Andrew Bennett reporting from a traditionally sun-drenched season opener at the Cambs Glass (Abbey!) Stadium (remember the 'Corona'?):
Ah, the Big Kick-off. A time for optimism, anticipation, excitement at what the coming season will bring. It is such a big event in the calendar that it deserves its own opening ceremony, although preferably not like last night’s Olympic equivalent, which seemed to consist of a re-creation of a hellish disco I went to in 1979 followed by a grim Open University programme about climate change and a series of mostly unintelligible speeches.
For many United supporters it was doubtless a return to football spectating after a summer away from the game, although after yours truly’s expeditions to Marseille and Wattenscheid it feels like the holiday season never really happened. The weather obliged with classic opening day sultriness, albeit nowhere near as searingly hot as that notorious first day of 2003-04 at Huddersfield when it seemed like the whole stadium might melt like a Salvador Dali timepiece.
New shirts of black-pinstriped amber and amber-sleeved white abounded at the Abbey, now re-christened the Cambs Glass Stadium, while the shock of the new was everywhere, from the signage on the fronts of the stands to the new array of luxuriously-priced snack options, although there were still some comfortingly familiar cobwebs adorning the back of the Habbin. Welcome back, old friend, they said, we’ve caught you again.
After a strangely disjointed pre-season of foreign tours, behind-closed-doors, no Barry Corrs and Braintree’s wherefores, it was good to return to League action, those dark and dismal days in the Conference now just a fading and unlamented memory. Opponents Barnet escaped that unwelcome ghetto even more recently that United did, in 2015, and like the U’s were now looking upward, hoping to push on towards the holy grail (or at least nice shiny cup) of League One. It will always be Division Three to me.
Barnet sported their second strip (of, gulp, four) of white with a purple-and-white hooped sash while both goalkeepers wore turquoise, something of a surprise given that FIFA regulations state a keeper’s colours should be clearly distinguishable from that of his equivalent on the opposing side. The visitors’ team included two former U’s men, Michael Gash and captain Michael Nelson, with a third, Tom Champion, on the bench, where he was joined by three experienced new signings, Alex Nicholls, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro.
United line-up: Norris; Long, Legge, Dallison, Adams; Dunne, Clark; Mingoia, Berry, Dunk; Pigott
On the bench: Gregory, Taylor, Coulson, Keane, Maris, Elito, Williamson
Five United men were making their League debuts for the club: Joe Pigott, Piero Mingoia and three of the back four, Sean Long, Tom Dallison and Blair Adams. The team lined up in Shaun Derry’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and such is the strength of United’s squad that Conor Newton and Mark Roberts were unable to even make substitute, while Dallison’s inclusion at the expense of Josh Coulson reflected the manager’s preference for a left-footed central defender as opposed to fielding two right-footers (northpaws?). George Maris in particular was unlucky to miss out on the first XI after an impressive pre-season.
A recent rule change dictates that the ball no longer needs to played forward from the kick-off, so Pigott started proceedings alone on the centre spot, passing directly back to James Dunne, who promptly showed nothing had really changed by lumping a long ball towards the left touchline and out of play.
The contest was fast and furious in the early stages despite the heat and Mingoia got the first shot in on 7, his low effort on the turn flying wide. Barnet’s first effort on goal was a header from Bira Dembele, comfortably clutched by Will Norris, and on 13 visiting keeper Josh Vickers had to palm away a Harrison Dunk cross-shot. Five minutes later a Max Clark corner dropped to Dallison, who fired a good chance over.
United were enjoying the better of possession but had difficulty in creating many clearcut scoring chances, while John Akinde was lucky to escape censure when he kicked out at Leon Legge when he conceded a free-kick near halfway. Dunne latched onto a loose pass to forge forward on 28 only to spurn the chance of a shot when he reached the edge of the area and instead slid it to Pigott, who shot over the angle. Just before the half-hour Clark won a free-kick in a central position just outside the box and Berry’s set piece flew over the wall but curled just over the top of the bar.
Thereafter the game became something of a stalemate, with Barnet attempting the odd speculative shot from Luke Gambin and John Akinde, while Derry’s decision to select two holding midfielders was backfiring somewhat because what the team gained in solidity it lost in creativity; Pigott was isolated as lone striker with insufficient timely backup from his colleagues and struggled with a series of high balls that foundered on the twin peaks of Dembele and Nelson.
Akinde then fell to the ground while challenging Norris and ref Horwood stopped play when the ball reached the Barnet half, only for the Bees striker to get up unhurt. The man in black awarded an uncontested drop ball for Barnet to return the ball to United, in apparent contravention of another new rule which states ‘referees shall not ‘manufacture’ dropped ball situations, in terms of who takes them, or the outcome.’
The first half therefore petered out into something of a non-event, with Barnet the happier of the two teams with their share of the spoils thus far.
Derry wasted no time in remedying his team’s lack of variation by replacing the off-form Clark with Ben Williamson and switching to a more positive 4-4-2 formation for the second half. The side was immediately transformed, Pigott firing a low shot wide on 48 and Mingoia drawing gasps from the Corona with a powerful 25-yarder a minute later which flew narrowly over the top, then Pigott cushioned a header down to set up Luke Berry for a shot which he scuffed disappointingly wide.
Barnet responded, however, and when the ball was not fully cleared from a corner Elliot Johnson cut inside from the left and arrowed a shot through a crowded box which was cleared off the line by Dallison, standing next to Norris. Back came the U’s, Berry’s chip finding Williamson in the box, but by the time he had chested it down the defence had time to block his close-range shot, then on 58 Pigott essayed a blaster from 20 yards which was held by Vickers.
Just after the hour Barnet gained a corner when Gambin had a shot blocked, but when it was cleared United manufactured a lightning-quick break, Berry sending Dunk sprinting down the left channel. When he reached the edge of the box Sam Togwell got his toe end to the ball but sent it only to Adams, overlapping in support, and he drove a superb low ball across the six-yard box which Pigott could not convert but Mingoia could, arriving at the far post to lash high into the roof of the net from five yards for his first goal for the U’s. 1-0!
Within a few minutes Barnet introduced two forward changes, replacing Gambin and Harry Taylor with Akpa Akpro and Nicholls, and on 69 Dunne showed why he has such a poor goalscoring record with a wild slash wide. Togwell received the only yellow card of the day a minute later for a clumsy lunge on Dunk, but Barnet’s directness and physical power gradually began to tell as they won a series of corners.
Legge did superbly to block Akpa Akpro’s point-blank shot at the far post on 73, then Dembele fired just wide, while Dunk was forced to withdraw through injury to be replaced by another debutant, Medy Elito. The visitors responded by withdrawing the ineffective Gash, whose only shot had been a speculative 30-yard volley which flew wide, for Campbell-Ryce, and within a minute the scores were level.
The powerful Akpa Akpro was the architect, controlling and turning past Dunne midway into the United half then sliding the ball forward to Nicholls in the right channel. Cutting sideways into the penalty box, he evaded the challenges of Adams and Berry before lashing home past the helpless Norris as Dallison tried in vain to block. 1-1.
Now it was all Barnet as Nicholls has a header from a corner blocked, Ryan Watson had a deflected shot smothered by Norris, and the ball pinballed around the home six-yard box but somehow evaded a telling touch. In an increasingly rare break Elito advanced with some neat footwork before lashing a shot wildly wide when he should have passed.
The closing minutes, including the four added to the 90, were all about holding on for the U’s as their rookie defence struggled to contain the visitors’ rampant forwards. Akpa Akpro drew a good save from Norris with a thunderous strike for the top corner, then the same man broke down the left channel but opted to shoot under pressure when Nicholls was screaming for the ball, unmarked to his right. Deep into injury time Nicholls manufactured another chance but sent his shot scudding across goal and wide of the far post.
Ultimately United were glad to settle for a draw despite having been apparently well placed for a win with half an hour to go. The first half formation had not worked at all, while they seemed to blow themselves out after they scored with too many individual underachievers. In mitigation the heatwave conditions were difficult and the number of new faces in the team meant that patience will be required while they settle in. No-one has lost or won a title in August.
After the game it was a pleasure to attend a Q&A and book signing session with Abbey legend Tom Youngs, a supremely gifted player and a thoroughly likeable, humble and articulate gentleman whose autobiography ‘What Dreams Are (Not Quite) Made Of: No Fame, No Fortune, Just Football…and Multiple Sclerosis’ is well worth a read.
Then it was home to watch the goals on Channel 5 and hear Michael Gray utter the immortal phrase of another match, “The game was literally over in 25 minutes!” No it wasn’t, Michael. I think the word you are looking for is ‘effectively’…