Andrew Bennett's match report from ... a victory! Aided & abetted by ... Ken Dodd???
Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness
Sometimes you need to be reminded why you do something, particularly when you do it every week or fortnight for nine months of the year with such automatic regularity that you forget why you started or why you keep going even though it has become a chore or a pain in the proverbials. Today all was made manifest; you do it because every now and then, it makes you very, very happy.
Of course, any Cambridge United supporter of any vintage will know that year upon year of suffering (let’s see…1983-88, 1993-98, 2000-14…) makes subsequent success taste all the sweeter, like you’ve really earned it and suffered for it. It must be quite insufferably dull to support a club which finishes in the top three or four every year, season after season, so that you lose all sense of perspective. Maybe that’s why supporters of The Big Clubs and their ‘problems’ seem alien to the likes of us, like stately-home lords fretting over the price of caviar and champagne; the whole future of their club will never hinge on the next result or the latest power-crazed dingbat who takes over as chairman.
Thankfully CUFC is now a dingbat-free zone, but today’s opponents, Northampton Town, are in all sorts of financial trouble, with strangely familiar talk of aborted takeovers, mysterious foreign consortia, unfinished stadium developments and unpaid tax bills. There but for the grace of [insert name of chosen deity here – I’ll go for Jennifer Lawrence] go all of us; just ask Torquay or Kidderminster. United have not been in the greatest form since, well, February, but we are financially sound for a change, and the tannoy played Pharrell’s more-infectious-than-ebola “Happy” twice during the warm-up.
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering 'it will be happier'...” (Alfred Lord Tennyson)
Funnily enough while all has been chaos behind the scenes, on the field Northampton have been in fine form, unbeaten in six League games, due in no small part to the fine form of goalkeeper Adam Smith, who played an important part in United’s promotion in 2014 when he played in those unforgettable playoff triumphs while on loan from Leicester. A regrettable incident involving girls and mobile phones (ah, the modern footballer) ended his career there and he ended up at Sixfields under manager Chris Wilder, who came within a hair’s breadth of taking over at the Abbey in 2006 after Rob Newman was sacked. The Cobblers’ team also included Darnell Furlong, teenage son of veteran ex-QPR journeyman Paul, who scored for Kettering at the Abbey five years ago at the age of 41.
United line-up: Beasant; Taylor, Sesay, Taft, Demetriou; Dunk, L.Hughes, J.Hughes, Donaldson; Simpson, Corr
On the bench: Omozusi, Burns, Berry, Morrissey, Newton, Slew, Gaffney
Richard Money, fresh from celebrating his 60th birthday with some lukewarm gruel and a glass of tap water (I’m guessing here), made four changes from the side that lost to Portsmouth last weekend, replacing the injured Leon Legge and suspended Mark Roberts with a new centre-back pairing of George Taft and loanee Alie Sesay, who had played together at Leicester, while Greg Taylor was selected ahead of Elliot Omozusi at right-back and Liam Hughes accompanied namesake Jeff in central midfield instead of Luke Berry, while wingers Ryan Donaldson and Harrison Dunk swapped flanks. Skyscraper-tall teenager Danny Burns made the bench on the expiry of his loan to Lowestoft Town.
“We don’t even ask happiness, just a little less pain.” (Charles Bukowski)
Another fine attendance of 5,459, including a vociferous 1,199 from Northampton, created a fine atmosphere for this localish derby and both teams started briskly, the visitors knocking it around confidently but matched by a United team which looked at ease with its tactics. After an attritional start the contest really sprang into life on 13 when Donaldson crossed for Robbie Simpson to dart in on the edge of the six-yard box and bullet a header which looked a certain goal until brilliantly tipped over by a starfish-diving Smith.
The Cobblers responded within a minute with some slick passing which sent Sam Hoskins clear on goal down the middle, but Sam Beasant stood his ground and blocked well with his feet. Barry Corr then sent a tame shot into Smith’s arms as play switched rapidly from end to end in entertaining style, the United front two staying close together and linking promisingly while the two Hughes patrolled the middle tirelessly and the wide men buzzed and probed, ably assisted by the full-backs.
Nicky Adams blazed over for the visitors on 21, and a minute later a stunning 25-yard strike from Simpson was arrowing for the top corner until that man Smith made another flying tip over. Cobblers’ David Buchanan was lucky to go unpunished for an elbow on Simpson when challenging for an aerial ball, and Marc Richards headed wide unmarked on the half hour, while Jeff Hughes nodded wide from a corner seven minutes later.
“I'd far rather be happy than right any day.” (Douglas Adams)
The breakthrough came on 38 from United’s most consistent player since February. Liam Hughes found Dunk deep on the right, and with his customary positivity he cut inside, hared for goal and from 25 yards aimed a laser-guided scudder low into the bottom right corner which even Smith could not save, a goal similar to one he scored at Sixfields last season. 1-0!
Northampton still threatened United’s rookie defence and Hoskins was put through by Furlong five minutes later, only for the increasingly confident Beasant to save, his handling safe all afternoon, and after Liam Hughes had a shot blocked the U’s retired to the dressing room content with a job well done so far.
“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn't calculate his happiness.” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
During the interval the Abbey was introduced to a true United legend, 89-year-old Russell Crane, a wizard of the dribble who made his debut for the club at the age of 15 in 1941 and served the club for over 500 games over eighteen years in five different leagues, scoring 42 goals in 37 United Counties League games during the 1948-49 season and turning down overtures from Peterborough and Ipswich to stay with his home town club. What a gent. “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Marcel Proust)
Within five minutes of the restart United had doubled their lead with more exciting, pacy attacking play. Liam Hughes lofted a delightful ball down the right flank for Taylor to chase, he raced to the byline and squared it for the predatory Corr to lash home for his seventh goal in seven games. 2-0.
Northampton replaced Hoskins with Dominic Calvert-Lewin almost immediately, and Corr picked up a booking for a lunge on Ryan Cresswell; it should not be necessary to praise such conduct, but to his credit the Cobblers man did not make a fuss and helped Corr up when one suspects that certain other clubs’ players (hello Pompey) would have gone down squealing like a stuck pig in a bid to get him sent off.
The visitors then enjoyed a spell of pressure including a corner in which the ball bounced around the six-yard box and came off the post before somehow being scrambled away, at which point it became clear that this was to be United’s day. Nonetheless an unnecessary and immature tackle from Sesay on Calvert-Lewin presented the Cobblers with a penalty on 59 which Richards smashed home with all the venom of a Daily Mail leader. 2-1.
Now both clubs, committed to attack, kept catching each other on the break. Dunk broke clear on 61 but Smith came out to smother at his feet, Adams drew a clutch from Beasant, and when United broke again Simpson had only to slip it to his right to send Dunk through on goal, but opted instead to thump a shot at goal which was blocked by a defender. A minute later another superb counter-attack saw precision passing and movement from Mickey Demetriou, Donaldson and Dunk and Jeff Hughes, of all people, made a darting diagonal run to flick over the advancing Smith, only for the keeper to get a touch to send the ball wide when it seemed about to arc into goal. Breathless stuff.
“Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” (Robert Frost)
John-Joe O’Toole was next into the book on 68 for blocking a United free-kick in the centre circle, while Calvert-Lewin sliced a shot horribly off target in a week-too-late tribute to Non-League Day. Northampton’s fate was sealed on 76 when Dunk slipped the ball past Lawson D’Ath and the gothically-named midfielder launched himself into a demented waist-high kung-fu kick which sent the United man flying, although thankfully it did not do him any damage. Ref England could not brandish his red card quickly enough, and Wilder commented afterwards that he could have no complaints. No doubt Paul Cook would have complained bitterly while launching a futile and fatuous appeal. Jordan Slew had been about to come on for United, but once the card had come out, he was sent back to the bench.
By now United were catching Northampton players in possession or intercepting intended passes, and on 79 Simpson raced clear on goal; as he entered the box he was clearly fouled from behind by Cresswell just as he was about to pull the trigger, but astoundingly the man in black waved play on, presumably afraid of having to award a second red card in three minutes. Very poor.
“Just because you are happy it does not mean that the day is perfect but that you have looked beyond its imperfections.” (Bob Marley)
Now with nothing left to lose, the visitors threw men forward with abandon, Buchanan drawing a save from Beasant on 81 low at his near post, then Corr had a header plucked from the air by Smith, but it really should have been 3-1 four minutes later when Corr squared it to an unmarked Dunk ten yards out; Smith blocked once again. Demetriou then lashed a shot over, and with four minutes to go Money made a couple of very conservative substitutions, introducing Luke Berry and Conor Newton for Simpson and Dunk, while the Cobblers withdrew Furlong for Chris Hackett.
United were now content to retain possession and take it to the corners, a disappointingly prosaic but typically practical Money ploy which is fine if it works but makes the manager look a right berk should it backfire. The visitors threatened only once during the five added minutes, O’Toole blasting narrowly wide from deep, and the final whistle signalled a welcome three points and a long-overdue blast of “Coconuts.” They’re playing our tune, darling.
In the circumstances – depleted team, in-form opposition – it was a fine victory obtained in a pleasingly positive manner, the squad’s paucity of available centre-halves forcing a 4-4-2 system with which every player looked entirely comfortable. What side will take the field at Exeter on Wednesday night is quite another matter, but today was as good a springboard as any.
“All happiness depends on courage and work.” (Honoré de Balzac)
As for the Northampton supporters, many seemed happy that they just had a club to support, for now at least, and we can only offer them our sympathy and best wishes, because goodness knows, we have been there ourselves, gazed into the abyss and seen local derbies with Histon and Braintree. Never again. And any fans who sing “We hate Boro more than you” will always be welcome at the Abbey.
“Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” (Guillaume Apollinaire)
“I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not.” (Ivor Cutler)
Liam and Jeff Hughes have provided the 13th instance since the War of players who are unrelated but bear the same surname in the same United team. The others are:
· Marc and Matt Joseph (1995-98)
· Kevin and Steve Massey (Cambs Professional Cup only, 1985-86)
· Bernard and Brian Moore (1956-58)
· Alan and Brian Moore (1959-60)
· Gary and Steve Richards (1985-86)
· Josh and Robbie Simpson (2006-07)
· Mel and Rodney Slack (1968-70)
· Adam and Sam Smith (Playoff semi-final, 2013-14)
· Christian and Stephen Smith (2006-07)
· Dave, Graham and Paul Smith (1974-75)
· Kevin and Lindsay Smith (1982-83)
· Bobby-Joe and Greg Taylor (2014-15)
Today’s attendance of 5,459 is exactly the same number as the crowd for United’s match against Crawley on 22nd August. The largest attendance at the Abbey which has been duplicated in one season is 7,857, who attended a 3-0 defeat of Sunderland on 11th October 1991, and a 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers on 25th February 1992.
Northampton have now had four players sent off against Cambridge United over the years. The record is held by Cardiff City with six (including three in one notorious match, which ended in a 0-0 draw), followed by Exeter, Stevenage and Swansea on five. The clubs against which the U’s have had most men dismissed are Lincoln and Stevenage, with six, followed by Wycombe Wanderers with five.
Alie Sesay is the 14th incumbent of the number 12 for United since squad numbering was introduced. The full list of his predecessors is: Michael Kyd, Tom Cowan, Daniel Chillingworth, Igor Latte-Yedo, Ryan Lockett, Jon Brady, Josh Simpson, Leo Fortune-West, Jack Jeffery, Josh Coulson, Rory McAuley, Matteo Lanzoni and Jacob Blyth.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” (Aristotle)
Beasant 7. Not the world’s greatest puncher, but for the most part looked confident and assured.
Taylor 8. In the form of his life recently, and one wonders why this right-footer wasn’t always a right-back.
Sesay 7. A little rough around the edges but tackled crisply (except when he conceded the penalty) and distributed well.
Taft 8. Rose to the responsibility of being the senior centre-back with a sound display of no-frills, no-nonsense defending.
Demetriou 8. Classy as usual.
Dunk 8. Unstoppable whichever side of the pitch he plays on.
L.Hughes 7. Liam played well, and if he did put a number of passes astray, it is because he was so involved in the match that he probably passed it more than any other player.
J.Hughes 8. Improving with every game, playing with coolness and precision.
Donaldson 7. Still finding his way back to form, but some good work today.
Simpson 8. Worked like a Trojan and is building a promising understanding with Corr.
Corr 7. Does not yet look fully match-fit, but has the nous to always be a handful and is a natural goalscorer, as he proved yet again.
Berry 7. Lively late cameo.
Newton 6. Little time to have an influence.
“Whoever is happy will make others happy.” (Anne Frank)
This is more like it. A thrilling afternoon of end-to-end attacking football produced a welcome and deserved win for a United side which played some fine football at times and could easily have scored four or five.
Man of the Match
Harrison Dunk. On current form no team in this division can contain him, although it won’t stop them kicking him.
“The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you.” (Bette Midler)
England 4. Quick with the red card, and rightly so, but chronically unwilling to produce even a yellow for some poor challenges and seemed to have some sort of phobia about awarding penalties, no matter how blatant.
Soundtrack of the Day
Jim Jones & the Righteous Mind “Boil Yer Blood”
“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” (Mark Twain)