See if you agree with Andrew B's version of yesterday's events:
Big bottom, swing, big bottom, swing-a-ling-a
How much is the fish? How much is the fish?
How much is the chips? Does the fish have chips?
I don’t want a drink but I’ll go to the bar
I’d go for a walk but I ain’t got a car
I like when it’s different, but it’s just not the same
The weather is perfect except for the rain
The last few weeks have seen the world lose a number of legends from the world of music: Bowie, of course, Lemmy, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin from Mott The Hoople, Otis Clay, Stevie Wright from the Easybeats, er, Guru Josh… and Mick Lynch, frontman of shambling Irish kooks Stump, whose “Buffalo” is quoted above and has to be heard to be believed. By way of tribute, this report includes the titles of 70 Stump songs, sorry, David Bowie songs*, one of my and many others’ childhood heroes who did not always get it right and was not always in fashion but was never afraid to move on and made music to fill your heart with joy. We never thought he would slip away in such style, assumed he would never get old, but he left us at the height of his fame after a life that was a brilliant adventure for all of us.
I hope you’re keeping up, that’s 11 already.
Back at the Abbey, it seems Shaun Derry’s December Manager of the Month award has made him a candidate for January’s Hangover of the Month, the mythical Curse having seen his team fail to win since his end-of-year accolade. His squad churn is still ongoing and he has not been afraid to bomb out players that have not impressed him; it is also apparent that many more changes are in the pipeline after his not-so-subtle hints about squad members who are now out of favour who should be seeking a new career in a new town. His try some, buy some approach has resulted in a team with a ‘work in progress’ look about it, and it is to be hoped that his limited managerial experience will not count against him; it’s no game for absolute beginners.
Today’s opponents, Hartlepool, managed to survive last season, one place above the quicksand of the relegation places thanks in part to the goals of United loanee Ryan Bird, but have not kicked on much this term, seven wins out of 23 seeing them bumping along in 21st place. They were also without a win in their previous six matches.
United line-up: Norris; Furlong, Legge, Roberts, Page; Ledson, Dunne, Berry, Simpson; Williamson, Ahearne-Grant
On the bench: Beasant, Omozusi, Coulson, Horne, Donaldson, Dunk, Corr
Shaun Derry made one change from the team that started at Luton last week, Karlan Ahearne-Grant given his first start in place of Barry Corr, who made up a strong subs’ line-up alongside Harrison Dunk and Ryan Donaldson, all apparently there for fitness reasons. The manager persisted with his experimental diamond midfield, with Ryan Ledson in front of the back four and Robbie Simpson supporting the front two, while youngster Ryan Horne made the bench ahead of the likes of Conor Newton, Liam Hughes, Jordan Slew and Danny Carr. One suspects reality will be biting hard for some of them before the end of January.
It was exactly one year since the U’s were dancing with the big boys, Manchester United’s visit to the Abbey heralding a financial bonanza that should lead to a better future for the club, but also prefaced a dramatic slump in form that produced the first sense of doubt in the formerly untouchable Richard Money; then this season he became a dead man walking after taking it on a fantastic voyage over which he ultimately had no control. Of the team which started against the once-mighty Red Devils, not one started today, and only five (Dunn, Taylor, Coulson, Donaldson, Hughes) are still at the club at all.
On a mild day with sunshine breaking through, the first chance of the day fell to Ahearne-Grant but he shot wide. After such wishful beginnings Hartlepool put the hosts under pressure for a sustained period, harrying and closing United down as the men in amber and black struggled to come to terms with their game plan, Ledson in particular having difficulty in protecting the back four as the visitors swarmed forward.
Hartlepool should have been in front on 5 minutes. Jake Carroll swung a corner in from the right, Bristol Rovers loanee Ellis Harrison shot through a crowded box and saw his effort ricochet off the inside of the far post, and how the ball stayed out in the ensuing melee is one of the mysteries of the day, Will Norris eventually falling gratefully on it. Harrison had another shot blocked three minutes later (I wonder who has taken his place at Rovers?), then Norris produced a magnificent double save to palm away first Jordan Richards’ 20-yarder, then Rhys Oates’ angled close-range follow-up. Top goalkeeping.
Mark Roberts, exposed for pace again, was booked on the quarter hour for bringing down Harrison, and Richards’ ensuing free-kick was tipped over from under his bar by Norris, and one wondered what in the world United were going to do to get into a so-far one-sided contest. Gradually, though, the U’s began to get the visitors’ measure, although their lack of width meant that most balls to the strikers were hopeful diagonal ones humped in from deep, which were of no great use to Ahearne-Grant and Ben Williamson, who could not manage one shot between them.
Lewis Page began to do a decent job in foraging forward down the left flank and his cross on 19 found Robbie Simpson, whose looping header was clutched by Trevor Carson. For all United’s growing midfield possession, however, the supply line to the forwards was all but non-existent and Carson was not troubled again during an increasingly uneventful first half, save for a few hopeful high bombers which he could cope comfortably with day in, day out. The diamond formation gave the U’s the worst of all worlds: inadequate cover at the back and not enough support going forward.
Pools were forced into a change just after the half hour when Harrison clashed with Page and the loanee came off the worse, forced to withdraw unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed to be replaced by Rakish Bingham. That reduced the visitors’ threat and the rest of the half passed without incident, its only fascination that so many men could run around so much to such little effect. Adam Jackson was booked for a foul on Luke Berry at the death, and that was that for an unsatisfactory first period. It was little wonder that there was a smattering of jeers as the players trotted off, the spectators having been left with precious little by way of conversation piece after that first frantic ten minutes.
Disturbingly, United began the second half in the same desultory manner in which they had started the first, and again star man Norris had to be at his best to keep the scores level. Michael Woods sent Jake Gray bursting through the middle on 47, only for the keeper to hare off his line and block, and the same two men were involved again two minutes later, Norris saving Gray’s closer range effort.
Derry finally accepted the formation’s total failure on 54 as Dunk was allowed to join the gang in place of the anonymous Ahearne-Grant, United switching to more of a 4-4-2 although Berry tended to stay more infield than wide. Watch that man: all of a sudden there was something in the air as Dunk’s positive running boosted both team and crowd alike. James Dunne had a long-range shot stopped, Berry also had an effort blocked and as in the first half the balance of play swung into the Hartlepool half.
On the hour Corr was also sent on to shake it up a bit in place of the industrious Simpson. Dunk was now sending a regular supply of decent balls into the box, getting past his marker on the outside again and again, and Jordan Richards was next into the book on 69 for a cynical foul on Berry as he looked to break forward. Corr drew a comfortable save from Carson with a header that just lacked sufficient power, and in another positive change, Donaldson was introduced in place of the subdued Ledson to supply more crosses from the right as United’s slow burn became gradually hotter.
Almost immediately, though, the heat was turned up by Hartlepool. Roberts’ poor clearance fell straight to Woods, he poked it forward to Gray as he darted between the centre-backs and he slid it under the advancing Norris. 1-0.
It was 21 days since United had last scored a goal, although it felt like about five years (Berry’s 26th-minute strike against Wimbledon on 2nd January), such is the speed of life, but they kept their heads up and gradually increased the pressure on the visitors. Leon Legge had been outstanding in defence but on 76 he almost set up the equaliser, nodding Dunk’s corner into the centre for Roberts to run onto unmarked, but somehow he headed wide from six yards out to groans from the NRE. The pessimists began to think they would have to wait until kingdom come for another goal from their zeroes, sorry, heroes.
Although not fully fit, Corr was still a useful presence in the box but could not get any purchase on his headers, seeing another one clutched by Carson on 80. United stuck at it, though, Darnell Furlong’s excellent low diagonal cross somehow fizzing across the six-yard box the width of a circle from three team-mates. Into the last five minutes, more frantic goalmouth action saw Donaldson have a goalbound shot blocked eight yards out, then Corr fired just wide, but in the last minute of normal time their pressure was rewarded.
Legge was the creator, picking up the ball just inside his own half, and his perceptive long ball saw Corr occupying two defenders to enable Williamson to anticipate the flight of the ball, steal in behind them, control neatly and with his second touch slide it coolly past Carson for the long-awaited equaliser. 1-1.
Pools introduced Dan Jones for Rhys Oates to disrupt the flow of the game, but in truth neither side looked like scoring in the additional four minutes and ultimately a draw was a fair result for two teams which had played reasonably well in spells but failed to deliver consistently over 90 minutes.
It ain’t easy being a football manager, and Derry must be allowed to experiment, make mistakes and eventually build his own squad, which will all take time. That may well mean having to forget about a promotion push this season, depending on whether he can replace the rest of the dead wood in his personnel, but on this evidence he does not have the players to make a diamond formation work, and having also tried 4-2-3-1 unsuccessfully, good old 4-4-2 may be his best bet at this level. He does not appear to be dead against it, but repetition of previous errors will not be tolerated forever, even by the dreamers in the main stand. They may not be privy to what what’s really happening behind the scenes, but an occasional glimpse of hope that we have some golden years ahead will be needed to maintain interest in this season of transition…transmission. So where are we now?
Lay me place and bake me pie
I’m starving for me gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked
I might just slip away
Just for the day, hey
United have now gone four League games without a win. This is not, however, their worst run this season; they drew three times and lost twice in five matches between 22nd August and 19th September before scraping a 1-0 added time victory over Stevenage. The last game of that run was a goalless draw at Hartlepool.
James Dunne is the second player of that name to turn out for the U’s. Jimmy Dunne was an Irish inside-forward who joined United from Bedford Town at the start of the 1963-64 season, but his stay at the Abbey was limited to 8 Southern League games (1 goal) and 7 matches in various cups (4 goals). His highlight was a hat-trick in an 11-4 thrashing of Crittall Athletic from the Border League in the first round of the East Anglian Cup; the clubs did not meet again until 2011, by which time Crittall had changed their name to Braintree Town.
Karlan Ahearne-Grant comes ninth in the alphabetical list of every Cambridge United/Abbey United player ever. Before him come Zema Abbey (1999-2001), S Ablett (1929-33), Henry Acton (1947-48), Albert “Lofty” Adams (1947-49), Steve Adams (1977-79), David Adekola (1995-96), Charles Ademeno (2006-07) and Brian Adlam (1962-64).
Ahearne-Grant has been allocated squad number 20, while fellow new boy Darnell Furlong has number 25. Both men are the 27th players to be given their respective numbers, making 20 and 25 the numbers with most incumbents since the system was introduced in 1999. They are followed by numbers 23 (26 times), 27 (23 times) and 26 (22 times).
Norris 9. A possible future legend whose time has at last come; we should only be sorry he was not given his chance earlier.
Furlong 6. Quick and athletic, the rest of his game needs some work.
Legge 8. Once again United’s colossus at the back.
Roberts 5. Slow and error-prone.
Page 7. Settling nicely into the side, good overlapping and combination with Dunk.
Ledson 6. Another under-par performance and looks like he needs a rest. Everton will allow us to drop him, won’t they…?
Dunne 7. Quietly reliable.
Berry 7. Lively and energetic.
Simpson 7. Good, action-packed contribution.
Williamson 7. Flitted in and out of the game but won a point with a splendidly taken goal.
Ahearne-Grant 5. Never really got into the game, although his supply line was not exactly helpful.
Dunk 8. Lifted the whole ground once he came on and was easily the team’s most potent threat. No more “resting” on the bench, please.
Corr 7. Played his part, as ever.
Donaldson 7. Got through some good work on the right.
A disjointed United side struggled with an ill-fitting diamond formation until the introduction of Harrison Dunk and a switch to 4-4-2 brought about the improvement that led to their gaining the point they deserved. Let us hope Derry’s experimentation phase does not last too long.
Man of the Match
Will Norris. Amazing saves in both halves kept United in the match. He’s ready to be a star after all.
Hill 7. Awarded a few harsh and unnecessary free-kicks, but satisfactory overall.
Soundtrack of the Day
David Bowie “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
*OK, four of them are Tin Machine songs
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