Watch it again. Watch it again. Hoolahan, using all his experience and guile to take the ball off the Vale player. Hoolahan running pretty much half the length of the pitch, at 38 years old. Hoolahan almost playing the perfect 1-2 with Mullin. Mullin’s ball ricocheting off the defender, way out of the area, out of danger. Liam O’Neil, Liam bloody O’Neil whacking it with all the force in the world through everyone, through six or seven defenders and the goalkeeper straight into the back of the fucking net. Watch it again…
My God. We’ve just about recovered from that on Saturday. A real rollercoaster if there ever was one. It looked like it was gonna be another one of those games, another Cheltenham where all our hard work and all our shots were doomed to not go in. Two games played well without winning on the trot? Season defining stuff indeed. But this isn’t Shaun Derry’s Cambridge United. It’s not even Joe Dunne or Colin Calderwood’s Cambridge United. This is Mark Bonner’s Cambridge United, and Mark Bonner’s Cambridge United doesn’t know when to give up.
Ok, we’re getting carried away a bit. It wasn’t a complete performance by any means. The late arrival at Vale Park (due to an accident on the M6) seemed to have affected the U’s a bit, and we could have been 3-0 down in five minutes due in no small part to a very nervy start by Declan Drysdale. But slowly but surely United began to settle into the game and apply the pressure we know they’ve got in them. Bonner mixed things up a bit, handing Drysdale his first start in his preferred centre back position alongside Greg, and playing Shilow Tracey in an attacking role behind a lone Paul Mullin up front. Hiram Boateng started his first game since suffering an injury in December.
It quickly became clear that United’s tactic was going to be pretty much Route 1, playing a long ball over the shoulder of Leon Legge and hoping Paul Mullin had the beating of him on pace. What we didn’t count on was Vale’s other two defenders being able to cover Leon and essentially keep Mullin out of the game. In the first half we didn’t offer a huge amount, a few half chances comfortably dealt with by the Vale defence.
United continued to work hard, but allowed Vale chances. We’re lucky that Tom Pope was missing, and that the Valiants don’t seem to have anyone else with any striking prowess. They had a couple of good chances, but nothing that wasn’t dealt with by the U’s. This was looking like being another one of those games, a classic dogged League Two encounter.
Second half, and it was much the same, neither side impressing much and Paul Mullin looking increasingly frustrated with his isolation up front. Then on 70 minutes cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Liam O’Neil replaced Boateng and Joe Ironside came on for Shilow Tracey. O’Neil’s impact was immediate, his head missing connecting with a pinpoint Hoolahan cross by centimetres before Ironside almost got a shot away in the area with a deft turn. Minutes later, Wes Hoolahan picked the pocket of a Vale midfielder on the halfway line, scampered away from him and into the box. His intention to play a 1-2 off Mullin didn’t come off and led to the striker taking a shot, which ricocheted out to O’Neil who fired the ball through everyone and into the back of the net. They say when you’re down the bottom of the League nothing goes your way, and that was the case for Port Vale, whose heads dropped in an oh-so-familiar way. Three big points to United, and a much needed confidence boost after Tuesday’s difficult defeat.
Was this a great U’s performance? No, not by any means, but good teams find a way to win against the odds and that’s exactly what we did. Bonner seemed to think the goal would come, although we’d be surprised if he expected it to fly off the boot of the Ginger Iniesta. Will we win the League this year? In all honesty probably not, but if we keep grinding out these results the teams around us are going to have to work really hard to overtake us, despite their games in hand. It would be unfair to focus too much on the negatives after Saturday, but warning signs are there and we’d be foolish not to take some notice), Kyle Knoyle was kept quiet again, Declan Drysdale didn’t fill us with confidence in defence (although in fairness he improved markedly as the game went on) and Paul Mullin is beginning to look tired after running after every ball in his quest to overtake David Crown’s goalscoring record. But, Hiram Boateng is getting closer and closer to full match fitness and Paul Digby should be due a return soon too. We kept another clean sheet, and only Salford and Cheltenham have conceded less than us. Scunthorpe visit the Abbey on Tuesday and we expect we’ll see some more changes, not least Wes Hoolahan being rested which always worries us. But for now, we’re still top and we’ve got another chance to get another three points towards our goal tomorrow. Now, we’re off to watch that goal again.
Man of the Match: Who else can it be? No, not Liam O’Neil as he only played twenty minutes, but Wesley Patrick Hoolahan, world class midfielder and creative heartbeat of our team. The cruellest thing about the fact that fans can’t attend stadiums is the fact we’re denied the opportunity to watch Wessi dance his way around the Abbey pitch. We can only hope he fancies giving us another season. Shout outs go to Liam O’Neil obviously, and Callum Burton who kept us in it with an early save.
Soundtrack of the Match: Livin’ Joy – Dreamer
United: Burton, Knoyle, Taylor, Drysdale, Dunk, May, Boateng (O’Neil), Tracey (Ironside), Hoolahan, Hannant, Mullin (Okedina)