For a team that’s generally knocked around the lower reaches of the Football League, Cambridge United have a proud history in the FA Cup, Thrashing Sheffield Wednesday in 1991, holding Man United to a draw in 2015, and the small matter of those two Quarter-Finals in a row in the early 90’s.
In January 2000 the U’s were struggling in Division Two (now League One), but had managed to dispatch non-League Gateshead and Bamber Bridge in the first two rounds and Division One Crystal Palace in the third. The striking duo of Butler and Trevor Benjamin put Wrexham to the sword in round 4 to set up a tie with Division One high flyers Bolton Wanderers in the fifth round. Could a third Quarter-Final in eleven years be on the cards for United? Only Sam Allardyce stood between them.
The game started on an all too familiar note for U’s fans, with news of a potential redevelopment of the Abbey Stadium. The 7,500 fans packed into the ground were handed yellow cards to make clear their feelings to the city council to stop dragging their feet and approve United’s plans to modernise the Abbey. If you’ve not been following our redevelopment saga closely for the past 20+ years you can probably guess that this protest was ultimately ineffective.
Half an hour in and it was the U’s with the upper hand, and when an Alex Russell cross pinged around the box it was Martin Butler who stabbed it across goal towards an incoming Benjamin to put United 1-0 up.
Minutes later came the defining moment of the game, Trevor Benjamin latched on to a long pass from defence, and found himself ahead of Mike Whitlow with only the keeper to beat. Whitlow had other ideas though, and wrestled the United man to the ground, removing his boot in the process. As clear a red card as the Abbey had ever seen, but referee John Brantwood saw something else, booking Benjamin and awarding a free kick to Bolton.
Still United went in at the break 1-0 up, rightly aggrieved at one of football’s greatest injustices.
The second half saw Bolton bring on Jamaican international Ricardo Gardner and he made an immediate impact setting up Bob Taylor for a spectacular volleyed equaliser. United held on as long as they could but Bolton’s experience and the constant threat of Gardner eventually wore them down, the Jamaican crossing for Taylor to score again with fifteen minutes remaining, before Eidur Gudjohnsen scored a solo effort with four minutes left to wrap up the game.
McFarland was fuming at the end, accusing Brantwood of “bottling” the decision to send off Whitlow, Allardyce meanwhile put the win down to his half-time team talk, and not the fact that his team finished the game with eleven men when they should have had ten.
Bolton went on to beat Charlton 1-0 in the Quarters, before losing 4-1 on penalties to Villa at Wembley in the Semis. United managed to find enough points and beat Champions Preston North End 2-0 thanks to two John Hansen goals in their final home game of the season to assure safety for another season.