It had been a long time since the Amber Army piled onto trains, buses and whatever other modes of transport they choose to get to away games. It had been longer still since we had to do a journey of any great length with our last away game in front of fans being a relatively local trip to Leyton Orient in March 2020.
Still, regardless of what happened that day (a 2-1 defeat, if you remember, with our goal coming from some bloke called Paul Mullin- whatever happened to him?) or in the game before that (a 0-0 draw away to Plymouth), the return of away days were looked upon with anticipation by fans all over the country.
Just over 300 travelled to Accrington Stanley, a team best known for… nah, we’re not going to mention it again. Over recent years Stanley have transformed themselves under the leadership of chairman Andy Holt into one of the best run clubs in the country, achieving reasonable success without resorting to paying huge fees or wages, all whilst attempting to hold the EFL to account.
United lined up in what we expect to be a familiar formation, a lone Joe Ironside up front ahead of a busy and creative midfield. Missing from the middle was lynchpin Paul Digby, dropped back into central defence to replace the injured Lloyd Jones and Jubril Okedina.
United, looking smart in their white third kit (worn after feedback from colourblind supporters, kudos to the club for that move) got off to a sluggish start as Accrington looked to pounce straight from the off. Charles turned Taylor and Jensen Weir (making his first league start) inside out early on, getting away a powerful shot, as Accrington looked to draw first blood.
Our first early chance came from Harrison Dunk, his sliding tackle set up Weir, who got a nice cross into the box, but Hoolahans connection was poor. Stanley took the lead shortly after, as George Williams was caught out of position and the resulting cross was finished nicely by Butcher with less than fifteen minutes gone.
United looked nervy, and it took a bit of Hoolahan magic to create our best chance of the half, a defence-splitting pass from the Irishman was teed up nicely for Harrison Dunk to finish one on one with the keeper, but his shot was put wide.
Williams was having a torrid time at right back, and was again unable to stop a cross going in for former U’s man Harry Pell to double Stanley’s lead. United only other action in the half was for Greg Taylor to head over a Wessi free kick.
The second half was quieter, Dunk & Weir made way on the hour for Adam May and Sam Smith. We’ve found Adam May to be a bit hit or miss, but he’s looked good in pre-season and impressed again on Saturday with an energetic performance, and a willingness to attack. It was Hoolahan though who looked best, his class shining through in almost everything he did, and when he played another perfect pass to Joe Ironside in the box there wouldn’t be many who would bet against the big man finishing, which he did with after a neat (if not deliberate) dummy, sending the ball through the goalkeepers legs.
Sadly for United time ran out as they took the game to the hosts, Liam O’Neil had a shot just over in the dying seconds, and if the game had continued another five or ten minutes the U’s would probably have taken a point. We didn’t look great to be fair, and questions are still going to be asked about playing one up front. That said, our makeshift defence held up okay, and we’re not going to win anywhere near as many as we did last year, so we need to reset our expectations a little bit. League One is a step up in quality, and we know it’s going to be tough. The big question is will we be able to adapt when games aren’t going our way? We’re sure we’ll find out.
Man of the Match: It can only be Wes Hoolahan really. There were some doubts about whether he’d have it in him for another season, but he didn’t stop running all game, and whilst he’ll almost certainly sit out Tuesday’s trip to Plymouth, it’s an absolute no-brainer to start him when available. Paul Digby also gets a mention for filling in at centre back.
Soundtrack of the Match: Kelis – Milkshake