As the referee blew the whistle to commence second-half proceedings on Tuesday night at the Abbey, BBC Cambridgeshire’s Doug Shulman uttered what we all rather nervously knew to be true: “this is United’s biggest half of the season”.
At 1-1, the game was finely balanced. The U’s had enjoyed spells of dominance early on, with George Maris, Jevani Brown and Reggie Lambe linking up well and reaping the rewards with Brown’s delicious curling opener. Maris had the ball in the net for a second, but it was ruled out for offside after ricocheting off Lambe on the goal line – a moment of genuine misfortune, but after last week that’s not to say the game would have been won at 2-0. The visitor’s first-half equaliser came from the inability to defend a simple set piece, and then the tide of the game swung gently but firmly into the opponent’s hands, leaving the U’s at their lowest ebb yet. Our biggest half, our biggest disaster.
We must now wake up to the cold light of day and make acquaintance with the harsh reality that greets us. We are in a relegation battle. Whether we like it or not, whether we deserve it or not, whether our squad is better than others, whether Barry Corr has two working knees, whether we blame the manager, the board, or my postman, it doesn’t matter. We now face the rest of the season trying to climb our way out of a hole that we have slowly dug ourselves over the past two years if we want to avoid non-league and the familiar grappling match to escape from it.
This piece is not here to apportion blame (although at some point this has to be shared equally and justifiably at the guilty doorsteps). I’m merely here to fear monger, to ignite a deep-set, throbbing emotional worry inside of you, and to make sure all United fans are on the same page. We’re in trouble, and I want you to be as scared as I am.
United now face a run of MK Dons (H), Lincoln (A), and Swindon (A), before the biggest relegation double header of the season in Macclesfield and Grimsby over the turn of the month. Considering last season’s fixtures against Lincoln and Swindon yielded just two points and MK boast arguably the best squad in the division, this Saturday’s defeat at Crawley could be the most damaging of the season so far. While the result was unmerited after a fine performance, it doesn’t change the fact we didn’t put the ball in the back of the net – in a results-based business that’s what really counts.
After Saturday, even an optimistic U’s fan would be hard pressed to confidently predict picking up anything more than one point from the next three. Bearing in mind that Jake Carroll will still be suspended for the next two fixtures, forcing our best and most experienced centre-half Greg Taylor to move to left-back and be replaced by either George Taft, severely under confident and error-prone, or Harry Darling, a child.
The numbers don’t do much to raise spirits. United have registered only one home win in six, boast the worst goal difference in the league, and are trending to concede 96 goals if the current form is extrapolated over the whole season. It’s possible we go into November still on single figures, and our attendances might not be far off either. It’s easy to see why I sit here writing this dross with worry lines so deep set in my face I appear as a decent caricature of a Bassett Hound. Or Harry Redknapp.
The comfort blanket that many have hung on to for a few weeks is that there are two worse teams in the league. Well, really? Are there? It’s all well and good looking at squads in August before a ball’s been kicked, at that point it certainly looks like there are two worse teams in the league. But then football isn’t played on paper. Suddenly, without realising, there are two worse teams in the league until you are one of the two worst teams in the league. There are two worse teams in the league until you’re 23rd in League 2, and from a position of comparative privilege, you’ve sleepwalked back into non-league.
And then we’ll find ourselves on Saturday the 4th of May at the Moss Rose in Lancashire, the two worst teams in the division playing out the sort of season finale that would dampen even Morrissey’s macabre misery; Macclesfield’s own Ian Curtis would struggle to write anything bleak and depressing enough to soundtrack that feast of fun.
In my heart of hearts the quality of George Maris, Jevani Brown and Brad Halliday should get us over the line eventually, but there are no guarantees – form and confidence play as big a part of a 46 game season as technical ability. Even if we do stay up, we need to bring an entire inquest into the fact that this season has even come to this, that at whatever stage throughout the year people have to endure the mere prospect that from a summer window with a “competitive playing budget” and ending last season in promotion form, we’re now having to Google search AFC Fylde and re-follow the Official FA Trophy Twitter account. I’m not trying to bury United before they’re dead, I’m merely popping out to the shops and purchasing a brand new top-of-the-range coffin and some sturdy nine inch nails. Just in case.
The grim reaper isn’t quite at the door yet. After all, there are 35 games of the season left, and a lot of points still pick up in that time. But he knows about us. We’ve matched with the grim reaper on Tinder. The grim reaper has seen Cambridge United Football Club and he’s swiped right, and it turns out we’re very, very compatible.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Cambridge News as part of UTAS’s fortnightly column.