Andrew's match reports 2002
Wednesday 13 February 2002 – United 0 Port Vale 1
Hello, all you Valentines. Simes here with another heart-rending and emotional 'Our Tune.' I've got a letter from a guy … let's call him ‘John’. Now John is a normal sort of guy, and he's known this lady (I'll call her ‘Div 2’) for almost three years now. It's been an up and down kinda relationship – mostly down for poor old John! – but slowly but surely they were getting kinda serious. John's not as fast or young as he used to be!
There have been another couple of guys on the scene, ‘Mac’ and ‘JB’, but John's a steady, determined kinda guy and they've now moved into tourism and travel. So John's now got Div all to himself. But they're going through kinduva rough patch at the mo; Div's been getting more and more distant of late, and John fears she's fallen for ‘BFB’, a chubby, cheeky charmer who's wooed her with his promises of unlimited pizza and the autograph of Kevin Piper from Anglia TV. Heady attractions indeed.
So Div, if you're listening, m'love, John just wants to say: ‘Don't let it end this way, babe. Let's give it one more try, hmm? I lurve ya too much to let ya go like this!’ And to prove his undying love for you, Div m'darling, here's a special song – your song – that I think says it all: ‘I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts’...
Fourteen games to go and still bottom. You know, I think we might have to admit it ... we're going to struggle to make the playoffs now. Barely 2,000 hardy souls braved the winter chill and spurned the riveting excitement of Holland v England Reserves to see the once-Mighty U's stumble and fall again like a Boro striker on mind-altering substances, or on Boro's ploughed field of a pitch.
More pack-shufflage saw the welcome return of Le Dieu du Mullet for Dancing Shaun, Andy Duncan for Bostin' Kevin Austin, Captain Fantastic for Terrier Fleming and the Armand Hammer instead of Aggy Revell, in a conventional 4-4-2. Vale, predictably, made no changes from the side that won 1-0 at the ground where the U's had lost 5-0 mere days previously, including ageing hellraiser John ‘Johnny Lager’ Durnin and the poshest man in football, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson. Rah rah rah.
United started reasonably well, Chilli finding Oné early on for the Hammer to essay a first-time lob-volley from 25 yards, a few feet over the bar. Full marks for ambition and indeed optimism, and an encouragingly confident opening. Vale soon countered, though, understandably as self-assured as Slobodan Milosevic, only without the genocidal tendencies. Adam Tann was in the centre of the action, remarkably retaining his impressive form as his equally youthful colleagues start to wilt under the two-games-a-week pressure of the survival struggle. Play ebbed and flowed from one end to the other without much involvement from either keeper until around 20 minutes when Le Dieu saved comfortably from Brooker's 20-yarder.
Fivepole Tudor looked lively in his right-wing position and soon produced one splendid run past a couple of opponents before shooting low and wide of the near post. United had marginally more possession, the back four looking comfortable while the rest looked mobile if lacking a little in the incisive precision passing stakes. Vale looked fairly menacing when they broke, inter-passing well along the floor but just unable to find that final telling pass. Le Dieu clutched a hopeful Durnin effort while neither of the home front two were afraid to shoot, although unlike the England rugby captain, they were unable to hit the target.
The half-hour mark saw the closest effort yet, a Guttridge corner to the near post finding both Duncan and Oné queuing up to get their heads to it from a mere five yards out. Sadly, Duncan headed it straight ahead of himself, a yard wide; if he had missed it, the Hammer would surely have scored. Armand may not have the aerial expertise of a Vodafone radio mast, but he's definitely getting there. And he's a bit more mobile than a radio mast, too, if just as likely to be caught offside.
United had cause for some reasonable satisfaction so far; not exactly a pulsating encounter, but they were on top and just awaiting that little moment of magic that would open the visitors' defence up for that oh-so-important opener. But this season is getting as predictable as an English Davis Cup defeat, and on 38 came the inevitable goal for the visitors. And what a scruffy little oik it was too. Michael Walsh met a corner 15 yards out with his noggin, Murray chested off the line, and there was Steven McPhee racing in to throw himself at the airborne ball and shin untidily home from six yards.
The home side, no doubt getting that sinking feeling again, responded well initially, another excellent Tudor run followed by a slipped through ball to Chilli to half-volley first time for the top corner from 18 yards, only to be robbed by a superb full-length dive and tip over by Mark Goodlad. Not long after Chilli and Oné caused havoc as they ran at the centre of the Vale defence, but Chilli's scuffed shot trundled wide when the merest touch from his strike partner would have diverted it into the net on the way. More frustrating than a hundred Ollie Morahs, only without the comedy value.
So ended part one, United undeservedly down but not yet out. Biggest question mark was undoubtedly against their fitness; Wannie had battled gamely despite his lack thereof, Tudor and Guttridge had given their all but surely wouldn't last the second half. As it turned out, the injury jinx had struck again and it was Duncan who didn't make the restart, replaced by the barely match fit Six Million Lira Man.
And for all Shaggy's exhorting, United looked a pale shadow of their first-half selves as Vale sat back to do a comfortable containing job, the hard work already done. Perez showed his class once again when McPhee raced down the middle and shot for the top corner from 20 yards as United backed off. Le Dieu made the acrobatic tip over look facile. The hosts continued to battle gamely, but their crossing was too often inaccurate and when the strikers got the ball at their feet, they found themselves shepherded out to the flanks by the canny Vale defenders, the poor lambs. One Tudor cross would have fallen perfectly for Chilli ten yards out if Oné hadn't intercepted it with his back to goal and lost control.
Another injury on the hour saw Chilli replaced by 'So' Tony Scully (right), moving wide left to enable Tiny Tom to accompany the Hammer upfront. He got in one decent cross early on, then spent the rest of the game inventing new and interesting ways of losing possession.
The chances that presented themselves were mainly of the 'half' variety. Guttridge picked up a fortunate ricochet in midfield, advanced to within 30 yards of goal and was presented with the sight of three United forwards in a line begging to have the ball slipped through to leave them one-to-one with Goodlad. Lil' Luke's attempted pass was terrible, straight into the feet of a grateful Vale defender as unfulfilled yelps echoed around the Abbey like a pack of castrato dogs.
On 68 it was time for Lionel to keep the score down again as he twisted to tip a Bridge-Wilkinson thunderbolt over. More class on display than a Jane Austen novel. Le Dieu then comfortably dealt with a Brisco long-ranger as his teammates slowly deflated like a bulging, sagging sack of wrinkling rubber (a balloon, not Ken Bates). A clearly knackered Guttridge was withdrawn for Fleming, and the Terrier had an immediate impact with his injection of energy and commitment. A couple of crosses flew dangerously across the Vale box, most notably a Tudor right-winger that Oné missed by a Gallagher eyebrow's width at the near post, sailed over Goodlad but just evaded the inrushing Wanless and Youngs at the back stick. The phrase 'not our night' loomed large once again.
To their eternal credit, United continued to battle gamely to the bitter end, by which time it was like watching Kate Moss trying to push her way past Robbie Coltrane. Tired legs pushed through the mud but there was no way through, and Vale saw out the remaining time with no great problem. Another dead end, another defeat, and now three long away trips in eight days. Will United be your Valentine? Because if ever a side needed some TLC, sympathy and support, it's this bunch now. Go on, show them you care. Your Club Needs You!
Perez 8 – No chance with the goal, two absolutely brilliant saves second half.
Angus 7 – Neat and tidy as ever.
Murray 7 – Not as effective going forward as usual, but defensively sound.
Tann 8 – Magnificent. While his young colleagues collapse around him, he remains the rock at our centre.
Duncan 7 – Slotted back in well.
Tudor 7 – Terrific in flashes, with some lovely right-wing runs. But he really does need a rest.
Wanless 6 – Lack of fitness showed as he was far from his influential best, but still slogged his guts out manfully.
Guttridge 6 – Never stopped trying, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was knackered.
Youngs 6 – Disappointingly quiet game for Tiny Tom, but hey, at least he didn't get injured.
Chillingworth 6 – Unlucky to be denied by Goodlad's excellent save first half, another whole-hearted display.
Oné 6 – Tried as hard as anyone else in his deceptively lugubrious-looking way. Call him a lot of things but he ain't lazy. And a full 90 minutes!
Austin 6 – Unspectacularly solid, he did his job as well as we could have expected.
Scully 4 – Oh dear. A winger unable to beat his man or outrun him and whose almost sole contribution was to present the ball to the opposition. Chocolate teapot-tastic.
Fleming 7 – Had a genuine impact when he came on and got stuck in. Great attitude.
Match summary: An Ashen Wednesday for United as their willing but exhausted youngsters and patched-up crocks flipped and flopped forlornly to the floor like so many undercooked pancakes. Vale's smooth operators calmly snatched the three points with something to spare and left the U's wishing that the League table, like the new England shirt, was reversible.
Man of the Match: Adam Tann – Please don't burn him out. This boy is a shining jewel at the bottom of the pile.
Ref Watch: Crick 5/10. Fussy and got a few decisions wrong, but we've seen much, much worse this season. By ’eck have we seen worse …
Tuesday 19 February 2002 – Bristol City 0 United 2 (LDV Vans Trophy Area Final 2nd Leg)
Just a perfect day
Away form all left alone
Le Dieu et Armand Oné
It’s such fun
Just a perfect day
You made me forget Alcide
I thought he was someone else
Oh it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with U’s
Just a perfect day
Next stop the Millennium!
Thank you, Cyril. London Road 1989. Wembley 1990. Highbury 1991. Roker Park 1992. Ninian Park 1994. City Ground 1998. Spotland 1999. And now Ashton Gate 2002. For the United faithful, away days on average result more in disappointment than delight. But every now and again, we are rewarded with a day out that lives in the memory like that of our first kiss, our first date, our first … well you get the picture.
And tonight in Bristol was right up there with the best of them: overwhelming underdogs, worst away record in the Universe, slaughtered on our previous visit, but against all the odds, and with just a touch of fortune, a battling, heroic team performance and a couple of outstanding individuals, the Mighty U’s came through to win a place in their first major(ish) knockout cup final … ever!
A cunningly timed coach run meant arrival at Ashton Gate a scant few minutes before kickoff, thereby avoiding the grisly prospect of pre-match ‘entertainment’ by octogenarian rural stereotypes the Wurzels. Phew.
City’s ground looks like what it is: that of a big club fallen on harder times, an impressive main stand flanked by older edifices which they’d love to replace with something more sexy and modern if they had the money. Most of the away end was, bizarrely, left empty, with the 400-plus away contingent shovelled into one corner, sat (occasionally) on ultra-basic rows of backless plastic seats bolted crudely onto former terrace, affording a low-slung view past red-painted posts along the front of the stand. Still, at least we had shelter from the driving rain and howling wind, and the cavernous roof yielded excellent acoustics for the noisy drum-led travelling army.
Both teams sported first-choice lineups, the potential rewards too great now for faffing about with Ferguson-esque experimentation. This meant a mere two changes for the 8-1 (wish I’d had some of that) underdogs, Andy Duncan back at centre back so Bostin’ Kevin Austin could move to left back to replace the injured Murray, and Tony Scully a little unluckily dropped for the pivotal talisman of our LDV run, Armand ‘Golden Goals’ Oné, the George Dawes of the Abbey. He’s a baby! He’s a baby!
The wind whistled and moaned like Roger Whittaker in a foul mood, and it was immediately apparent that conditions would be difficult, especially when the ball was in the air. Thankfully, City’s pitch was in excellent nick considering the pounding it must have taken of late. The home side started well with a couple of corners, which were comfortably dealt with by United’s ever more solid-looking back line. Then Tiny Tom latched onto a Wanless through ball but was flattened, fairly it seems, by City keeper Steve Phillips. Five minutes to get injured, Tom, you’re getting better! He was soon back in the fray after some TLC from Stuart Ayles. No scrubs, just a few rubs.
Early exchanges were inconclusive. City had slightly more of the play, but United more than held their own as it became obvious that Bristol were missing the twinkle-toed wing play of crocked Scott Murray, who was so effectively man-marked by Terrier Fleming in the first leg. Young Marvin Brown did his best, but he ain’t no winger. United’s wide players, Tudor and Jackman, buzzed dangerously, while Wannie was the further advanced of the middle two as Fleming used his explosive pace to track back effectively to cover any runs from the City midfield. In fact the Terrier made two such dogged runs in the first 20 minutes to find himself last man back, each time covering and dealing with the danger admirably. The front two, Oné and Youngs, looked as lively and dangerous as Patrick Vieira’s elbows.
Fivepole Tudor attempted one of his long-range specials, but his aim was less than true on this occasion. City then forced another sequence of corners, but again United defended well despite their relative paucity of, ahem, ‘big men’. Marvin Brown tested Le Dieu du Mullet from 20 yards, but Lionel clutched the slippery ball authoritatively. Brown and Oné then missed the target, but the game remained unremarkable for the first half-hour, suiting the underdog visitors more then the expectant and perhaps a little over-confident hosts.
Then it was party piece time from Le Dieu as he characteristically spurned the chance to clear a through ball first time when caught out of his area, but chose to dribble past an opponent before finally hoofing upfield. Love it. A chance fell to Tony Thorpe inside the area, but his shooting was about as convincing as Abel Xavier claiming, ‘But it’s my natural hair colour!’
Then the fun really began as a Brown cross found Tann’s head in the six-yard box, his attempted clearance bounced off Duncan’s back across the face of goal mere inches in front of a stunned Thorpe, and Angus nodded gratefully clear to the edge of the area. Seconds later, the marauding Brian Tinnion flashed in a wicked low scudder from 20 yards which was arrowing for the far corner until saved at full strength by Le Dieu, diving to his left.
Come the 38th minute, and the most controversial moment of the match. Good work by Jackman wide left found Tiny Tom in the centre circle, and his angled through ball found both Tudor and Oné sprinting clear of the City defence. Miles offside, apparently, but they looked perfectly fine from our position behind them 80 yards away … the Tiddler drew Phillips then knocked it sideways for the Armand Hammer to bundle into the open net from ten yards.
Howls of protest from the home contingent, but we’ve suffered enough ropey decisions this season to last until the next millennium, so guilty consciences were few and far between from the ecstatic amber hordes. The Hammer and the LDV have gone together like Robbie and Nicole this season, and there’s nothing stupid about this trophy now we’ve got this far.
There was time for one palpitation before half-time, Tann winning the ball well from Thorpe near the touchline on the edge of the area, but then over-elaborating and slipping as he tried to clear. Thorpe found Marvin Brown ten yards out on the angle, and he really should have hit the target as he curled over lamely. Another comfortable save by Perez from a Thorpe header made an appropriate end to a half in which United had matched their loftier opponents in every way. We held our collective breath in anticipation of an encore performance from the Wurzels singing some ghastly song about cider, but tonight Fate was smiling on us and we were spared.
The teams were welcomed out for part two by what sounded suspiciously like the Champions League music. Didn’t know that the LDV winners qualify for that. We’d have been quite happy with a UEFA Cup place.
The first minute saw the turning point of the whole match, and proof once more (as if we needed it) that M Perez is worth twice what we pay him. At least. Aaron Brown sent in a wicked right-wing cross which glanced off Duncan’s head. It was heading for an o.g. but Le Dieu parried acrobatically, then a split second later saved again as Lee Peacock latched onto the rebound; this time Lionel’s save ricocheted off the underside of the bar, and incredibly, was clutched by the man himself as he lay on the ground. Shades of Jimmy Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final; simply phenomenal.
The Bristolians couldn’t believe that they hadn’t equalised, and it was from that moment that we knew. We just knew that this was our night and that City were never, ever going to score against us. They Shall Not Pass!
Oné confirmed his growing heading expertise by testing Phillips from a Tudor cross, then on 51 came another crucial Perez save, Thorpe’s header bound for Le Dieu’s bottom left corner until he somehow flung himself full length to tip round for a corner. One feature of Bristol’s play all night was the consistent excellence of their crosses, from both left and right. No chance of any vampires at Ashton Gate. That and the smell of garlic from that turnstile operator.
Just before the hour came a chance for number two from the Hammer as United threatened once more on the break. Youngs sent Armand away with a penetrating through ball from halfway. One-on-one with Phillips, but he delayed his shot as the keeper advanced and by the time he did shoot, a defender had got back and deflected his effort over the bar.
But the Hammer was not to denied. The resultant corner was met inside the six-yard box by Duncan’s head, Phillips did well to parry it out, but it only fell to Oné unmarked five yards out. Time stood still for a second as he watched the ball loop towards him, 12,000 mouths guppily agape as the collective intake of breath temporarily depleted Bristol’s oxygen levels. Then he smashed it home on the volley, the back of the net strained more than Jordan’s underwiring as 410 Cantabrigian voices acclaimed his, and our, destiny. Name-on-the-trophy!
To United’s great credit, they made no attempt to sit back on the edge of their area and defend their lead. City, inevitably, dominated possession to a fair extent, sending on third striker Steve Jones for Brown (M) and raining their crosses in on the United box, but the blue-shirted so solid crew at the back held firm, led by the Gallic maestro in box-dominating form. Jones found an opening for a free shot at goal, but Le Dieu was there, majestic in his leoninity (is that a word? it is now!) and he stayed on his feet and blocked.
City continued to miss the chances that came their way. Ten minutes from time, Peacock slalomed his way past Tann and Duncan but with the goal at his mercy, curled an over-elaborate effort feebly wide of the far post. The same man had an even better chance five minutes later as that rain of crosses led to the ball falling to him centrally ten yards out. Lionel charged, Peacock chipped … over the bar. The Hammer was withdrawn to a rapturous reception on 86, positively replaced by another striker in Aggy Revell.
Right on full time came City’s nearest squeak of the lot, a glancing Thorpe header this time eluding le Dieu, but there was the prodigal Adam Tann to head off the line. Destiny wasn’t so much calling as bellowing through a loudhailer. The United fans celebrated their impending victory while Revell and Tudor put in some sterling time-consuming work in the corner.
After five long minutes of added time, it was all over, and the party could really get started. The PA informed us, pointlessly, that we would have to stay behind for a few minutes while the City fans (those who hadn’t already slunk out) departed. As if anyone wanted to leave! The players came over to salute their superb support, all wide grins and air punches, Graham Eales took some souvenir snaps of the delirious throng, then someone found some LDV Final flags and soon many were draped in them, notably the Hammer, who covered his head with one and performed a preposterous solo ‘Dancing Shaun à la Française’ piece of Terpsichore that was as funny as it was endearing.
The revelry even continued back at the Abbey, the team coach arriving mere minutes after the supporters’ and allowing the fans to applaud and shake the hands of their heroes at two in the morning with no thought for the neighbours. Shaggy’s wry ‘Don’t you lot have homes to go to?’ couldn’t disguise his delight at a triumph against all predictions for his gutsy young troops and their band of dedicated followers. After all our tribulations in this fraught season, we deserve some recompense. Don’t call it consolation because we ain’t down yet. Now come on all you glory hunters, join us for a knees-up at the Millennium Stadium on March 24th!
Perez 10 – Simply the best.
Angus 8 – The epitome of cool, the acme of calm.
Duncan 8 – As the going got tough, he got going.
Tann 8 – His consistent excellence just goes on and on.
Austin 8 – A brick outhouse in human form. Formidable.
Tudor 8 – Never stopped foraging and working.
Fleming 8 – Excellent covering and snapping at heels for 90 minutes.
Wanless 8 – Led from the front, and don’t we miss him when he’s not there.
Jackman 8 – Tireless runner on the left, good team performance.
Youngs 8 – Splendid contribution and combined well with Oné.
Oné 9 – Awesome. He’s getting fitter every game, he’s getting better every game, his heading has improved beyond recognition. A phenomenal talent in the making, and doesn’t he just love this trophy.
Revell 8 – Excellent job in the few minutes he had, keeping possession very well.
Match summary: One of the great, glory nights for the Mighty U’s as the first team from Cambridgeshire to reach Wembley became the first to reach the Millennium Stadium, too. Whatever happens now this season, it will be one to remember, and if they can keep on playing like this, anything is possible. Keep the Faith!
Man of the match: Lionel Perez. As if you ever doubted, this man is worth every penny, and he proved it tonight in a faultless, acrobatic display that ultimately helped win United the six-figure sum they will make from the Final.
Ref watch: Andy Hall 7. City would doubtless give him much less, but old ‘Two Yellows’ was OK from a United point of view, only a few pointless free kicks spoiling our fun.
Tuesday 26 February 2002 – United 0 Blackpool 3
Welcome, students, to Module 666 of Dr Uzunhasanoglu’s Positivity Masterclass. Following our outstanding successes with previous projects such as ‘Admiring Anne Widdicombe’s Inner Beauty’ and ‘Stephen Byers: A Lie Is Only A Truth That Hasn’t Happened Yet’, we come to our most daunting challenge yet: ‘Ten Good Things About Cambridge United’s Season’. I would posit the following:
1) United are unique! They are the only club to have ignored the League to concentrate on the LDV Vans Trophy.
2) As far as goalscoring is concerned, they believe in the old adage ‘quality is better than quality’. (cf Tudor, Oné, Chillingworth).
3) In fact if they can’t score a good goal, they’d rather not score at all!
4) Their record-breaking midfield is the smallest since the Upper Volta Pygmy Strollers toured the UK in 1904.
5) Peterborough United have kindly agreed to be relegated with us in sympathy. And they’ve still got Barry Fry, but no money.
6) Brentford on Boxing Day. Merry Christmas!
7) Tony Scully is the first fully functioning Graham Norton lookalike to play in the Football League.
8) Zema Abbey’s still injured!
9) That Suzy Ruff’s a bit of, er, ‘all right’, isn’t she?
10) The mullet is back in fashion, so we have the most trendy goalkeeper in the world! Hurrah.
Discuss. Mr McAnespie, see me afterwards.
Seven days is a long time in football. Last Tuesday, the Mighty U’s were celebrating one of the greatest nights in their history in deepest darkest Bristol. Tonight, the boot was well and truly on the other foot as United’s kids once again failed to last the pace after a bright opening and were in the end well beaten by a useful but hardly Earth-shattering Blackpool.
Three more Titanic deckchairs were shuffled tonight, Lil’ Luke Guttridge restored in place of Terrier Fleming, Ian ‘I Said Where’s My Bloody Magic Hat?’ Ashbee at right-back allowing Angus to shift to centre-back in place of the injured Duncan, and Fred Murray preferred to Bostin’ Kevin Austin at left-back. The visitors’ line-up sported an unrecognisable ex-U up front in the shape of Richard Walker, noticeably hunkier with a fearsome haircut and bearing almost no resemblance to the delicate slip of a boy who played for us on loan from Villa a few years back. And if he’s grown, you should have seen ’Pool skipper Ian Marshall, chunkier and beefier than a crate of Kennomeat, now playing at the back because, well, he can’t run. Much.
United also for some reason sported amber shorts instead of the usual black. There was certainly no clash in colours, Blackpool in change strip of white shirts and satsuma shorts. Altogether a veritable riot of colour. Blocks A and B of the Main Stand were cordoned off after one of the state-of-the-art plastic panels blew off the roof, leaving a rather neat rectangular open-air skylight feature. Unfortunately after the game it looked like United’s survival hopes had also finally blown away on the cold, cold wind of change. I’ve always wanted to see Oxford’s new stadium, anyway …
Both sides started well, passing the ball around neatly on the floor, United’s wide men Tudor and Jackman looking especially lively. The extremely gusty conditions meant it was very much advisable to keep the ball down, as once it sailed into the air its destination was as difficult to predict as Beckham’s next riveting change of hairstyle. Or her husband’s.
With three minutes gone, the hosts had the ball in the net, Oné’s nimble footwork and cross finding Tudor glancing in from inside the six-yard box with Youngs also lurking, only for the offside flag to deny his side the start they so desperately needed. Then Jackman drifted inside from the left and tried his luck with his weaker right foot, several yards wide, and the menacing-looking Hammer had a shot from a Tudor cross blocked.
Another Jackman cross found Tiny Tom at the near post, wide again, and for the visitors, a Walker header from a corner was blocked then collected by Le Dieu du Mullet. John Hills was finding plenty of space down the United right as Tudor failed to track back on several occasions, but an assured-looking Ashbee dealt well with his threat. Walker and Oné both had other chances well arrested by defenders, Hills essayed an ineffective 30-yarder, and Youngs had a chance with the ball at his feet 15 yards out only to be undone by his hesitation. Such was the story of the first half-hour, an entertaining spectacle between two apparently well-matched teams both knocking the ball around well in difficult conditions but rarely troubling the opposing keeper. Then it all went wrong, a goal coming out of the blue like a Martin Johnson (a ‘role model’, apparently) haymaker.
On 35, one of too many backpasses fell to Le Dieu’s feet. As Scott ‘Not That One’ Taylor ran in to pressure, Lionel’s standing foot slipped from under him on the Bafta carpet-slippery surface and he had to hurry his clearance, in so doing miskicking to Murphy on the edge of the area. His shot was blocked heroically by the lunging Angus, Collins ran in to see his shot part-parried by Perez, and it squirmed under his body to Walker lurking unmarked by the penalty spot. He had ample time to prod home past Tann on the line as the ghosts of Newman and Baddiel floated over the Corona sneering: ‘You see that goal? That’s your season, that is.’ Hardly an error of Brobdingnagian proportions, but these things happen when you’re up to your mullet in the brown stuff.
United stuck to their task, but the visitors’ tails were now up and you could almost see the balance of the match sliding inevitably from amber to tangerine like a curler from Shona Martin. Tiny Tom ran and chased stoically up front while the Hammer looked dangerous on the few occasions when he had the ball at his feet, but they rarely linked together and were usually far too far apart to do so. Blackpool also worked at closing down the United wide players, and with Captain Fantastic looking hampered by his injury, midfield inspiration was getting progressively hard to come by. Apart from Youngs, United’s best players looked to be the central defensive pairing of Tann and Angus, two footballing centre-backs who both have bright futures in the game if this season doesn’t burn them out completely like a couple of wicker men.
Best remaining chance of the half fell to ’Pool’s Richard Wellens, firing wide from a Taylor cross, and to Walker as Wellens’ touchline cross fell to him running in with Tann inside the six-yard box; somehow neither got a clean contact and the ball plopped to the floor in front of the grateful Perez. For all United’s possession, the visitors’ keeper Phil Barnes had been as underemployed as black and amber trophy ribbons.
Half-time brought news that Cambs’ second team were losing at the scene of the previous Tuesday’s triumph, Ashton Gate, and we took a little comfort from the thought that we might have more local derbies next season than previously anticipated, despite the absence of Wayne ‘I’m devastated to have to leave, oh hello Stevenage’ Turner. Wonder how he’ll get on with our old pal John Dreyer?
United stuck to their task from the start of part two, but early danger came from the left foot of that man Hills as his low fizzer of a left-wing cross shot across the United six-yard box without a touch. Wanless threatened briefly with a header from a Jackman free-kick, but on 56 came the goal that killed the game as dead as the Halifax’s chances of getting a stall at the next window cleaners’ convention. Walker’s pinpoint angled through ball found Taylor galloping in on goal, pursued unsuccessfully by Tann and Angus, and he shot past Le Dieu but against the far right-hand post... only for it to rebound perfectly for the inrushing Walker, who comfortably tucked away number two, and his fifth in four games. He cost £30k less than Warren Goodhind, you know.
The game was up on the hour when Wannie was withdrawn, having given his all despite not being remotely fit. The Terrier slotted in at right-back to free Ashbee (right) to take his skipper’s place in central midfield.
Unfortunately, Ash’s magic hat appears to have been lost somewhere in pre-season at Aldershot Barracks and all he sports now is the Emperor’s new titfer. The Ash is in the altogether. Shortly after, Hammer Time was up as Oné (he’s not injured, he’s naturally unfit) was replaced by Alex Revell.
Soon young Aggy almost pulled one back, Jackman’s excellent cross finding him coming in at the far post, but his downward header from a narrow angle was superbly blocked by Barnes’ feet for a corner. Despite this brief flurry of excitement, United were fading like a Cheshire Cat without the grin, and it was no surprise when they fell further behind. Right-back John O’Kane, of all people, cut into the area and just kept going in the face of some lame defending. As Angus came across to cover, he lashed high into the opposite corner, giving Perez no chance. You know you’re in trouble when opposing full-backs score exhibition goals against you.
It could have been worse as myopic ref JJ Ross ignored Blackpool’s claims for a penalty against a Fleming handball, thereby evening out the one United were denied at Cardiff on Saturday. Not that either would have made a blind bit of difference. Wellens then fancied his chances with a run into the area, feeding Taylor whose close-range shot was deflected narrowly wide by Angus just in front of Perez.
The Tangerines relaxed, the game won, as home fans started to stream silently out. United even had a couple of chances in the dying minutes: first Guttridge flashed in a 25-yarder which was narrowly over, then Barnes did very well to save Ashbee’s header as it bulleted for the top corner, the post and O’Kane and on the line finishing off his work to deny the home side even the consolation of a goal. There were a few boos at the end, but the main feeling was one of resignation to our fate. We’re not down mathematically yet, but then again neither are Stockport. Or Leicester. Mind you, Ade Akinbiyi scored a goal tonight … so you see, miracles do happen!
Perez 5 - Not his finest hour, although the first goal was not the catastrophic error his detractors would have you believe.
Ashbee 5 - Decent first half at right-back, once again a let-down in the middle of the park. His worst season ever.
Murray 5 - Plugged away, but rarely crossed the halfway line.
Tann 6 - One of United’s better players on the night; his resilience is tremendous.
Angus 6 - Likewise, Stev didn’t let himself down on a generally below-par night.
Tudor 6 - Bright first half with some sterling, determined right-wing runs. Faded like everyone else.
Wanless 5 - Seems a bit pointless playing him when he’s so hampered by injury. Save him for the Final.
Guttridge 5 - Started fairly well, but got bogged down in a losing battle with Blackpool’s more experienced campaigners.
Jackman 6 - Another who had a pleasing first half but an underwhelming second.
Oné 5 - A few menacing moments until he once again drifted out of the game. Needs a rest.
Youngs 6 - A shining example to his colleagues of non-stop effort. Deserved better.
Fleming 5 - Quiet but reasonably effective cameo.
Revell 5 - Unlucky with one chance but otherwise, much running to little effect.
Match summary: United’s youngsters ran out of juice as the Satsumas squeezed them dry with clinical precision. Do we need snookers yet?
Man of the Match: Tom Youngs. More for application and effort than achievement, but it was that kind of night.
Ref Watch: Ross 3/10. The diminutive JJ must have left his glasses at home (doesn’t he do that ‘Sex Bomb’ Halifax ad?) as he missed no end of incidents or just got them plain wrong. Not very good at all.
Tuesday 5 March 2002 – Wigan 4-1 U’s
It has been nigh on five years now since Wigan Athletic left the quaint semi-dereliction of Springfield Park for the JJB Stadium. On a chill, gloomy Tuesday evening, we stood and gazed at the deserted banks of seating, the looming, echoey stands, the spooky lack of atmosphere where once thousands had stood and cheered; if there was tumbleweed in Lancashire, it would surely have blown across the muddy remains of the pitch there and then, followed by a stray wild dog. I spotted a local and, with compassion and sincerity, sighed and said ‘Sad sight, eh? I wonder when they’ll ever play football here again …’ ‘Kick-off’s in ten minutes, son,’ came the rejoinder. ‘Would you like to take your seat, please?’ Ah …
Make no mistake, the JJB is a truly magnificent stadium. The whole complex in which it is situated is a monument to ambition: an indoor ‘Soccer Dome’, huge club shop, gigantic JJB Sports warehouse, massive multiplex cinema, acres of car park. The likes of little old CUFC can only dream of such facilities, lacking both the money and, let’s face it, the space in which to realise such a dream. There has only been one flaw in Dave Whelan’s masterplan so far: the club’s support just doesn’t justify it. A 25,000 capacity superstadium with a mere 6,000 people dotted forlornly around it looks less popular than a Gary Glitter comeback tour. The inescapable fact is that Wigan remain a small club in history and support, and for all their riches, only outstanding success on the field will bring the people in. And so far, it just ain’t happened.
If there was one sure bet tonight, it was that the visit of the Mighty U’s would yield the Latics’ lowest attendance of the season; Wigan, with nothing to play for, versus the worst team (statistically!) in the division, sparsely supported by weary fans attending their fourth long away trip out of five in under three weeks. And so it proved, Notts County’s mid-December visit undercut by just over three hundred. The travelling amber army were allocated, remarkably, almost the whole of one side stand, and were dotted around it in a vain attempt to hide the remaining 4,000 holes in Wigan, Lancashire. The deafening PA tried to inject a smidgeon of atmosphere, but there were less than a couple of thousand dotted around the JJB with ten minutes to kick-off, although thankfully there was a late surge of home followers to prevent all four sides looking emptier than an Orange shop in the Falls Road.
The match programme sported the thick, glossy cover that we have come to expect from the wealthier clubs in this division, and quoted Shaggy as saying, ‘There coming thick and fast and there tricky hard games …’ Time to get the grammatical dictionary out, chaps; you need to learn to spell proper like wot we do. We were also treated to a picture of ex-keeper David Felgate, most memorable to U’s supporters for the game in which he replaced the quintessential dodgy keeper, Ray Newland, at half-time when at Chester as the hapless Newland had let in three soft goals in a display more nightmarish than a French kiss from Mick Hucknall.
The sides were greeted by a homespun version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ segueing into that old conker ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, and the JJB logos built into the seats remained clearly visible on all four sides as they ran out, United back in all amber. The visitors showed only one change from Saturday, Warren Goodhind stepping up to right-back in place of Terrier Fleming. Wigan’s expensively-acquired lineup included old Abbey favourite John ‘Skippy’ Filan in goal, although the United fans restrained themselves from offering him advice on what to do with a wallaby on those long Aussie nights, as their old chant once went. The pitch looked as careworn as you would expect from a ground that the Latics share with their peanut-hugging neighbours, although they went for the four separate stands option instead of a bowl like Bolton or Reading in order to allow the pitch to ‘breathe’.
The match got off to a start as muted as the atmos, United continuing with their build-from-the-back patient passing game with BGG Kitson the target up front. First action came unsurprisingly from Fivepole Tudor, skimming down the left wing but his cross was just too high for the diminutive ‘So’ Tony Scully, while for the hosts, Le Dieu du Mullet was tested none-too-testingly by skipper Arjan de Zeeuw, the only player named after the noise a Formula 1 car makes when it races past you at 200mph.
Lee McCulloch looked dangerous up front for Wigan, strength allied to speed and no little skill, too. On the quarter hour, he was first on to a Gary Teale through ball over the top, Angus missing an early chance to clear then chasing back vainly with Tann. McCulloch’s shot from 18 yards was well struck but reasonably near to Le Dieu, and his parry made a tricky save look comfortable.
Three minutes later, however, the old away blues began to kick in again. Teale cut in from the right wing, evading some feeble attempts at tackles until stopped by Angus, but the ball ran free to McCulloch near the penalty spot, running sideways to avoid the defenders in front of him. Ashbee challenged and caught the Wigan no 11’s trailing leg: penalty. Quite a soft one, but no complaints from the United contingent. Andy Liddell stepped up and placed coolly into the bottom right corner, Le Dieu actually (egad!) diving the right way for the first time in his life but the pen too well struck to reach. Time for the earwig song again. Earwig-o, earwig-o, earwig-o …
United continued to play football and within a couple of minutes could and perhaps should have been level. An Ashbee right-wing cross found Kitson with a free header centrally, less than ten yards out, but he nodded disappointingly ten feet wide. Teale was withdrawn injured on 23, replaced by Paul ‘Kelly’s brother’ Dalglish.
The visitors continued to match their hosts possession-wise and almost carved out an equaliser on 28, a ghastly error by Tony Dinning allowing Tiny Tom a clear run on goal. He should have shot early, but delayed for some reason and was closed down, then spotted Tudor arriving unmarked wide left. Tom’s square ball invited the first-time shot, but to our groaning frustration, he spurned the chance to let fly with his weaker left peg and fiddled about trying to get it on to his right. His eventual shot under pressure sailed high, wide and hideous into the empty seats behind the goal. What’s the betting that the sinistral Jackman would have buried it first time?
Scully at least set an example five minutes later when he attempted an ambitious 30-yarder, showing he was one player not content to try to walk it into the net, but he was no more accurate. Play continued to swing back and forth without either keeper being troubled, nearest effort just before the interval when Scott Green burst down the middle at pace but narrowly missed Perez’s near post with his scudder, while Tudor had a similar effort blocked for a corner.
And so ended the first act, in which United had played some nice passing football but with no end product. Kitson had led the line well despite falling to the floor three times with injuries more assorted than a family tin of biscuits, while Youngs had buzzed energetically. Ashbee and Guttridge had held their own creditably in the middle and wide men Scully and Tudor had threatened sporadically if erratically; at the back, the full-backs had looked steady and secure and only Stev Angus had looked a little off the pace occasionally. So it was all the more frustrating that they were once again one down away from home; Wigan’s mediocre home form, especially against more lowly opposition, married to the low-key, Plutoesque atmosphere in the ground, were surely invitations to the U’s to break their away League duck. RSVP.
The invitation was well and truly rescinded just 38 seconds into the second half. The Armand Hammer had replaced the BGG, injured once again, while Ian Nolan was on for Matt Jackson Wigan-wise. Goodhind attempted a poor, bouncing backpass to Perez, who miscued out of play. From Dinning’s throw, Liddell received on the left-hand corner of the area, turned and volleyed in one fell swoop, his spectacular effort soaring over Lionel’s head into the far corner. If it was entirely deliberate, it was entirely brilliant. He had to pick on us, didn’t he?
Liddell was on for a hat-trick five minutes later, running on to McCulloch’s ball inside but hoofing over from 20 yards under no pressure. They always miss the easy ones. United’s battlers must have got that earwig feeling by now, but creditably kept knocking it around and probing for that opening. Scully cut inside on one run and spotted both Guttridge and Tudor advancing unmarked wide left, but his lofted cross was just reached by de Zeeuw and smuggled back to Filan. Then Youngs actually shot for goal from 15 yards but pulled it wide of the far post.
Then on 65, United were finally rewarded for their efforts. A cross ran to Ashbee wide right, and his angled goalbound thunderbolt was handled instinctively by Stephen McMillan. Penalty, although not so much as a yellow for the defender. So who fancied it this time? The amber army chanted for Lionel, but he shook his head sorrowfully, and it fell to stand-in skipper Ashbee to exorcise United’s spot-kick hoodoo. And he did exactly what our previous tippy-tap ‘placers’ of the ball should have done: got his head down, charged like a rampant rhino and wellied it down the middle as Filan dived right. That’s the way to do it! As Gazza used to say, if there’s any doubt, give it a clout. Although I’m not sure he was talking about football. Stupid boy. Whatever happened now, our trip had been worthwhile.
Our pleasure was of course as short-lived as Hear’Say’s chart career. Six minutes later, a dubious free-kick wide right given against Murray was driven in by Green, and it found McCulloch bulleting in totally unchallenged to hook home from six yards out, Le Dieu helpless. 3-1. Scandalous (lack of) defending from the boys in amber. Danny Jackman came on for the tired-looking and out of position Tudor, and on 80 his diagonal ball found Youngs, whose cross presented Oné with a chance which was more a ricochet off his shins than a proper shot. Skippy did well to block for a corner. Still United endeavoured, and on 84 Tiny Tom on another right-wing run centred for Oné the Big Baby, whose dummy invited the inrushing Jackman to convert. Sadly, the Littlest Loanee had hesitated just momentarily before Oné left it, and that split second meant he was crowded out by the Wigan defence.
Even Goodhind had a rare shot near the end, running on to a cleared corner but punting well over, while Green broke down the right wing for Wigan but just missed the near post. Then in the last minute came the final crushing blow; it was Liddell’s turn to sprint clear on the right, and running out of space, he wellied an attempted cross over from an acute angle. Wouldn’t you know it, it sailed over Le Dieu’s head and dropped like a guided missile into the far corner of the net. A total fluke, and if Mr Liddell tries to claim otherwise, I hope someone has called out the fire brigade to douse his smouldering pants.
So THAT record just gets worse and worse. Even Stockport won tonight, ending our faint hopes of their approaching our all-time record of games without a win in 1983/84. And it’s not as if United played badly, really; they certainly never gave up. But the harsh reality of life in Division 2 (and 3, for that matter) is that nice, passing football by a team of performing midgets is simply not enough. We need some big, nasty players to put themselves about and put the wind up the opposition. Not for the purists, but for the realists. Hey ho. Roll on Bristol. What are the odds on our winning there twice this season? Really? I’ll have some of that.
Perez 7 – No chance with the first, no chance with the second, no chance with the third, no … you get the idea.
Goodhind 7 – Decent, solid performance. Didn’t get forward much, just stuck to his basic task. The fancy-dan stuff can come once he’s bedded in (if you must).
Murray 7 – Entirely satisfactory and would be a good signing … if we could afford him.
Tann 7 – Quietly commanding as ever.
Angus 6 – A few uncharacteristically hesitant moments – perhaps he needs a break.
Scully 6 – In and out like a fart in a colander. One part exciting runs and passes to two parts driving us mad by giving the ball away.
Ashbee 7 – Creditably captainesque performance and as well as he’s played this poor season, a couple of ropey passes notwithstanding.
Guttridge 7 – Also put in some sterling service in the engine room.
Tudor 6 – Wasted on the left on his standing foot, although managed a few decent crosses with it. Also needs a rest.
Kitson 6 – Thoroughly not-bad, if in the wars quite a lot. Let’s hope he’s fit again soon.
Youngs 7 – Another all-action effort from Tiny Tom, highlighted by some excellent runs and crosses. Should shoot more and earlier, though.
Oné 5 – Not one of the Hammer’s finest hours, he lumbered around to little effect.
Jackman 6 – Lively impression suggested he should have introduced earlier.
Match summary: The away cupboard remains as bare as the JJB was tonight as the Mighty U’s were starved of points once again by a scoreline harsher than Jamie Oliver’s Mockney accent. The recipe for success remains as elusive as Gordon Ramsay’s charm, and once again United got a raw Delia on their travels courtesy of a motley menu of unpalatable goals. Pass the Alka-Seltzer, Shaggy …
Man of the Match: Ian Ashbee. Looked, finally, like a leader, and to clinch it he (pinch yourself) SCORED A PENALTY. Reason enough on its own!
Ref Watch: Brandwood 6. The villain of the FA Cup was mercifully restrained tonight, seemingly determined not to issue any cards. Nothing special, but nothing awful either.
Saturday 16 March 2002 – U’s 0-1 Huddersfield
Howay the lads and welcome to this week’s Pen Idol! We’re Gnat and Dork and we can’t wait to see who is eliminated this time from the great CUFC penalty takers competition. Already we’ve said goodbye to Paul, Terry, Dave and Tiny Tom, but there’s still plenty of candidates left. We’ve got lovely Lionel here, a Gallic charmer with a cheeky grin and a mullet to match. We’ve got little Shane, surely a big star of the future and already well fancied by Jonathan King. We’ve got the current leader, Ian, a veteran at 25. There’s Freddie, the Daniel O’Donnell of Division Two; Warren G, better known for his rapping; Handy Andy, a good Geordie lad; hunky Adam (steady on, girls!); and the boyish good looks of young Alex. Unfortunately, Luke and Danny fell foul of the minimum height rule; Danny DeVito’s no idol, is he, and Tom Cruise has to stand on a box.
So who’s going to be eliminated today, judges? Simon? ‘Ian. He’s just not good enough and that’s the truth. You’ve got to be cruel to be kind!’ Pete? ‘Have to agree, old son. Bring back Rick Astley, I say!’ Doc? ‘You guys are just so nasty! I’m just going to sit here and simper for a bit, if that’s OK.’ Blonde woman? ‘Who am I again?’ Search us, luv. So another one bites the dust. Ian, you’ve never make a Pen Idol. Next!
Match day at the Abbey and the queues were more long and snaking than Dion’s pet python. Well, that’s what he calls it. The amber hordes were not of course waiting to see Huddersfield, but to buy their tickets for the big, big match next Sunday. Getting excited yet? I would if I were you; just think of the grim, pointless run-in to relegation that awaits after it. Make merry while you can, for tomorrow we go to Spotland. At least it looks like we’ll avoid the grim grime and greenhouses of Kenilworth Road or the welcoming invitations to unarmed combat we usually get at Home Park. And I hear Kidderminster in the spring is quite, er, interesting. The queues were also of course to buy the very wonderful One Wonky Cup Run fanzine. That match reporter’s a scream.
It was the mildest match day of the year so far and the programme notes were already looking forward to next pre-season’s friendlies. Not Nuneaton again, eh? After last week’s tactical debacle, good old 4-4-2 was once more the order of the day, Adam Tann back in place of Stev Angus while in the enforced absence of strikers Kitson, Oné and Chillingworth, Tiny Tom was accompanied by Fivepole Tudor up front, the old firm midfield of Ash and Wannie flanked by Lil’ Luke and even Li’ler Danny Jackman.
Not exactly a lineup calculated to inspire fear of a physical battering into the visitors, even though their number one striker Leon ‘Neon Light’ Knight was the smallest player on the pitch and sported a pair of shorts so voluminous they resembled culottes.
The match got off to a sluggish start then gradually slowed to a crawl. As in so many games this season, there was nothing in the early exchanges to distinguish the promotion-chasing visitors from rock-bottom United, both playing a plucky attempt at passing football while failing to trouble the opposing keeper. Le Dieu du Mullet’s first action was a comfortable catch of a Nathan Clarke header from a Thorrington corner, and in truth he had little more difficult to deal with all match. Unfortunately, the same could be said of Martyn ‘Is he still going?’ Margetson at the other end.
Best early entertainment came from referee Tomlin, a flamboyant, strutting peacock of a ref who must in real life surely be a traffic warden or a headmaster who spends his spare time polishing his buttons and strangling small rodents. As the tackles got a bit ‘tasty’ in midfield, Irons attempting to dismember Ashbee, Mr T’s bellowed ‘GET HERE!’ could be heard halfway back up the A1 to Yorkshire. Irons, having first feigned deafness (he is getting on a bit) finally trotted resentfully back to receive his lecture, to the mirth of both sets of fans. No card followed, replaced, one suspects, by detention and 100 lines. In fact lectures proved to be something of a speciality of Mr T, his only card appearing in the last minute of the match … for dissent, of course. Don’t cheek me, boy!
Wide men Jackman and Guttridge put in some good early work, although their crossing and passing accuracy had to be spot on to find their undersized target men, and Tudor and Youngs buzzed busily. Warren G also impressed with his reliable and accurate passing out of defence. Tudor had obviously been identified by Town as United’s danger man, and more often than not he was faced with two opponents giving him closer attention than Mauricio Taricco tussling playfully with Graeme Le Saux. For the visitors, wide men Thorrington and Schofield threatened sporadically and the diminutive Knight was lively up front, his strike partner Facey playing the Armand Oné role: lumbering around ineffectively and getting caught offside a lot. Well, he has been out injured for a long while.
Knight caused a few flutters on 23 when he caught Tann in possession on the angle of the six-yard box, but his toepoke trundled across the goal and off for a throw. Irons then burst through the middle but was caught by Tann, and threw himself rather pathetically to the floor in the hope of winning a penalty: about as likely as BP’s boss donating his gigantic annual bonus to Greenpeace. United’s best attempt came from Captain Fantastic, a high looping cross curling over a few heads and falling to him in the D to volley first time goalward, six feet wide of the far post. Good effort.
Then it was Freddie Murray’s turn for a lecture from Tomlin after a failed kung fu challenge on Thorrington, but again no card, or even six of the best on the hand with his ruler. Last remaining incident of a half which induced more yawns than yells on the terraces involved Knight getting accidentally clattered by Ashbee, initially ignored by Tomlin until he remained motionless long enough to engender concern. It looked serious for a few minutes as both teams’ physios crowded round and stretcher bearers came on carrying what looked like the little lad’s security blanket (wot, no teddy?) until he suddenly got up rubbing his neck. Oh well.
So ended what was one of the most uneventful halves of football seen at the Abbey in this most eventful of seasons. United had again given a decent account of themselves without ever looking seriously like scoring, but Huddersfield had looked no better and they must surely have produced more impressive displays than this to be in the promotion frame. But credit to United for restricting them, surely.
The half-time penalty shoot-out comprising some young lads versus Marvin the Moose was an ominous portent of what was to come, most of the boys showing they have been schooled in the United way by trundling a succession of underhit penalties straight at the furry custodian to hack sheepishly (moosishly?) away. Chips off the old block, every one.
Part two resumed in a similar vein to part one, Le Dieu saving comfortably from a hopeful Irons long shot and Facey’s looping angled header so under-directed it would have gone off for a throw if it had had enough power behind it. Come the hour mark, many of us were idly checking our watches and going ‘another bloody half an hour yet!’ If watching United in the LDV was an exciting three-minute blast by the Hives, this was an interminable Carl Palmer drum solo. Please let it end soon, Lord.
Then … excitement! Well a bit, anyway. A well-worked United free kick (the first since 1978 or thereabouts) saw Jackman slip a quick one to Tudor (ooh! Matron!) whose low ten-yard drive from the angle was beaten away by Margetson at his near post when perhaps a shot across him would have been the better option, two other amber shirts awaiting any possible rebound. Jackman had a chance himself not long after, picking up unmarked just inside the box but the shot from his weaker right foot was disappointingly high, wide and hideous.
Town withdrew Facey for chunky Dutchman Clyde Wijnhard on 63, and his first involvement produced the lead. He tussled for the ball near the touchline to the right of the United goal, managed to get his cross in and it fell perfectly for Knight, totally unmarked, to head home from six yards. The earwigs are coming …
Shaggy made two subs, Revell replacing the unlucky Tudor up front and newly bleached ‘So’ Tony Scully taking over from Jackman wide left. United continued to battle gamely, but the outcome was beginning to look more predictable than a Zimbabwean election. On 74 Tiny Tom flashed a ball across goal which Margetson flapped at but was cleared by Clarke, and Murray and Ashbee both saw (over)ambitious 25-yarders sail into the car park. Knight threatened a couple of times at the other end, one snap shot just wide and a scissor kick flying into the allotments. Revell then tried an overhead that was on target but clutched comfortably by Margetson.
Then, two minutes from time, came The Moment. Evans climbed all over Wanless in reaching a cross, and Tomlin gave a frankly rather soft penalty. Some United supporters, remarkably, got excited about this despite our pitiful record from the spot this season, presumably on the basis that Ashbee had actually scored our last one, at Wigan.
Le Dieu cheerfully acknowledged the chants for him to take it, but Ash had already collected the ball, and after a couple of minutes’ delay for treatment to Wanless, he stepped up to the oche. Would he smash it down the middle like he did last time? Did he heck. This time he opted for placement, and placed it carefully six feet wide of the left-hand post. All you could wish for in a training video of how not to take a penalty was there: inadequate short run-up, total lack of disguise, total lack of power, total lack of accuracy. No excuses, this was pathetic. And didn’t it just sum up this train crash of a season perfectly, both for United and for Mr Ashbee. Lionel next time, hmm?
The ref somehow found five minutes of added time, perhaps in sympathy, and it allowed young David Bridges time for a brief first team debut in which he almost battered through the Town defence but was foiled by three defenders, then conceded a foul. And that was that.
Remarkably, it transpired that at exactly the same point of the match in Newcastle, Alan ‘Laughing Boy’ Shearer had put a penalty in exactly the same spot as Ashbee. Oh, and Jimmy Dullard missed one for Boro too. Which just goes to show … Pen Idol is a difficult crown to wear. Isn’t it, Simon? ‘Absolutely. You need guts, determination and talent. And being homosexual might be a good idea too. Have I told you about my next idea? It’ll be Channel 5’s answer to ‘The Trench’ … it’s called ‘The Concentration Camp’. No, come back, it’ll be great telly! It’s got Freddie Starr as the Commandant! … ’
Perez 6 – Very little to do, no chance with the goal. What’s French for groundhog?
Goodhind 7 – Good, assured game by the Regulator, and particularly impressive distribution. Improves with every game.
Tann 7 – High standards maintained against the tricky Knight.
Duncan 6 – Competent display.
Murray 6 – Also did reasonably well.
Guttridge 7 – Outstanding first half, faded a little second half before coming strong again in the last 15.
Wanless 6 – Not bad, although some way from his inspirational best.
Ashbee 5 – Ordinary game and deducted one for that penalty. Harsh but fair.
Jackman 6 – Showed some good touches, if a little patchily.
Tudor 7 – Did well under the close attentions of multiple markers and unfortunate to be subbed.
Youngs 7 – Worked hard as ever although did his best work with his back to goal.
Scully 5 – Another frustrating display in which he fell over or lost the ball more often than not.
Revell 6 – Got involved reasonably well.
Bridges 6 – Had all of two minutes but packed a lot into it!
Match summary: Bloody repeats. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: plenty of possession, no penetration, concede soft goal, miss late penalty. Thanks to Stockport for saving us from being the first League team to be relegated this season. Let’s at least hang on until Easter, eh lads?
Man of the match: Luke Guttridge. Absolutely everywhere first half, his promise shone like a diamond in Britney’s belly-button. Not quite the same standard second half, but an exciting prospect for what will be a tough 2002-2003.
Ref watch: Tomlin 6. A flamboyant little showoff, to be sure, but not as good as he likes to think he is. Inconsistent and officious, although far from the worst this season.
Sunday 24 March 2002 – Blackpool 4-1 United
‘Sit down, son. It’s time you learned some of the facts of life. You see, nothing is handed to you on a silver platter; you have to work for everything. So you’ll just have to keep washing my car until you’ve earned enough pocket money to buy that Lamborghini convertible.’ ‘But …’ ‘Don’t interrupt. Now … girls. Treat them with respect at all times, and always tell me where you’re going with them and what time you’ll be back. And no later than 10.30! You’ll get to know them gradually and you’ll get along with them all the better … especially that Britney Spears I know you’ve got your eye on.’ ‘But … ’ ‘Ssh! Now, careers. Take your time, choose what’s right for you and always give your very best. The right job will come as long as you’re dedicated – even England football manager!’ ‘But I only want one thing, Shaggy. That’s for Cambridge United to win the LDV Vans Trophy!’ ‘Come on Dale, you’re being totally unrealistic now!’
So the dream is over. But what a long, crazy, fantastic trip it’s been: from the depths of Exeter, the absolute pits of the Cheltenham game, another Armand golden goal doing for Brighton, the routine defeat of Barnet, climaxing (lumme!) with that memorable night in Bristol. In a season of wretched underachievement in the League, the LDV run has truly been WD40 for the soul. We had no right to get to the Final at all; but nothing can ever take away the memory of a marvellous day out at the best stadium on the island (apart from the Abbey, of course) with over 7,000 other amber-bedecked friends for the day, so many stray sheep returned to the fold for one more time. Excuse me, I feel a Halle Berry moment coming on …
The residents of Newmarket Road got an early alarm call on Sunday morning as the crowds began to gather at the Abbey at six o’clock to await the 17 coaches that had been laid on by the marvellous Carol Looker and her merry band of Away Travellers. More dodgy wigs than a Terry Wogan lookalike contest, more flags than the United Nations building, more face paint than Joan Collins and Liz Taylor combined. There were an awful lot of unfamiliar faces, and many other more familiar ones that had been away for far too long … all seduced by what was dismissed at the start of a season as a meaningless tinpot competition. Which it is, until you get to the final stages, when all of a sudden it becomes a cheering chink of sunlight shining through the cloud of a season of gloom.
The impressive organisation in Cardiff was apparent from its approaches on the motorway, illuminated roadsigns indicating precisely which junction cars and coaches from each contingent should take to arrive at their separate destinations. And what a pleasant contrast from dismal, dilapidated, isolated Wembley is the city-centre location of the Millennium Stadium, within easy walking distance of all transport directions. The excited hordes had gathered outside the stadium long before the gates opened at 12:30; you could hear them from blocks away, the general hubbub dominated by klaxons and horns in an aural quilt that was simultaneously unmusical and strangely melodious. The weather, inevitably, was Cup Final glorious: the first day of summer after a long, hard winter of awayday disappointment. Old friends were greeted, new ones made, and it was clear that whatever happened on the lush green turf today, this was our consolation and, yes, reward for our fortitude this long, long season.
From the outside, the MillStad is a thing of beauty, all sky blue and white, steel and glass, soaring high above our heads like a UFO recently landed from a world infinitely more enlightened than our own. Inside, it is simply an awesome arena: three tiers (two at one end) of multi-coloured seats rising into the sky, forming a tight, atmospheric bowl topped by that retractable roof in the heavens. Huge state-of-the-art screens at each end relayed close-ups of the happenings in the stadium, and hearts swelled with pride when it flashed up individual pictures of our own squad in 30-foot high pixels. Although I’m not sure who ‘Angus Stevland’ is, exactly.
The players came out for their warm-up at 1.15, gazing around them in awe, and were greeted warmly by the brightly coloured hordes, amber at one end and satsuma at the other. Le Dieu stunned us all with his new Samsonesque haircut: the curly mullet was no more! Here was one character who would not be fazed by the occasion, and he milked the deserved applause for all he was worth. In a nice touch, youngsters Revell, Chillingworth and Bridges warmed up with their colleagues despite not making the squad, although the unfortunate ‘So’ Tony Scully was conspicuous by his absence. Last to stroll on to the pitch was the Legend himself, Shaggy, sporting his natty grey Cup Final suit, waving to his disciples. It began to sink in now. This was just like the FA Cup Final build-up on telly, and although it was ‘only’ the LDV, this was OUR Cup Final, little Cambridge United treading where so few clubs have trodden before.
Excitement continued to build as a mighty male voice choir belted out a stirring number about coal mining and sheep (or something), then performed the songs chosen by the respective clubs. For Blackpool, it was the jolly if frankly trite 60s relic Glad All Over, more usually associated with Crystal Palace (a Top 50 hit for the Eagles in 1990, pop pickers); for United, it was the moving song of dignity and inner fortitude, Something Inside So Strong, accompanied by the lyrics on the big screens. A few of us found we had something in our eye, and wished we’d brought our sunglasses. Shame they didn’t sing Coconuts though, eh? Then it was Abide With Me, followed by the entrance of the players to a quite stupendous yellow tickertape welcome from the United end which was truly dazzling in its scale and spectacle. The sun shining on the fluttering pieces of paper made them resemble a shower of gold leaf descending from the heavens to crown their heroes below.
Sir Geoff ‘Did I ever tell you about my World Cup hat-trick?’ Hurst was royalty for the day, and after presentations and God Save The Queen the serious sporting business was about to begin. Butterflies were rampant in the stomachs of the spectators, so Lord only knows how all those young lads out there in blue were feeling. The team line-up, as named in Paul Wanless’ hilarious pen pictures in the luxurious £4 programme, read: Wiggy; The Incredible Sleeping Man, Mr Opinionated, Gadget Man, Unconvincing Irishman; The Incredible Sulk, Ronald McDonald, Wannabe Skip, Oompah Loompah; Brother of Wos, Statto.
In hindsight, it was a line-up that came more from the heart than the head. Angus for Goodhind was fair enough, although Warren G had done nothing wrong of late, but the midfield was where it would all come unstuck. Lil’ Luke Guttridge was a central midfielder playing wide right, Fivepole Tudor a right-footer playing left wing, while the central pairing of Ashbee and Wanless has failed creatively on innumerable previous occasions, even when Captain Fantastic was fit, which he plainly was not today; ditto BGG Kitson upfront. Tudor wide right and Jackman wide left would have yielded better balance, and Guttridge has been United’s best central midfielder for weeks. But hindsight’s a thing of the past now …
First attack came from the boys in blue, an excellent forward run by Tudor into the Blackpool area only spoilt by a misunderstanding with Tiny Tom when a killer pass would have presented either with a first-minute strike on goal. But United’s youngsters’ nerves were jangling, and it was the much more experienced Satsumas who began to take control, doubtless thinking back to their play-off victory in this very arena less than a year ago.
Pool countered immediately, a left-wing John Hills cross finding the head of gigantic target man John Murphy, who bulleted an effort wide when he might have done better. Then Adam Tann slipped while tussling for the ball with Scott Taylor and the Pool striker miskicked hopelessly wide 15 yards from goal. Two warning shots already; there’s Klingons on the starboard bow, Cap’n. United clung on to parity for only five minutes as Pool turned the screw. Wellens’ short corner to Hills saw the United defence advance away from goal in anticipation of an offside claim, but woe of woes, Andy Duncan was left back in the six-yard box, and Hills’ pinpoint, curling cross over Duncan’s colleagues’ heads found the predatory Murphy, totally unmarked, to head comfortably home from close range past the helpless Dieu sans Mullet. As starts go, this was a ten-car shunt on the first corner.
United, jolted from their nervousness, began to respond. Ashbee and Wanless put themselves about in the middle, Tudor threatened sporadically and the front two began to get involved and look dangerous. Early chances fell to Kitson, a shot and header from a corner both comfortably taken by keeper Paul Barnes. On 12 the BGG embarked on another run into the area and fell to the ground under plump veteran Ian Marshall’s challenge, but ref Furnandiz showed no interest in awarding United a penalty. Would we even want one with our record? We’ve been more wayward than a tooled-up So Solid Crew this season.
Blackpool reasserted their early superiority and the tricky Richie Wellens cut through the United defence like a Bowie through Flora on 14, just losing a little cool when in on goal and blasting across goal and wide of the far post from a narrow angle when perhaps a cross to the centrally positioned Murphy may have yielded more reward. The Satsumas continued to dominate as United failed to get a firm handhold on Mount LDV, that man Murphy firing just wide and heading over, then Le Dieu du But getting down well to stop a Taylor drive from 18 yards after Bullock had run amok in United’s delicate china shop of a right flank.
United were losing it on the wings, neither Guttridge nor Tudor in positions best suited to them, and both lads obviously racked with nerves. It was only when they switched halfway through the half, enabling Tudor to attack the opposition on his good foot, that they began to get a grip. And on 28 came (temporary) salvation. A superb Kitson through ball found Tiny Tom scampering into the area, and as he was about to pull the trigger, his legs were taken by the Great Unpronounceable, Tommy Jaszczun, who was lucky to escape with only a yellow.
Penalty! Despite ourselves, we felt our excitement rise. How many more could we miss, for Beck’s sake? Captain Fantastic, obviously struggling with his niggling injury, proved once again that for all his technical limitations, he is an example and inspiration to us all by boldly claiming the ball for the biggest spot-kick of his life. Nothing fancy this time: like Ashbee at Wigan, he just got his head down and wellied it decisively straight down the middle as Barnes dived obligingly out of the way. Yess! The Satsuma’d hordes were, fleetingly, as silent as Thatcher. And that can only be a good thing.
Now United’s young braves found confidence and inspiration, and began to show how good they can be. Tudor beat the Pool defence in a right-wing run, and his accurate cross found Tiny Tom’s head at the near post, but his attempt to guide it into the far top corner sailed over. Then the same two linked in reverse, but the Tiddler’s effort was blocked for a corner. Further hope for United came when Marshall, carrying an injury like his skippering oppo, was forced to withdraw in favour of Ian Hughes.
Youngs set up Guttridge for a fizzer just shy of the near post, then came the pivotal moment of the match for the boys in blue. Guttridge, back on the right, sent a rapier-like through ball into the path of Kitson, through on goal 18 yards out, defenders in hot pursuit and Barnes advancing to narrow the angle. Unfortunately, as on too many occasions by United players this season, he took one touch too many, and Barnes was able to block his attempt with his feet for a corner. Good save, but what a chance for 2-1. Opportunity would not knock this way again … and I mean that most sincerely, folks.
Remarkably, it could and should have been 2-1 to Blackpool before half-time. Lee Collins’ weighted through ball found Taylor clear in on goal 20 yards out, and looking so offside that even HE claimed for it, raising both his arms in supplication before realising, belatedly, that there was to be no flag. His hesitation allowed Le Dieu the time to rush out to meet him, and he blocked the striker’s drive superbly with his legs for a corner. Methinks Mr Taylor’s shy, retiring boss may have had a few choice words to bellow into his hapless ear during the break about playing to the whistle. Not that he’d have been able to hear it after that.
So ended a breathless, deathless first period, during which Blackpool had threatened to run away with it, but United had then responded magnificently: Even Stevens (Shaky’s more stable brother). The U’s had looked most effective with Tudor wide right, and playing the ball on the floor in slick, accurate passing movements. There had been too many occasions when a lazy, hopeful long ball had been played up the field and returned with interest by Pool’s hulking back four. And it was obvious that for United’s youngsters, there were more jangling nerve-endings out there than in your average dentist’s surgery. But the dream was still alive.
Sadly for us dreamers from the spires, the best was already over. Blackpool came out of the traps from the restart like slavering Rottweilers and took the game to their opponents with a vengeance. The United back four soon all got opportunities to show their excellence in the tackle, but for some reason Tudor and Guttridge had swapped wings again, and it was down the flanks that the game was lost. Now Pool’s wide men, Martin Bullock and John Hills, began to show their mettle, and it weighed heavily on the United rearguard. Luke and Shane were obviously struggling with a mixture of tiredness and nerves, and Messrs B&H were soon smoking trails behind them, often in tandem with a teammate to outnumber United’s hapless full backs. Wannie, for all his great heart, appeared to be feeling his injury more and more, and Ashbee, who has in any case had a disappointing season, could do little on his own.
Hills tested Le Dieu on 50, a dangerous low drive well blocked. Then Guttridge conceded a free-kick out on the United right, a little unluckily, and Wellens’ flaming arrow of a cross flicked off Taylor’s forehead before being buried from close in by unchallenged centre-back Chris Clarke, United’s vulnerability to such set pieces cruelly exposed.
The boys in blue must now surely have been thinking ‘here we go again’. They added to their own problems by the frequency with which they gave the ball away cheaply, Wanless unfortunately guilty on several occasions, usually setting the opposition up for another menacing break down either flank. Kitson and Youngs did their best to hold the ball up on the increasingly rare occasions on which they could get it, the BGG memorably on one occasion picking up wide left on halfway and, finding no support from his tiring colleagues, teased and tempted his marker all the way to the touchline to earn an unlikely corner.
Just after the hour, an exhausted Tudor was replaced by Danny Jackman, but Blackpool now had all the momentum of Lisa Riley descending their Tower on a spacehopper. Perez made two good saves in a minute from Hills’ fierce close-ranger and an O’Kane blaster, then more rapid approach play saw an unholy scramble in the six-yard box in which Murphy looked likely to slide home with his telescopic legs until Le Dieu somehow courageously smothered.
United managed a brief flurry at the other end, Ashbee’s 20-yard daisycutter actually deflected nearer the goal by O’Kane but fizzing a yard wide, then away broke Pool again for an encore performance from Lionel as he blocked a Taylor drive with his legs. On 73 the tiring Kitson made way for our Golden Goal talisman, the Armand Hammer himself, but this was not his time or place, for once. Wannie, still on the pitch despite his losing battle with incapacity, telegraphed a dreadful crossfield ball towards Angus which Hills gobbled up and, advancing towards goal, hammered just wide of the far post.
But this was just a rehearsal for the Pool left-winger’s killer goal on 76. Once again the beleaguered United defence failed to stop Hills scything through them, and this time his scudder from left of goal found the net via the boot of the unlucky Tann. Lionel’s magnificent one-man rearguard had finally been breached again. United’s prospects of winning now had as much substance as ITV Digital’s balance sheet.
The subs tried gamely to take the game to their opponents, but eight minutes from time the United back line played statues again and Taylor slipped through to beat Le Dieu from six yards. Name-on-the-runner’s-up-medal. Warren G replaced Angus and Pool gave ex-U Walker and Simpson a five-minute runout, and man mountain Murphy won two more headers on goal in the dying seconds, leniently missing the target both times. At the death, Captain Fantastic, driving himself beyond exhaustion, almost snatched a second from a corner, his header clutched on the line by Barnes. And that was that.
So much for feng shui. We’d have been better off trying Hai Karate. Lionel threw his shirt into the crowd at the end, and his waving and hand-shaking had an ominous air of goodbye rather than au revoir. Say it ain’t so. United’s crestfallen troops collected their medals, and let’s hope they grow to treasure them with the passing of time. To even get this far was a remarkable achievement, and they should all be proud of their cup run this season. Just don’t mention the League, hmm?
After Blackpool’s players collected the trophy, they started their lap of honour to the musical backing of, surreally, gay anthem It’s Raining Men. Another Pool choice? Is there something you’re not telling us, Mr McMahon? It was a long, slow trudge back to the transport, enlivened only by the increasingly desperate entreaties of the unofficial flag-sellers, whose prices fell by the minute. But it had still been an unforgettable day, and some (little) consolation for everything else this term. And how nice to see so many United supporters in one place after all this time. Who knows when we’ll be all together again?
Perez 9 – Hair or no, le Dieu banished the memory of a nightmare performance in his last ‘big’ game, the 1997/98 Div 1 play-offs, by proving that he is a big game player … and how. He was fantastic, even marching to the centre circle with the ball after conceding number three to gee his team up. And he had no chance with the goals!
Angus 7 – Recovered from a shaky start to show he can still defend classily, even when left horrendously exposed by his colleagues.
Tann 7 – Came through his biggest test yet pretty darn well. His career curve just goes up and up.
Duncan 6 – Must hold his hand up for the first goal but recovered to have a reasonable game thereafter.
Murray 6 – Kept his head well under enormous pressure and also did as well as could be expected in the circumstances.
Guttridge 6 – Not his greatest, but a tremendous learning experience. Didn’t let anyone down and this will stand him in good stead for his bright-looking future … as a central midfielder.
Wanless 6 – It was painful at times to watch this gutsy, big-hearted man struggling on despite his obvious injury. Fantastic courage to take and score the penalty, and although he should have been withdrawn, he deserved to stay on until the end with his troops.
Ashbee 6 – Battled valiantly against increasingly insurmountable odds. Nothing to be ashamed of today.
Tudor 7 – Apparently he was absolutely crippled with nerves. Well he didn’t show it for much of his match, and if he had been allowed to patrol the right wing for longer, who knows what impact he might have had.
Youngs 8 – Mr Perpetual Motion. If he and Kitson had overcome injury to play the whole season together, they’d have got at least 30 between them. Well, 20 anyway. Never stopped running and working.
Kitson 7 – Still divides opinion, but considering his lack of fitness, he did a decent job, and some of those flicks and passes show class well above this level. Pray he is fully fit next season.
Jackman 6 – Didn’t come on in the best of circumstances and worked hard for little reward.
Oné 6 – Not this time. Even more hopeless task for the Hammer, but invaluable experience at least.
Goodhind 6 – No more than a cameo appearance. And that doesn’t mean he wore a huge red codpiece.
Match summary: The Final was a bridge too far for United as a combination of youthful nerves and old injuries prevented them from giving their best. Ultimately, they were beaten by a much better team on the day, who seem to keep their best form just for us. Otherwise why aren’t they in the top five? Still and all, a truly memorable day in CUFC history. Be glad you were there.
Man of the match: Lionel Perez. Treasure his memory. Even if he doesn’t leave.
Ref watch: Furnandiz 7. Reasonable game, although Jaszczun was lucky he benefited from his leniency. I reckon he didn’t fancy trying to spell it.
Tuesday 2 April 2002 – United 4-1 Chesterfield
The strange, unearthly sound crackled through the evening air. It seemed to come from all around us: a noise like the trumpets of Earthbound seraphim, then a voice, intoning some ancient language that was almost, but not quite English. Was this some communication from a higher, infinitely older and wiser race of beings, attempting to convey a profound message of truth and wisdom to our primitive, ignorant ears? ‘Roalaboalaboala peniapitz!’ it exhorted, again and again, as we strained to understand its cryptic tidings. The alien words sounded almost familiar now, the tone well-nigh musical, then in a blinding flash of cognition, one phrase burst into our frontal lobes: ‘I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts!’ ‘Strike a light!’ said one of the amber-shirted horde, ‘it’s been so long since I heard it, I’d almost forgotten what it sounded like!’
It was January 22 when United last won a game at ‘Fortress’ Abbey, 2-0 against Wycombe Wanderers. It was 12 September 2000 when they last scored four goals in a game, against Port Vale. So forgive our ever-faithful fans a pinch of disbelief as it sinks in that their team has walloped Chesterfield by four goals to one in the sort of resounding victory that they thought had been consigned to the dim and distant past. Now if only we’d have been able to play our joker and double our points, we might still have a chance of staying up, hmm? Knockout.
There was a strange and unfamiliar air of relaxation around the Abbey tonight. The final mathematical certainty of relegation has freed both players and supporters of the fetters of worry about poor results and league positions; let’s fret about money and ITV Digital tomorrow, OK? Chesterfield, not quite safe but reasonably well placed, would surely be equally footloose and fancy free, and we could look forward to a late-season feast of carefree, flowing football. Half right …
Interestingly, Shaggy made only one change from the team that was mugged at Oldham, and that enforced: Adam Tann replaced injured Andy Duncan. The boss’s unwillingness to ‘throw in the kids’ suggested that preparation for next season is already under way, and tonight’s line-up could conceivably form the nucleus of United’s 2002/03 campaign. For the visitors, keeper Nathan Abbey was warmly welcomed by the home supporters and they again made sure he took away their very best wishes to his brother, our old friend Zema. ‘Tell your brother he’s a card,’ indeed.
After a lap of honour from the U’s (saying thank you for the LDV support, not displaying a new, heavily ironic streak), then a pin-dropping minute’s silence during which Le Dieu Sans Mullet tried desperately to communicate non-verbally that he needed a green shirt to replace the red effort he was wearing, the same as Chesterfield’s away strip, then the production of said jersey, we were ready for the off.
The visitors started with an attacking-looking line-up, no doubt slyly confident of obtaining the three points that would virtually guarantee their survival, but it was United who quickly gained the upper hand. Every player looked more full of beans than a Heinz can, the two scurrying wide players Tudor and Scully looking most dangerous of all, ably supported from behind by flying full-backs Fleming and Murray and from inside by a dynamic-looking Ashbee and Guttridge, while upfront BGG Kitson led the line as only he can and Tiny Tom buzzed as busily as a bee with a really demanding honey quota to fulfil.
Kitson is the one player United have missed most this season; his ability to shield, hold and distribute the ball as he leads the line is unique at the club, and aside from his obvious goalscoring prowess, his way with an incisive pass, flick and through-ball is much underrated. Our other strikers are either too inexperienced or just too darn small. He set up Scully with a chance early on, his effort (is it a cross? is it a shot? is it a turkey?) flashing wide, but when the two’s roles were reversed on five minutes, we hit paydirt.
Youngs laid off to Oompah Loompah Tudor (he’s more orange than Ian Paisley) on halfway. He cut inside, slipped it to ‘Queenie’ Scully (steady), then continued his diagonal run to receive the return on the left-hand corner of the Chesterfield area. He laid it back to Scully, whose inch-perfect near post cross found Kitson losing his marker completely with a superb, instinctive run that ended with his firm, accurate header nestling decisively in the bottom far corner of the net as Abbey looked on helplessly, frozen as if he’d just realised what the Corona had really called his brother. A delightful goal and the perfect start.
United continued to torment the Spireites down both flanks; we hadn’t seen such out-and-out, unashamed wing-play since the halcyon days of Cheetham and Philpott. Don’t mention Efon Elad. On 12, a characteristic Tudor run and cross led to Steve Blatherwick miskicking horribly six yards out, his attempted clearance falling straight on to Tiny Tom’s right foot, but it came at him so quickly and unexpectedly that he could only slash at it instinctively and send it sailing over the bar from 15 yards out. Three minutes later, a free-kick just outside the area was touched to Murray, whose left-footed fizzer had Abbey panicking as it cannoned off the foot of the post. The new Ian Harte? Er, no, but a promising additional string to his bow.
Chesterfield took 20 minutes to mount any sort of menace, and then Stev Angus showed once again that he is one of the best tacklers in the division by dispossessing Jamie Burt with the sort of exquisitely timed challenge that has become his speciality. United continued to dominate, even Ashbee testing Abbey from 30 yards with a cannonball blast which the keeper had to leap to save to his left. He had to do it again seconds later when another Scully run was met by Kitson, whose first-time effort was pawed away unconvincingly like Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion swatting a marauding mosquito.
The hapless Blatherwick was having such a dreadful game that he was subbed after less than half an hour, replaced by Jon Howard and no doubt retreating to the dressing room to reflect on an evening about as successful as Britney’s acting debut. Sean Parrish was then booked by officious ref Walton (we’ll deal with him later) for an unsubtle clog on Tudor, as ’field began to show signs of losing their cool under the relentless rolling waves of amber attacks. The tide became a tsunami on 30 as another excellent left-wing move climaxed with another pinpoint Scully cross, just evading Kitson but finding Tudor marauding at the far post and getting in front of his marker to poke gleefully home from six yards. As at Brighton, the orange one removed his shirt and celebrated bare-chested. Thankfully he didn’t turn green and grow enormous muscles and an equally enormous mullet while his shorts grew unfeasibly short but stayed on. Hulk score goal! Hulk kick ass!
On 34 ref John-Boy began to show his true, finicky colours. Terrier Fleming, having a rousing match, was unluckily adjudged to have handled on halfway and threw the ball back over his head towards where the kick was be taken as he retreated towards his own goal. Walton took a dislike to this and chose to book him, presumably for throwing the ball away; well, ‘throwing the ball towards’ isn’t a bookable offence (yet). He then added insult to injury by advancing the free-kick ten yards for dissent, chucking his weight around totally unnecessarily.
Thankfully this was all forgotten two minutes later with the best goal yet. Kitson spotted Tiny Tom wide left on halfway and threaded a magnificently weighted through ball into his path. Tom advanced on goal at full pace, chased by Wayne Buchanan who clawed and grabbed at his shirt all the way. If Tom had gone down at any stage, a red card would surely have ensued for the defender, but TT is as honest as Peter Crouch is long and, showing new-found strength and resilience, held him off then shot for goal 15 yards out. Abbey blocked with his chest as he went down, but it rebounded back to Tom who slammed triumphantly home past Howson’s despairing lunge on the line. One of the goals of the season. 3-0! Pinch me! Ow, not there!
The visitors were now severely rattled and this was reflected by many of their players’ niggling, over-aggressive attitude. Skipper Martin Booty pushed Kitson to the ground at a throw-in with a look on his face hitherto unseen since Charles Manson in his prime … unpunished, of course. It was Burt who incurred the Spireites’ second yellow for a brainless, pointless hack at Tudor by the touchline. This isn’t supposed to happen, you could see them thinking. ’Snot fair! I’m going to thcweam and thcweam until I’m thick! United were applauded rapturously from the pitch at the interval, not in sympathy this time but in simple acclaim for a superb, gutsy, spirited, footballing performance. Lumme.
Speaking of thick (as a whale omelette), Burt continued in much the same vein early in the second half, fouling Tudor twice more in quick succession. Walton kept his cards to himself; would he have done so if Burt hadn’t already been booked? The hapless No 8 was finally subbed on 55 minutes, doubtless for his own good. Silly billy.
Just before that came what was so nearly a goal to trump even the first three. A corner was half-cleared up in the air and it fell to Kitson to the right of goal, 15 yards out. As it dropped out of the night sky, the BGG unleashed a simply awesome first-time volley that blurred its way unerringly towards goal like a bolt of lightning. Abbey was fortunate that he was in its way on his line, but still did exceptionally well to beat it away like someone blowing on their fingers after slamming them in a car door. Such was the force of Kitson’s shot, it bounced fully 20 yards off Abbey for another corner. The silver-shirted custodian saved well again a minute later from a Youngs skimmer from the edge of the area.
After this breathless excitement, the game slowed a little as the visitors gamely attempted to get back into it. Guttridge saw a 20-yarder whizz past the post on the hour, then came danger for the previously untroubled United defence as the visitors smuggled the ball into their area from the right and Mark Allott’s close-range scuffler beat Perez but was somehow blocked on the line by a spreadeagled Fleming before eventually being smothered by Le Dieu.
United dashed ’field’s burgeoning hopes of a comeback on 64. This time Guttridge was provider from wide right, his high cross evading all but Scully, whose firm 15-yard header looked as certain a winner as a Tony McCoy mount as it arrowed into the bottom right corner past a once-again despairing Abbey. Queenie’s first goal for United, and he indicated to the delighted fans his own pleasure and surprise at his unexpected method of despatch. It couldn’t get any better than this.
Actually it didn’t, but let’s not be greedy. It was now time to give some of United’s hard-working heroes a rest, and in the space of 11 minutes Kitson was replaced by the promising David Bridges, Ashbee by Neil Mustoe (in the shop window or an unexpected contender for a squad place next season?) and Tiny Tom by Alex Revell. It’s been a long time since the U’s could afford such luxuries.
It was also time for ref Walton to take the fine art of pompous jobsworthiness to a new nadir. Murray shaped to take a throw-in near halfway on the left touchline, but delayed a couple of times as he searched for the right target. Suddenly came a whistle; Walton marched over, chest puffed up like a peeved puffin, and booked Murray for … time-wasting! That’s right, with his team 4-0 up, looking for number five, with 20 minutes to go. Only in this lamentable larrikin’s addled brain could there even have been the remotest thought of such an ‘offence’. In Mr W we have the most pitiful example yet of someone who knows everything about the rulebook and nothing about the game of football. Truly pathetic.
Most disturbing of all was Walton’s disregard of some bad tackles which he obviously deemed less worthy of punishment than throwing the ball in the air or a few seconds’ delay of a throw-in. Bridges was assaulted from behind by Glynn Hurst not a minute after Murray’s booking, but this was not of course deemed serious enough to warrant a card. He finally showed one to Howard for yet another foul. Conscience, John-Boy?
Consolation time came for the visitors on 77. Sub David Diarrhoea, sorry D’Auria, was given time and space to shoot from 25 yards, and his excellent bomber was very well saved by Le Dieu flinging himself to his right. Unfortunately for him, Hurst had anticipated the outcome and nodded the rebound home from close range. As big a consolation as telling a Halifax fan that Leigh RMI is actually a really nice ground to visit.
Tudor, who had again had a much quieter second half, burst into life on 80 with a marvellous run from the centre circle which ended with his 18-yard shot saved by Abbey. Mustoe got himself booked (surprise!) for, er, not a lot, then another dazzling Scully run down the left touchline saw Howard stick out a cynical, tired foot to trip him as he whooshed by like a comet. Even Walton couldn’t disregard this one, and two yellows equalled red for the foolish ’field defender.
Guttridge saw another shot wide after good holdup work by Bridges, then there were shouts for a penalty (not again!) as the ball appeared to be propelled by Howson’s hand; then it fell to Revell less than ten yards out but he shot disappointingly wide of the near post as howls for the penalty still rang out like a ravenous werewolves’ convention.
And that was that. A satisfying, exciting, winning performance by a young United team that worked and played for each other, and produced some fine, fine football along the way. A portent of next season? We’ve had false dawns before, but hey, in these oh-so-troubled times, a little optimism and positivity surely can’t go amiss. I said don’t mention ITV Digital!
Perez 8 – Did all he had to do with his usual aplomb. Unfortunate with the goal.
Fleming 9 – Tremendous, tireless display from the dependable terrier. Exceptional, speedy covering and tackling.
Tann 9 – Utterly imperious; never looked ruffled.
Angus 8 – Also excellent. When it comes to tackles, he’s up there with Linford Christie. In a manner of speaking.
Murray 9 – This lad just gets better and better; splendid defending and attacking. Vital cog next season.
Tudor 8 – Unstoppable first half, just faded a little in the second. He’ll terrorise Div 3 after a proper pre-season.
Ashbee 8 – Looks like a contract expiry really can concentrate the mind. Best of (admittedly poor) season.
Guttridge 8 – Another important player for next season. Looks like he’s ruled midfield for years.
Scully 9 – So THIS is why we signed him! Tore Chesterfield to shreds, and his crossing was just immaculate.
Kitson 8 – This guy is total class, and if he stays and stays fit, will score 20 and make 20 more next season. Honest.
Youngs 8 – It’s been a long, hard season for Tiny Tom, but he’s now back near his best. Great, great goal.
Bridges 8 – Another one for the (near) future. Some very good moments.
Mustoe 7 – Quietly competent in the middle. Just watch the temper.
Revell 7 – Did fine in his brief spell on the pitch.
Match summary: United produced their own book of condolence for their mourning fans as they produced a wonderful, all-out attacking display for their best win of the season. Too late for this season, but the build-up for next term has already started.
Man of the match: Tony Scully. Most inspiring wingplay since the Angel Gabriel.
Ref watch: Walton 1. What’s that saying about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing? He knows his rulebook but he has no idea how to apply it in the big, bad real world. No sense of proportion. He should concentrate more on rooting out and cracking down on foul play – consistently – and not irritating the life out of everyone with silly, pompous decisions about trivialities.
Saturday 13 April 2002 – United 2-1 Tranmere Rovers
Stardate: 5151.51. This Planet Terra is a place of many alien wonders and curiosities. We have landed in a territory called ‘Eng-er-lund’ which appears to be ruled by a being called Becks and his consort Posh, who forces her subjects to listen to her singing despite their obvious discomfort at the discordant shrieking noises which emanate from her vocal area. Most curious. The inhabitants’ primary diet consists of a mixture of processed animal and vegetable matter and semi-toxic chemicals, whose manufacture is controlled by a disturbing android called Ronald McDonald. The ‘gherkins’ in particular are evil and their spread must be suppressed at all costs. Primary mode of transport is by petroleum-fuelled combustion engine, around which they build elaborate gaily-decorated steering platforms which they propel recklessly at dangerous speeds. Then they smash them all to bits. Highly illogical.
Foremost seat of learning and culture in this land is a settlement known as Cambridge, and it is there that our Away Team obtained a valuable insight into the very heart and soul of the Terrans. The focus for their emotional and spiritual wellbeing is called The Abbey, where they congregate at least once a week in ceremonial garb of black and amber to worship their god. Remarkably, he is a living god made flesh, somewhat resembling a strategically shaven Wookie: an entity of supernatural charisma and magnetism referred to as simply Le Dieu, who leads his followers with great charm and inspiration. Truly, here is a being worthy of a close encounter. In fact we’ve just signed him on a Bosman for Tattooine Galaxy Wanderers in time for our promotion push for next season. Make it so, Number One!
The sun shone brightly on the last match day of the season at the Abbey. The crowd was boosted substantially by the numerous children and parents attracted by United’s cut-price Family Day; the more cynical among us wondered where the NSPCC counsellors would be based after the season we’ve all suffered through. We were all treated to the club’s new glossy brochure, which spookily included a piece by Shaggy apparently beamed in via a time tunnel from the future: ‘We have already had a very successful Family Day at the end of the 2001/02 season …’ Looks like he’s already lining up his next career move as the next Dr Who – after leading us to the Premiership, of course. He could have some exciting battles against the Swamp Creatures from up the A1, and Barry Fry would surely make a cracking Davros, burbling power-mad nonsense in a strange, incomprehensible accent. And Reg Smart IS The Master.
JT continued his rehearsals for next season by making only one enforced change from Tuesday’s lineup, Warren G in for Terrier Fleming. The end-of-season atmosphere was enhanced further by the presentation of Player of the Year awards to Le Dieu by the Goddess of the Internet on what was to be an emotional rollercoaster of a day revolving around the Gallic goalkeeping genius. Tranmere fielded a full-strength team in what was for them a meaningless game at the end of a disappointing season in which their best win was 6-1 against, er, remind me again?
The players emerged from the tunnel in bright sunshine, but none of the crowd sported the usual end-of-term apparel of T-shirt and shorts due to the bitingly cold wind (well, the season does finish early this year). The boys in amber ran up to the stands to punt free footballs to their adoring followers, although Shane Tudor, bless him, summed up our season perfectly by somehow booting his ball completely over the top of the Habbin and into the cowpats beyond from almost under the stand; quite an achievement, I’m sure you’ll agree. He may well have blushed, but it was a little hard to tell under that fake tan.
United started fairly well, wide men Tudor and Scully taking the game to the visitors with some positive forward running. Queenie’s early cross was headed clear by Gareth Roberts as Tiny Tom waited hopefully, then a Tudor break found his wing oppo scurrying down the right, then cutting inside before unleashing a rather ambitious 25-yard shot that Joe Murphy saved comfortably. This was a foretaste of the afternoon from Scully, who frequently roamed all over the pitch in search of the ball rather than sticking rigidly to the left wing; a bit like the Labour government, eh? My name’s Ben Elton, goodnight! I’m off to write some crappy musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen!
Opening exchanges could fairly be described as scrappy, as you might expect from two teams long since resigned to underachieving seasons. Tranmere played almost with a front three, Jason Price well advanced in his wide left role, but Goodhind was continuing his recent good form by keeping him firmly shackled. For the hosts, the wide men starred, the middle two not looking fully at their best, while Tiny Tom whirred willingly around the hub of a BGG Kitson who still doesn’t look nearly as mobile as he did before his injury problems set in.
First real excitement came on 19 as Le Dieu treated us to two vintage saves for old time’s sake. Roberts’ cross from the right was met by Richard Hinds near the penalty spot, but his blaster was athletically blocked by Lionel with his body, then Sean Thornton tried poking home from the rebound and met with another instinctive stop, this time with his leg, from the maestro. Who said goalkeepers don’t win games?
United’s response was a quick Tudor break that culminated in Ashbee’s decent shot from 20 yards flashing six feet wide of the far post. Goodhind then produced an excellent saving tackle to stop Price, while back at the other end our new free kick specialist Freddie Murray missed the opposite post to Ashbee by about the same margin. So far, so not bad … at least better than the last two efforts, which were bigger pants than Rik Waller’s Y-fronts. Now there’s an image to haunt your every waking hour.
Just before the half-hour, Thornton, camp as Christmas in his bleached hair and white boots which, coupled with his all-white strip, made him resemble a sweet little fairy on top of a tree, was fouled by Murray in crossing from the right, five yards outside the penalty area. As a panoply of players jostled for position in a packed box, Roberts’ wickedly curling cross swirled across the area and straight in at the far post without touching anyone. Le Dieu was furious and protested long and hard, although I’m not sure even he knew what about. He just needed a good shout. Janov would surely have approved.
United pressed on gamely, like the fans trying to suppress that nagging feeling of déjà vu. Kitson essayed an outrageous long-ranger from near the centre circle seeing Murphy off his line, and it was actually a pretty decent effort, whooshing ten feet wide as the keeper looked on bemusedly. The BGG came even nearer a minute later from a Youngs lay-off, and one couldn’t help thinking that the game would have been enlivened even further if we could have used the wooden fence at the away end as a backboard à la five-a-side and thundered shots off it without a goal-line spoiling things. Imagine Scully scampering down the left wing, around the back of the goal then emerging the other side to tap one in at the right-hand post! Food for thought, League bigwigs.
Highlight of the half’s remaining minutes was the booking of Mr Blond Thornton for kicking the ball away petulantly as he stamped his little foot. He could’ve crushed a grape. Scully looked positively butch in comparison. The interval arrived with a resigned sigh of frustration from the home faithful, their boys once again one down in an even contest that had not squared effort with achievement. The pitch during the half-time break resembled nothing so much as a garden fete, with events all over it: an inflatable shot-speed-testing thingy, Marvin careering around on a Shopmobility scooter, subs playing keepy-uppy, little Olga Korbuts performing gymnastics in the centre circle and groups of bewildered-looking people wandering around like a tour guide had just stumbled in with them fresh from gawping at one of the colleges. At least they weren’t carrying EF bags. Wannie gave us a cheerful wave as he hobnobbed with one group, then left it too late to run across the pitch back to the tunnel because the players had already come back on for the second half, and had to walk back rather sheepishly the long way round.
Part two brought the welcome introduction of young David Bridges, this time in midfield, as Ashbee moved back to centre half to replace the injured Angus. Le Dieu was resplendent in dark blue and grey for this half after the red of the first.
Tudor issued a statement of intent almost immediately with a power-packed, jet-propelled push-and-run from halfway past three dumbfounded opponents, eventually winning a corner. First goal opportunity fell to Tranmere, Ashbee’s error letting Stuart Barlow in clear on goal as Tann gave pursuit. Barlow’s shot from 15 yards was decent, but Le Dieu was superbly equal to it as he palmed it round for a corner.
The corner was turned a couple of minutes later. Lil’ Luke Guttridge’s right-wing D-kick brushed Kitson’s head, and there was Bridges near the penalty spot, bulleting a fantastic, unstoppable header high into the net, worthy of Captain Fantastic himself. First goal for the youngster and he celebrated joyfully with the NRE. Looks like we’ve found another gem!
The match opened up as both teams went at each other, and suddenly we had a truly entertaining spectacle on our hands. Haworth tested Perez with a header from a Navarro cross, then Tiny Tom was in the wars as he clashed with Murphy. Remarkably, it was the visiting keeper who came off worse, needing lengthy treatment; Tom must have been at the Irn Bru. Navarro was next to test Le Dieu on another break, but once again our hero was equal to the task with another excellent save. He’s been at the Chateau Mouton Rothschild ’69.
United threatened to take the lead on 67 with two efforts in a matter of seconds. Scully’s cross was sent skywards by Tudor, and Kitson was on the end of it to send a spectacular overhead kick goalward; its direction was perfect, heading for the top right corner, but it had insufficient power to beat the grabbing hands of Murphy. The keeper’s throw-out, however, was intercepted by Guttridge 30 yards out, and his pinpoint cross found the BGG’s head for an excellent nod down which was superbly saved low to his right by Murphy, almost on the goal line.
Four minutes later, United’s pressure paid off as they took a deserved lead. Another speedy run down the right from Tudor, and his cross found Tiny Tom bombing in to the right of goal. The cross was almost too close to Tom, but his reaction header looped gracefully over Murphy and nestled in the far corner of the net as precisely and devastatingly as a Lily Savage put-down. Tranmere responded positively by replacing Henry with the more offensively minded Parkinson. No, not like Lily Savage, although you’re in the right part of the country.
Haworth fell to the ground under Guttridge’s challenge in the United area on 78, but sadly for him Lil’ Luke had won the ball and the Tranmere No 10, almost twice Luke’s size, found ref Cable’s book for diving. Nul points. Then Navarro’s through ball to Roberts offered Le Dieu another opportunity to show the visitors that there was no way that they would be beating him again today.
A minute later came the moment the Abbey faithful had been pleading for since last season. Clint Hill was a little harshly adjudged to have handled Tudor’s cross, although he wasn’t booked, and Cable pointed to the spot. The familiar ‘Lionel!’ chant went up, and this time the crowd’s plea was answered, as after getting the thumbs up from the bench, Le Dieu trotted upfield to try his luck. A bitter-sweet moment for U’s fans, as this was surely the most unequivocal sign yet that the club’s financial position will mean the departure of our hero at the end of the season.
The anticipation was unbelievable as Lionel stepped up, everyone willing him to cap his unforgettable time at the Abbey with the crowning glory of the first goal ever by an United keeper. But fairytales just don’t come true, especially for a team that has already missed seven times from the spot this season. Lionel’s kick was well struck, but a little too near Murphy, although it still needed an excellent low diving save to his right to turn it round for a corner. There were no recriminations from the amber faithful, of course, and Le Dieu was roundly cheered all the way back to his goal. He should’ve stayed up for the corner!
Amazingly, the drama wasn’t yet complete. Murphy must have aggravated his previous injury in saving Lionel’s pen, and after more treatment he was deemed unable to continue and replaced by 73-year-old veteran Eric Nixon. Only our very own Dieu Sans Mullet could take a penalty that results in the opposing keeper having to go off injured! The legend is enhanced still further.
Tranmere came nearest to equalising three minutes later as they bombarded the United box with crosses from both wings, the ball pinging around until Haworth thought he must score ten yards out as he shot for goal … but there was Le Dieu once more, denying him with an outstretched foot to deflect over the bar for a corner. Goodhind retired injured, Armand Oné joining the fun as Guttridge filled in at right back and near the end Tiny Tom fizzed in a rising shot from 20 yards that just missed the bar. Scully also popped up on the right in added time to miss narrowly with his left foot.
Three minutes into the allotted extra five, Shaggy withdrew Lionel to enable us all to give the man the standing ovation that he so richly deserves. He had to be shooed off by the ref in the end as he went around his teammates, shaking hands and hugging, and it was surely the most emotional substitution ever seen at the Abbey. I can’t have been the only one who suddenly found something in my eye. Blasted contact lens.
The fans had already been briefed not to invade the pitch at the end as they had been promised a ‘lap of honour’ after a short interval. And that’s just what they got, a remarkably large number of supporters staying on to applaud their team despite all the traumas and failures of 2001/02. An outsider might have been surprised at the genuine warmth between fans and players, but thankfully the United faithful recognise that this is an honest, youthful and promising squad that needs encouragement, not harsh words. How long this lasts next season, time alone will tell.
But today belonged to one man: Lionel Perez. He has illuminated the whole city with his larger than life personality, his flamboyant and prodigious goalkeeping talent, his wicked sense of humour and his sheer joie de vivre in his unforgettable time at the Abbey. He loves the club and the city, and we love him. We will never forget his big, wide grin, his playful banter with home and away fans alike, the walkabouts in the crowd, the runs into the opponents’ penalty area, the inspiring never-say-die attitude on the field, the leadership and the sheer talent of the man. For this and everything else, we thank you, Lionel. We will never see your like again. Now if you’ll excuse me, my contact lens is playing up again.
Perez 10 – If he had scored, he’d have got 11.
Goodhind 9 – Faultless display by someone who has got over his early troubles to emerge as a genuinely classy defender. Will be a key player next season.
Murray 8 – Excellent game from another success story. Keep practising the free kicks.
Tann 8 – Well up to his usual high standards.
Angus 7 – Did nothing wrong in his 45 minutes.
Tudor 9 – Very exciting wing play from the Loompah. He’ll take Division 3 by storm.
Ashbee 7 – Average game in the middle, did OK at the back after early error.
Guttridge 7 – He’s had better matches, but played his part well.
Scully 8 – Roamed all over the pitch, sometimes to great effect. Should also do well next term.
Kitson 7 – Still doesn’t seem fully fit – how much does/can he run these days? – but nonetheless a dangerous presence upfront.
Youngs 8 – 100 per cent effort as usual by Tom, and capped with an excellent goal.
Bridges 9 – Deeply impressive 45 minutes, he slotted into the role of attacking midfielder like a veteran. And what a cracking goal! Another star is born.
Oné 7 – Only got ten minutes but did his bit.
Marshall – Didn’t touch the ball!
Match summary: A splendid second-half performance augurs well for next season, but this was all about one man: Le Dieu. Breath-taking saves, remarkable penalty that crocked their keeper, unforgettable goodbyes; the end of an era. Sales of Kleenex must have doubled in Cambridge today. Au revoir, mon brave. It’s been emotional.
Man of the match: Lionel Perez. Best United goalkeeper ever. Great footballer, great man. The thought of a United team without him is almost unbearable.
Ref watch: Cable 6. Fussy little chap with an irritating grin glued to his face, he was too whistle-happy to let the game truly flow as it could. At least he kept the cards to a minimum.
Saturday 16 February 2002 – Bury 2 United 2
People of Cambridge! Celebrate your good fortune! Break out that party pack of Watney’s Red Barrel and that bottle of Macedonian Riesling you’ve been saving for that special occasion! Dance like epileptics to the cutting-edge sounds of Jive Bunny and Kelly Marie! Kiss strangers and remove their trousers! Have a nice cup of tea! No, this isn’t an over-reaction to the U’s gaining their third (count ’em) away point of the season. Rather, it’s a case of commemorating the continued existence of the club we love despite the slings and arrows of outrageous Premiership chairmen. For today was truly a trip into the heart of darkness, to a club facing imminent extinction like a Labour spin doctor’s career.
Bury are so deep in the financial do-do that they’re breathing through the straws they’re clutching. Their erstwhile main shareholder and director managed to lose £15 million of other people’s money playing silly buggers on the stock market. They took out a £1.5 million mortgage secured on their ground last year to aid cashflow in anticipation of a quick takeover. Then the mortgage company was dissolved because it broke Law Society rules and the creditors are now claiming their money, which Bury haven’t got, or the ground. Now it has transpired that the preferred bidders for the ex-owner’s shares have been represented by two ex-bankrupts who have done time for deception and are linked to five other companies that have been closed down by the DTI!
It would make a cracking novel if it weren’t so painfully true (are you busy, Jeffrey?). Bury are searching desperately for another buyer and are relying on the PFA and their Save Our Shakers fund to keep them going, but fear they could go under in two weeks without some immediate major developments. They even devote a page in their programme to a column by their chaplain; you’ve got to pray just to make it today, as the Very Reverend MC Hammer once opined. In the meantime, a few miles up the road, another football club pays out more in wages in a day than would secure Bury’s immediate future in one fell swoop. Most poignantly of all, their joint chairman John Smith says, ‘A town without a football club dies.’ Ever been to Cambridge, John? Would that such a thing were true round our way. Now we know why Reg was so wary of the few parties who showed interest in our own club. It truly is grim Up North.
What makes this grisly story all the more sad was the warm, friendly welcome we received at Gigg Lane today. Their social club was open to all (for a nominal fee) and was in fact full of United supporters; methinks the home supporters were busy elsewhere in their present circumstances. What could be more pleasant than a nice pint of Thwaites Smooth, a sausage barmcake and a greeting from our old friend and No 1 Bury supporter, Billy Bonkers (or whatever he’s called), resplendent as ever in his half-mast powder blue suit, Doc Martens with odd laces and wacky braces. Rumour has it he was a mascot in 1954 and never found the way out of the ground. He was also kind enough to hand out little tubes of sherbet. At least that’s what he said they were.
Gigg Lane, handsomely rebuilt over the last few years, is now a pleasant all-seater stadium with a decent-sized covered away end with good acoustics. Having battled inside past the fans of other clubs showing their support, SOS bucket collectors and Golden Gamblers, several pounds lighter, the pitch was something of a disappointment: muddy, uneven and bumpy. That’s what happens when you share with egg-chasers, but Bury need the money. They also don’t seem to have been able to afford a new record since 1996, regaling us with classics like Three Lions and, ulp, Babylon Zoo. Whatever happened to them? Who cares?
Despite their wretched position in the League, United went into the match almost as favourites with the hosts’ ongoing crisis and their having failed to beat the Mighty U’s in ten years. Four more changes from Wednesday’s walking wounded: Bostin’ Kevin Austin in place of the injured Duncan, Terrier Fleming in midfield in place of the knackered Lil’ Luke, Tiddler Tudor and Tiny Tom moved up front to accommodate ‘So’ Tony Scully and new Villa loanee, Danny Jackman, all mascotesque 5 foot 4 of him. Just what we need, we thought, another vertically challenged midfielder. We were to be pleasantly surprised …
Bury were away from the traps like an asylum seeker running from a burning detention centre, a ball over the top from Forrest in the first minute finding Gareth Seddon goalside of Austin. Le Dieu du Mullet stood up and spread himself, and Seddon’s shot from the edge of the six-yard box rebounded off Lionel’s legs for a corner. Hello United, this is your wake-up call.
The game settled into a fairly even contest, the home side slightly on top, but on six minutes Tudor let fly from 30 yards out on the right and as keeper Kenny scrambled frantically across, it rebounded from the angle with a resounding thud. Then it was Seddon’s turn to threaten again as he evaded Angus on the Bury left and attempted to curl past Le Dieu from the angle ten yards out. A decent effort, but a yard wide of the far post. Quel fromage.
The quarter hour saw the first goal, and it was softer than the focus on a late-night Channel 5 film. David Borley’s shot from the edge of the area trundled and bounced towards Lionel with all the menace of a ball of cotton wool. As Le Dieu went down to collect, it seemed to take a bobble not unlike that which embarrassed Nigel Martyn last week, and this time it was Lionel’s turn for redder cheeks than a public schoolboy as it squirmed over and past him to nestle apologetically in the net.
United responded well, new boy Jackman arriving wide left to a cross, his low shot rebounding off Kenny to the marauding Tudor to fire home into the roof of the net. The lino’s offside flag soon put paid to our celebrations. The Cemetery End was certainly a graveyard for our scoring chances at the moment. Then that man Seddon found himself a shooting chance from the edge of the area, but once again his aim was far from true. In true end-to-end fashion, Wannie then popped up to be denied by a fine save from Kenny. Jackman then had two chances in five minutes, the first a run and shot over, the second a longer mazy dribble just smothered by the keeper’s voluptuously Reubenseque frame.
The visitors now began to dominate possession. The back four looked impressive, dealing comfortably with everything thrown their way, and the flank players Scully and Jackman got increasingly into the game. United understandably had to play a short passing game, given the diminutive stature of their front two, and the wide men impressed with their dangerous runs and crosses. The front two ran and chased tirelessly, Tudor in particular looking threatening, while the middle two held everything together with their considerable experience. Altogether quite encouraging, except that they were one down.
All that changed a minute before the interval, in what must be the best passing move seen by an United side in many a long winter. Murray started it, intercepting a ball down the left flank, and he found Jackman near the centre line wide left. He advanced a few paces, looked up and found Scully on the opposite wing with a quite delicious precision 45-yard crossfield ball. Scully’s cross was equally accurate, and there was Captain Fantastic bursting into the area to poke home from 15 yards. A goal so edible it could have been made of marzipan. Yum yum.
So after an unpromising start, a reasonably fair half-time score from a period that United had dominated more as it wore on. Could this be the day for the long-awaited League away win? Or would it all collapse like an English batting order? More drama to come, after this break …
It was nine minutes into an uneventful second half that the fun really started. Jackman broke clear on the left, and as he bore down on goal, Kenny advanced and the wee winger slipped the ball past him and in the ensuing collision was sent flying by the keeper’s superior bulk. Ref Webster had no doubt: penalty for United, red card for Kenny. Some home fans were unimpressed and accused Jackman of diving; but then they would, wouldn’t they? I did have some sympathy for the corpulent custodian, however, as the ball was already dead when he collided with our new number 25; I reckon he had tried to score, but had failed to get any bend on it and sent it wide.
But hey, we’ve got precious few breaks this season. And it was hard to get too excited about gaining a penalty and playing against ten men, given our habitual failure at succeeding at either in recent times. There was a prolonged break while Borley was replaced by sub keeper Glyn Garner, who arrived with a confident grin and word for the massed amber hordes behind his goal. And his confidence was well founded as Wannie’s penalty was accurately struck low into the right-hand corner, but brilliantly tipped away by the new goalie. Great save, a decent penalty attempt, but our skipper’s failure to impart any sort of disguise allowed Garner time to tell where it was going and react accordingly. Altogether about as surprising as Darren Anderton withdrawing injured from an England squad.
Now the tables were turned, and Bury took inspiration from their let-off. The tackles got ‘tastier’, dealt with unimpressively and inconsistently by Webster, and play to-ed and fro-ed like Naomi Campbell’s mood swings. United had an excellent chance to take the lead on the hour when Tudor burst down the right wing and found Youngs sprinting in at the far post, but Tiny Tom’s goalbound header was blocked by the covering Jarrett for a corner. Another break saw Scully racing clear onto a ball over the top, but with Youngs ready to receive in the middle, he went for an extremely ambitious glory and volleyed powerfully and spectacularly into the stand. A man’s gotta know his limitations …
Bury continued to attack, their positive attitude in direct contrast to some of United’s recent negative efforts when similarly reduced in number, and it paid off on 64, Newby’s right-wing cross cleared to George Clegg, who rifled home from 18 yards through a packed goalmouth. Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ rang out incongruously from the PA.
United’s response was to replace Scully, actually having a decent game, with the Armand Hammer. And what an inspired substitution, as his first contribution was to flick on Fleming’s throw to Youngs, who turned quickly as he got the ball out from under his feet and lashed home from ten yards. All square again.
Seddon threatened once again to score soon after, but was denied by a routine great save from Le Dieu and cleared up by Murray. Play continued to flow from end to end, when the pernickety ref allowed it to, and one superb passing move by United down the left wing looked like putting Youngs in on goal until he let the ball slip under his foot, but neither keeper was especially troubled until a late flurry of three corners from the visitors. Oné showed he could win headers each time, but his best effort at goal lacked power and was comfortably held by Garner. Right at the end it was Bury’s turn to break, but Fleming’s head blocked what would have been an undeserved winner for Forrest.
So a third away point. Disappointing in its circumstances – troubled relegation rivals, ten men, missed penalty – but plenty of positives, with decent performances from every player, nice flowing football (at times) and a very promising debut for young Jackman. And our problems seem pretty small beer compared to Bury's. Let’s hope they can indeed save their Shakers, because the extinction of such an historic and friendly club would be a tragedy for the town and for the whole football world. Not that their wealthy Mancunian neighbours would notice …
Perez 7 – Horrible first goal, which may or may not have been down to the pitch. Otherwise fine.
Angus 8 – Defensively sound, and so cool on the ball.
Murray 8 – Now slotting in well and even managed a mazy run or two forward.
Tann 9 – Another outstanding display of controlled defending and calm, accurate distribution. Prodigious.
Austin 8 – Very solid after first-minute scare and dealt with everything that came his way.
Scully 7 – Much improved performance. Great cross for first goal and also covered back well. Keep the standard up.
Fleming 7 – Busily unspectacular team player.
Wanless 8 – Colossal leader and even his penalty was a decent effort denied by a great save.
Jackman 9 – Very impressive until he tired. Hard worker, fast and loves to take players on and get forward to cross or shoot. Exciting prospect.
Tudor 8 – Looked less tired than in recent games and caused Bury plenty of problems.
Youngs 7 – Did OK and took his goal well. Can and will do better, though.
Oné 8 – Made instant impact and was a threatening presence once he got on.
Traore 7 – Less than ten minutes but got involved when he could.
Match summary: A half-full, half-empty glass of a day for the U’s as an encouraging overall performance only yielded one point against Bury’s ten men. And our cup of penalty misses runneth over. But at least our club has a future, whether in Division Two or Three. Let us hope that the good people of Bury can say the same in a few weeks.
Man of the Match: Adam Tann – this is getting predictable, but so are his consistency and excellence. And he’s signed a new contract!
Ref Watch: Webster 2/10. Unimpressive. Punished innocuous incidents – one free-kick late in the game given for two players jumping for the ball and missing was particularly laughable – while failing to punish some bad fouls. Don’t even talk to the Bury fans about the penalty.
Saturday 23 February 2002 – Cardiff City 2 United 0
Yo! Yo! Iechyd da! Timotheus Westwood here on the mic, your favourite Afro-Saxon with the bling-bling Aunt Pollys, kickin’ back with the Maesycwmmer Massive and my lady, the Westwood Ho, about to lay some brand new ultrapimplistic flavours for y’all out there in full effect! Up later I’ll be dropping the new 12in from Brit teen sensation, the mayonnaise midget Ice Ickle with his tribute to my man Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Dial M For Mofo’. Flossin’! And we got the return of the living legend chubsters Run DMC with ‘More Fat Than Phat’. Off tha meat rack! But the main event has just gotta be the debut of South Wales homies SWA and their new bomb ‘Scheisty Sam Hammam Is Crazy Seven Thirty’. Smooth spaghetti! Wel, dyma i chi ddefaid da!*
These days more than ever, visiting Wales is, as Ian Rush once said of Italy, like visiting another country. Under Sam Hammam, Cardiff City are even more rabidly nationalistic than before, which certainly makes for an, ahem, lively day out for us simple rustic folk. When Ninian Park first hoves into view, it is immediately outshone by the sparkling Millennium Stadium a mere half a mile distant, and our destination of course in a mere month’s time. Although this is one place where chanting, ‘We’re going to Cardiff!’ would be just a trifle pointless.
NP is largely unchanged, the main difference being the covering of the former open away terrace with a basic, old-fashioned non-cantilever stand, presumably because longer term plans are to build something a little more befitting the Principality’s capital. The terrace is now split in half between home and away contingents, with merely a low-ish fence and six feet between the rival factions. Still, the match programme is thoughtfully chunky and would make a good shield against flying loose change; nevertheless, we older heads stationed ourselves as far away from our happy-go-lucky hosts as possible.
The patriotic theme extends itself to the pre-match musical selection, basically a loop of Catatonia, Stereophonics and Super Furry Animals (wot? no Llwybr Llaethog or Datblygu?) with the occasional anomaly of ‘You Sexy Thing’ overlaid with sheep noises (no, really), a rousing ‘Men Of Harlech’ and a ‘club song’ based on Toots & The Maytals’ ‘Monkey Man’. And why not. Like certain elements of black America, the Cardiffians have reclaimed a derogatory term, to wit ‘sheepshaggers’ for themselves and now seem to revel in the title.
Notices around the ground proudly proclaim that ‘No racial abuse or foul language will be tolerated’. This does not, of course, extend to anti-English chants such as ‘England is full of s**t’, which received prolonged airings throughout the match. Well, we do have a nice Football League in which we allow them to play, hmm? We were however much amused by the chant of ‘You’re just a bunch of students.’ Stereotypes, you can’t beat ’em! Rah rah rah, we’re going to smash the oiks.
So it was that United played in front of their second consecutive five-figure crowd for the first time since January 1993. The team was, unsurprisingly, unchanged from Tuesday’s triumph in Bristol, although Adam Tann sported a substantial strapping on his right thigh. BGG Dave Kitson was welcomed back to the bench, still a Ninja none more Ginja. For Caerdydd, it was new boss Lennie Lawrence’s first Saturday in charge; look out, the Sensible Gang is in town. Lock up your teabags.
It was obvious even before kickoff that the conditions would play their part. We avoided the blizzards in more northerly parts but, despite the bright sunshine, a freezing, howling gale swirled around us, bending a corner flag to a crazy 45 degree angle. Cardiff played with the wind in the first half, and I don’t mean petomanically either. But United started as well as their hosts, the lively mascot-sized Danny Jackman taking a right-foot swing in the first minute that fizzed wide. Cardiff countered through left wing-back Andy ‘Windmill Arms’ Legg, whose 20-yarder was pawed clear by Le Dieu du Mullet. The ensuing corner found our previous nemesis Peter Thorne lurking uncovered at the far post, but his header sailed tamely over. Jason Bowen was booked for a mindless late clattering of Angus, although some one-eyed home fans seemed to see nothing wrong with his assault.
Then it was United’s turn to threaten, neat work by the Armand Hammer creating a shooting opportunity for Fleming, but the Terrier’s 18-yard effort was scuffed more untidily than Keith Richards’ face and trundled well wide. Early exchanges were pretty even and the neutral observer (a few stray Spurs fans and a chap sporting a Stenhousemuir hat – that was one hell of a wrong turning, mate) would have been hard-pressed to tell which team was rock bottom with the worst away record in this space-time continuum. United’s wide men looked particularly dangerous, the front two buzzed menacingly while the back four looked more solid and harder to penetrate than Joan Collins’ make-up.
On the quarter hour Fivepole Tudor produced a trademark right-wing run, beating two men then sending in a wicked cross which was headed behind gratefully by Rhys Weston as Tiny Tom lurked. He was similarly foiled from an Oné cross a few minutes later, and although Cardiff not unnaturally began to get marginally more of the play, it remained an even contest, not unlike the match at Ashton Gate. And we know what happened there. On a couple of occasions chaos ensued from United corners as legs swung at the ball but just could not get that vital connection before it was scrambled clear. Captain Fantastic Wanless also got near to a free header at goal from ten yards out, but it skimmed his eyebrows and harmlessly wide. Noel Gallagher would have scored.
Then on 36 came the breakthrough, and the conditions certainly played their part. The amber-shirted defence simply could not get the ball clear, two would-be headed clearances floating flagitiously in the gale and finally falling to the one man they didn’t want it to, Cardiff skipper Graham Kavanagh. His 15-yard half-volley was superbly struck and flew into the net before Le Dieu could move. He had been restricted almost entirely to hoofing the ball clear before now, but suddenly it was ‘1-0 to the sheepshaggers’, as the home fans put it gleefully. The SWA even turned to look at the pitch instead of facing the United supporters for a change; it had taken them a good 15 minutes to chant anything positive about their team, too busy dissing the hated enemy. Eeh, the young whippersnappers. Didn’t their mothers say if they couldn’t say something nice about someone, better to say nothing at all? Cheeky young scamps.
Five minutes later, it became apparent that Tann was unable to continue, and Shaggy took the opportunity to change the system, ignoring the old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ maxim. Kitson went upfront with Oné, and Tudor and Jackman became wing-backs alongside a back three of Duncan, Angus and Austin, Youngs moving deeper in a mirror of Cardiff’s own formation. A mistake, as it turned out. Kavanagh tested Perez shortly after with a 30-yard thunderbolt which was saved magnificently low to Lionel’s right, and half-time arrived after a creditable performance very similar to Tuesday’s but with the reverse scoreline. United would need to redouble their efforts to get anything out of this one.
Highlight of the interval was the music, blaring out three oldies that you certainly won’t hear anywhere else: The Clash’s ‘Rudy Can’t Fail’, Jilted John’s self-titled classic, and most remarkably, the Super Furries’ f-wordtastic ‘The Man Don’t Give A F***’. Uncensored. Wash your ears out with soap and water. It was even more exciting than watching the curling.
The Law of Sod prevailed for part two, and the wind died down and changed direction. That man Kavanagh tried his luck early on, and was once again foiled by a superb full-length dive from Le Dieu. Then there were appeals for a penalty as Josh Low fell theatrically over Fleming’s foot, and the home number 7 got a yellow card for his trouble. But then what do you expect from someone who has called his new-born child Joseph? Joe Low?! Suppose the kid should be grateful he wasn’t called Jay …
On 56 vicious hatchet man Tiny Tom Youngs was booked for bringing down Boland, then the game was decided just after the hour. United, as is their wont, turned attack into defence in a matter of seconds as, from a corner, Fleming’s hopelessly telegraphed pass intended for Jackman was intercepted by Low. He played a give-and-go with Kavanagh then crossed to sub Leyton Maxwell, who ran into Angus and both fell down in a heap. Ref Taylor, until now having a decent game, somehow saw this as a penalty, although he didn’t even book Angus. Kavanagh placed it in one corner, Lionel dived the other, as usual. Plus ça change.
Scarcely three minutes later Legg had an effort disallowed for offside, although the news filtered through rather slowly to some comical locals who were still celebrating a couple of minutes later. United now looked a shadow of the side who had contested the first half so well; Tudor and Jackman were being pushed back so far by Cardiff’s wing-backs that they were unable to get forward themselves, leaving the strikers isolated, and on the dwindling occasions when the midfield could get the ball, inspiration seemed to be as skimpy as Kylie’s underwear.
Aggy Revell replaced the now-anonymous Hammer on 73, but the hosts were now well on top and the game had the curious air of a pre-season friendly, both teams going through the motions but knowing the outcome was already decided. Even the home supporters stopped singing songs linking England with, er, manure, and supporters of both sides began to drift away anti-climactically into the far distance, like the Spice Girls’ solo careers. Perez saved imperiously from Legg, Angus stopped Kavanagh as he attempted his hat-trick, and in a sporadic attack, Youngs had a decent shot deflected for a corner by a defender.
United’s last remaining lifeline was denied late on when Boland blatantly patted the ball down with both hands à la Michael Jordan from a cross, only for both ref and assistants to play three wise monkeys and wave play on. And we’re so good at penalties, too … It was all over long before the final whistle, and what had promised to be another good away day for United became their first defeat at Ninian Park in six games. There’s no doubt Cardiff are a decent team, especially their skipper, and they’ll be even better once ace goalscorer Robert Earnshaw returns from injury. Whatever, the chances of our being in the same division next season look as wobbly as the Millennium Bridge. Before they fixed it. At least our next trip to Cardiff will be fun.
Perez 8 – Top quality saves, no chance with the goal, no good at penalties.
Angus 8 – Splendid defending, both at right-back then as central, um, centre-back in the back three.
Austin 7 – Solid and reliable as ever.
Duncan 7 – Cool, calm and competent.
Tann 7 – Doing fine until forced to withdraw.
Tudor 7 – Excellent first half but forced onto the back foot in the second.
Wanless 6 – Tried his heart out as usual but was outgunned in the middle.
Fleming 6 – Not one of his more memorable outings.
Jackman 7 – Outstanding until we changed formation, then like Tudor, unable to get forward enough.
Oné 6 – Good start but gradually faded and was no surprise when he was replaced.
Youngs 6 – Much work for little reward.
Kitson 6 – A few characteristic touches, but demonstrably ring-rusty and it’s debatable whether he was ready to be brought back.
Revell 6 – Typically energetic display but fighting a pretty hopeless cause.
Match summary: Back to grim reality for United as an unnecessary formation change led to the good ship Cambridge being swamped by the Celtic pirates and their cut-throat mob. Don’t mention going down like a submarine just yet, eh me hearties?
Man of the Match: Lionel Perez. More outstanding saves for the collection.
Ref Watch: Taylor 5/10. Not the hardest game in the world to referee, but still denied United a blatant penalty while giving Cardiff a highly dubious one.
Saturday 2 March 2002 – United 2 Reading 2
The Kid swaggered into the saloon bar, flinging the swing doors open with muscled arms a-ripple. ‘Ah’m lookin’ fer the Sheriff,’ he drawled in a distinctive Eastern burr. ‘That’s me,’ came the reply from a tall, imposing figure with distinguished round pince-nez. ‘Folks call me JT. You ain’t from round these parts, are you, boy?’ ‘No sir, I hail from a little one-horse town name of Bury St Edmunds. Mighty glad to make your acquaintance,’ said the Kid. ‘Ah hear you got a vacancy for a sharpshooter.’
JT nodded. ‘You heard right, boy. We ain’t had much luck with our hired guns lately. The Captain here, he’s a great leader, but his trigger arm ain’t what it use’ta be. Little Terry the Dog, he’s willin’ but he weren’t up to it. And as for Big Red, the guy’s always under the quack. What do they call you, son?’ ‘Folks call me Tiny Tom on account of my …’ ‘Figures. Reckon you got what it takes then, Tom? Can you hit the target from 18 yards?’ ‘I’ll give it my best shot, sir!’ ‘Sure you will. But just remember – all the back yard practice in the world won’t prepare for your first big showdown …’
Just when your expectations are at their lowest, the Mighty U’s bounce back like a chimp on a spacehopper and sink their teeth firmly into your cynical, doubting behind. Today was bottom versus top, and only the wildest or most drunken optimist predicted anything other than another nail in the coffin as the hearse revved up, ready to take us to the graveyard in the hinterlands of Division Three. But instead of getting off the pot, United’s young braves took some heavy-duty footballing Ex-Lax and … well that’s enough of that metaphor, eh? Not just before dinner.
The late winter sun shone down on the Abbey and, despite the depressing evidence of the League table, there was a strangely calm air around the Wembley of the Fens: the sort of atmosphere you get when you’re down to your last round of bullets, everyone has written you off and there’s nothing to lose except to get out there and go down with all guns blazing. The Biscuitmen had brought over a thousand supporters, unswervingly confident in their side’s ability to brush the country bumpkins aside on their inevitable way to glory.
The great Sir Martin Butler was out injured, but they still boasted diminutive goal machine Jamie Cureton, the Littlest Hobnob. United made three changes from Tuesday’s slow puncture of a match, Terrier Fleming replacing the injured Captain Fantastic, ‘So’ Tony Scully in for Danny Jackman and the welcome return of the BGG Dave Kitson for the Armand Hammer. Hope he’s fit this time. The black shorts and socks also returned after their inexplicable absence on Tuesday (they wore amber ones then, they didn’t play in their pants!).
The match got off to an energetic start, United using the full width of the pitch and it was very soon apparent what a difference Kitson makes to the side; his ability to receive, hold up and distribute the ball – as well as compete for it both aerially and with his amazing telescopic legs – is quite unique at the club, and in tandem with an inspired-looking, pacy Tiny Tom, the promise of goals floated in the air like the smell of fresh bread from an early-morning French patisserie.
Adam Tann worried everyone when he went down clutching his leg after a nasty-looking collision, but after extensive treatment he was back ready for the fray. Ref G Laws (he knows the scores) wasted no time in demonstrating what an officious little fellow he is by refusing Adam’s request to re-enter the field of play, then all of three seconds later, beckoning him on. I’m in charge and you’re not, so nyah nyah nyah. Reading keeper Phil Whitehead saw his first serious action on eight minutes as Kitson fired one in from 20 yards, and saved well. But the visitors’ defence was being tested, particularly by Youngs’ mobility and willingness.
Then on 14 came the long-awaited first goal at the Abbey by United since February 9. Youngs received the ball near the touchline on the left-hand edge of the box, teased and beat his marker Viveash with a turn and shimmy, then crossed low to Kitson who had evaded the defence to tuck the ball calmly across Whitehead into the far corner from six yards. Welcome back, Ginja Ninja.
Within four minutes Reading could and perhaps should have been level. Tony Rougier was presented with the ball by Murray wide right and his pinpoint cross found Andy Hughes coming in on the blind side at the far post, barely three yards out. Incredibly, his woefully mishit shot trundled across the face of the goal as Le Dieu du Mullet watched it resignedly and it curled lamely wide of the far post. Then another chance came to Rougier, a not entirely convincing stand-in for Butler with excellent pace, good strength and a nice fifth touch. His free shot from the edge of the area was high, wide and about as handsome as Luke Chadwick.
United continued to give a good account of themselves and there certainly did not appear to be 23 League places between the teams. Ashbee and Guttridge were mixing it well in midfield, wide men Scully and Tudor buzzed menacingly and the front two combined excellently, while the Tann/Angus central defensive partnership again impressed with their coolness under pressure and fine tackling and covering. Tann still limped noticeably on occasion but remained rock-like when needed. Reading also had their moments, but did not look like League leaders and remained second best on the day.
Then just after the half hour it got even better for Shaggy’s strugglers. A Fleming long throw from the right was won determinedly by Kitson at the near post, Whitehead didn’t seem to expect it and fumbled on his line, and there was Tiny Tom on poaching duty, lashing home as the ball ran free from, ooh, a good nine inches out. United were agog, Reading were aghast.
Neither the visiting players nor their supporters reacted well to this unexpected setback. The 11 out on the pitch moaned, groaned and fell theatrically whenever the opportunity arose, aided and abetted by a gullible, fussy referee, and ejections of their followers rose steadily as half-time approached as an arrogant minority refused to accept that they were being deservedly beaten by little old Cambridge: ‘… but we’ve got lots of money and a nice stadium! You aren’t allowed to beat us! I want my Mummy!’
So came the interval, and warm applause for a home side who had shown that on their day, they are a match for any team in this division. Unfortunately their day has too often this season been a Monday, a Thursday, any day but a bloody match day. Half-time presentations saw the welcome return to the Abbey turf of Michael Kyd; what a player he might be today were it not for injury. Applause for him just about drowned out the shouting and screaming emanating from the away dressing room as Alan Pardew no doubt laid into his underachieving League leaders, then sent them out again well before United and the officials reappeared.
Neither side made any change in personnel, and first notable incident was a foul on Murty by Kitson as he stretched for a ball which the Reading right-back just nicked away from him. As the BGG was booked, and Viveash spoken to for his provocative over-reaction to the foul, Murty writhed around like an upturned boghopper beetle, to the scorn of the Habbin. There were allegations from some mischievous and vindictive away fans that Kitson indicated the score to them as Murty was treated, bringing to mind an identical gesture made to us by Reading’s very own Jimmy Quinn as his team beat us 1-0 eight years ago. We didn’t complain to the authorities or the media then, and if certain supporters are going to squeal like offended maiden aunts at every little action by opposition players, perhaps they should concentrate their delicate sensibilities on more gentle pursuits like crochet.
Soon after all this excitement had died down, Jon Mackie headed just wide for the visitors, and Reading began to get more of a grip on the game than they had in the first half. And on 57 came the breakthrough they craved and United dreaded. A corner was cleared to John Salako wide left, and his deep cross back in found two team-mates unmarked on the far side; one of them, Adrian Viveash, had the simple task of guiding his close-range header past the helpless Perez. New hope for Reading, about as welcome as a speech by the Darlington chairman’s wife for United.
Scully and Tudor swapped wings and James Harper replaced Hughes for Reading. Within a minute of the goal, United had a gilt-edged chance to make it 3-1. Nick Shorey’s attempted header back to Whitehead from 20 yards was always going to fall short, and Tiny Tom saw his chance early and was on the end of it as it dropped, ten yards from goal on the right of the penalty area. The keeper had frozen on his line, thereby giving Tom time to bring it down and control it, but he chose to take it first time on the half-volley. Suffice to say that traffic on Newmarket Road was briefly disturbed by a white spherical object bouncing apologetically across its lanes at around 4.20 pm. On such incidents do entire matches hang.
A relieved Reading applied more pressure and they came near on 64 as a Viveash header bounced off the top of the bar. Their probing was finally rewarded on 72 with another moment of lemmingesque defending by United; Angus had ample time to clear from the left-hand side of the area, but dwelled torpidly and was robbed by sub Henderson, the ball flying past Le Dieu to be bundled home from point-blank range by a combination of Forster and Fleming in a goal that took the ‘s’ out of scrappy. Lionel was incandescent with Gallic rage and the language students in the Family Stand no doubt learned some interesting new phrases that they perhaps shouldn’t try to utilise in their oral exams.
The visitors’ tails were now well and truly up as they continued to press for a winner. But this time United didn’t lie down like a Broadway lamb and they refused to succumb to negativity. Well let’s face it, draws are hardly enough now. Ten points for a win would be nice, though. Kitson and Youngs combined well for the BGG to send a 20-yarder wide as United’s defence resisted stoutly at the other end, then Oné was introduced for Scully, Youngs retreating to wide left. The Hammer treated us to a few trademark mazy dribbles and one thunderous shot wide before the 78th minute brought yet more drama.
That man Kitson was once again the creator, his run into the area halted by a blatant, clumsy foul by Viveash, which was punished by a lenient yellow. Penalty. Now having already missed five this season, there really is no point in getting excited at being awarded another one, although one’s instinctive reaction is invariably one of excitement. With Wannie injured, it fell to Tiny Tom to torture us this time … and this he duly did, his lame effort neither hard enough, disguised enough or far enough from the keeper to produce anything other than a comfortable save for the grateful Whitehead. Cue wailing, gnashing of teeth and several choice kicks to the back of the Habbin as the Cock-Up Kid shot himself firmly in both feet. And he had played so well, too. Six penalty misses in one season must surely be some sort of record: ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ perhaps.
Both sides kept attacking to the final whistle, a draw as unwanted as Prince Philip’s diplomatic skills. Alex Revell replaced Fivepole Tudor three minutes from time and United had a shout for another penalty when Viveash appeared to control with his hand in running back towards his own goal. The shout was, of course, ‘Not another one, please! We’ve had enough!’
A superb Angus block foiled Henderson, then came the nearest to a winner: Harper collected a corner taken short, advanced unchallenged to within 20 yards of goal then sent a floating shot arrowing towards the far top corner of the goal. It looked in all the way as Lionel didn’t even bother moving for it, but the god of football was smiling on United (thanks, Des) as it cannoned off the bar.
A draw was probably a fair result on balance, tempered of course by the frustration of yet another penalty miss and a two-goal lead squandered. But United must take comfort from an excellent overall performance against the leaders, who presumably must have been playing much better than this to get to where they are. Funny how Cureton always has a quiet game against us. The hard part will be continuing this level of performance on a consistent basis, and with trips to Wigan and Bristol in the next week, our sharpshooters will need to be quick on the draw once again. Keep plugging away, guys.
Perez 7 - Hardly any saves to make and had no chance with the two he conceded.
Fleming 6 - Adequate as usual, although his passing was too often substandard.
Murray 6 - Reasonable effort without standing out, again not venturing forward.
Tann 8 - Excellent display despite nasty early injury. Made of the right stuff.
Angus 7 - Mostly splendid, but boobed badly for Reading’s second goal. Cool on the ball must not equal somnolent.
Scully 6 - Good in flashes, although his propensity for finding opposition players with the ball remains.
Ashbee 7 - Encouragingly active role in central midfield, only complaint being a disinclination to get forward on quick breaks.
Guttridge 7 - Also did well in the engine room, fully involved at all times.
Tudor 7 - Busy although out of position on the left wing for much of the time and tired towards the end.
Kitson 8 - We don’t realise how much we miss him until he plays. Superb leader of the line, combined very well with Youngs and of course scored a goal.
Youngs 8 - Now getting back to his scurrying best. Excellent game only marred by his two missed chances. If he’d got the hat-trick his effort deserved, we’d be looking at 10/10.
Oné 7 - Made his mark in his time on the pitch. How about the Hammer taking the next penalty? Just welly it, man!
Revell 6 - Very little time to get involved.
Match summary: U’s versus the Biscuitmen produced a cracker of a match between two clubs who will it seems be hobnobbing with different divisions next season. Only a penalty save from Phil Shortbread, er, Whitehead denied bottom a victory over top as the spot-kick curse becomes ever harder to digest(ive).
Man of the Match: Dave Kitson. What a difference a proper centre-forward makes. Please stay fit, o ginger one.
Ref Watch: Laws 3/10. When it comes to inconsistency, this guy is in a league of his own. The fact that his capriciousness seemed to fall in favour of Reading eight times out of ten also failed to endear him to the home faithful. Irritating tendency to give a free-kick whenever a player fell over or there was in fact any physical contact whatsoever, and there were unpunished fouls just as bad as those he punished with cards. And another point deducted for his smug, annoying grin at the supporters when we let him know what we thought of him.
Saturday 9 March 2002 – Bristol City 2-0 U’s
What an exhilarating, attacking performance. Explosive shooting, firing shots in at will from all angles, excellent defensive backup, a well-organised and effective formation, tightly disciplined but working together as a team … yup, the half-time demonstration at Ashton Gate by the Territorial Army today sure was impressive.
Unfortunately not one of those things could be said of the other visitors, our very own Mighty U’s, a bumbling, ragtag, ineffective outfit who took 89 (count ‘em) minutes to get a shot on target. As a famous leader once said, I don’t know if they strike fear into the enemy, but they sure put the fear of God into me …
Less than three weeks after our memorable LDV triumph, we returned to the scene to find a much-changed atmosphere. Instead of full stands, we were confronted with rows of unfilled, tatty-looking wooden seats. City desperately pulled out all the stops to enliven proceedings: inducting a ‘legend’ (John Gray?) as a life member (baffled silence); shivering pom-pom girls (I think their parents clapped); mouth-frothing introduction of the teams over the PA (embarrassingly, they didn’t appear until a good minute’s silence later); a live trumpet fanfare welcome on to the pitch (out of tune). The announcer even had to remind the home supporters of the words to ‘Come on you Reds’, although he hardly helped matters by playing a tune by the bloody Wurzels (zere is no escape!). The away corner had been reduced in size since last month by draping some seats in what could only be described as a black shroud. The portents were not good.
On a wind-swept afternoon more blustery than a Wenger/O’Leary moan-in, Shaggy introduced his latest tactical masterstroke: a return to ye olde 4-3-3. A three-pronged strike force of Oné, Youngs and Revell was to be supported by an engine room of Guttridge, Ashbee and the returning walking wounded Captain Fantastic, while the resting of Adam Tann allowed Andy Duncan to return in central defence. Fivepole Tudor also sat this one out due to an advanced case of knackeredness, while BGG Kitson was absent once again. For the Robins, the continued absence of Scott Murray, the trickiest right-winger since Norman Tebbit, was relieved by arrival of loanee Leeds left-winger Harpal Singh, who is one of that rarest breed of men, someone who has been on the losing side against the Mighty U’s this season, although he did score at the Abbey when Bury were overcome 3-1 last October. Bet he was scared, then …
City played with the wind behind them in the first half, while United just looked constipated. The source of danger was apparent almost immediately: City’s left-wing combination of Singh, veteran Brian Tinnion and left-back Mickey Bell were soon at work, Singh in particular looking direct and more dangerous than a piranha sandwich. Only last-ditch lunges by Goodhind and Angus stopped two early runs, and United’s problem was exacerbated by their own formation. The 4-3-3 left huge yawning gaps down United’s right side, and the hapless Goodhind had to contend with two or three players running at him with absolutely no help, Revell too far forward and Wanless too far across in a narrow midfield to offer assistance. United’s lack of possession also marginalised their front three, leaving City to apply almost constant pressure.
The only surprise was that it took Bristol nine minutes to score. Duncan conceded a free kick centrally 25 yards out, and up stepped Bell to curl an exquisite set piece over the wall and into the top right corner, Le Dieu du Mullet flailing helplessly like a beached squid. Unsaveable, and straight out of the Ian Harte textbook. United failed to react in any way to either the goal or the way they were being taken apart, and City, hell-bent on revenge for the Cardiff hotel bookings with which they prematurely saddled themselves, continued to squeeze.
A Tinnion 30-yarder whizzed past the post before the hosts’ lead doubled on 17. That man Bell advanced down the left flank once again, United signally failed to close him down, and he lashed a stupendous, magnificent thunderbolt from 25 yards over Le Dieu and into the far corner before he could say ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?’ Liddell at Wigan, now Bell … what is it about United that attracts certain players into scoring their goals of the season? No fair!
Having noted from the programme that three sides in this division have recorded their season-best wins against the U’s this season, and that City’s best winning margin was only 3-0, we sensed the imminent falling of another record. Revell began to drop deeper, Goodhind stuck manfully to his guns but still the pressure came. One Singh cross was met by the head of Duncan, who guided it wide of the post by a good, er, six inches to oodles of oohs and aahs. Lee ‘Worst penalty in the world … ever!’ Peacock tested Perez with a header, Bell went for his hat-trick with another blaster also saved by Lionel, then the short-sleeved custodian was in action again to save Peacock’s close-ranger. He’d have worn a tin hat if it wouldn’t have ruined his hair.
Somehow though, the seemingly inevitable third didn’t transpire. Perhaps Bristol subconsciously relaxed, such was their superiority, and Goodhind gradually began to get the measure of the tricky but one-footed Singh. It certainly wasn’t down to any particular improvement of United’s: midfield was more toothless than old man Steptoe, Tiny Tom was kept busy funnelling back to help them, young Revell was anonymous while the Armand Hammer’s sole contribution was the occasional offside decision.
Ref Bates (don’t tempt me) outraged the scanty travelling support by letting an aerial assault on Fred Murray go unpunished then turning his back on him as he writhed, winded, on the ground until Perez eventually kicked for touch. Even then, the man in green had to saunter over to the left-back and give him the Spanish Inquisition treatment before finally allowing Stuart Ayles on to administer. Poor Fred felt even more put-upon soon after when he was pulled up for a foul when the ball, and the player he was tackling, had clearly gone out of play before contact was made. The myopic lino signalled foul, Bates produced yellow, a decision even more inappropriate than our Prime Minister swanning around in a gaudy Farhi jumper.
Late in the half United, wonder of wonders, got as far as winning a corner, but home keeper Phillips remained untroubled. At the other end a Peacock header from a home corner eluded Perez but plopped on to the roof of the net. The overwhelming feeling of just about everyone in the ground was that this match was already over. Couldn’t we just agree on 2-0 and, like, go home? Pretty please?
Half-time was enlivened by the aforementioned TA display, with loud explosions, gunfire and, it seemed, one bloke dressed as a yeti … or was it Richard Keys? I’m sure the youngsters will be queuing to volunteer in their droves, particularly after helpful tips like ‘He shoots him again to make sure he’s dead’. I look forward to their forthcoming recreation of the horrors of trench warfare in a hostile, muddy, bog-like environment miles from civilisation; venue to be London Road, Peterborough, I understand.
Shaggy at long last realised the folly of the first half’s ‘formation’ and withdrew the Hammer for Danny Jackman, playing wide left in a 4-4-2. Diddy Danny made a good initial impression with some positive, scurrying runs and crosses from the wing. An early Singh cross troubled Le Dieu, mainly because he lost sight of it in the sun; would a cap muss up your hair too much, mon brave? The City winger then ran on to a Matthew Hill through-ball, but Lionel blocked with his feet after Goodhind slipped. He had another go from the resultant corner but lobbed tamely over.
United gradually and very belatedly began to settle as City relaxed, and the hour mark saw a Revell header actually go in the general direction of the City goal, but not on target. Tudor replaced young Aggy soon after, leaving a front two of Tiddler Tudor and Tiny Tom; inevitably, the first service they received was a high ball, about as welcome as a Pop Idol winner on Top Of The Pops. The majority of chances continued to fall to the Bristolian strikers: Lee Matthews headed wide from a corner and was twice foiled by superb trademark Angus tackles, while the ever-erroneous Peacock missed the target with two headers from more corners and made himself so dizzy with one attempted turn that his ensuing shot actually went away from goal instead of towards it. Is it only against us that he plays football like a dyslexic plays Scrabble?
As City began to get bored and their supporters restless, United finally started to get some serious possession, and the last quarter hour was territorially theirs. Too little, too late, of course. The challenge now for United was to get their first effort on target; low expectations? We got ’em. On 77, Ashbee had a poke from 20 yards: ten feet over. Tudor entertained us with some nice footwork; he took two players on, tripped, controlled the ball between his shins as he sat on the grass, twisted and turned on his bottom as the boots flailed, got up and raced away from the baffled pair of them. Great stuff.
City made two subs ten minutes from time, but United continued to dominate. Tudor from 25 yards: 12 feet over. Jackman from 18: 15 feet over. Youngs from 15: 20 feet wide. Then, almost in the last minute, a Guttridge effort was cleared to Ashbee, whose well-controlled half-volley from 25 was clutched by Phillips. A shot on target! Their keeper had to make a save! Almost grounds for a lap of honour.
Half the City crowd were already on their feet and on the way out when Bates put the match out of our misery; no win for ten games, no away League win in 20. Only three to go. Perhaps we’ll break the run … IF we can muster a full-strength team; IF we get the tactics right; IF we actually play for 90 minutes and not just chuffing 20. And if opposing players will stop their private Goal of the Season competitions against our defence! What else would we have to look forward to apart from the LDV?
Perez 6 – No chance with either fantastic goal. Difficult windy conditions but coped well in the circumstances.
Goodhind 6 – Given a torrid time early doors by Singh and co, but was left criminally exposed by his colleagues and recovered well.
Murray 6 – Did satisfactorily despite being picked on by the officials.
Duncan 6 – Reasonable comeback.
Angus 7 – Has really got his distinctive tackling and intercepting down to a fine art, and it was much needed today.
Wanless 5 – Disappointingly quiet game from the less-than-100% skipper.
Ashbee 5 – Also anonymous for much of the game, which seemed to pass him by until the last half-hour.
Guttridge 6 – Best of a poor bunch in midfield. More busy probing than a hyperactive dentist.
Revell 5 – The 4-3-3 tactic failed miserably, and Aggy spent most of his time covering back or wandering aimlessly.
Oné 4 – Let’s just forget this one. Contributed nothing, although in mitigation his ‘service’ was negligible.
Youngs 6 – Gradually retreated deeper and deeper in search of the ball but never stopped working.
Jackman 6 – Lively effort and certainly perked up a moribund team exhibition.
Tudor 6 – Also put in some good work in his allotted 25 minutes.
Match summary: We’re seeing some cracking goals this season; what a pity most of them are whistling over Lionel’s head. Unfortunately, if you go two down in the first 20 minutes and only play in the last 20, there can only be one result. Three more goes this season, boys.
Man of the Match: Stev Angus. Top-notch tackling and covering.
Ref watch: Bates 6. Mainly unobtrusive, except in his treatment of Murray.
Tuesday 19 March 2002 – AFC Bournemouth 2 United 2
The first vibrations were distant and barely noticeable. Then slowly but surely, the steady rhythmic THUD, THUD became progressively louder and more ominous and the source of the noise came closer, ever closer, until it was almost painfully loud to the diminutive group’s tender ears. The tiny figure peered fearfully around the enormous door, then withdrew his head quickly as his worst fears were confirmed. ‘They’re huge, boys! Giants!’ he exclaimed, his eyes wide with terror. ‘We shall be trampled, for sure!’ ‘Come on, Bashful!’ urged his companion. ‘Let’s skedaddle before they find us and cook us in a pie! Come on, Dopey! Sneezy! Grumpy! Shaggy! Oh … ’
‘For goodness’ sake, lads!’ admonished the tall, bespectacled figure with the deep, husky voice. ‘I know you’re only a bunch of littl’uns, but you’ve got just as much skill as they have and you’re just as good. Now get out there and play your little socks off!’ ‘OK, boss,’ chorused the amber-shirted cluster. ‘Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to play we go!’
And so it came to pass that what must have been the smallest CUFC line-up ever took the field in Bournemouth tonight. Four midfielders, ranging from 5’ 4” (Danny Jackman) to 5’ 9”, and only one player in the whole team over 5’ 11”: the Big Ginger Giant up front. But as all we gents know, size isn’t important. No, really. The hosts even got into the spirit of the occasion by fielding two absolutely tiny ballboys at the end of the East Stand who can’t have been more than five years old and barely had the strength to throw the ball back on to the pitch, let alone work out to whom they should be throwing it. Bless ’em. Wasn’t it past their bedtime?
Approaching Dean Court tonight was an altogether surreal experience. The park was still there, so was the enormous car park … but who had replaced the football ground with a totally different one? Yes, the old DC, upon whose open away terrace we have been roasted like suckling porkers on so many late summer occasions, has been razed to the ground, and a brand new edifice has risen in its place, its pitch now running parallel to the adjoining road rather than at 90 degrees thereto as before. And its name? The Fitness First Stadium. Well that’s the price you pay for accepting much-needed sponsorship money, I guess. The Po Na Na Pleasuredome, Cambridge, anyone?
Only three sides of the FFS have been built thus far, fronted by a separate rectangular frontage housing club shop, pre-match bar, offices etc. None of the structures are especially prepossessing, being of basic breezeblock construction, but they do the job and are obviously as good as AFCB need and can afford. And they’re better than Scunthorpe and Walsall’s horrible, characterless tin sheds. The main stand even sports some perfectly acceptable exec boxes at the back. With one end still to be built, the whole site resembles a building site … hang on, it is a building site! I’m sure the finished article will be an entirely decent home for this friendly, cash-strapped (snap!) club.
The hosts also made an effort to keep the fans entertained. Bertie Bassett (the liquorice allsort, not the hound) wandered around for some reason, and the man with the mic wandered into the stands and ‘invited’ people to serenade us with some karaoke. Sadistically, he picked only the most gormless, tone-deaf fans he could find, and their renditions of Hi Ho Silver Lining made stray dogs howl all the way to Land’s End. With names like Neil Young and Narada in the squad, we could surely have expected at least a passable swing at Rockin’ In The Free World or Divine Emotions.
So it was that Taylor’s Tinies took to the (surprisingly immaculate) pitch, missing experienced pros Wanless, Ashbee and Duncan as well as Fred Murray, replaced by Tom ’Braveheart’ Cowan, back from the salt mines of London Road, Stev Angus (loanee at Dean Court last season), Terrier Fleming and the BGG himself, Dave Kitson. Captain for the night could only be the redoubtable Dieu du Mullet. Their support, the Inter-City Trundle, occupied one end of the East Stand, along one side nearest the Unbuilt Stand.
The visitors began the way they meant to continue, knocking the ball around neatly and creating two early chances for Fivepole Tudor, one long-ranger wide and a closer effort from a Jackman ball comfortably gathered by keeper Stewart. The home side soon gave notice that this was to be a frenetic, end-to-end affair, spearheaded by speedy striker Warren Feeney. He constantly stationed himself between the two United centre-backs, ever ready to sprint clear on to any ball over the top, and this he duly did on several occasions as Tann and Angus singularly failed to deal with his threat. Some of these forays bore the distinct whiff of offside (a little like Parma violets dipped in mustard) but the lino struggled to keep up with him even more than the United players.
Play ebbed and flowed like the Channel a scant few miles to the south, United giving as good as they got. Kitson was giving an immaculate display of target-man play, receiving, holding and distributing superbly, ably supported by Tiny Tom. Wide men Tudor and Jackman were the pick of the team, both making numerous dangerous runs and crosses, while Lil’ Luke Guttridge was a figure of convincing authority in the middle. Dear old Braveheart was his usual self, tackling like a wounded buffalo, making snaking runs forward and defending as safely as a Securicor van at Heathrow Airport.
First stoppage of the night came when Kitson and Maher clashed heads when going for a corner. After several minutes, the BGG resumed, but Maher was escorted off and not long after was replaced by Richard Hughes. Sixty seconds later, United took a rarer-than-Hannibal-Lecter’s-steak away lead. Guttridge’s corner was met by Tann at the near post and his cross-goal header was hacked desperately off the line, but only to Cowan 18 yards out. His spectacular bicycle kick flew unerringly into the net; United’s hopes of that first away win began to Raleigh. TC wasted no time in running joyfully over to the away end (of the stand) and helpfully reminding us of his name by pointing to it on the back of his shirt. All right Tom, we forgive you for scoring for … THEM.
On 21 Kitson, tormenting the Cherries defence again, was clumsily brought down for a free-kick just outside the left-hand angle of the penalty area, and Guttridge’s excellent free-kick beat the wall but was clutched gratefully by Stewart low on his line. For the hosts, Feeney continued to be the main danger man, beating his markers again to race clear but saw his low drive stopped by Le Dieu. Lionel’s handling throughout was immaculate, safely holding every shot aimed at him despite conditions more difficult and slippery than Peter Mandelson dipped in butter. The one time he was beaten early on, Hayter was correctly adjudged offside.
On 23 Feeney finally got his reward. Wade Elliott, thankfully not wearing his rocket boots tonight, sent in a high, hopeful cross, Tann missed it and it sat up nicely for the Bournemouth No 5 to half-volley unequivocally into the top left corner. Unstoppable.
United countered and Elliott and Kitson played out a little ‘handbags’ scene as they got in each other’s way when getting up after a scramble. When the BGG next got the ball, he skipped majestically sideways past three bamboozled opponents before providing Tudor with an immaculate threaded pass with his outstep. Unfortunately, AFCB full-back Young had decided to exact ‘revenge’ on behalf of Elliott and cynically and disgracefully chopped him down from behind after the ball had gone: an awful, violent assault worthy of a straight red. Soft ref Brandwood (yes, him) awarded only yellow.
Cowan almost presented the hosts with a second goal on 36, his woefully underpowered back-header latched upon by that man Feeney, who lifted it high over the advancing Perez. Thankfully for United, both Tann and Angus were back covering, and Tann’s challenge was enough to force Feeney to toe-poke over. TC then sadly knackered his hamstring and had to be replaced by Neil Mustoe, who fitted in perfectly with the minuscule midfield as Fleming moved to left back.
United continued to create their own chances, Kitson just wide from a Tudor cross then Tiny Tom creating havoc in the box but neither Tudor nor Kitson could get that final vital touch. Then right on half-time, that pesky Feeney got clear AGAIN, bearing down on goal with Tann and Angus once again in hot pursuit. Lionel came out to meet him and blocked his initial effort ten yards out; the ball rebounded, hit Feeney as much as he hit it, and it flew just wide of the left-hand post. He had shown our defence up more times in the first half than Sheffield United players leave the pitch, and we desperately needed a cunning plan, or failing that, a bear-trap on the penalty spot. Or a sniper in the East Stand.
Once again United had shown that on their day, they can be a damn good football team, and both sides had created 45 minutes of cracking entertainment. Speaking of which, cheerleaders the Cherryettes risked quadruple pneumonia by treating us to a dancing display in the skimpiest of two-piece red and black outfits at half-time. Many members of the crowd (all male, coincidentally) expressed a desire to thank them personally for having warmed their, er, cockles, but thankfully for the Cherryettes, they didn’t get their wish.
Part two resumed in the same enjoyable manner as the first, but within three minutes of the restart, Bournemouth had been awarded a penalty on the say-so of the lino, who indicated his opinion that Tann had handled in going for a cross at the near post with Holmes. The United players’ concerted protests demonstrated what a desperately harsh decision it was, and tellingly, Tann wasn’t even booked for his ‘offence’. Explain that one, then, Brandwood. Elliott, like just about every player who takes a penalty against the U’s, placed it perfectly and unsaveably into the right-hand corner past Le Dieu’s brave dive. Not more awayday heartbreak, surely? We’ve already about a decade’s worth this season!
United didn’t lose heart. Lionel made another difficult low save look easy from Hughes’ shot, Jackman narrowly missed the target with a similar effort, then just before the hour came the visitors’ reward for their persistence. Tudor broke from his own half down the right wing, passed inside to Youngs, and Tiny Tom spotted Jackman bombing in from the left, totally unmarked. Diddy Danny’s first effort, a delicate left-footed chip, beat Stewart as he went to ground 12 yards out but its lack of pace permitted Howe to block, but only straight back to Jackman who this time took it on a pace then calmly rifled home into the empty goal with his right peg for his first-ever League goal. Well done DD, and thoroughly deserved too.
Still the match vacillated more uncertainly than a Cambridge don trying to decipher the precise meaning of UEFA’s baffling Champions League group ranking rules. Some neat inter-passing sent James Hayter clear on goal 30 yards out, but Le Dieu rushed out to narrow his angles, drove him wide and he shot weakly into the side netting as Fleming thoughtfully tackled the post, just in case. Alex Revell replaced the tired and not fully fit Kitson on 70, followed by a second cameo appearance on 78 by David Bridges in place of Tiny Tom, unluckily injured once again. Bridges had an immediate impact, his cross nodded home by Revell but disallowed for a marginal offside. At the other end, Stephen Cooke found himself clear 20 yards out but his attempted lob was blocked magnificently by Lionel in a Schmeichelesque star jump.
Then as full-time approached, United nearly, oh so nearly, provided a rip-roaring climax. Bridges, bursting through the middle, was clumsily brought down by Tindall 20 yards out, another Cherry lucky to see only yellow. Guttridge touched the ball to Goodhind, whose low blast was blocked then fumbled by Stewart. In a melee worthy of a Slipknot moshpit, Revell twice tried to poke over the line to be foiled by heroically hurled Bournemouth bods, then Bridges’ prod seemed in until, unbelievably, Elliott’s boot appeared like the Lady of the Lake’s hand from a sea of red, black and amber to hook the ball backwards off the line in midair. Bridges thought it was in and no one in the ground could honestly say 100 per cent if enough of it crossed the line to be given or not. But that’s United’s away story this season, innit?
Bournemouth, desperate for the points, finished with a corner, pawed away with extendable fists by Le Dieu, then a breathless and thrilling match was finally over to the frustration of both sets of supporters. No one in truth deserved to lose this belter of a match, and Taylor’s Tots had done United proud in going so close to breaking that away hoodoo. We remain in hope that the Cherries join us in Division Three … for the simple reason that it’s a great, happening place for a weekend away. Next August then?
Perez 8 – The skipper was at his imperious best. Guess how much chance he had with the goals?
Goodhind 7 – Competent, unspectacular effort as he gets his feet under the first team table.
Tann 6 – One of his poorest games in a United shirt, but he has set a remarkably high standard. Failed to get to grips with Feeney, who fortunately played a much wider role in the second half to noticeably less effect. Cheers, mate.
Angus 6 – Mirrored his centre-back partner in an under-par performance compared to previous marks.
Cowan 6 – Superb goal, great bloke, but decidedly iffy defender.
Tudor 8 – Excellent, busy display down the right wing, always looked dangerous.
Guttridge 8 – Assumed the mantle of central playmaker with precociously cool aplomb. Magnificent.
Fleming 6 – Scurried well in midfield but didn’t have the best of times at left back.
Jackman 8 – Ruled the left side with splendid runs, crosses and shots, and covered back well too. Terrific all round.
Kitson 7 – The complete centre forward in the first half, although faded in the second. Pray he is fit on Sunday.
Youngs 7 – Hard-working as ever; just missing the end product.
Mustoe 6 – Roamed midfield but never really asserted any particular authority. Didn’t play himself into the side for the LDV.
Revell 7 – Threw himself about well and unlucky to have his ‘goal’ disallowed.
Bridges 7 – Fantastic impact in a short time from another great new prospect. More, please.
Match summary: Taylor’s Tots were small in stature but enormous in heart as they came agonisingly close to that elusive victory. Augurs well for the Big One on Sunday: come one, come all, come large, come small – be there! It’ll be enormous!
Man of the Match: Danny Jackman. He was here, he was there, he was every(censored)where. And he’ll be in Cardiff on Sunday – and so will we! I’m so excited, it’s Camb United …
Ref watch: Brandwood 6. The FA Cup villain (your title for life, sir) was mainly satisfactory, but Young should have seen red and only the lino is convinced about the penalty.
Saturday 30 March 2002 – Oldham Athletic 2-2 United
Thrill-seekers! You WINCED at Rollerball! You CRINGED at A Clockwork Orange! You GROANED at Romper Stomper! You COWERED at Chuckle Brothers – The Movie! Now prepare yourselves for the meanest onslaught yet: a 98-minute saga of flying elbows, vicious late tackles, cynical moaning, snarling locals, casual abuse and cards galore! Yes, it’s … Return To Ice Station Oldham, where you’re assured of being shaken warmly by the throat as Mick Wadsworth’s Stormtroopers lay waste to the cream of young Cambridge talent in an orgy of mindless violence and nasty, brutish Route One football not seen since the likes of, er, John Beck! Rated XXX – and no, those aren’t kisses!
It had all started so innocently. The warmest day of the year, a trouble-free journey and a pleasant welcome of beer and ‘chip muffins’ in the Boundary Park social club for the visiting amber hordes. What better way to blow away the cobwebs of that unforgettable Sunday out in Cardiff? The normally freezing cold Pennine wastes were transformed into a balmy excursion destination by the remarkably un-Bank Holidayesque weather. Traditional preconceptions of a grim, strife-ridden Beirutalike were dispelled by the approaches to Oldham Athletic’s home past smart, well-to-do detached houses with Jags parked outside (assuming, ahem, they did belong to the homeowners).
Boundary Park itself, however, remains unchanged from that dark day in 1997 when its team was relegated from Division One and said goodbye to the big time, possibly for ever. Its quaint old stands are now all-seater, but vast swathes of the seats are simply bolted on to old open terraces, leaving their occupants open to the elements; not, one would venture to guess, a particularly pleasant prospect in the depths of a Lancashire winter. Two corners are filled with bizarre Portakabin affairs which appear to house some rather less than super-luxurious ‘executive boxes’. The air of no-nonsense Northernness is emphasised by the christening of the main enclosure the Pukka Pies Stand, while the away end is now called, with bitter irony, the ITV Sport Stand. Well it hasn’t been closed down … yet. Our old friend Monkey also graced the matchday programmes with the prescient remark ‘It was not a mistake, it was a blunder,’ thereby summing up the whole of that bunch of incompetents’ actions in one choice phrase.
The teams took to the verdant green field with the visitors showing two changes from last week, Adam Tann’s resting allowing Stev Angus to move to centre back and Terrier Fleming to come in at right back, while Captain Fantastic’s operation permitted Lil’ Luke Guttridge to move infield and Tony ‘Queenie’ Scully to enter the fray wide left. The hosts sported new signing Dele Adebola, the well-known virulent skin disease, up front, while in goal veteran Andy Goram displayed the most voluptuous rear cheeks since J-Lo’s last video. Only not quite as attractive. He also seemed to be waging a one-man campaign to restore the 70s perm to fashionable prominence.
The sun shone brightly as battle commenced, and it soon became apparent that Oldham’s main tactic was to be the big ball over the top for Adebola to chase. He’s a master tactician, that Mick Wadsworth; just look how badly Newcastle have fared since he left. Oops … Le Dieu Sans Mullet took an early Duxbury cross intended for the target man’s noggin, then it was Shane ‘Oompah Loompah’ Tudor’s turn to show his pace with a run down the wing only halted by Chris Armstrong’s cynical shirt-pulling, a portent of the unpleasantness to come. Guttridge’s resultant free-kick found the head of skipper for the day Duncan free of markers ten yards from goal, but his header looped frustratingly on to the roof of the net.
The atmosphere in the ground was strange … there wasn’t any. Oldham, a Premiership club less than ten years ago and now supposedly pushing for the play-offs, had attracted fewer than 5,000 paying customers, and fewer than 50 singing ones, save for the occasional uninspired chant of ‘going down’ (you don’t say!). And their team looked about as invigorated as their fans as United matched then gradually bettered them in terms of possession. David Eyres, once a real menace but now looking as past it as The Big Breakfast, had one effort gathered at the near post by Le Dieu, but it was United’s wide players who appeared the most dangerous on their regular forays into enemy territory.
One marauding Tudor run saw him cut inside and go for goal rather than cross to his strikers, then Scully produced a trademark Carl Lewis of a sprint down the left before finding BGG Kitson, who fell to the ground under his marker’s challenge. The home fans, never slow to have a moan, interpreted this as a dive, but ref Ryan merely waved play on. United continued to play the better football, Guttridge in particular passing and prompting well beyond his tender years, while Kitson came in for all sorts of punishment from the Oldham defenders. The only thing lacking, at both ends, was some kind of end product, and neither keeper was unduly troubled in the early exchanges.
The ‘fun’ really started on 26, as combative, diminutive midfielders Guttridge and Darren ‘I’m The Short Thuggish Brother’ Sheridan clashed on the halfway line. Lil’ Luke fouled his oppo, with no great malice aforethought, but Sheridan’s reaction was to fell him with a vicious flying elbow. A deserved instant red for Sheridan, yellow for Luke. Altogether about as sensible as David James’ hair.
United could now increase their territorial stranglehold on the game, and should have taken the lead just after the half hour. Another superb, coruscating run down the right by Loompah, sorry Tudor, almost to the touchline, then a driven low ball across Goram to the far post where Scully was arriving. A natural left-footer would have driven it in as a matter of course, but Queenie chose to take it with his right and it flew across goal and wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, the visitors came even closer to breaking the deadlock, a magnificent through ball from Kitson sending Tiny Tom sprinting clear on goal down the right channel. Goram came out to narrow the angle, an imposing figure in all his lardy glory, and he blocked Tom’s right-footer with his hands. The rebound fell to Tom again, and he slipped inside the covering defender then tested Mr Michelin Man again, this time with a southpaw swinger, which hit the keeper’s legs, squirmed behind him then stopped, to be gratefully clutched to his ample bosom after he had realised where on Earth it had landed up. Foiled again.
Kitson was by now looking severely restricted movement-wise after the treatment meted out by the Oldham defence, play having been stopped three times for treatment to his bruised and battered limbs; in fact he almost seemed incapable of mustering more than a slow trot, which led to him being unable to keep up with the fast breaks of Tudor, Scully and Youngs, and it was really a puzzle as to why someone so obviously unable to give his best was allowed to continue. The situation wasn’t helped by Duncan’s withdrawal on 36, producing another comeback for Neil ‘Sinatra’ Mustoe as Ashbee took Duncan’s position as centre-back and skipper. No sign of Ash’s infamous special armband with the extra-large C, though.
No sooner had Ash taken over leadership duties than he produced the goal his side’s superiority had deserved. Goram punched a corner clear to him on the edge of the area, and his low volley arrowed into the bottom right corner with the help of a deflection. Once again the tantalising prospect of that first away win was dangled in front of us like one of the Child Catcher’s lollipops. All free today!
The home team became grumpier than Naomi Campbell faced with a phalanx of paparazzi as their ‘supporters’ got on their collective backs all the more. Duxbury became the second Oldham name in the book as the collective moaning got more concerted than a banging remix of Je T’Aime. As half-time loomed, they finally produced a moment of danger, Adebola escaping the attentions of his marker for once to latch on to another ball over the top, and clear on goal less than ten yards out, he really should have scored but for a superb reaction block with the legs by Le Dieu. But ’twas only a fleeting respite, as Dean Holden met the ensuing corner with a header from fully 15 yards that flew unstoppably into the top right corner. In fact Adebola broke away again before the whistle, this time Perez whisking the ball off his feet mere yards from goal, spreading himself wider than Garry Flitcroft’s love life.
So, like a set of Scrabble pieces, all square. But we sensed that surely this was our chance to get that win: one man up, playing well, mediocre opposition and a morose crowd. Was this to be The Day? Anything could happen in the next, er, 53 minutes …
United resumed as they had left off, dominating possession despite Kitson’s lack of mobility. Why was he still on the pitch? Ten minutes in, a United corner was challenged for by Ashbee and Adebola, both players falling in a heap as Ryan penalised the Oldham striker for a contentious handball. Penalty!
This season’s 18-yard saga is worthy of a Tolkein epic all of its own, and this time it was our very own little Hobbit, Luke Guttridge, who courageously and decisively picked up the ball as his teammates found something in their eye or espied a particularly interesting blade of grass. The spot-kick was far from great, reasonably struck but uncomfortably close to Goram, but the Podgy Keeper simply couldn’t get his bulk down quickly enough and it slipped past him to nestle comfortingly in the back of the net. 2-1!
The locals, already crabbier than a bowl of crabsticks, became even more agitated by the ref’s perceived ‘bias’ against them, and some of them even managed to raise a chant or two for a change. Oldham introduced former U Carlo Corazzin for Baudet in a positive 3-3-3 formation, and Le Dieu had to be alert to the Canadian’s break after a long ball which he just met first with his head a couple of yards outside the box. United countered with another excellent Tudor run, this time squaring it to Scully unmarked 18 yards out, but his blaster aimed at the top corner flew over when he really should have hit the target.
Things got nastier just after the hour as Guttridge released Tudor with a perceptive threaded through ball, and was cynically and disgracefully clattered from behind by Holden. Ref Ryan allowed play to continue as Tudor advanced on goal and shot disappointingly wide with Kitson well placed square, then Holden received his deserved yellow card which could so easily have been another red. Not five minutes later came more controversy as Eyres and Youngs rose for a high ball and Tiny Tom collapsed with a nasty head injury which, as it turned out, needed stitches. Home fans predictably saw no foul at all, but Ryan did, and having done so, was again pretty lenient by handing out only another yellow. Perhaps he wanted to avoid another Sheffield United?
Of particular irritation to the United contingent was the home stretcher bearers’ slothful, lackadaisical response as they sauntered slowly on to the pitch while being waved over frantically. Mustoe especially was incensed, and the myopic home fans responded by booing Scully whenever he got the ball. Well they’re both blond, innit? Tom was stretchered from the field, to contemptible abuse from some Neanderthals in the home end, and replaced by Armand Oné. Some fault with the electronic subs board led to reversion to old-fashioned number boards, but they had no 31 so improvised with a 13; if they’d had a mirror it’d have worked a treat. So Oldham had now crocked both United’s front two and tried to dismember their most influential midfielder. Purely coincidentally, I’m sure …
All this kerfuffle was hardly conducive to a free-flowing game of football, although Corazzin had a couple of decent chances well saved by Perez. Carss and Kitson then had a ‘Who can hoof the ball into the car park’ competition with shots so wild and uncontrolled they should have been tranquillised and locked in a cage. There was another lengthy stoppage as Adebola and Angus clashed heads when going for a cross, although no doubt home fans thought Angus was play-acting as they watched through their rose-tinted Raybans.
Oldham continued to press ever more desperately as United retained possession whenever they could. As always seems to happen when United are clinging on to a lead, an inordinate amount of added time was to be played: seven minutes, most of it ironically down to United players receiving treatment from a mauling by a blue and white-shirted opponent. Oné broke into the Oldham area only to fall under challenge, another non-penalty and non-dive according to the man in green. Then home shouts for a pen were also dismissed after Scully appeared to push Colusso in the back as he was about to shoot.
With four minutes of added time played, young Bridges replaced the clearly knackered Tudor, and Guttridge had an excellent chance to seal matters as he broke into the Oldham area; his first effort was blocked by Goram and his second from the rebound disappointingly over. As the end approached, Scully conceded a free kick in the centre circle, and Oldham pushed everyone forward in one last, er, push. And wouldn’t you know it, not for the first time this season, United wilted under the late onslaught, failing to clear adequately as the hosts threw the ball in more in hope than anything else. In the 98th minute, it fell nicely to Holden who swung a peg at it as players do only in such circumstances, and his volley screamed agonisingly into the top corner. Oops, we did it again. Relegation was finally a mathematical reality. D’oh, d’oh and thrice d’oh.
So once again the precious elixir of that first away win was dashed from our lips at the 11th hour. They’re getting nearer and nearer, but only two chances now remain, at strugglers Wrexham and Northampton. Cobblers? Oh I don’t know, it could still happen …
Perez 8 – Couldn’t do anything about the goals and was otherwise immaculate.
Fleming 7 – Did his usual calm and professional job.
Angus 7 – Entirely satisfactory and looks more comfortable in the middle despite relative lack of inches.
Duncan 7 – Looked comfortably in control until forced off prematurely.
Murray 7 – Like his back four compadres, coped satisfactorily with most everything thrown at him.
Tudor 7 – Truly excellent first half and worth an 8 or more if he’d kept it up all match. But tiredness again led to a bit of a falling off second half.
Guttridge 9 – The king of midfield and his maturity and responsibility in assuming penalty-taking duties mark him out as a future leader.
Ashbee 8 – Slotted in at his old position of centre back as if he’d been playing there for years. Good game.
Scully 8 – One of his best performances in amber notwithstanding being on the ‘wrong’ wing. Caused all sorts of mayhem at times.
Kitson 6 – After half an hour it was clear that his mobility and speed were severely restricted. His remaining presence, possibly aggravating his mystery injury, was utterly baffling.
Youngs 8 – Typically busy, lively match until ‘taken out’.
Mustoe 7 – Played the holding role reasonably well, although almost lost his rag in characteristic style a couple of times.
Oné 6 – A couple of moments but a mostly quiet cameo appearance.
Bridges 6 – Hardly had time to lace his boots.
Match summary: Unlucky United once more wilted at the finish to be robbed of a deserved victory by a brutal Oldham side who would have looked more at home in a Demolition Derby. To have it snatched away so late by such a team was heartbreaking. Great experience, though … what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, eh lads?
Man of the match: Luke Guttridge. Maturity beyond his years, only his tears at the end showing the youth beneath. A day of pride and promise.
Ref watch: Ryan 6. A display that divided home and away fans from a ref we last ‘enjoyed’ in our 6-1 battering at Tranmere. Could easily have shown three red cards to Oldham’s thugs and we wouldn’t have complained. But oh, how they would have moaned …
Saturday 6 April 2002 – Wrexham 5-0 United
Dear Mr Taylor,
I am writing to thank you most sincerely for the lovely gifts that your team gave me today. I had heard that Cambridge were a generous club, but I never knew just how generous! It was awfully kind of your boys to give me so much space and all the time in the world to score all those goals. And it was also a great help that you switched to a different formation halfway through the first half, even though your team obviously had no idea how to play it! I hope your players get better soon (they looked really sluggish and unwell today) and I look forward to playing against your youth team again next season.
Very best wishes,
A great scientist (was it Magnus Pike?) once said that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This has certainly been a week of opposites for the Mighty U’s, as everything positive and encouraging about Tuesday’s 4-1 demolition of Chesterfield was replaced with the gloom and negative vibes of a quite wretched performance at the Racecourse Ground; the second worst team in Division Two was made to look like Brazil 1970 as Le Dieu Sans Mullet stood literally alone in averting a record beating that could quite conceivably have reached double figures without his heroics. That’s three defeats in six weeks in the Principality; mmm, looking forward to that trip to Swansea already …
Unbelievable as it seems now, the pre-match mood of the amber faithful was upbeat and cheerful as they bedecked themselves in the ragtag raiment of Burger King crowns (seemed like a good idea at the time). A bright, sunny day, if tempered by a bitingly cool wind, and surely the best chance yet to break that away hoodoo against a Wrexham side almost as bad as us record-wise, and awaiting the guillotine of relegation with all the devastating certainty of a Duncan Ferguson rabbit punch. Their estimable fanzine, Red Passion, agreed, dubbing its latest issue the ‘Division 3 Here We Come Edition’. It also claimed the title of ‘The Pro-Lee Jones Wrexham Fanzine’, but who’s ever heard of him, eh? O fate, thy sting is verily like unto a slap around the chops with a wet haddock.
The new(ish) Main Stand at the Racecourse Ground is an encouraging sign that it is still possible to construct a new facility that is both pleasing to the eye and uniquely individual, its sleek curves redolent of an elegant luxury cruise liner and quite unlike any other structure in the League. And the pub that used to overlook the pitch is still there, too. Unfortunately its team’s imminent relegation produced one of its lowest attendances of the season, the local residents obviously preferring the prospect of a pint or six of Wrexham Lager and the Grand National. Their loss. The sparse crowd looked lost dotted around the ground, and as raucous, highly-charged atmospheres go, this was right up there with Westminster Hall and the planet Pluto.
Wrexham’s mascot, Deadloss the Dragon, lumbered out to a warm smattering of indifference then proceeded to ignore his own supporters and take lone potshots at the goal at the away end, getting disturbingly excited when his toe-punts managed to hit the back of the unguarded net. The PA tried to crank up the excitement, but sadly its tape loop of ‘woo hoos’ from Blur’s Song 2 ran out a good minute before the teams entered the fray to embarrassing silence. United’s line-up was unchanged from Tuesday, and the dowdiness of the dark blue away shirt was brightened somewhat by some rather fetching light blue shirts and socks. For Wrexham, previous nemesis Lee Trundle was missing, replaced by new signing Lee Jones. They also boasted the enormous 6’ 7” frame of Dennis Lawrence at centre-back. No point in many high balls today, then.
Early play between the two worst sides in the division was predictably mediocre, enlivened on four by Tudor’s exciting push and run down the right wing between two defenders, but his cross failed to reach its target, Kitson. Dan Bennett shot wide for the hosts and Tiny Tom had an effort clutched by Marius Rovde in their goal, but the flowing football of Tuesday was all too conspicuous by its absence. There were far too many lazy high balls launched at the strikers, Kitson especially helpless against a human beanstalk, and too often the passing was inaccurate and showed little team understanding. Wrexham’s wing backs pushed up against the United wide players and Scully in particular found no room at all in which to manoeuvre, dropping back ever deeper so he frequently ended up on the halfway line as Murray looked in vain for a through ball opportunity ten yards inside him.
Wrexham looked no better skill-wise, but were at least getting stuck in, and they took the lead on 15. Andy Morrell drove in a fierce low cross from wide left at the second attempt, it was helped on by Barrett and fell nicely for Jones six yards out to poke home past the helpless Perez as the United defence looked on aghast. United failed to respond in any way and Wrexham went looking for number two. Morrell was well blocked by Tann, then the Robins’ number 17 had another chance with a free header ten yards out which he put wide when he might have expected to do better. So far Wrexham’s hurdlers were galloping towards Becher’s Brook while United’s carthorses had pulled up at the first fence, unsure how to continue or whether they even wanted to. The hosts were soon to make Kennomeat of them.
Around the half-hour mark, the dynamic duo on the United bench decided on a change in tactics, moving to a wing-back system with Tudor and Fleming wide, Murray joining Tann and Angus at centre, and Kitson and Scully up front with Youngs ‘in the hole’. Lucky Tom. In all honesty it made little difference, United creating just one chance worth mentioning via a Tudor cross from wide right to Scully at the far post; this time his header flew ten yards wide.
Defensively, United looked more vulnerable than ever. Neither wing back looked remotely comfortable in their unsuitable role, Tudor frequently caught upfield and Fleming just looking lost. The back three seemed horrendously open to simple balls over the top or threaded down the channels, as proved by a Darren Ferguson chip that Paul Barrett ran on to 30 yards out as a teammate retreated back past him from an inactive offside position. Barrett cut inside but his shot from the angle of the six-yard box was well blocked by Le Dieu’s legs. Jones could have got another in added time as he shot for goal from Kitson’s weak header from a corner but it bobbled five yards wide of a crowded six-yard box. Wrexham approached The Chair; United just sat down and had a good, hard look at that second fence.
So far, so-so. Time for the Heart of Darkness that was part two. Within five minutes of the restart, the game was dead and buried as 1-0 became 3-0 in a collapse worryingly redolent of the catastrophe of Vale Park. On 48, Holmes and Tann tussled for the ball down the left, Holmes won despite suspicion of a foul, and his low cross across the six-yard box found Jones unmarked by United’s depleted and disorganised excuse for a defence for an easy tap-in.
Two minutes later Scully lost possession, Barrett headed down to Jones 15 yards out and, under minimal pressure, he finished into the corner with the confidence of someone who was beginning to realise that this was his day. Lionel was, needless to say, more than a little peeved at the way he was being exposed time and time again; surely it was time for our tactical genii on the bench to acknowledge that the formation change had failed dismally and to revert to a system that the players at least had some inkling how to play?
Not exactly. Revell replaced Scully in a straight swap, and the good ship United sailed on despite having no rudder, shipping water port, starboard and centre. The supporters just felt seasick. Their team was being taken apart at will by the second worst side in the division, and far from having the answer, we didn’t even seem to know what the question was. There’s Lee Jones on the starboard bow … it’s worse than that, we’re dead, John!
United managed to conjure up an attempt on goal in the shape of a Kitson header, drifting wide from ten yards out, then it was back to the home pressure. Holmes ran through the ‘defence’ like Peter Buck down an aircraft aisle and again found Lionel’s fast-reacting feet his equal. Then it was Jones’ turn for a chance, his shot on the turn again magnificently blocked by Le Dieu. Revell was having a little impact in comparison with his somnolent colleagues and forced a comfortable save from Rovde on the hour, but within a minute Wrexham were approaching the Canal Turn while United were face down in the Water Jump.
Another knife/butter attack by the hosts, and Barrett found himself in acres of room on United’s right as ‘wing-back’ Tudor looked on, hopelessly caught out, 30 yards upfield. Barrett’s cross presented Morrell with another free header that cannoned off the bar; the ever-grateful Jones was on hand to make it four for number 44 with another tap-in. Five minutes later Jones returned the favour, but Morrell shot over to the relief of the beleaguered United contingent. David Bridges replaced the anonymous Fleming on 68, but still the lamentable 3-5-2 system remained as young David was forced to do his square peg impersonation into the round hole of left wing-back.
Barrett and Phillips had further chances for Wrexham until the 75th minute when United conceded their worst goal yet. Freddie Murray was caught dwelling on the ball in the centre circle by Morrell, and he ran in on goal with Murray in lukewarm pursuit, drew Perez then squared it for the supporting Jones (unmarked, naturellement) to get yet another tap-in from six yards. It was Christmas, birthday and St David’s Day all in one for the Robins striker in only his second start this season, as he instantly jumped to third top scorer.
Home boss Denis Smith must have felt some twinges of sympathy for the 130 loyal away supporters as he then withdrew both Jones and Ferguson in favour of Trinidadians Hector Sam and Carlos Edwards. Sam soon made his mark with an excellent cross for Morrell, who was just denied by Tann, then on 80 the dismal United rearguard collapsed again as Sam left them all standing with a run from halfway. As Perez advanced, he chose not to shoot but to cut inside Tann then try to take it around Le Dieu and walk it into the open goal. Lionel had other ideas and stood up then smothered as Sam tried to round him. Humiliation averted by the Gallic genius again.
Remarkably, United almost scored five minutes from time. A cross was half-cleared to Tudor who flung it back in; Revell, unmarked near the penalty spot, flung himself backwards to get a glancing headed contact to guide it on to the post, from which Rovde scrambled it away for a corner despite Tiny Tom’s close attentions. There was still time for another excellent double save from Le Dieu, from Morrell’s volley and sub Morgan’s skimmer, while United could only counter with weary, lazy 35-yard punts from Murray, Tudor and Kitson which all sailed hopelessly wide. Wrexham were at The Elbow, galloping home with energy to spare, while United had long since pulled up.
The final whistle was sweet relief for the visitors’ inept, stumbling team and shell-shocked, long-suffering supporters. The message in the programme of ‘Keep the faith, U’s fans, the rollercoaster is beginning to roll’ (actually it said ‘being to roll’!) rang as hollow as Jonathan Woodgate’s defence. If it’s rolling, all we feel so far is decidedly queasy. Ironically for Wrexham, their best win of the season was followed immediately by the news that results elsewhere had relegated them with United anyway. For the hapless U’s, this was a worryingly gutless, inept display in a season of far too many five- or six-goal tonkings. There is no point in employing a tactical system that the players don’t seem to understand, let alone know how to play. Playing staff and management must all share the blame for this embarrassment. Now let’s see some signs of life in our last three games; they owe it to the fans they have let down all too often this season. And if they’d like to chip in for our expenses, feel free, guys …
Perez 7 – Kept the score down single-handed. Without him, a record defeat would have been a certainty.
Fleming 4 – Mediocre at right back, clueless at left wing back. Substitution a merciful release.
Murray 4 – Ghastly mistake for the fifth goal summed this one up.
Tann 4 – Won’t have a worse game.
Angus 5 – Best of a wretchedly poor bunch at the back. Back three? Never again, please!
Tudor 5 – Some good moments going forward, but a wing back he ain’t.
Ashbee 4 – Back to square one in a poor season for the stand-in skipper. Game passed him by.
Guttridge 4 – Little boy lost today.
Scully 4 – Made no impression at all in 4-4-2 and ironically did what little good work he did in 3-5-2, until removed.
Kitson 4 – Utterly anonymous, although starved of any decent service.
Youngs 5 – At least he never stopped trying, if that’s not damning with faint praise.
Revell 6 – Made a good, lively impression when introduced. Better than the bewildered statues around him, anyway.
Bridges 5 – Asked, unreasonably, to play in an unfamiliar position in an unfamiliar and hopelessly ineffective system.
Match summary: Just when you think we’re getting packed and ready for next season, Fate vomits into our lunchbox again. The worst performance of a dismal season, this was just humiliating. The switch to wing backs failed horrendously; only question is who is more culpable: the management for their inability to organise the system or the players for their inability to implement it. 4-4-2 on Tuesday, please, lads.
Man of the match: Lionel Perez. He and he alone saved United from an eight- or nine-goal hammering. We were that bad.
Ref watch: Furnandiz 6. Last hurrah for the LDV Final ref who retires at the end of the season. Looked as if he wanted a nice quiet wind-down to his career; no danger of booking anyone, not that there was a lot for him to do in that area, or indeed in any area. Retirement is due, though; he got in the way of play at least four times.
Tuesday 9 April 2002 – United 1-2 Swindon Town
It didn’t take long, but in today’s impatient times, it had a strange air of inevitability about it. He had been at the club for several years, and been a very popular striker in his time before joining the coaching staff. His promotion to first team manager after the previous boss left under a cloud, his side close to the bottom of the table, ushered in a new era of positivity and hope. But the results, as dismal as they had been, just didn’t get any better. A Cup run brought a brief respite, and he was hampered by a chronic lack of funds to improve the team, but at the end of the day the League table didn’t lie. And today, after just four short months in charge, he was summarily fired from the club he loved.
But hey, what have Garry Thompson and Bristol Rovers got to do with Cambridge United? After all, they’re in totally different divisions. For, er, two more games. The question on most people’s minds before tonight was which United team would we see tonight? The Brazil of last Tuesday that footballed Chesterfield to death? Or the Bar Hill of Saturday that was battered worse than a Glaswegian Mars bar at Wrexham? The answer was, of course, neither: it was the usual mediocre, underachieving collection of youngsters we’ve been watching for most of the season, its whole infinitely less than the sum of its promising parts. Plus ça change, plus ça ressemble à un escargot construit de fromage bleu. But perhaps that loses a little something in translation.
The side that capitulated so abjectly at the Racecourse Ground was given a chance to make amends tonight. Surely they couldn’t put on such a minging display again. Only change bench-wise was the return of the Armand Hammer in place of Neil Mustoe (he’s back! He’s gone again! He’s back! Nope, he’s gone again!). Swindon were one of the few clubs to visit the Abbey in a more parlous financial state than their hosts … so far, anyway. And in chairman Willie Carson they had someone whose stature would make him a perfect candidate for a midfield spot in the amber and black, and might even have a squeakier voice than Andy Duncan. In fact Willie has to employ a guide dog supplied by the Alan Ball Foundation to translate his high-pitched noises into English, using a specially converted Ouija Board. Apparently.
Remember that glorious day in Cardiff a few weeks back? No, at the Millennium Stadium, not Ninian Park. Well, five thousand supporters who went that day found something better to do tonight than attend the Abbey. Granted, there was the prospect of watching Jamie Oliver show Jamiroquai how to prepare a joint on The Naked Chef (marinade the beef in its own juices and roast at gas mark 6 for an hour, apparently), but we were surely now down to the hardest of the hardcore. You know the score. The second lowest League attendance of the season still beat three LDV attendances, though.
It was a chilly night, and it would get chillier before it was through. Wide boys Tudor and Scully looked reasonably lively, with mobile targets in Kitson and Youngs, but neither keeper was remotely challenged in the first half an hour. What shots there were failed to beat the covering defenders, and most noteworthy incident was the booking of Steve Robinson on 16 for a nasty, cynical foul on the mercurial Oompah Loompah. Shane was undoubtedly United’s most menacing player in the first half, his speed on the break even too quick for his teammates on occasion, but mediocre to average as both teams were, the amber faithful at least saw some signs that their team were putting in some sort of determined effort. On the whole, though, perhaps a cash refund for Saturday might have been preferable. No cheques, please.
Excitement raised its pointy little head just before the half hour when Kitson latched on to a punt upfield, held off Willis and, as keeper Griemink advanced to the edge of his area, nonchalantly chipped him from 25 yards, the ball bouncing with infinite slowness and precision into the far corner of the goal. Home acclaim soon turned to blame, however, as ref Armstrong disallowed it for some sort of foul on the defender, a decision as soft and generous as a millionaire slug in a really good mood.
The lead, however, wasn’t long in coming. On 32 some good work by Tiny Tom down the right found Tudor inside the penalty area, his run taking him past the covering defender. His driven diagonal cross from the edge of the six-yard box might have found the net itself, but ‘So’ Tony Scully drifted in at the far post to tap home from close range. Two goals in three games for the bleached one.
Swindon continued to play with three up front, but wide man Edwards was being very well marshalled by the impressive Fleming at right back. Unfortunately the Terrier’s game came to a premature end on 40 as he was caught from behind by a clumsy challenge from McAreavey, lying prone for almost half a minute before Armstrong grudgingly stopped play. No free kick, naturally. Warren G entered the fray to regulate the numbers, but right on the stroke of half-time came a not especially deserved equaliser from the second set of Robins that United have played in the space of four days. And not a merry man in sight.
Eric Sabin was brought down by Murray on the right-hand edge of the United area. McAreavey laid it back to skipper Andy Gurney, and despite the attentions of Tiny Tom attempting to close him down, his daisycutter from 25 yards flew across the area, missed everybody and nestled in the bottom far corner. Le Dieu Sans Mullet can’t even have seen it.
There was time for one more effort each, a Guttridge 20-yarder beaten away by Griemink, then a narrow escape for the U’s as Young’s right-wing cross bounced between Angus and Tann and found Edwards homing in at the far post. Pressure from Goodhind was sufficient to force him into scudding his effort six feet wide of the post. So ended a thoroughly ordinary half; United were better than Saturday, but 11 traffic bollards would have been better than Saturday. Swindon were just playing out the season, waiting in line like a queue for U2 tickets; waiting for Bono.
Best entertainment of the night came during the interval, as the United substitutes made an extremely rare appearance warming up on the pitch. Messrs Revell, Bridges, Oné and ‘Dancing Shaun’ Marshall were all invited to perform a terpsichorean twirl for their adoring public, and star of the show was undoubtedly the Hammer, putting his twinkly toes to good use with some uniquely Gallic dirty dancing. Michael Flatley, my backside!
Howe replaced Robinson for the visitors at the start of part two, and within a few seconds Murray had conceded a free kick, injured himself and been rather harshly booked for an untidy challenge on Sabin. Swindon tried the same routine, but this time Gurney was further out and much further wide. United hit back and came close to regaining their lead twice in a minute. Tudor’s right-wing cross flew over some heads and rather unexpectedly found Ashbee rushing in, six yards out. He was almost too close to get a decent shot in, his snatched effort coming off the floor and hitting Griemink on the hand as it bounced up. It rebounded back to Ash, and with back to goal, he hooked it over his head to the waiting Kitson five yards out. He’d have liked to wait for it to reach the top of its bounce so he could head it home, but had to flail at it early due to the attentions of Willis, who deflected it over for a corner. Phew!
The visitors responded with a break and shot from Gurney, well blocked by Le Dieu with both hands, and we’d seen more excitement and action in the first few minutes than in almost the whole first half. This was no thanks to ref Armstrong, who it seems does not believe that football should be a contact sport, and has certainly never heard of the advantage rule. Pages 5-6 of the Referees’ Manual, mate. Or The Holy Bible, as you call it. Praise The Laws.
BBG Kitson could and should have scored on the hour, cutting inside and creating his own space well, but just delaying his shot unnecessarily and failing to hit the target from the edge of the area. Tudor seized upon a Guttridge through ball to burst clear, but also neglected to get it between the sticks. Then the match, like the season, gradually began to peter out, deflating like a slow puncture on an Ipswich supporter’s tractor. Armand replaced Scully to liven things up a bit, and Adam Tann of all people threatened to score with a header from a Goodhind cross, just failing to get enough power as he leaned backwards. Then Guttridge let fly with a superb 25-yarder that was heading for the top right corner until Griemink flapped it away.
United looked the more likely winners of a decidedly scrappy encounter, but ’twas not to be. On 82 Lil’ Luke was harshly adjudged to have fouled Sabin 30 yards out, even getting booked by the pernickety Armstrong. Gurney blasted at the United wall, it sneaked through and as a melee of players chased after it like a Benny Hill sketch, it was Stev Angus of all people whose shins it ran off into goal for the winner. More devastating than a right hook to Jonathan Woodgate’s jaw, and almost as predictable.
Oné had a header blocked from Goodhind’s cross soon after, then Armstrong drove us all insane as he stopped the Hammer from breaking away on halfway, supported by Kitson, to pull play back for a free kick to United. A-d-v-a-n-t-a-g-e, old son. A booking for Sabin was the result as the berk in black went card crazy, booking four players in the last ten minutes for some pretty harmless-looking challenges. Paid by the card, is he? Right on time Kitson had a chance to level matters from Ashbee’s chip, but his shot was well stopped by Griemink.
So, yet another defeat to a deeply ordinary team who did precious little to merit their three points. No match could sum up this season better. United should have drawn, could have won, but simply did not do enough. The passing football stuttered rather than flowed, for all their improved commitment. We’ll be as glad to see the back of 2001/02 as the Old Firm will be to see the back of the Scottish League. The trick now is not to do a Bristol Rovers next term … especially if there are two relegation places to the Conference. Nightmares are made of this …
Perez 6 – Hardly had a thing to do all night. Except pick the ball out of the net twice.
Fleming 7 – United’s best player until unluckily crocked. Would that all ‘journeymen’ had his attitude and commitment.
Tann 6 – Adequate game for a young man who will welcome the close season as much as any of us.
Angus 6 – Also needs a rest. Will need to toughen up for all those Div 3 cloggers next season.
Murray 6 – Another one not at his best. Roll on the World Cup.
Tudor 7 – When he was good, he was very good. Just wish he had been good more often.
Ashbee 6 – Some decent tackling, but not exactly Mr Influential.
Guttridge 7 – The pocket battleship battled to decent effect.
Scully 6 – Quiet game for Queenie, only occasionally enlivened by a little run or piece of skill.
Kitson 6 – Some good moments, but too hesitant when given a chance to shoot. Don’t wait until you see the whites of their eyes, Dave.
Youngs 7 – As hardworking as we have come to expect, although with little end result.
Goodhind 7 – Assured early sub, he is beginning to look the part. At last.
Oné 6 – Like most of his colleagues, a collection of nice moments rather than a consistently good performance.
Match summary: This was better than Wrexham like losing a finger is better than losing an arm. Still unsatisfactory and painful to watch, but an improvement in purely relative terms. Perhaps we could only break a fingernail on Saturday? Then we could tread on the Cobblers’ fingers on the last day. Well it’s a target.
Man of the match: Terry Fleming. Only played 40 minutes, but absolutely no one did enough in the second half to deserve the plaudit above him. Which says it all, really.
Ref watch: Armstrong 1. Lamentable display from the diminutive man in the middle. Hates physical contact, loves handing out needless cards, loathes (or has never heard of) advantage, and certainly can’t stand to let play flow if he can blow his favourite whistle instead. Don’t come back.
Saturday 20 April 2002 – Northampton Town 2-2 United
You know what they say. ‘They’ say a lot of things. For instance: ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass.’ They obviously haven’t been to London Road recently. Or: ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire.’ Meet Mr Alcide. How about: ‘Fight fire with fire.’ Tell that to the local Fire Brigade. And of course ‘Small is beautiful.’ But let’s not get into that …
As far as today at Sixfields was concerned, they couldn’t have been more wrong. ‘There’s always a first time!’ Not this season. ‘Lightning never strikes the same place twice!’ Seven minutes into added time at Boundary Park; two minutes into added time today. There’s something to be said for ‘Near is my kirtle, but nearer is my smock’ though, of course.
And so the quest for that ever-elusive away League victory finally foundered for the last time on a sunny day in the Rose of the Shires. Northampton’s quaint little ground still has an air of temporariness about it, as if someone had stuck together some Lego and plonked it down here until they found some better use for it. No doubt this feeling will dissipate if John Fashanu and his mates come along with their rescue package, and I for one can’t wait to see Wolf lining up in goal while Rhino and Hunter form a lethal partnership up front. Introducing Marco Gabbiadini as Elbow. Today was designated Claret Day at Sixfields, although puzzlingly there wasn’t a hint of St Emilion, Marguax or even a cheeky little Pauillac at any of the minuscule refreshment kiosks, just boring old tea and coffee.
Those entering the arena at around 2pm would have been welcomed by the, er, unexpected sound of Last Christmas blaring out over the deafening Tannoy, manned by a couple of Smashie and Nicey types aptly styling themselves Radio Cobblers. Spot on. They then went on to play their ‘lucky song’, Wishing by A Flock Of Seagulls – surely the first time an early 80s synthi-pop number by twerps in ludicrous haircuts has been lucky for anyone. Give me Coconuts any time.
The irresistible lure of the Mighty U’s had drawn the largest crowd of the season to this neck of woods, aided by an impressive sell-out of away end tickets to the fantastically loyal Amber Army. It was end-of-season survival party time for the Cobblers, awards flying around everywhere, and the United fans joined in the good-natured atmosphere with their own cheerful chants in response to the home fans’ helpful reminders that we would be playing in a different division next season. Thanks for telling us, guys, it had completely escaped our notice.
Only two team changes for the U’s, Le Dieu replaced (sob!) by Dancing Shaun, and the also soon-to-be-departed Ash ousted by the exciting emerging talent of David Bridges for his full debut. You’ve had a pretty poor season, Ash, but thanks for all the good times, and let’s hope you find that magic hat of yours at your new home. Unless it’s just up the A1, of course. Most interesting change was the appearance of Phil Warner on the bench for the first time this year; welcome back to the fold. In the warm-up, a high-spirited Armand Oné showed us once again that he truly is the John Travolta, nay, Michael Flatley of the Abbey with some decidedly groovy moves to the PA music. That boy sure got rhythm.
United, resplendent in cheery all-amber, started well, and the lively Bridges was instrumental in their first goal inside four minutes. He picked the ball up in midfield as a Cobblers corner broke down, sent Scully away down the left, and as Kitson challenged keeper Keith Welch for the cross, the latter’s feeble punch fell nicely for Tiny Tom to head back over him and into the empty net. Town’s party was well and truly pooped as the noisy amber hordes acclaimed the best possible start to the quest for THAT away win. Pooptastic.
Both wide men looked dangerous running at the Cobblers’ ageing back line, and Kitson was wide with a hopeful overhead from another Scully cross minutes later. The BGG still looked lacking in fitness, loping rather than running full-tilt, but Tom compensated alongside him with tireless weaving and dodging like Steve Bing avoiding a paternity suit. The youthful midfield pairing of Guttridge and Bridges looked very impressive, while at the back Angus and skipper Tann were at their imperious best and the full backs Goodhind and Murray were both to have one of their best games for the club. The only thing lacking from United’s dominance and possession was an end result to the numerous crosses and passes into the danger areas, and a fully fit Kitson would have taken more advantage. Bodes well for next season, Monkey willing.
Bridges delighted us all on 19 with a Cruyffesque shimmy and turn to beat two opponents, then advanced on goal to ping in a shot from 30 yards which was blocked by Chris Hope, Tudor missing with his follow-up. Young DB tried another long-ranger not long after, off target but encouragingly confident play from a young man who promises more than Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown on Budget day.
It was all going too well to last, of course, and our visions of victory were vanquished on 23. Marshall saved well from Forrester, Asamoah flung himself at the ball in an attempted scissor kick and in the melee the ball hit Angus’s hand. Unimpressive ref D’Urso gave the harshest of penalty decisions in a season of the damned things, and Forrester followed up his two against Le Dieu with another unstoppable one far to Dancing Shaun’s right. Angus wasn’t even booked.
Northampton now began to get more into the game without looking especially threatening. Scruffy player of the year Hargreaves, modelling the designer down-and-out look with his unkempt locks, patrolled the left wing while diminutive runners Asamoah and Forrester waited for balls over the top to run on to as they revolved around ungainly centre forward Parkin. They were impressively dealt with by the visiting back four. D’Urso completely missed Hargreaves’ elbow catching Bridges on 36, causing him to leave the fray for six minutes for stitches in his forehead, but he considerately booked Warren G for complaining about it. Brilliant. The comedy ref then refused Tiny Tom’s claims for a penalty as he was tripped going for a 1-2 with Tudor. Altogether United got about as much justice as Little Mo. Any old iron?
The dying moments of the half produced some genuine excitement at both ends. On 43 one-time United target Chris Marsh essayed a low 30-yarder that Dancing Shaun saw late but got across excellently to, tipping it on to the post and off for a corner. Then on half-time, Tudor gained possession wide on the right and tried an outrageous high, dipping half-volley from the same distance that Welch had to scoot backwards to and tip over the bar. Great effort.
The interval was enlivened by the playing of Daydream Believer, leading both sets of fans to sing the same song about some chap called Fry. Apparently he’s overweight and illegitimate and manages a team that resembles cow dung, according to the lyrics. Funny how everybody knew all the words. The resultant ‘We hate Boro more than you’ contest evinced fond memories of this time last year, when United last won an away League game at this very venue. Halcyon days indeed.
Straight from the kick-off for part two, Queenie Scully produced one of his quintessential runs: a long poke down the flank, an electrifying run around the defending Marsh, successful arrival at the touchline … and a dismal cross that sailed into the stand. The Enigma of Tony Scully encapsulated in one exciting but ultimately frustrating incident. D’Urso then took a dislike to a United throw, awarding it the other way and leading to a Hargreaves run and cross that was screwed wide by Forrester from ten yards out when one might have expected him to convert. Still, even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang breaks down some time.
Another scampering Scully scurry had him cutting inside the Town area, losing the ball but causing Marsh to touch it back to Welch, who grabbed it fearing a corner or even an own goal. Back pass, ruled D’Urso, just outside the six-yard box. Almost the entire home team lined up on the goal line, but Queenie’s delicate chip sailed just over its intended target of the top far corner. Goodhind sadly had to withdraw due to injury after an outstanding display, replaced by Warner on 53, then Forrester missed another decent chance, heading a Carruthers cross over the top.
Proceedings were enlivened by the appearance in the home stand of a home supporter who produced a large sign that, rather touchingly, he had pored over for several hours in drawing a large downward-pointing arrow with some barely legible words (on both sides) about United’s general direction. His proudly displayed masterpiece drew from the amber hordes only derision, which turned to hilarity when Picasso’s sign was confiscated by stewards. Unfortunately for the great artist, this only led to sustained urine extraction, which followed him around the ground as he somehow changed stands. Not a match that the hapless Rolf wannabe will forget in a hurry … but thanks for the laughs, chum!
All this enlivened a game that had lost a little of its lustre, United’s performance not reaching the heights of the first half. After a James Hunt long-ranger whizzed past the post, Scully was replaced by the Armand Hammer as Tiny Tom dropped back to wide left. Three minutes later, he popped up in the centre to take his goal tally to a top-scoring 11 for the season. A superb Bridges through ball from the centre circle was picked up Tom, cutting inside and losing his marker in one fell swoop, and as defenders closed in, he advanced on goal, drew Welch and calmly slipped it past him into the bottom corner from 15 yards. Superb goal, jubilant celebrations from players and supporters alike. The Win was on again!
Cobblers responded with a Hargreaves 20-yarder that was scrambled around the post by Marshall with another impressive save, then Dancing Shaun did it again from Sampson’s header from the resultant corner.
A major blow to United’s chances of hanging on came with the enforced withdrawal of Angus; with no more defenders on the bench, Warner moved to centre back, Guttridge to right back and Shaggy boldly threw on Alex Revell in an attacking 4-3-3 formation, in marked contrast to the time-wasting tactics of our last near miss at Oldham.
United still found time to break sporadically, D’Urso infuriating the away support by refusing another penalty claim as Kitson was half-strangled by Hope, then Revell heading Guttridge’s free kick wide. Then came the Moment of Truth … the raising of The Board. Four minutes was indicated, and we groaned inwardly. Those of us who went to Oldham knew what was coming and we braced ourselves for the inevitable heartbreak ahead.
On 92, Town sub John Hodge picked the ball up wide on the right and ran at the United defence, the ball seemingly glued to his feet. As on so many occasions in the past, United simply could not cope with someone running directly at them, and Hodge slalomed his way past a good five hesitant, fearful non-tacklers before sliding the ball past Marshall and the despairing lunge of Tann on the line. Devastation, pestilence, plague of frogs etc. It would have been harder to take if it hadn’t just been so darned predictable; surely we must have set some sort of record for conceding late-minute goals this season.
So, like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Ulrika Jonsson, the Mighty U’s and Division 3 have been inexorably and irresistibly drawn together as if they so belonged. And that away win will just have to wait until next term. Only three players braved the scrum of pitch-invading Cobblers fans to come over to the amber army to acknowledge its magnificent support as Simply The Best blared out over the Tannoy, presumably because Tina Turner never got round to recording a song called Simply The Sixth Crappest. Presumably Town must have played much better than this to escape the drop. They’ll certainly need to next season. Thank you to the Cobblers supporters who generously and graciously applauded us; and to those who had nothing to offer beyond crude, mean-spirited hand signs, remember: what goes around comes around. Bring on the Diamonds.
Marshall 8 – Splendid display, some excellent saves, mostly adequate kicking and, of course, No Chance With The Goals. Le Dieu est mort, vive le Gardien qui Danse!
Goodhind 9 – Superb, cool display of the full-back’s art until injury forced his withdrawal.
Tann 8 – Good performance by the young skipper, as we have come to expect. Enjoy your summer rest.
Angus 9 – Back to his best. His tackling, covering and positioning were top drawer. We’d probably have hung on if he’d stayed on.
Murray 9 – One of his best outings. He just gets better and better. Another long-running Murray at left-back in store.
Tudor 8 – Not at his most outstanding, but some terrific moments capped by that audacious goal attempt just before half-time. Go get ’em next season – if you’re still with us!
Bridges 8 – Frighteningly promising stuff, he was quite superb until he met Hargreaves’ elbow. Tiredness crept in second half, but what a prospect.
Guttridge 8 – Another one who promises to be a mainstay of the club for years to come. The new Steve Spriggs indeed.
Scully 7 – Mr Frustrating. Flashes of brilliance spoilt by his inability to recognise when to release the ball at the right time.
Kitson 7 – Still don’t know why he’s playing. Obviously can’t run properly. Good luck with the op.
Youngs 9 – It’s so nice to have the real Tiny Tom back, and now the goals are truly flowing. Twenty at least next season.
Warner 7 – Back, back, back, and let no one down on his overdue return.
Oné 7 – Did OK without pulling up any trees (hope that translates into French).
Revell 7 – Also performed adequately in his 15 minutes.
Match summary: The Curse! The Curse! The Injury Time Curse descended on unlucky United again as once more belated frailty cost deserved away victory. But that shouldn’t be allowed to disguise another performance of immense promise from Shaggy’s young braves. We will break the duck in our first away game next season – you read it here first!
Man of the match: Stev Angus. Defensive masterclass.
Ref watch: D’Urso 1. It remains a mystery how he got on to the Premier list, and today only deepened it. Fussy to a fault, punished non-existent fouls while missing several blatant ones. And the penalty decision was close to laughable. Please stick to posing around Old Trafford, eh?