Sheffield United: Howard 6, Alcock 7, Harris 6, Wallace 6 (Scougall 77), Doyle 6, McNulty 7, Collins 7, Davies 7, McGahey 6, McEveley 5 (Reed 46, 6), Higdon 5 (Flynn 72). Not used: Basham, McGinn, Porter, Turner.
cautions: Gilbey (27), McEveley (39)
Red cards: None
Goals: Moncur (31), Sears (77), Davies (83, 88 pen), Flynn (85)