"This game has been brought forward to this evening because of the Rugby World Cup Final taking place tomorrow,” wrote Richard Money in his programme notes. “It promises to be a belter with arguably the two best teams in the world set to go toe-to-toe.”
I don’t know about you, but calling Cambridge United and Bristol Rovers “the two best teams in the world” struck me a little hyperbolic and quite out of character for an understated chappie like our beloved manager, but hey, I admired his positivity and showed that he was setting his sights high.
United were the only League club to change the date of their home game because of some minority sport final between two teams from the other side of world, which many of us had no interest in or intention to watch anyway; the only other League game tonight, at Brentford, was switched so that it could be shown live on television. Bit embarrassing.
At least it meant the U’s would not be playing on Halloween. Opinion varies on the meaning of this inexplicably popular occasion; some say it is a remembrance and celebration of the dead, while others believe it marks the end of harvest time and the beginning of the long winter nights. In reality, it is of course a slick, meaningless marketing tool aimed at parting children and their parents with vast sums of money for absolutely no good reason at all and leave them with a lot of useless costumes and props that will go straight in the bin the following day, to be replaced at even greater expense a year later. Mind you, that’s a pretty good description of much of modern life these days, football included.
It was a pleasantly mild, dry Autumn evening and the first morons of November were already letting off rockets into the sky, unable to wait six days to see the pretty colours and noises like overactive four-year-olds. Bristol Rovers brought a decent following of 562, having dodged a bullet by escaping from the ninth circle of Hell that is the Blue Bananarama GM Vauxhall National Conference League, or whatever it is called these days, at the first attempt, the lucky so-and-so’s. They arrived fresh from a 4-1 home gubbing by Newport County, of all people, but already had five away wins to their name so were clearly not to be underestimated, even though their attack was led by Jermaine Easter, a player who spent an underwhelming spell at the Abbey just over ten years ago, albeit in a very poor side. What’s that? He’s a Welsh international? So was Jason Rees…
United line-up: Dunn; Sesay, Roberts, Taylor, Dunk; L.Hughes, Berry, J.Hughes, Donaldson; Simpson, Corr
On the bench: Beasant, Omozusi, Coulson, Demetriou, Newton, Slew, Gaffney
Money made three changes to the team that delivered a curate’s egg at Yeovil, recalling Chris Dunn in goal (a little harsh on Sam Beasant), Mark Roberts returning from suspension in place of the crocked George Taft, and Robbie Simpson starting up front instead of Rory Gaffney, a puzzling decision given that the ginger goal machine had scored twice in an hour last time out. Word had it that there were injury doubts about the Irishman, but you wouldn’t have known that from this most unhelpfully uncommunicative of managers, apparently driven by paranoia that the opposition would be able to win simply by knowing that one of our players was not fully fit. Alie Sesay and Greg Taylor swapped positions to right-back and centre-back respectively, while the best left-back at the club, Mickey Demetriou, remained on the bench, so his position was covered by Harrison Dunk, the best attacking player on the books bar Barry Corr. Promising 16-year-old prospect Matthew Foy took part in the warm-up, sporting squad number 31, but he was not among the substitutes.
Tonight also marked the last game at the club for the redoubtable Greg Reid, who has served United with such admirable reliability and distinction for 19 years. You’ll be a hard act to follow, Penfold.
United started brightly and had a decent claim for a penalty on 6 when Barry Corr went down under a challenge from James Clarke, but only gained a corner. Rovers’ first chance came from a Jake Gosling free-kick three minutes later which the wall deflected behind.
Ryan Donaldson’s corner on 11 found the head of Corr, but it was comfortably caught by keeper Lee Nicholls, then back up the other end Ellis Harrison fired for goal but a deflection slowed his shot down to make it easy for Dunn. The U’s continued to take the game to the Gas and a fine cross from Donaldson across the six-yard box deserved to have someone on the end of it, then Jeff Hughes crossed for Corr to hook the ball goalwards but again Nicholls had no problem gathering.
It was a lively and enjoyable tussle so far with good shape and movement from the U’s and the visitors looking promising on the break. Dunk had a shot blocked on 22, and three minutes later a fine through ball from Luke Berry sent Donaldson into the box but he tried to change feet instead of shooting when he had the chance and was crowded out.
United made the breakthrough their probing deserved on 33. Dunk overlapped past Donaldson down the left touchline, the latter fed the former and his superb pinpoint cross dropped onto the head of the unmarked Corr to ram home for his eighth goal of the season. 1-0.
Three minutes later Corr demonstrated his confidence by hooking the ball goalwards on the turn from inside the centre circle, but it sailed well wide. The rest of the half was fairly uneventful and United went into the interval with a lead they just about deserved, having played reasonably well without hitting any great heights. Now could they maintain their level of performance for a second 45 minutes, for a change?
Early portents were not good as Rovers tore into the U’s from the start, appearing to have adopted a shoot-on-sight policy. Harrison had a shot blocked for a corner on 46 which was cleared, Lee Brown had an effort charged down, then Brown’s cross found Harrison’s head in similar style to United’s goal but his header bounced off the top of the bar when he really should have scored. Billy Bodin then set up Easter for a prod at goal which was dealt with by Dunn.
The alarm bells were ringing for United, but there was no sign of anyone either on the field or on the bench trying to gee the players up or showing any form of leadership. They managed an attack on 53 which culminated in Robbie Simpson being felled for a free-kick 25 yards out, but Donaldson’s effort went straight into the wall amid futile claims for handball. Harrison had a shot clutched by Dunn on 58, but as the hour mark passed the U’s seemed to have weathered the early storm and the game began to settle down.
Easter was replaced by Matty Taylor after an anonymous performance, and on 66 Rovers were level. It was a goal of simplicity as the visitors strolled through the middle of the United side with minimal resistance, Taylor’s run culminating in an unchallenged shot which Dunn could only parry straight into the path of Harrison, who rifled home from close range. Good attacking, shoddy defending: 1-1.
Money made some positive changes on 70, introducing Demetriou and Gaffney for Liam Hughes and Simpson with Dunk now on the left wing and Donaldson on the right. Gaffney and Dunk lifted the team for a short while with their positive, pacy running and Dunk headed Jeff Hughes’ cross wide on 78, while ref Malone finally found his yellow card a minute later and booked Clarke for a trip on Dunk. Tremendous footwork from Gaffney was then followed by a powerful shot which was blocked and there was a feeling that despite a passive second half, United might still conjure up a winner from somewhere.
That feeling was dispelled in traumatic fashion on 82. A harmless ball down the middle was left by Demetriou for Greg Taylor, but caught unawares, he made a complete hash of his attempted back pass to Dunn, underhitting it dreadfully, and Matty Taylor pounced, running on to take it round the keeper and slot into the empty net. Disastrous: 2-1.
Conor Newton was then introduced for Donaldson, but United completely failed to put Rovers under any sort of pressure and the visitors contented themselves by running down the clock in the corners. Deep into stoppage time as the U’s pressed belatedly they were caught on the break and Dunn made a superb reaction save from Taylor, then a spate of pinball in the Rovers box ended in Hughes having a shot blocked in the six-yard box, and the final action of the game was another breakaway for the visitors, two on one, but Greg Taylor made a vital interception.
Ultimately two pieces of poor defending had cost United dear, but they had not helped themselves by a timid, passive second-half performance which had encouraged Rovers to come on to them. This U’s team has everything on paper to challenge for promotion, but for some reason the players cannot perform with any sort of consistency, even within the two halves of the same match, and they must take a good, hard look at themselves and ask why they are underperforming on a regular basis. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the manager, and his post-match criticism of his players suggests that he is beginning to run out of ideas in that area, too.
A two-week break from League football and a seemingly easy Cup draw (ho ho) should afford the squad and coaching team time to get to the bottom of the squad’s underachievement so far this season. If they fail to find any answers, perhaps the club will have to look for someone who can. After all, they are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen…
After 16 games, United are one point worse off than they were at this stage last season, when they had won 6 times, drawn 3 and lost 7 times. They had scored 6 more goals than this term and conceded 3 less, mainly thanks to 5-0 and 5-1 wins over Carlisle and Oxford respectively. The team has not scored five goals in a match since.
United’s home record against Bristol Rovers now reads five wins, four draws and six defeats, with 25 goals scored and 23 conceded. All of those games were in the Football League; the clubs have never met at the Abbey in any cup competition.
United’s last home win over Rovers was on 21st February 2004, by 3 goals to 1 in what was then known as Division Three. Alex Revell and Luke Guttridge gave the U’s an early lead, Adam Barrett pulled one back before half-time, but David Bridges made it 3-1 six minutes into the second half. Manager John Taylor was to enjoy just five more matches in charge before being sacked, to be replaced by Claude Le Roy and Herve Renard.
The United team was: Marshall; Angus, Duncan, Goodhind, Murray; Bridges, Tann, Guttridge, Nicholls; Revell, Webb. The only substitute used was Jermaine Easter, who played today for Bristol Rovers.
The best win for the U’s came on 28th February 1992 during the golden John Beck era. Goals by Andy Fensome (penalty), Dion Dublin (2), Chris Leadbitter, Neil Heaney and John Taylor saw them rampage to a 6-1 victory and they even scored Rovers’ goal, a Heaney own goal. Teams:
United: Sheffield; Fensome, Chapple, Daish, Kimble; Rowett, O’Shea, Dennis, Heaney; Claridge, Dublin. Used subs: Taylor, Leadbitter.
Rovers: Parkin, Alexander, Taylor, Clark, Cross, Skinner, Mehew, Reece, White, Saunders, Pounder. Used subs: Stewart, Maddison.
Jermaine Easter made his debut for the U’s on loan from Hartlepool on 7th February 2004 in a 1-0 defeat at Southend. That season he scored 2 goals in 10 starts plus 5 substitute appearances, then signed permanently at the Abbey. The following season he claimed 7 goals in 19 starts and 9 sub appearances in all competitions before being given a free transfer in March, ending up at Boston United. “Jermaine has been a good professional,” said manager Steve Thompson, “worked his socks off and tried his best, but I’ve made my mind up…He doesn’t fit the way I want to play. Jermaine lends himself to a more direct style of football.” He subsequently played for Stockport, Wycombe, Plymouth, Millwall, Colchester, MK Dons, Swansea, Crystal Palace and Millwall again, his cumulative transfer fees totalling some £400,000.
Dunn 6. Failed to really justify his recall at the expense of Beasant; kicking still not up to scratch and still parries shots straight to strikers. Excellent reaction save right at the end.
Sesay 7. Always looked comfortable at right-back.
Roberts 6. Competent enough, but must be a more proactive captain when his team is in need of a kick up the backside. Some variation in his one pass, the long hoof forward, would also be appreciated.
Taylor 6. Greg has been a revelation in the last few weeks and was enjoying another good game today until THAT mistake. Must ensure that it does not affect his confidence.
Dunk 7. Wasted at left-back but United’s best player this season still made an impression, not least with his pinpoint cross for Corr’s goal.
L.Hughes 6. You know what you are getting with Liam: honest endeavour and total commitment. Added little to the team’s attacking threat, though.
Berry 6. Luke did not have a bad game, but is capable of so much better, and we really need to see that very, very soon.
J.Hughes 7. Splendid first half, driving the play on with pinpoint passing, although like most of his colleagues, faded after the break.
Donaldson 5. Sent over some decent crosses early on then disappeared from view. Not good enough, often enough.
Simpson 6. Ran his heart out with little end product.
Corr 7. Continues to deliver goals despite a supply line that could be so much better.
Demetriou 4. On past performances easily the best left-back at the club, but in his 25 minutes on the pitch tonight he made more mistakes than in all of his previous games put together. Was he ill?
Gaffney 7. A shining beacon of hope, with relentless positivity, strength, power and pace. Keep him fit, for goodness’ sake.
Newton 5. Given little time to make an impression; did not do so.
United’s season of inconsistency and underachievement continued with a schizophrenic and suicidal performance, a solid first half and a write-off of a second. Why can these players not deliver with any sort of reliability? What needs to change to make them do so? Does the manager know?
Man of the Match
Alie Sesay. Strong, tidy, cool in possession, he defended solidly and did not waste a single pass. Basically he did his job; if only all of his colleagues could say the same.
Malone 5. Seemed determined to avoid any controversy or conflict of any sort, so only awarded free-kicks or bookings when he really had no other choice. Penalties? No chance.
Soundtrack of the Day
Iron and Wine “It’s The Same Old Song”
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