Andrew Bennett drawing breath following a tumultuous final few minutes at the (Cambs Glass) Abbey Stadium:
High visibility replica kits must be worn
No parking the bus in front of this goal
Reconstruction work of season in progress
Warning – look out for overhead kicks
Caution – live wires (numbers 7 and 11)
Designated moaning area
Oversize load on substitutes’ bench
Danger – demolition work on opposition defence in progress
Caution – trip hazard (the two centre-backs in red)
Sometimes all the health and safety notices in the world cannot prepare you for what might happen at a football match. And on very rare occasions, the climax of a game can literally leave you breathless, heart pounding and elated. In recent years, who can forget that seemingly endless added-time siege from Gateshead in the playoff final at Wembley in 2014, or Scott Rendell’s last-minute winner against Stevenage in the playoff semi-final of 2009? Well, today just about trumped the lot for drama, excitement and a happy ending.
United’s season has received a belated kick start over the past week while Shaun Derry supped nervously in the last chance saloon; but both their victories were against very poor sides. Today they were presented with a rather sterner task against an Accrington Stanley side which narrowly failed in the playoffs last term, albeit two of their players, Piero Mingoia and Brad Halliday, now sport the black and amber of the U’s, and a pitiful midweek attendance of 1,134 against Mansfield at the Kajagoogoo Arena, sorry, Wham Stadium, demonstrated that this is a club which United really should be overcoming.
It was a damp, cool autumn’s afternoon as the 98 intrepid away supporters, exactly the same number as came from Yeovil on Tuesday night, took their places in a corner of the South Stand, expectations reasonably high after their team had remained unbeaten in the League during September. Scott Brown returned from suspension to captain their side while their substitutes included a famous(ish) name in former Burnley winger Chris Eagles, who is still only 30 years old.
United line-up: Norris; Halliday, Legge, Roberts, Taylor; Mingoia, Berry, Clark, Dunk; Williamson, McGurk
On the bench: Gregory, Coulson, Dunne, Newton, Gosling, Pigott, Ikpeazu
The only change from Tuesday was the return of Mingoia from injury to replace Jake Gosling, making for a trio of ex-Stanley players with Halliday and Mark Roberts, while there was a welcome return for James Dunne among the substitutes. Max Clark sported a fetching pink headband a la Mark Knopfler to protect a head injury incurred in midweek.
Early exchanges were inconclusive although United looked organised and motivated in a 4-4-2 system which suited all of the players. Mingoia forced the first corner on 8 but the first shots of note came shortly afterwards from Romauld Boco and Paddy Lacey for the visitors, both high and wide.
An early breakthrough was needed and it was United who gained it on 14. The busy Ben Williamson was fouled by Omar Beckles deep out on the left, Mingoia swung the free-kick into the box and Leon Legge rose highest at the far post to power a header past gigantic keeper Aaron Chapman. 1-0.
The contest continued in fairly undistinguished fashion with United just about on top against the visitors’ rather ineffective short passing style. Legge picked up the first booking on 23 for a foul on Lacey and goalmouth incidents were few and far between. It could and should have been two-nil just before the half-hour, though, when Williamson burst pacily clear down the right, reached the byline and pulled it back for the unmarked Adam McGurk, but with the entire goal at his mercy he scooped his first-time shot lamely over the bar from just inside the box.
Clark tried an ambitious long-ranger six minutes later which sailed past the right-hand post, and Stanley at last managed a shot on target in the last minute when his low drive at the far post was blocked away by Will Norris. The half-time whistle signalled the end of a largely satisfactory first period for the U’s, who had rarely hit the heights but remained broadly in control without their own goal being especially endangered.
Part two began in rather livelier fashion, with Roberts heading Dunk’s free-kick wide at the far post and Lacey drawing a save from Norris inside the first three minutes. And on 51 the visitors were level when Beckles met a corner from the right unmarked at the far post, Norris made a tremendous diving save, but Billy Kee was on hand to ram home the equaliser from close range. 1-1.
Janoi Donacien was next into the book two minutes later for a foul on Mingoia, and United strove manfully to get the advantage back, making good use of wide men Mingoia and Harrison Dunk. The latter caused problems on 62 with a cross which Beckles headed onto the roof of his own net under pressure from Williamson, but Derry rang the changes four minutes later in replacing Clark and Williamson, who had both performed creditably, with Dunne and Uche Ikpeazu.
Big Uche is one of the best impact subs seen here for many a year, reminiscent of a cross between Trevor Benjamin and Marcus Richardson with all the power, pace and unpredictability that might suggest, and he quickly made an impression. Jordan Clark was carded for a block on Greg Taylor, and from the ensuing free-kick, taken by Mingoia, Ikpeazu tried an audacious overhead kick which flew just wide.
Uche also has the effect of galvanising the supporters with his infectious up-and-at-‘em approach, and United now took the game to their opponents, Dunne having a goalbound shot blocked on 70 then Ikpeazu also had an effort cleared away moments later. Sean McConville was next to see yellow, once again Mingoia the man sinned against, then from a Stanley corner Mingoia broke swiftly downfield and sent McGurk clear on goal, only for the latter to be flagged marginally offside when he really should have had the wit to stay on.
Accrington remained dangerous on the break themselves, though, and on 78 a raid down the middle was temporarily halted by Roberts’ sliding block, only for the ball to run to Boco just outside the box, and his low drive beat Norris but cannoned off the inside of the right-hand post then rebounded to safety. Let-off.
The visitors continued to press, but when the ball was cleared out to the left flank on 81 following their corner, Ikpeazu gave chase, controlled it on the touchline then galloped down the line like a runaway tank, trailing defenders in his wake. Nearing the penalty area, he checked, looked up and saw Mingoia haring into the box at the far post, and his cross was inch-perfect for the little winger to volley spectacularly past Chapman like a guided missile to bring the house down. What a goal! 2-1.
Now the Abbey was really buzzing, hotter than Sam Allardyce’s voicemail. Stanley introduced two subs on 85, Eagles and Terry Gornell replacing Donacien and Clark, and Derry responded cautiously by bringing on Conor Newton for McGurk, leaving Ikpeazu as a lone striker. There was a danger now of the U’s sitting too deep and inviting the visitors on to them, and their probing passing gained its reward a minute into added time when Gornell was quickest to latch onto a dinked ball over the top and Legge got into a tangle of legs which brought him down inside the box. Penalty.
Under the new rules the United skipper only received a yellow card, but it was his second of the match and he strode towards the dressing room as Eagles lined up the spot-kick, usual penalty-taker Kee still on the pitch but reluctant to step up as he was carrying a knock. Eagles’ kick was well struck, but Norris dived low to his right to save superbly and the ball was scrambled away for a throw-in near the corner flag, the keeper trying to divert his colleagues’ congratulations away as his goal was still in danger.
The throw was taken short then the ball was floated into the middle, and Matty Pearson aimed a looping header towards the United goal. As it dropped under the bar Norris seemed able to scramble back to deal with it, but on the line Halliday panicked under pressure from a red-and-white striped shirt and punched it away. The ref spotted it and, unbelievably, it was a second dismissal and a second penalty in the space of a minute.
As Halliday walked off to join Legge in the dressing room amid an atmosphere of growing hysteria, it was the other sub, Gornell, who stepped up this time. His kick, though, while also well struck, was too near Norris, who leaned to his left to block and the clearance was completed by his grateful colleagues. What drama. What nerve. What the hell was going on?!
It was Norris’ fourth penalty save of the season, a club record. And the drama did not end there. As Stanley continued to probe and push against United’s nine men, a clearance sent Ikpeazu galloping away again down the left channel. He could have headed for the corner, but he controlled, cut inside, beat his man and shot into Chapman’s arms when he should have squared it for the unmarked Mingoia.
No-one had the faintest clue how much time was left, brains still frazzled by the extraordinary events of the last few minutes, but Stanley could not create another clearcut chance and there were tumultuous cheers as the final whistle sounded at last. Ikpeazu collapsed to the ground with exhaustion as his team-mates all ran to congratulate the triumphant, pink-shirted Norris and the Accrington players slumped disbelievingly onto the grass. Such was the celebration in the ground, it was as if United had won the league, the Cup and the Champions League in one afternoon. Man U v Bayern Munich 1999? Ha! A minor footnote in history. This was truly extraordinary. This was what football was all about, the reason why we supporters sit and stand through endless dull draws and forgettable defeats, a day of drama, glory and triumph against the odds. The Beautiful Game.
When the dust settled, it was good to reflect on a deserved win against a very decent team and United’s continued rise up the league table. With this spirit, allied to better quality finishing, there is no reason why this team should not continue to progress after looking dead and buried a fortnight ago. And they don’t need a health and safety certificate for that.
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