By Julian Roberts
There’s a brief pause in time. A sudden, fleeting moment of quiet in the universe. Anticipation, agony, expectance. It might feel like a second on the pitch, but it’s an eternity in the stands.
The breakaway is executed to perfection. Luke Berry pokes a ball out to the channel on the right, and Ben Williamson smells blood. He sprints after it, bearing down on the ball, and outmuscles a defender double his size. He is through. The keeper is rushing out to him. Everyone bays for him to shoot, to dink it over him or slide it under him or just stick his fucking laces through it and hit it into next year.
Up in the rafters, it’s near breaking point; every member of the amber nation is up there with clenched fists, knowing how this ends, their hands clasped on the shoulders of the person in front of them, ready to erupt. Then he doesn’t shoot. He passes it to his left, and as it rolls away from Ben Williamson, comes that agonising, painful wait. Everyone knows what’s coming.
Jimmy Spencer has been on for two minutes of his debut when he sees that ball coming towards him. With his first touch in a Cambridge United shirt, he cushions the ball dead, and then with his second touch in a Cambridge United shirt, he sweeps it into the bottom left hand corner. What he caused in that away end can only be described as nothing less than dangerous. It was pandemonium. People came out not looking for lost phones and wallets but asking if anyone had seen their left kneecap.
It’s this last goal that sticks in the memory, but the delirium had started from minute one. You could feel a palpable sense of momentum, that over a thousand U’s in the corner were properly backing the boys. Williamson, whose performance that day was nothing short of flawless, picked up on a loose back pass from the centre back and rounded the keeper before finishing from a tight angle. His second was a smart finish to the goalkeeper’s near side, and his set up for the third was… well.
This was the first season with an M11 derby in ten years. Two seasons earlier, Orient had finished 3rd in League One and were 90 minutes away from returning to the second tier of English football. They lost that final, and what followed was nothing short of a catastrophic capitulation under professional nutter and new owner Francesco Becchetti. They were relegated to League 2 the next season, and then again two seasons later.
Meanwhile, the U’s had Shaun Derry at the helm. It had been two months, and it was probably the best it ever got – barring a few exciting playoff run-ins where we had the outside of all outside chances (and, as you know, never made them). Derry had joined in November, and in January he had strengthened the squad with a host of short-term loan players. It was an example of a manager using the loan market extremely well; Darnell Furlong, Ryan Haynes, Ryan Ledson (unbelievable to think some people didn’t rate him), Lewis Page, and who could forget, Ben Williamson.
Even though Orient’s subsequent troubles are well documented, when we turned up to Brisbane Road that January they were still very much a force in the league and would actually go on to finish one place outside the play offs. It was Kevin Nolan’s first game in charge and standing in the Coach and Horses at 2pm that afternoon, we weren’t expecting much.
But football is all about moments. Moments of joy, moments of hope, and moments of anguish. We don’t support the best football club in the world and we probably never will, but even if you’re lucky enough to support the best team ever, you still go through heart breaking moments – that’s just the game. But the reason everyone falls in love with it is for the moments of unadulterated elation. It’s unexplainable. You lose all sense of who you are, your perspective, your sense of self, and more importantly your day to day worries.
That Jimmy Spencer goal that afternoon was one of those very real moments. Indescribable; joy unbridled. The game didn’t mean much in the long term; it didn’t affect our playoff chances more than any other three points and it didn’t keep us safe from relegation. The team that played or the manager that was in charge won’t go down in history. Every goal that afternoon was one for everyone in the stands.
After the match, the song to remember the day by now carries a cruel irony. As the hero and emblem of Cambridge United walked over to celebrate with his fans, as elated as every last one of them, the tune echoed out around Brisbane Road. There is only one Joshy Coulson.
This article first appeared in UTAS Issue 3