All wins are born equal. But some wins are born more equal than others. This, for one, felt much, much bigger. The sort of win that really stokes up the fires of belief, deep in your gut. The sort of win you look back on years later with a wry smile of recognition. The sort of win that makes you knowingly but hesitantly accept: yes, Cambridge United are really, really quite good.
But Tuesday night didn’t start that way. When Ian Henderson tapped home Salford’s opener on 31 minutes, it was a deserved reward for a dominant opening half an hour. The visitors had come out of the traps flying. In the ten minutes before the goal, the pressure had grown to breaking point. That the main discussion point was which of their two unmarked players had actually got the clinical touch says everything you need to know about the defending from the set piece.
At that point in the game, United looked out of it. Dominated in a patched up midfield, blunt and unable to create chances up top, and overrun in wide areas, flaws and cracks that seeped into the performance at Crawley on Saturday were showing. Henderson, in particular, was picking holes in a youthful centre-half partnership, at times being allowed a frankly worrying amount of space. Salford were coasting, and it felt like a long, long road to get back into the game.
When the United equaliser came, it came out of nowhere. And, in truth, it was probably undeserved. Brilliant work by the archetypal ‘big man up top’ Joe Ironside, followed by a sensually timed ball by Wessi to Jack Iredale, who slammed it decisively under the keeper. They say just before half-time is always a bad time to concede. They’re not wrong. Clearly getting back into the game so suddenly will have changed not just Mark Bonner’s team talk, but the general confidence and mood of the side going in at the break. The first 43 minutes of being very much second best will have been quickly forgotten.
The team that came out at the start of the second half was unrecognisable from that which had been so under the cosh in the first. Boateng, who was again a figure of calm and precision on the ball, sat deeper alongside Greg Taylor, helping to break up play and close off those dangerous spaces. Hoolahan also saw a lot more of the ball, belying his years to pop up in deep, wide, and advanced spaces – hustling and harrying defenders like an 18-year-old hoping to impress in his first start.
Most importantly, United’s ball retention was much, much better. Gone was the easy surrender of possession and recycling the ball properly from back to front was a principle reason for second half dominance. It was made to count just five minutes after the break – again, Jack Iredale, who is becoming a better and better signing with every game he plays, picking up a loose ball and driving towards the penalty spot, where instead of laying it off to Luke Hannant to his right, he cut to his left and was scythed down. The referee pointed to the spot. Joey Ironside did the business, and the result was flipped in just 10 minutes of playing time.
United held on fairly comfortably in the end – a few late scares as you would expect from a team of Salford’s quality chasing a point. And it’s that exact quality that makes this such an important victory. Most people have Salford in or around the automatics come May 2021. Their signing power is, frankly, astonishing – Bonner himself saying they have a League 1 squad in League 2. They are the latest scalp in a blindingly tough run of fixtures. For our money, this or Port Vale are United’s biggest statements. And neither were flukes – despite the first half an hour of Tuesday night, United’s second half performance was more than enough to claim all three points, and it came from tactical nous and physical commitment from every single player.
What makes it even more important is it shows a crucial skill for any genuine promotion contending side: ‘bouncebackability’. One of the greatest football-isms. But after a disappointing loss at Crawley at the weekend, where late pressure wasn’t quite enough despite playing against 10 men for around 10 minutes, the sign of this team was going to be how they bounced back. Doing it like this, against a team like this? At the very least, the start to this season is no fluke.
But on the most positive side, there’s a lot more to be excited about. Cambridge United currently sit 2nd in League 2, two points behind leaders Newport, a team we’ve already beaten 2-1. In our first 11 games, we have 23 points. In those, we’ve already played 8 of the top half, as well as Tranmere and Bolton, who both contain sufficient firepower to overcome their poor starts. Before last night’s result, the 20 points in 10 games equaled our best ever start to a season in the Football League.
Whichever way you look at it – stats, fixtures, results, performances, hunches, astrology – Cambridge United are now genuine promotion contenders.
Man of the match: It has to be Jack Iredale, even if just for his crucial involvement in United’s two key moments. Wes and Ironside follow closely, but Jack keeps showing his ability and his versatility at both ends of the pitch and was a difference-maker on Tuesday.
Soundtrack of the match:
United: Mitov; Knoyle, Darling, Cundy, Dunk; Hannant, Taylor, Boateng, Iredale (Mullin); Hoolahan; Ironside (Knibbs)