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Letters from Wiltshire #36
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 7th Mar 2021 13:29

So, Wayne Brown isn’t yet the Messiah it would seem, but nor necessarily is he a very naughty boy either. In a tricky fixture at Forest Green Rovers on Saturday evening, what I saw started as encouraging – the U’s out of the blocks fast, showing pace, urgency, passion even – but sadly lacking in actual quality on the ball. By comparison, FGR had plenty of that, and very quickly gained total dominance across all areas of the pitch, and sliced through us for two goals in quick succession with alarming ease. It probably would have been more of the same in the second half, but for the red card. It looked fair enough at the time, but following an appeal it has now been rescinded. However, even with just ten men and happily sacrificing possession, we still had nothing to open them up, and still conceded a third from the simplest of free kicks. Worrying signs for Wayne, and lots of work to do, so let’s see how things may have improved tonight…

[b]Cambridge United v Colchester United
Saturday 30th March 2019
Sky Bet Football League Division 2 (Tier 4)
Attendance 5,515[/b]

Letters from Wiltshire #36 comes right up to date (more or less), towards the end of the 2018/19 season, and a visit to near-neighbours and local rivals Cambridge United. Back in the day, when I first started following the U’s, the CUFC derby always seemed a much more ‘edgy’ affair, with the propensity for fisticuffs much more likely. Maybe that was a 70s thing really, but it always feels these days that the fixture is a much more gentile civilised affair.

[b]Halcyon days…[/b]
Aaah, remember the days when we used to moan about hanging around the fringes of the play-offs but never quite consistently breaking into them and staying there…what we wouldn’t give for a bit of that now. March 2019 was very much one of those moments – after working hard with some decent results through the first half of February we’d finally seemingly cemented a place in the play-offs. Then March arrived, and four defeats from five matches saw us slide ride back to where we’d been, undoing all that good work.

With games running out, a result from our trip to the Abbey was therefore vital if we were to get back into play-off contention (although mathematically feasible, automatic promotion had long gone as a realistic possibility). Cambridge were having a mare of a season too, and were still under the threat of relegation out of the Football League (though to be fair, Yeovil and/or Notts County would have had found a remarkable upturn in form for that to have happened).

[b]Do you want fries with that?[/b]
No, not a brutally harsh assessment of where manager John McGreal’s career may be going if we didn’t get back into the play-offs, actually a reference to one of the more bizarre incidents that occurred in the week leading up to the game. YouTuber Tom Stanniland decided to strap a Big Mac to a helium-filled weather balloon, and launch it into space with a GoPro attached (#SpaceBurger, and why wouldn’t you). Cut a long story short, the chap launched it from somewhere in NW England and it landed at Florence Park – if you need a reminder, here’s the YouTube video.

[b]Tickets please[/b]
As usual, a decent following from the U’s was expected, and as there was no pay on the day available, I bought three tickets (me, Alfie and my mate Jon) in advance (but no programme on the day). We were also planning to meet up more family on the way, including nieces, nephews and partners, so it was looking like it would be a good day out. Me and Alfie trained it over, meeting up with everyone for pre-match pints at the Old Ticket Office next to the station. It was a beautiful day too, perfect weather for relaxing outside with friends and family, even if that did also include passing interest from PC Plod. Still, no grief, and once we were ready, we jumped into a couple of Ubers over to the Abbey Stadium, never an easy drive given the traffic congestion that Cambridge is famed for.

As anticipated, there was a large following from Essex for the match, probably about 1,200, and not far from a sell-out in the away stand. For the first half, me, Alfie and Jon squeezed ourselves into space up at the back on the stand, to the right of the goal as we looked out, whilst t’others went off in search of the remaining family they were supposed to rendezvous with. Of note, also up the back of the stand and just to our right to begin with, was Harry Pell, Frank Nouble, Todd Miller and Ollie Kensdale (Miller having made his debut for the U’s two weeks earlier at Exeter). All in club tracksuits, they’d presumably travelled with the U’s but had been given the afternoon off to enjoy the match in amongst the fans, and according to The Gazette, Harry even had a go on the drum too.

John McGreal’s U’s lined up as follows:

1….Dillon Barnes
2….Ryan Jackson
22..Kane Vincent-Young
6….Frankie Kent
5….Luke Prosser (captain) (Mikael Mandron 78’)
4….Tom Lapslie (Sam Saunders 83’)
17..Ben Stevenson
10..Sammie Szmodics
7….Courtney Senior
39..Abobaker Eisa (Brennan Dickenson 84’)
9….Luke Norris

[b]One-way traffic at the Shabby[/b]
The atmosphere was everything expected of a raucous local derby for the most part, with the U’s faithful in full voice cheering on. We had plenty to cheer about too, with a dominant start from the U’s looking to impose themselves on the match. That didn’t mean it was entirely one-way traffic, with Cambridge dangerman Jevani Brown snatching a shot from 25 yards after just four minutes that flew narrowly wide – wonder what happened to Jevani Brown?. But that was about the sum total of Cambridge United’s attacking endeavour in the first half.

Wave after wave of U’s attacks either broke against the Cambridge defence, or went wide, or lacked power – it was just relentless. Sammie dribbled his way along the edge of the box before firing wide, Abs Eisa went wide with a slightly mis-hit shot, latching on to a delicate headed pass from Chuck, Sammie again dived in with a peach of a glancing header which flew agonisingly wide of the far post. When we did get attempts on target, like Frankie Kent’s brilliant header from Eisa’s in-swinging free-kick, goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov was on hand to pull of an excellent block – a double whammy because Norris blasted the rebound over the bar when it looked easier to score.

The charmed life that the Cambridge goal enjoyed just wouldn’t go away, with a wonderful, curled effort from Senior deflecting narrowly wide for a corner when it looked destined to squeeze inside the post. And thus half-time arrived, the U’s dominant in possession, attempts, corners, everything but the one statistic that counted – goals. Time for a bunch of chips, a Bovril and catch up with the rest of the gang.

Into the second half, and manager Colin Calderwood had clearly given his side a bit of the hairdryer at half-time, and for at least the first twenty minutes or so Cambridge looked like they would have some credible attacking intent. The game was certainly more even, though the U’s were still largely in control, but still the break-through goal eluded us. Ten minutes in, Ben Stevenson saw a decent effort saved under the bar by Mitov after Jackson and Senior had exchanged neat passes with each other.

Szmodics in particular was in magnificent form, constantly running at and bamboozling the Cambridge midfield and defence. Breaking down the right wing 20 minutes into the second half, he fired in a perfect cross for Norris, who again blazed over from all of 12 yards. Attempting to stifle the one-way traffic, Calderwood made a double substitution at the midpoint of the half, bringing on Paul Lewis and Jake Doyle-Hayes, which was unfortunate for Lewis, who was subbed himself six minutes later with a hamstring injury.

[b]Tick tock, tick tock[/]
However, time was running out, and it was worryingly starting to look like one of those games where despite all efforts, we just weren’t going to score. Mandron replaced Norris with 12 minutes to go, then Sam Saunders came on for his debut, replacing Lapslie. McGreal’s last throw of the dice was subbing the hard-working Eisa with Brennan Dickenson a minute after Saunders came on, but still we couldn’t break through.

…and still the clock ticked down.

Deep in injury-time, a Szmodics effort inside the box was scuffed agonisingly wide of the post – surely that was it? I’ll be honest, I’d pretty much given up hope – we’d made our way down the front to rejoin the rest of the family group, and to get ready for the exodus. The 90 minutes had been up some time ago, the referee had checked watches and linesman already, and he must have been ready to blow for full-time as soon as the ball went out of play.

[b]We have lift-off[/b]
And then, almost in slow motion, an incredible thing happened. Jacko worked his way down the right wing, and rather than try beat his man, took the first opportunity to cross low into the box. There was Mandron, back to the goal, trapping the cross perfectly whilst holding off his marker, before tapping into the path of Kane Vincent-Young. KVY left fly from 20 yards, more of a side-foot with venom than a full-blooded pile-driver, aimed perfectly over the despairing fingertips of Mitov in full flight and just under the crossbar.

…and then we exploded in unison! The roar of victory, relief, belief even was truly something to behold, virtually the entire squad gathered in celebration with the U’s faithful – just magnificent!

There was barely time to kick-off, it was more or less the last kick of the game, and what a way to win it.

[b]Cambridge United 0 Colchester United 1 (Kane Vincent-Young 90+6’)[/b]

Getting back from the Abbey has always been as much of a ball-ache as getting there to be honest, and despite our euphoria, this day was no different. We tried two separate Ubers trying to get to the station, eventually giving up on both and settling for the long trudge. On the way, we discovered that the feisty edge had returned briefly, with the police blocking both the road and access to one of the pubs where a bunch of U’s fans had been holed up to prevent further mischief on the streets.

It took well over an hour to finally get back to the train station and head on our separate journeys home, but a minor inconvenience in the overall scheme of things – the U’s had won 3pts and the promotion challenge was back on.

The postscript – we faltered again, losing the next two matches, and despite a late run of three wins and a draw in our final four matches, missed the play-offs by one place and one point. Worse still, one of our Ubers eventually arrived at a deserted pavement outside the Abbey…and billed me for the privilege!

The explosion as the ball hits the net really does need to be heard to be believed!

Up the U’s

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