Andrew Bennett reporting from a sun-drenched Cambs Glass (a.k.a.'The Abbey') Stadium:
“SCHOOL’S OUT FOR SUMMER! SCHOOL’S OUT FOREVER! SCHOOL’S BEEN BLOWN TO PIECES!”
That evocative old song by Alice Cooper soundtracked many a happy end of term for my generation and doubtless the generations that followed, albeit its assertion that school had been blown to pieces was fanciful in the extreme, however much one might have wished that it were true. Mine is still there in Queen Edith’s Way, as far as I know, never having been back there since I escaped with two A-levels more years ago than I care to remember.
The end of summer term conjured up a vista of seemingly endless leisure, all under a blazing hot sun, which would only start to fade when the dreaded “Back to School” uniform ads began to run. The only drawback to such a utopia was that if the family whisked you away on holiday, you might miss some football, either a friendly or something more important, depending on when the dates fell.
So it was that there were vast swathes of empty space at the Abbey (sorry, CAMBS GLASS STADIUM) today as United fans jetted off to places not much warmer than Cambridge, or spent the night on the A20, rather than witness the U’s toiling in the heat against our old friends from down the A14, Ipswich Town. The temperature was not as extreme as it was earlier in the week, but a still, muggy afternoon provided a testing environment for both sets of players, as well as the poor soul in Marvin The Moose’s furry outfit. Only joking kids, he’s real, of course.
The old place has had quite a spruce-up over the summer, with the new stadium name prominent, an additional ticket office and a striking makeover for the Supporters Club (sorry, ABBEY LOUNGE) which looks like vertical decking or the entrance to a Swedish sauna. The area behind the Habbin has also been made over with a stonking new refreshment outlet and multiple tea bars, with stonking prices to match but a much greater choice, although if they sell a single helping of wine at £5 a pop over the whole season I will be astonished, unless I have seriously underestimated the average U’s fan’s appetite for a cheeky Chablis or Rioja as the perfect complement to their pre-match meal. Hmm, what goes best with a hot dog and a Twix, white or red? The eternal dilemma…
United line-up: Norris; Taylor, Legge, Dallison, Dunk; Dunne, Clark; Mingoia, Maris, Berry; Pigott
On the bench: Gregory, Keane, Adams, Roberts, Coulson, Elito, Newton, Williams, Williamson
Shaun Derry selected a strong team in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, demonstrating his preference for a left-footed centre-back by picking Tom Dallison to partner Leon Legge, while Harrison Dunk started at left-back with Luke Berry shoehorned into left midfield ahead of him alongside George Maris, with the man in goalscoring form, Joe Pigott, up front. Every other member of the squad was on the bench except for Barry Corr and Elliot Omozusi, and new signing Adam McGurk.
Ipswich fielded a strong eleven which included Daryl Murphy, fresh from his exploits with Ireland at Euro 2016, and the Scottish international with the French name, Christophe Berra.
The teams looked well matched in the early stages, both passing the ball fluently on Ian Darler’s bowling green of a pitch, but it was some 10 minutes before the first shot in anger, Maris’ effort comfortably stopped by Bartosz Bialkowski. Three minutes later Josh Emmanuel crossed and Murphy rose to head for the bottom corner from close range, only to be thwarted by a superb diving reaction save from Will Norris; Shane McLoughlin converted the rebound, but was offside.
The match continued in a similar vein but with little goalmouth action, Pigott leading the line well with good support from the midfield, while Leon Legge and Greg Taylor were in imperious form at the back to stifle Ipswich’s attacking ambitions.
The visitors lost Luke Hyam on 34 to injury, diminutive 16-year-old Tristan Nydam replacing him in a numberless shirt, and the lively Maris had a shot parried by Bialkowski then fired wide after being set up Pigott to underline his credentials for the central attacking midfield slot in direct competition to his captain, Berry. Maris came closest to breaking the deadlock on 44 when a through ball from Max Clark sent him clear down the left channel, he rounded the keeper, but, driven wide, slotted his shot against the outside of the post from a narrowing angle.
Thus far it had been an absorbing contest without really catching fire, goal incidents at something of a premium, albeit the stifling humidity was not helping; they had even been given a drinks break halfway through the first 45.
After more refreshments both teams resumed part two unchanged. Clark fired just past the post early on, while Jonas Knudsen had a shot deflected for a corner on 52. Ipswich introduced David McGoldrick and Freddie Sears just before the hour, while on 68 a vast raft of substitutions saw the visitors make eight more changes while United brought on all of their replacements bar keeper David Gregory, with only Berry and Pigott remaining on the field of the outfield players. The latter was accompanied up front by Ben Williamson as the team adjusted to a 4-4-2 formation.
The changes gave the contest fresh impetus, both teams’ fresh legs increasing the pace. Tommy Smith flicked a header just wide from a corner on 75, while a United free-kick two minutes later found the head of Mark Roberts who set up Josh Coulson for a difficult half-volley which he could not keep down. Dylan Williams then did well to win the ball on the right touchline and found Pigott just inside the box, but he completely mistimed his half-volley and scuffed wide.
A goal finally looked likely on 79 when Murphy sent Sears through, clear on goal down the middle, but Norris advanced, spread himself and blocked the shot with his left leg. Four minutes later, however, Sears crossed to Andre Dozzell (son of Jason) and with some neat footwork in a crowded box he placed his ten-yard shot calmly into the bottom right corner. 1-0.
That looked likely to win the game, but United responded five minutes later with an exquisitely executed goal; Conor Newton received the ball in the centre circle and burst into empty space down the pitch, then slid a perfect through pass to Pigott, who remained cool and placed his shot low past Bialkowski before any blue shirt could get near him. Six goals in four games: 1-1.
The match ended in bizarre circumstances as referee Woolmer blew the final whistle a good two or three minutes early, but it suited both sides to claim an honourable draw in the sapping heat, albeit Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy was furious at the nature of the goal his side conceded, using the words “bull****,” “p*** poor” and “garbage” in case the players had any doubts about his feelings.
All in all it had been a very worthwhile exercise and raised some interesting selection dilemmas for Derry with two pre-season matches left and competition for places throughout the team. The holidays are long finished for everyone at the Abbey (sorry, CAMBS GLASS STADIUM) and the season is already off and running. Hurry on back, vacationers.
Cambridge United 0-3 Aston Villa: Supersize us, please
Andrew Bennett reporting for 'Coconuts' from the Habbin:
United’s pre-season itinerary has long consisted of two traditional strands: away matches against smaller clubs, and home games versus ‘big’ clubs. But how big is ‘big’ these days? Is a club’s perceived size these days based on its history, its income or the number of £100 million yachts its owner has managed to amass? It seems almost compulsory now for English clubs, not just in the Premier League but lower down, to be taken over by some exotic businessman (they’re always men) who promises to make his new plaything bigger than Apple and Microsoft combined by the simple expedient of throwing more money at it than the last megalomaniac who took over an unsuspecting football club.
The English language is rich in subtle layers of distinction between words which on the face of it mean the same thing. By my reckoning Manchester United are gigantic, Manchester City are vast, Chelsea are gargantuan, Arsenal are immense, Liverpool are enormous, Tottenham Hotspur are massive, West Ham United are huge and Everton are whopping, so what does that make champions Leicester City? A piffling ‘large’? ‘Big’ just does not seem to cover it any more.
And what, then, of Aston Villa, former champions of Europe and England (ask your grandad) who have just been taken over by a Chinese million/billion/zillionaire who has declared that he intends his new charges to be “top three in the world, even the best well known in the world, in less than 10 years”? How big are they now, with the prospect of League meetings this season with Rotherham, Burton, Barnsley and Brentford? And what are they doing slumming it at Cambridge United on a Tuesday night when the really ‘big’ clubs are taking part in grand, portentous tours and competitions in far-flung marketing territories like the USA, the Far East and Australia?
It seems size isn’t everything after all; it never was. That is why Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales were able to compete so effectively against much bigger nations over the summer. It isn’t just what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. And Villa’s previous owner didn’t do anything with it; he just tucked it away and acted like he’d forgotten it was there.
Villa were an embarrassment last season, winning three league games all year with a team that just seemed to shrug its shoulders and give up long before the bitter end. Now they must rebuild, their new owner’s loftily ambitious words ringing in their ears, with an impressively decorated manager, Roberto di Matteo, who is gradually whittling away at the dead wood in his squad and replacing it with some fresh shoots of hope.
The squad which they sent to the Abbey tonight was missing some big names (Richards, Lescott, Guzan, Agbonlahor, Ayew, Gestede) but still contained some reasonably well-known names such as Jack Grealish, Carlos Sanchez, Leandro Bacuna and Scott Sinclair, one of many players who joined a vast club (see above) and found himself crowded out by the sheer volume of talent which it had accumulated for no apparent reason other than that it could.
United line-up: Norris; Keane, Coulson, Dallison, Adams; Elito, Newton, Clark, Berry; Williamson, McGurk
On the bench: Gregory, Taylor, Trialist, Legge, Roberts, Williams, Dunne, Maris, Dunk, Pigott, Mingoia
Shaun Derry’s starting eleven differed significantly from that which lined up against Ipswich and included a debut for Adam McGurk in a 4-4-2 formation, while the substitutes included an unnamed right-back trialist who looked a bit like the one who played in Wattenscheid, but I was too far away to tell for sure. Is there a binoculars app for mobiles?
A reasonable crowd of 3,961 was in attendance, with 816 away supporters on a pleasantly mild summer’s evening, and United took the field sporting their smart new white second strip (consume! consume!) with Villa in their traditional claret and blue. Some traditions cannot and should not be changed, as Cardiff’s owner found to his cost.
The match began at a lively lick, both sides passing the ball with pace and purpose, and within five minutes United could have been in front when McGurk found Luke Berry with a superb diagonal through ball, but after surging into the box with the goal at his mercy, the skipper’s shot bobbled wide of the far post. In the next attack McGurk had a go himself but his powerful half-volley was well blocked by Kevin Toner.
Villa took the lead on 8 with a goal of exceptional quality. Sinclair received the ball wide on the left, wrong-footed Keith Keane to create himself some space, then curled a magnificent angled shot with his right foot over Will Norris into the far top corner. 1-0.
Within a minute the disparity was doubled. Villa pressed United from the kickoff, Blair Adams passed it back to Norris and his attempted clearance only found Sinclair midway into the United half; he swiftly passed it forward to teenager Rushian (“Rushian”?!) Hepburn-Murphy, Josh Coulson and Tom Dallison both failed to dispossess him and he slid it under the advancing Norris from ten yards. Oh dear: 2-0.
Some of us were already racking our brains for the club’s worst ever defeat on home territory, but the U’s responded positively. McGurk went down with an injury on 11 and resumed after lengthy treatment, but it soon became evident that he could not continue and he was withdrawn six minutes later for Harrison Dunk, who took Berry’s place wide left while the skipper stationed himself behind Ben Williamson in a 4-4-1-1 set-up.
The front two combined well on 20 when Berry flicked it forward to send Williamson through on goal, but his attempted lob over keeper Pierluigi Gollini plopped easily into the keeper’s outstretched gloves. Bacuna then fired wide for the visitors, but by now United were giving as much as they were getting with some fluent build-up play which only lacked that killer final ball.
A run and cross from Dunk on 27 found Williamson but his powerful shot was blocked by his own man, Berry, and two minutes later a fine cross from the increasingly influential Keane was headed narrowly wide of his own post by Jordan Lyden with white shirts breathing down his neck. United continued to push and probe, Dunk sending a couple of speculative shots wide, but neither side could find a finish in the final third.
A minute before half-time Coulson did very well to head a Grealish cross over his own bar, and Joe Bennett’s ensuing corner somehow curled and bounced low across the six-yard box before running out of play past the far post without anyone getting a touch.
United had certainly given a decent account of themselves in the first 45 and they were left to reflect ruefully on the two minutes of madness which now divided the teams.
Derry made one change for part two, introducing the trialist at right-back for Max Clark with Keane moving into central midfield. The U’s resumed brightly and Coulson set up Dunk for a shot at goal on 49, again just wide of the target, and seven minutes later another searching Keane cross was headed behind by Jores Okore under pressure from Berry.
Villa made their first change on 57, introducing shock-headed Colombian international Carlos ‘La Roca’ Sanchez for new boy Aaron Tshibola, and five minutes later the trialist rounded off a good overlapping run with a shot on the turn which lacked the power to trouble Gollini. Andre Green then replaced Lacuna for the visitors, while on 70 Derry ushered on his remaining substitutes, bar keeper David Gregory, so that the team now read Norris; Trialist, Legge, Roberts, Taylor; Mingoia, Elito, Dunne, Williams; Maris; Pigott.
Medy Elito moved into central midfield, where he looked more comfortable than out wide, and George Maris supported target man Joe Pigott, but on 78 Villa sealed their win when Green dribbled past Greg Taylor, who stopped to claim handball instead of playing to the whistle, enabling Green to advance unchallenged to the byline where he pulled it back for Gary Gardner to lash home unmarked from 12 yards. Another soft one: 3-0.
The visitors’ third substitution saw the lively Grealish replaced by Jordan Veretout. Ten minutes from time Maris was felled by Sanchez on the right-hand side of the penalty box, but ref Rock awarded a free-kick millimetres outside the area instead of the spot-kick for which the NRE howled. Maris’ kick was disappointingly overhit, Pigott retrieved it with a header back into the danger area but Elito’s looping nod was comfortably plucked from the air by Gollini.
Maris then blasted over from distance but had a much better chance on 85 when he and Pigott both went for a Dylan Williams cross from the left; somehow they got in each other’s way and the ball bounced off him and trundled wide of the post. Taylor then crossed for Pigott and Lyden to dive together, the defender just managing to head it wide for a corner, and that was United’s last chance gone.
Overall it was a decent performance against quality opposition, United’s finishing just not quite matching their approach play, but the squad appears to have gelled well and Derry has some difficult choices to make for the first League game if this was the last friendly of pre-season, following the most unsurprising news imaginable about Braintree’s laughing stock of a playing surface. We are only a small club, but we are well placed to make it big this season. Well, biggish; size is, after all, entirely relative…
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