Cambridge United 1-3 Doncaster Rovers: Handing out the presents
Andrew Bennett's eagerly awaited observations on this afternoon's goings on at the Abbey:
Now is the time of year when assorted mad people festoon the outsides of their houses with illuminated Christmas decorations that are so dazzling they can be seen from space: huge inflatable snowmen, prancing reindeer, jolly Father Christmases, stars, stockings, candy canes, puddings and trees so garish that Liberace would have dismissed them as being over the top. The most mind-boggling aspect of these displays must be their attendant electricity bills.
These exhibitions evoke mixed reactions from many, like yours truly. It is easy to dismiss them as flashy, vulgar and attention-seeking, and to pity their near neighbours, but they can also be a cheering sight, an oasis of fun in a desert of dullness, especially to someone like me who loves Christmas so much I can even sit through Shakin’ Stevens’ video of “Merry Christmas Everyone” a least twice before turning it off, even with that weird-looking woman on the sleigh, although I must draw the line at East 17; just because it was a hit at Christmas and has snow in the video does not make it a Christmas song, and in any case it is rubbish. Especially the voluminous trousers.
Football matches like today’s affair with Doncaster are another cause for a mixture of emotions: a mostly excellent performance, but ruined by the result, a consequence of some daft defensive errors. Rolling up at the Abbey for 2pm on the Sabbath was an unfamiliar experience, the first time United had played on Super Sunday since taking on Shakhtar Donetsk in the pre-season of 2014, and the roads were awash with people travelling elsewhere, doubtless performing the ritual of Christmas shopping despite the temptation to just do it sitting in front of the computer in their grundies, eating a Pot Noodle. Or maybe that’s just me.
Doncaster had experienced something of a revival in League One fortunes since appointing our old chum Darren Ferguson as manager in October, and there were a few grizzled old pros on their side like James Coppinger, Andy Butler and Nathan Tyson. They had progressed to round two of the FA Cup by defeating the mighty Stalybridge Celtic.
United line-up: Beasant; Taylor, Legge, Roberts, Demetriou; Robertson, Newton, Ledson, Dunk; Berry, Corr
On the bench: Dunn, Coulson, L.Hughes, J.Hughes, Jones, Slew, Simpson
Three changes were forced on Shaun Derry with the cup-tied Ben Williamson and Cameron Gayle replaced by Barry Corr and Greg Taylor, Mickey Demetriou coming in for Terry Kennedy who presumably was not allowed to play by his parent club, and Jordan Jones was dropped for the fit-again Ryan Donaldson as United lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Luke Berry in the hole. The visitors employed 3-5-2 with well-advanced wing-backs.
Andy Williams drew the first save of the day on 4 from Sam Beasant with a sharp shot, but the U’s were soon in the ascendancy, driven by the tireless triangle of Berry, Conor Newton and Ryan Ledson. Donaldson swung a cross into the box on 6 to which Corr got a glancing header which was heading wide until Berry popped up at the back stick, but the angle beat him and he fired into the side netting.
United looked fluent and fluid, passing and running energetically and enjoying much the better of the possession, and on 14 a neat move culminated in Newton feeding Berry on the edge of the box and his low shot came off Aaron Taylor-Sinclair’s foot and flashed narrowly past the near post. Four minutes later Donaldson found Corr unmarked at the back post, but his header was clutched by keeper Thorsten Stuckmann.
The hosts continued to probe and push and they were rewarded on 23 when Berry burst into the box onto a lofted ball from Demetriou only to be brought clumsily down by Taylor-Sinclair for a clear penalty, although for some reason referee Brown chose not to even book the defender, let alone dismiss him for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Funny, I thought refs were supposed to apply the rules, not interpret them free-form like some sort of John Coltrane in baggy black shorts.
Corr stepped up to take the spot-kick, and his shot low to the left-hand corner was well saved by a diving Stuckmann, but Berry was first to follow up and sent a brave diving header into the far corner of the net despite a defender on the line getting a touch. 1-0.
United kept up the pressure, Ledson firing wide on the half-hour, and the outstanding Newton seemed to be everywhere, making vital interceptions at the back, passing calmly in the middle and pushing forward at every opportunity. Harrison Dunk was booked on 40 for an inelegant foul on Craig Alcock, making Taylor-Sinclair’s escape even more puzzling, while just before the break a smart lob from Berry found Donaldson unmarked at the far post, but he was undecided whether to attempt a diving header or a volley to the bouncing ball and got it all wrong as it bounced off his shin for a goal-kick.
So ended a splendid first half for the U’s in which they had outplayed and outfought their higher-division opponents for prolonged periods, with some exceptional performances down the middle of the park. They were already dreaming of drawing some big, glamorous club, or Chelsea, in the third round.
Those dreams were rudely shattered within a minute of the restart. Cameron Stewart replaced Nathan Tyson, and Rovers’ first attack found United slumbering somewhat. Mitchell Lund was lucky when his mishit attempt at a cross fooled Demetriou, he laid it back to Conor Grant, and his daisycutter of a shot from the edge of the box was almost straight at Beasant, but somehow the big keeper let it squirm under his body and into the net. Really poor goalkeeping, one of the bugbears of this season: 1-1.
United responded positively, however, by laying siege to the Doncaster goal for the next 10 minutes as they attacked the Corona End. Newton had a powerful deflected shot held by Stuckmann, Demetriou blasted a 25-yarder just over the angle, Corr had a piledriver blocked on the turn, Ledson fired over, then Stuckmann’s poor goal-kick was almost punished by Berry, whose first-time return shot from the centre circle sailed agonisingly wide.
All of this work was undone on 56, though, when Stewart cut in from the left, was allowed to float a cross into the six-yard box, a cluster of two United defenders and a Rovers forward all missed it, Beasant stood rooted on his line, and the ball curled to the far post where Lund slid it in. What a mess: 2-1.
Within a minute the hosts were two down. Cedric Evina advanced down the left, laid it back to Grant 20 yards out in the left channel, and he launched a stunning dipping shot into the far corner which two keepers could not have stopped. Great goal, dammit: 3-1.
Suddenly a game which United had been dominating was slipping away from them, and for a time they looked vulnerable every time the visitors attacked, now with their tails up. Harry Middleton blasted wide on 59 then Williams’ shot looked destined for the bottom corner until tipped around the post by Beasant.
Berry wasted a great chance three minutes later when he latched onto a Newton through ball and with the goal at his mercy 12 yards out, he tried to break the net rather than controlling his shot and sent it sailing into the car park. Donaldson then had a shot blocked for a corner as United began to recover and Leon Legge nodded wide from the ensuing corner, then Ledson missed the target from 20 yards and Newton also fired just wide.
Paul Keegan replaced Coppinger on 67, and Robbie Simpson came on for Donaldson two minutes later, joining Corr up front with Berry moving to the right wing. Mark Roberts was booked on 73 for hauling down Williams when the Rovers man got goalside of him, but with time running out, the muscle of Liam Hughes was introduced in place of Ledson for the final 12 minutes. It almost paid off immediately when Dunk curled a free-kick into the crowded box, Hughes’ header cannoned off the bar, it rebounded to him and he headed against the bar again, and it was eventually scrambled clear. Astonishing stuff, and if the U’s had scored then, who knows what might have happened.
Corr was harshly booked for a challenge on Alcock on 82 as the visitors sought to soak up time as best they could, and Hughes hammered a thunderbolt over two minutes later. United continued to throw everything forward, but the box became so crowded that shots inevitably bounced off a sea of bodies, and a couple of times Rovers caught them on the break; in the last minutes of normal time a cross from deep found Beasant in an agony of indecision as he started to come off his line then stopped and Williams really should have scored, but he got his header all wrong and it dribbled wide.
The U’s continued to attack until the final whistle but could not find a way through and fell to a gallant defeat in a game which they had dominated for much of the time (53% possession; 16 shots to 7; 12 corners to 4) but had paid the price for giving away cheap goals in few minutes of madness at the start of the second half. Derry was right to take many positives from the match; but he must also address the negatives if this team’s potential is to be realised. There is no point being a beautiful Christmas tree when your lights are turned off on Twelfth Night and all your pine needles drop off.
Barry Corr missed a penalty today but can still boast a 100% record from the spot in League games, albeit from just one attempt. A total of 43 United players can boast a 100% success record on penalties in league games since 1947-48, but only 18 of them took more than one penalty. Those top one hundred percenters are:
7: Danny Crow, Steve Massey
6: Scott Rendell
5: Michael Cheetham, Frank Lock
4: Lee McEvilly, Paul Wilson, Bill Cassidy
3: David Crown, Robbie Cooke, Roy McDonough
2: Michael Gash, Carlo Corazzin, Steve Claridge, Mike Ferguson, Dennis Walker, Jimmy Gibson, Roy Kirk
By contrast, 18 players have a 0% record from the spot for United in league games. Only three of those failed more than once; Ryan Donaldson, Courtney Pitt and Bobby Shinton have all missed twice without scoring one.
United have played Doncaster 14 times at the Abbey in League and cup, winning six times, drawing six times and losing twice. Their only other defeat before today came on 25th October 1996, when they lost 1-0 to a goal from John Schofield, who went on to become United’s first team coach under Martin Ling in the 2010-11 season. The teams were:
United: Barrett; Matt Joseph, Vowden (Kyd), Craddock, Granville; Hayes, Raynor (Hay), Hyde, Beall; McGleish, Barnwell
Doncaster: O’Connor, Murphy, Ryan, Moore, Utley, Ireland, Schofield, McDonald, Smith, Cramb, Birch
United’s record in Doncaster is almost the exact opposite, with two wins, five draws and six defeats.
Beasant 5. On this showing neither of United’s senior keepers are of sufficient standard for a club with promotion ambitions at this level.
Taylor 6. Had his moments, but a few too many errors crept in as well.
Roberts 6. Mostly solid, although exposed for pace at times.
Legge 7. Commanding and decisive in the air, a little ponderous on the ground.
Demetriou 7. Useful in defence and in supporting the attack.
Donaldson 6. Competent but a little muted, hopefully will improve with fitness.
Newton 9. Magnificent from start to finish.
Ledson 8. Quality beyond his years.
Dunk 8. Maintained his high standard.
Berry 8. Getting back to his best.
Corr 7. Led the line well without being on top form.
Simpson 7. Industrious as ever.
L.Hughes 7. Playing for his future and it showed.
United were the better side for three-quarters of the game but cannot expect to win matches when they concede two soft, sloppy goals. An encouraging performance but there is still much work to be done, especially at the back.
Man of the Match
Conor Newton. All of a sudden he has blossomed miraculously into a top-quality central midfielder, roaming from box to box with energy, alertness and intelligence.
Brown 4. Bafflingly inconsistent, blew up for far too many soft free-kicks and how Taylor-Sinclair was not even booked for bringing down Berry as he bore down on goal is utterly inexplicable.
Soundtrack of the Day
The Milk “Trouble Gonna Bring Me Down”
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