It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The promotion hoardings were ready in one corner of the ground to be bought onto the pitch at full time. The players arrived through a crowd of cheering U’s fans, armed with yellow smoke bombs and a repertoire of songs we haven’t heard at the Abbey for a while. The Stevenage team bus turned up shortly after, to a similar welcome (although the songs weren’t quite as friendly). There was a carnival atmosphere on Cut Throat Lane and in pub gardens and living rooms across the City as United simply had to turn up and win to gain promotion to League One for the first time since 1999.
We all know what happened by now. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Two tough away wins in a row had taken a toll on Mark Bonner’s hard-working U’s, and Stevenage proved a formidable opponent. United had some early chances, Luke Hannant, Hiram Boateng and Wes Hoolahan all testing the visiting keeper, but not in any meaningful way. It took the U’s a while to find their feet in the game, but even early in the first half it was clear a couple of players were looking tired.
United were thankful for the half-time whistle, the tenseness of the occasion playing on those tired minds – everyone knew what was at stake and the importance of the three points, but Stevenage, who’ve had nothing to play for since assuring their safety earlier in the year were primed to put pressure on the U’s.
The second half saw a customary strong start from United, but Stevenage were wise to it and continued to play their own game, soaking up the U’s pressure well until just after the hour mark when Callum Burton made a fine point blank save, but no U’s defender was quick enough to beat Luke Norris to the loose ball, and he put it away to give Stevenage the lead. We’ve long hated Norris, he was a bastard at Swindon, a bastard at Colchester, and here he is now, being a bastard at Stevenage and hurting our promotion hopes. The bastard.
United were crying out for width and it eventually arrived on 75 minutes when Luke Hannant (who was having another decent game) came off for Shilow Tracey, eight minutes later Bonner made three more changes, bringing off Digby, Boateng and Iredale for Harrison Dunk, Liam O’Neil and Adam May. Sadly the changes came too little, too late, and whilst the fresh legs allowed United to start applying more pressure to a resolute Stevenage defence there simply wasn’t enough time to make it count. We get the feeling that we could still be playing now and not found a way through yet.
So, doom and gloom at the Abbey? We’re not going to lie, that was a really disappointing result. Stevenage to their credit, knew their jobs, did them well and contained a United side, something many better teams have struggled to do. But doom and gloom? No. We still need three more points and we’ve got another opportunity to get them on Friday night. Harrogate might have one eye on Monday’s Trophy Final at Wembley so there’s still a chance for United to wrap it up before the end of the season.
Does this mean the title is gone? Maybe, although if Cheltenham lose on Tuesday we’re still in with a shout. Does the title matter that much though? To us, no. No-one gave us a chance this year, not least us, but against all odds Bonner and United have found a way to still be in the promotion hunt with two games remaining. Even if we lose on Friday, defeat for Morecambe and Tranmere on Saturday would still see the U’s go up.
We know from experience how much defeat hurts this side, and we’ve seen them bounce back after a loss with improved performances. Would you bet against us doing the same on Friday?
Man of the Match: It was a difficult day for United yesterday, with tired legs all over the place. Callum Burton gets the nod from us, making some good saves and stopping Stevenage scoring more. Since coming in for the injured Mitov, Burton has made a really strong case for the number one shirt with a string of decent performances.
Soundtrack of the Match: Bon Jovi – Livin’ On A Prayer
United: Burton, Knoyle, Drysdale, Taylor, Iredale (Dunk), Digby (O’Neil), Boateng (May), Hannant (Tracey), Hoolahan, Mullin, Ironside