What a difference a year makes. This time last year, caretaker manager Mark Bonner had just led United to their first win in over a month, a 2-1 victory over Colchester at the Abbey. He’d replaced Colin Calderwood, sacked off the back of consecutive 4-0 home defeats to rock-bottom Stevenage and Salford.
Fast forward a year and the U’s sit at the summit of League Two, Bonner having put together a team capable on their day of mixing it with the best in the division. In 2020 we didn’t win a game in January. In 2021 we didn’t lose one.
Jubril Okedina made his league debut in front of Callum Burton, with the rest of the defence filled out with the usual faces of Kyle Knoyle, Greg Taylor and Harrison Dunk. Ahead of them Luke Hannant and Wes Hoolahan flanked Adam May and Paul Digby, and Joe Ironside partnered Paul Mullin up front.
United got off to a quick start, going ahead through Joe Ironside on 11 minutes, taking his goal tally for the season into double figures. Wes Hoolahan the provider, his free kick inch perfect in front of the big man. On a difficult Abbey pitch United were soon pegged back, a well worked goal finished by Jake Hessenthaler from close range three minutes later.
After a nervy twenty or thirty minutes United really started to settle into the game, and make the conditions work for them. Crawley were by no means a walkover, far from it, but when United got into gear they never looked back. Hannant and Mullin came close, and as the clock ticked down to half time it was Mullin again, in a shooting position but tightly marked who after seeing his initial shot blocked, turned and saw Kyle Knoyle in space just outside the ‘D’, who fired in a goal of the season contender to put the U’s 2-1 up.
Once the second half kicked off it was one way traffic from United. Digby and Adam May (putting in one of his best performances in a U’s shirt) controlling the midfield and protecting the defence from the worst of Crawley’s attempts. In defence, Jubril Okedina grew into the game and put in a classy and composed performance that betrayed his lack of experience. Greg, next to him put in a 10/10 performance too. More chances came for United, and Crawley took off the impressive Tom Dallison, their best player and a different one to the player we saw put in nine forgettable appearances at the Abbey under Shaun Derry. Chances continued to come, and the game looked like it would only have one winner. On 78 minutes Bonner bought on Tottenham loanee Shilow Tracey, and with his first touch he earned himself a booking. His second touch was slightly better, flicking it over the head of the defender before sprinting down the wing and pulling it back for Wes Hoolahan, just inside the box. There was only going to be one outcome when Wessi gets the ball in that position, and the Irish wizard fired it past the keeper to put the game beyond all doubt.
All in, that was one of United’s best performances of the season, and certainly their best since October. On top of that, rivals Salford and Newport both dropped points, giving the U’s some breathing space at the top of the table. Will we still be there come May? Who knows, and in all honesty probably not. But on Saturday’s showing, we’ve demonstrated that we deserve to be in the promotion mix. In a previous episode of the UTAS podcast we said that 15 points from a possible 21 would have been a good haul from January. As Salford was postponed we’ve ended up with 14 from 18, which is decent in our book. All we can do is keep winning, and with Hiram Boateng yet to return, and a few hours left in the transfer window (provided we keep Mullin and Knoyle) the squad is only going to get stronger. There’s still a long way to go in the season, and a lot of matches to play, but maybe now it’s time to start believing in this team…
Man of the Match: You could honestly give it to anyone and we’d hear no arguments. In defence Greg and Jubril were rock solid, whilst Harrison, Hannant and Wes were all majestic too. We’re really, really lucky to have a player like Hoolahan, who’s still a class or two above anyone else at this level. Adam May had a great game and Paul Digby was excellent alongside him. Up front, Ironside got another goal, and whilst Mullin didn’t he keeps assisting them, and we’re sure goalscoring form will return soon. But we’ve got to pick one, and we can only give it to Kyle Knoyle. The best right back in the League, and with the exception of Mullin probably our player of the season. Great in defence, and a hell of a goal.
Soundtrack of the Match: The Go! Team – Bottle Rocket
United: Burton, Knoyle, Okedina, Taylor, Dunk, Hannant, May, Digby, Hoolahan, Ironside (Tracey), Mullin