Andrew Bennett re-lives festive fare at the Abbey
If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man
You win some, lose some, all the same to me
The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say
I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace of Spades
The words of the late, great Lemmy on the day of his departure from this world are a good summary of the tenure so far at the Abbey of Shaun Derry, a breath of fresh air with a refreshingly positive attitude who is unafraid to make difficult decisions, even if inevitably he does not get them all right. His urging of his team to keep attacking in the last few minutes of today’s match made for a stark contrast with his predecessor, who would have introduced an extra defender or two and instructed his team to stay back and hang on instead of going for a third goal.
2015 has been a momentous year for Cambridge United, in which their FA Cup run set them up financially for years to come, but they had to part with Richard Money, the man who had taken them so far in his distinguished tenure but had, sad to say, taken them as far as he could. His League record in this calendar year of 10 wins, 12 draws and 17 defeats was not consistent with the club’s avowed target of a playoff place, and his hit-and-miss recruitment, bizarre tactical decisions and overall sulky, negative attitude was taking the club nowhere.
"You can feel there's a buzz around the place and a real unity for probably the first time since I've come back to the club." Robbie Simpson’s words after the Boxing Day win at Dagenham say it all about how Money had lost both the plot and the dressing room and his departure was painful but vital to allow this club to progress further. Enjoy your retirement, Dickie, although if you want to give it another go at Luton, please go ahead. We would be royally entertained…
Today’s visitors, Barnet’s boss, Martin Allen, has something of a younger Money about him – mad as a mongoose, forthright and unpredictable – and his recent record is also similar, rescuing his club from the clammy clutches of the Bananarama Conference and now trying to re-establish them amongst the big boys, although that description scarcely befits the fit-all-their-supporters-in-a-telephone-box likes of Dagenham, Accrington, Stevenage, Crawley, Yeovil or Morecambe. Or, indeed, Barnet.
They were at least keeping their heads above the flotsam and jetsam clogging up the bottom of the League, and could boast a proven goalscoring front pairing of John Akinde and Aaron McLean, with former Abbey favourite Tom Champion tidying up in midfield and twice-former U’s striker Michael Gash on the bench. Their third former United man, Michael Nelson, was absent injured to the disappointment of those who wanted to see how he would cope with the pace and physicality of Ben Williamson and Barry Corr; something akin to a steamroller racing a Bugatti Veyron, one suspects.
United line-up: Beasant; Omozusi, Legge, Roberts, Dunk; Ledson, Newton; Williamson, Simpson, Berry; Corr
On the bench: Dunn, Kennedy, Coulson, Demetriou, L.Hughes, Williams, Slew
Injuries sustained in the last match kept Greg Taylor and Ryan Donaldson out, so their stand-ins at Dagenham, Elliot Omozusi and Robbie Simpson, earned themselves starting spots in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ryan Ledson and Conor Newton stationed deep and Barry Corr leading the line. A rather thin-looking squad meant a first appearance on the bench for promising 18-year-old midfielder Dylan Williams, who made a good impression in pre-season in the Chris Turner memorial match at Peterborough.
United should have been on the crest of a wave after putting the Daggers to the sword, but it was Barnet, clad in lilac and white hoops like an unwanted Christmas jumper, who took the game by the scruff of the neck, and initially the U’s had no response. There was nothing sophisticated about the visitors’ approach but it was highly effective, chasing and harrying to give United no time on the ball and playing it forward quickly and directly to utilise the pace of Akinde and McLean against the hosts’ less than quicksilver centre-backs. The U’s seemed to have been caught rather by surprise with the result that they could not string any sort of passing move together, were second to most balls and were caught in possession time and again.
The visitors’ first scoring chance came on 10 when Akinde burst through the middle only to tumble theatrically under Sam Beasant’s advancing challenge. He was deservedly booked for diving, a habit for which he has form going back to his Ebbsfleet days in March 2008 when his acrobatics got Danny Potter sent off in United’s 2-1 defeat at Stonebridge Road. Thankfully today’s referee, David Webb, was not so gullible, although the man in black was already proving himself to be something of a laissez-faire type, letting challenges go which many others would have pulled back.
Two minutes later Barnet gained a free-kick 35 yards out and McLean rather optimistically lined up a long-range shot, perhaps mindful of the soft one which Beasant had conceded from a similar distance against Mansfield just before Christmas. There was no such danger this time as it sailed upwards and smacked into the top of the NRE stand.
United forced a corner on 14 and Leon Legge met it with a firm goalward header 12 yards out, only to see it flick off the head of Gavin Hoyte (not the ex-U’s defender) then cannon off the top of the bar. That was a brief respite from Barnet’s pressure, though, as the hosts simply could not get going against the visitors’ energetic onslaught. Andy Yiadom drew a comfortable save from Beasant a minute later, as did Akinde midway through the half, then Yiadom scuffed another opening wide.
McLean came nearest to breaking the deadlock on 24 when he was given time and space to advance on goal and smack a thunderbolt against the bar from 25 yards, Beasant gathering the rebound gratefully. Ledson was then off target for the U’s and Champion missed with a header. Champs only scored once in 101 starts for United, the winner in a 2-1 defeat of Forest Green in September 2013, and he has netted just once for the Bees too, in their FA Cup win over Blackpool last month.
The rest of the half continued in a similar pattern, Newton and Ledson unable to get a grip in midfield and Simpson, Ben Williamson and Luke Berry equally unable to make an impression on their scurrying, high-energy opponents, a team of Road Runners running rings around a collection of bewildered Wile E Coyotes. Where is an Acme Midfield Ballwinner when you need one, eh?
Nonetheless Barnet could create few clearcut scoring chances until the last minute of the first half. One of their weapons, a long throw, cleared everyone at the far post and it fell unexpectedly to Yiadom inside the six-yard box, but he prodded wide as the NRE held its breath. There was still time for some shoddy defending to afford Hoyte a shot at goal, but he could not hit the target, and United were relieved to return to the dressing room level after a sluggish, outplayed first 45 minutes.
Only two United substitutes initially emerged to warm up during the interval, indicating that Derry was giving his charges a thorough talking-to, and the players were eventually sent out for part two a good few minutes ahead of their counterparts. United initially threatened with a Newton up-and-under for Simpson to chase, to which he was narrowly beaten by keeper Ian Lawlor ten yards outside the box, but the match soon settled down to an identical pattern to the first half with no appreciable improvement from the men in black and amber.
McLean was replaced by Gash 10 minutes after the restart, the big-boned target man not an ideal like-for-like replacement for the more fleet-footed former Posh striker. Yiadom saw a shot deflected wide on 58, and two minutes later the visitors’ pressing game finally drew dividends. Newton received the ball wide on the left in the Barnet half but dwelt on it as he looked up for someone to pass to and had it nicked off his toe by Champion, whose perceptive through ball bisected the United centre-backs and sent Akinde away and clear unchallenged. He advanced into the area before coolly slotting it past the exposed Beasant, resisting the pull of gravity this time. 1-0.
Derry recognised that a change was vital to get his misfiring charges back into the game and introduced Mickey Demetriou for the disappointing Newton, switching to 4-4-2 with Williamson and Dunk on the flanks and Simpson joining Corr up front. It should have been 2-0 on 68 when Akinde slipped through again, and as Beasant advanced, his delicate chip appeared to be sailing into the empty net, but as the 549 visiting Bees began to acclaim a goal, it bounced the wrong side of the far post. Had that gone in, it would surely have been curtains for the hosts.
As it was, they responded with the spirited kind of reaction that we are coming to expect from a Derry side. United now had a better shape with square pegs in square holes and on 70 Corr laid it back to Dunk, his curling cross from deep was exquisitely placed into the corridor of uncertainty in front of Lawlor and Berry rampaged through unmarked to bullet his header home, with Simpson right beside him ready to do the same. 1-1.
Relief turned to joyous disbelief less than 80 seconds later when United did it again. This time Demetriou was the creator with a diagonal cross from deep, Williamson went for it with his marker on the edge of the box and as both tumbled to the floor it bounced fortuitously off his back and was diverted perfectly in the path of Corr, who had already spotted the opportunity and took it with ruthless aplomb, sliding his perfect finish low across Lawlor from a narrowing angle and in at the far post. The turnaround was complete and the Abbey exploded with joy: 2-1!
The reaction of most home supporters was ‘How the hell did that happen?!’ but now the U’s were on top, they continued to take the game to their stunned opponents, who had suddenly lost much of the intensity of their play. Gash was booked for handball, his sole contribution to the match, and Sam Muggleton was introduced for Sam Togwell, but it was all United now as the energy and confidence they had lacked so badly for 70 minutes suddenly flooded through them.
On 76 Williamson used his pace to chip and chase past his marker down the right flank and as he cut inside he should have squared it to the unmarked Dunk, who had bust a gut to support him in the box, but he chose to shoot from a narrow angle and had it blocked by Lawlor at his near post. Ledson then fired a shot wide, and in a final fling the Bees introduced 37-year-old Kevin Lisbie in place of Hoyte.
Barnet had blown themselves out, though, and United kept them at bay with some comfort during the last ten minutes; now it was they who were catching the visitors in possession and breaking upfield. One such break in added time saw Simpson bulldoze down the middle but he swept his shot wide of the far post. Yiadom had the last word with a shot clutched by Beasant, then the final whistle signalled a win which nobody would have predicted after 70 minutes of play.
Barnet had provided stern opposition, making up in energy and tenacity for what they lacked in sophistication, but once United had got their noses in front there was only one winner, with Akinde’s miss just before Berry scored the turning point of the match. Derry was understandably delighted that his team had found a way to win their fifth League game in six matches despite being outplayed for so long, and perhaps playing their second game in three days had adversely affected some players, albeit it was the same for their opponents. Nonetheless, the manager and supporters will not wish to see a repeat of that feeble, slipshod first 70 minutes, and an awful lot more of that exciting attacking machine of the last twenty in 2016.
Motorhead summed up the latter best…
Only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud
So good I can’t believe it, screamin’ with the crowd
Don’t sweat it, get it back to you
Overkill! Overkill! Overkill!
United are now unbeaten in their last six League matches. This is their longest such run since March/April 2014, when they were undefeated in 9 consecutive games. The last such run in the Football League came in the same period of 2003, when they drew 1-1 at Oxford, won 1-0 at Carlisle, beat Bournemouth 2-1 at the Abbey (whatever happened to them…?), drew 1-1 at home to Scunthorpe, drew 1-1 at Macclesfield and defeated Exeter 2-1 at home.
Today’s attendance of 6,003 is the third figure of over 6,000 at the Abbey this season, following 6,607 against Portsmouth and 6,298 versus Luton (both 3-1 defeats). Last term there were a remarkable nine such attendances at the Abbey, including two in the FA Cup, four of which were in excess of 7,000. There was just one 6,000+ crowd here in 2013-14, against Luton, and none at all in the preceding four seasons, with three during 2008-09, two in 2007-08, one in 2006-07 and none in 2005-06. There was only one in United’s last season in their first spell in the League of 2004-05, 6,715 against Southend on 28th March. United lost 2-0 with a line-up that read: Ruddy, Gleeson, Newey, Tann, Duncan, Walker, Tudor, Chillingworth, Roberts, Somner, Nicholls. Used subs: Toner, Turner, Quinton.
United’s 3-0 win at Dagenham & Redbridge on Boxing Day was their third consecutive victory on their travels, and their best run away from home since March/April 2014, when they won 3-0 at Salisbury, 1-0 at Macclesfield and 3-0 at Woking. Their next target of four in a row was last achieved during February 2009, while they have not won four Football League away games in a row since the tail-end of 1993-94 when a phenomenal run saw them defeat Fulham 2-0, Exeter 5-0, Plymouth 3-0 and Cardiff 7-2.
United have not won five consecutive away league matches since their Cambs League days, when they achieved that feat during 1938-39, 1933-34 and 1928-29. They topped that last run with a sixth ‘away’ win in the Division One Championship match (the league was divided into regionalised north and south Cambs divisions) against the North Cambs champions, Chatteris Town, a match which was staged at Cambridge Town’s Milton Road ground.
United were the better side in the first half, but after Sid Hulyer gave them the lead, Cave equalised to keep the scores level; “a main feature of the game was the long kicking tactics adopted by both teams.” Dick Harris restored the Abbey’s lead on 70 minutes, and when “Darley” Watson made it 3-1 ten minutes from time, they looked set for a happy ending to the season. Somehow, though, Chatteris scored twice in the last eight minutes to level it up and send the match into extra time.
A couple of the Chatteris men seemed disinclined to continue (extra time was a rare occurrence in those days) and began to walk off the field until they were persuaded to continue. Then United skipper George Alsop took charge and smashed in two of his ‘specials’ from outside the box in the first half of added time, although Chatteris made it 5-4 shortly before the end to make the score identical to that between the sides three weeks previously. It clinched the last of five trophies that the great United side won that season.
Dylan Williams is the ninth man to be allocated squad number 32 at the Abbey. His predecessors are: Daniel Chillingworth, Dave Kitson, Warren Goodhind, Nick Robbins, Jeremy Izod (a sponsor rather than a player), Bobby-Joe Taylor, Jason Brown and Ryan Bird.
Beasant 7. Competent performance and was hopelessly exposed for the goal he conceded.
Omozusi 7. Quietly effective.
Legge 8. Such a colossal presence.
Roberts 7. Used his experience to make up for his lack of pace.
Dunk 7. Decent job at left-back but truly blossomed once given a more attacking role.
Ledson 6. Youngster looked like he needed a rest.
Newton 5. A rare poor display typified by the error that led to Barnet’s goal.
Berry 7. Not used to his best advantage but stuck at it and continued his golden touch in front of goal.
Simpson 6. Gave 100 per cent as usual, although struggled to make an impact.
Williamson 7. Pacy and exciting.
Corr 8. Another mighty effort.
Demetriou 7. Classy performer who helped make the difference in the second-half reshuffle.
On a schizophrenic afternoon at the Abbey, the United men wandered around the pitch for 70 minutes as if they had just come off a three-day Christmas bender against an effective Barnet side, but a festive miracle of two goals in 80 seconds turned the whole game on its head and after that it was just a case of how many more they could score. Start the next game how you finished this one, please lads.
Man of the Match
Barry Corr. May not be playing at full throttle, but put in a tireless shift, both up front and funnelling back, and also continued this season’s phenomenal scoring run. A fantastic signing.
Webb 4. There is nothing more irritating than a referee who whistles every 30 seconds, but this chap went too far the other way, ignoring all manner of dubious challenges, most of which seemed to be on United players. Gold star for booking the cheat Akinde, though.
Soundtrack of the Day
Roots Manuva “Fighting For”
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