When Southampton lost 9-0 to Leicester the season before last, they only had 27% of the possession. When Man United beat them by the same scoreline earlier this year, they had 26%. Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat to Man U in 2011? The defeated Gooners had 44% of the ball. Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation to Germany in the 2014 World Cup? A heady 48% for the Brazilians.
So when you look at the possession stats from Saturday, and see United only had 26% possession, you might fear the worst. But look again, and you’ll see the only stat that really counts, Cambridge United 1, Bolton Wanderers 0. So, what’s going on?
Bolton arrived at the Abbey undefeated, and with egos the size of former manager Sam Allardyce’s preferred serving of wine. For a club that almost went under due to shocking financial management, they brought an expensively assembled squad, complete with Eoin Doyle and new signing Josh Sheehan, proving that they haven’t learned their lesson. They also arrived with some history, not only whining manager Ian Evatt’s graceless post-match comments from our meetings last year, but also the 2000 FA Cup defeat in the memory of many older fans, where a clean through on goal Trevor Benjamin was hauled down by Mike Whitlow in a tackle that would have been deemed a foul at Twickenham, but ignored (and even more shamefully given AGAINST Big Trev, by referee John Brandwood). Having failed to beat Bolton last year, U’s fans were out for revenge.
Mark Bonner would have been at that game, and he knew exactly how to exact that revenge, and it was a stroke of genius. He let Bolton play football. Bonner knew what the 1500 Bolton fans in attendance and Ian Evatt didn’t; namely that Bolton aren’t actually that good at football. With a back four of Williams, Jones, Masterson and Iredale in front of deep lying midfielders Paul Digby and Liam O’Neil, Bonner knew that this would be a difficult defensive unit for the world class talents of Bolton to break down, and boy was he right.
Despite this, it wasn’t as one-sided as the stats suggest, certainly not at first. United went toe-to-toe with Wanderers, trading shots and tackles, and not looking like a club that many predicted to struggle in this division. First blood came to the U’s when Big Joe Ironside fired home, although this was denied by the linesmans flag. Undeterred United carried on, magician Wes Hoolahan pulling all the strings in our attacks, and when he released Williams to cross for Shilow Tracey to neatly finish in the box. 1-0 United. After the goal the U’s continued to play well, and went in at the break with the job half done.
The second half saw Bolton up the ante, they had more of the possession and a number of chances, although nothing that really tested Dimitar Mitov in goal. Up front, Big Joe Ironside put in a great shift, and saw very close attention from Bolton’s defence every time he got the ball. Actually, that gives them too much credit – Boltons central defenders Ricardo Santos and George Johnston were the dirtiest players on the pitch, seemingly more interested than pulling Ironside to the ground by his shirt, arms, neck, whatever they could get their hands on. The ref, who at times looked like the reincarnation of Brandwood, was beyond dreadful, letting assault after assault go, whilst blowing for the most innocuous fouls going, and waving his card round every time anyone tried to get an explanation from him. We don’t like to blame refs much here, but this clown was SHIT. It takes a real talent to manage to upset both the home and away fans, and he only really redeemed himself after the final whistle for booking Ian Evatt for whinging too much.
United saw out the game exactly to the letter of Bonner’s instructions, frustrating Bolton, never being caught out of position or unsure of what to do. Everyone played their part superbly, even Shilow Tracey, who we’ve criticised in the past for his defensive play, was spot on today, being talked through the defensive side of his game by Digby, Jones, Masterson and Williams.
It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek we’ve called this report Total Football, as in the second half we barely had a touch of the ball, but you won’t see a more resolute, well-organised defensive performance all season. Any one of the four at the back, or the two in front of them could be a candidate for Man of the Match. Even when we were on the back foot, Brophy and Wes were looking to get forward at any opportunity, and Joe Ironside was kicked and pulled from pillar to post in his quest to keep possession for the U’s. In front of another 6,000+ crowd at the Abbey, United showed exactly what this team is about.
If you’ve got family or friends who are into football, or mates who always promise to come to the Abbey with you one weekend but never do – nows the time to get them along. There’s no better time to support the U’s than right now – from the manager to the players the feel-good factor is back, and not only that, we’ve got a genuinely world class talent playing for us in Wes Hoolahan. He’s not going to be around forever, and we probably won’t ever see the likes of him again, so lets make the most of it whilst he’s here. You could argue that the game against Bolton in 2000 was where it all began to go wrong for United, McFarland leaving shortly after, relegation following the next season, the ITV Digital scandal leading to administration and the horrors of the Conference, but this win against Bolton in 2021? Maybe this is where it all really starts to get good again…
Man of the Match: As we said above, you could give it to anyone in the defence really, and Wes is always in with a good shout of winning it just by being the greatest player currently playing outside of the Premier League. Shilow Tracey too, has remembered his defensive responsibilities as well as being in the right place to add goals to his game. And Joe Ironside was kicked the shit out of, but got up for more each time. But we’re giving it to Jack Iredale today. We didn’t mention him much in the above report, but for good reason, because we want to give him his props here. Jack has made the left back position his own again after sharing it with Dunk last season, and he’s changed his game too, focusing on defending whilst still having his crossing ability in him. He was exciting to watch last season as a flying wing back with Knoyle, but this season has matured into a more defensively minded player, complementing Williams on the other flank. He was booked for dissent fairly early on Saturday, but still put in a committed performance, with perfectly timed tackles all whilst walking a tightrope with a wildly inconsistent ref. His performance typified ours – resolute, tough, never-say-die.
Soundtrack of the Match: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Possession
United: Mitov, Williams, Jones, Masterson, Iredale, Tracey (Knibbs), Digby, Hoolahan, O’Neil, Brophy (Dunk), Ironside (Smith)
We review the Bolton game in our latest podcast, listen here: