Words by Jack Swindlehurst – @SwindlehurstJ
Over the last few years we’ve been treated to some rather unbelievable climaxes to games, but Saturday’s last 10 or so minutes in the FA Cup 2nd Round against Exeter was something to behold. With a place in the 3rd round at stake and the potential of a big-money Premier League tie that comes with it, it was just League Two minnows Exeter City that stood in United’s way.
A lot of conversations pre-game had Exeter down as somewhat of a bogey team for the U’s, who have taken the lion’s share of wins over United since their return to the Football League. The tables were turned somewhat for this tie though – with Cambridge now the superior League One side and Exeter (technically) the underdogs.
A modest crowd in comparison to weeks gone by saw the game start pretty evenly with United applying some pressure going forward, with Williams and Brophy combining to go close very early on. The game took a turn though on the 9th minute when Sam Nombe was brought down by Okedina in the box and the Grecians were awarded a penalty. Nombe dusted himself off and dispatched the spot-kick to give the League Two outfit the lead.
The game had started at a good pace with the fans getting behind the U’s, but that goal seemed to suck the atmosphere out of the Abbey. As the half went on Exeter looked to double their lead with Josh Key going close with a header and spells of good sustained pressure. There were grumblings and mumblings coming from the NRE that the players weren’t bothered about this game and that we could get beaten 4-0 at this rate.
But cometh the hour (or 22-minute mark), cometh the man – up steps Adam May. James Brophy, who has started to impress a lot more in recent weeks, did well down the left and cut the ball back to the edge of the box to Harrison Dunk. What happened next was nothing short of genius. Rather than taking on the shot himself, Dunk faked the shot, teeing it up instead for Adam May, who dispatched it clinically into the bottom right-hand corner. If any other player had done what Harrison had done you would think it was a miss-kick but we all know he meant to do it.
This reinvigorated United and looked to have woken them up as they went close again through Shilow Tracey and George Williams as the half went on. All of Cambridge’s hard work was nearly undone before the break as Jevani Brown teed up Matt Jay, who struck the post – a big let-off for United just before half-time. There was a bit of a feeling of unrest as the referee’s whistle went for the break, the biting cold (nothing compared to the Sunderland game), and the lack of much clinical play had clearly irked a large section of the crowd.
Onto the second half and Cambridge came out strong, a usual characteristic of the Bonner regime, and Hoolahan did what Hoolahan does, dancing into the box but unable to get a finish away. Exeter were still very much in the game and it appeared as if Jevani Brown was going to come back to haunt the U’s when he was played in but he fired high and wide over Mitov’s goal, when he could and maybe should have done better.
The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams seemingly fired up by the chance of a third-round place in the hat… Or maybe both seriously perturbed by the prospect of another Tuesday night replay (Exeter especially must really be sick and tired of them). Then what seemed like the chance they needed came for the U’s – Ironside played in Smith and he somehow managed to drag his shot wide. A golden opportunity and a lot of U’s fans were fearing the worst.
Then in the 87th minute the real madness started. Wes Hoolahan played in an unreal ball from the right-hand touchline, into that dangerous area around the edge of the 6-yard box, and landed it straight on Harvey Knibbs’ head. The striker made no mistake in dispatching into the back of the net, cueing mad celebrations from the United fans, all over the ground. That was until the lineman flagged for offside. Confusion ensued – Knibbs appeared to be onside with Sam Smith just in front of him potentially in an offside position. The players ran towards the lino but the ref was already there consulting his colleague, and eventually the goal was awarded. Cambridge three or so minutes from a guaranteed 3rd round tie.
Exeter piled forward almost immediately with Jay going close, but denied by Mitov and Okedina making an important headed clearance and then nearly volleying the ball into his own net with Jevani Brown going close. 7 minutes of stoppage time came up on the board and it was absolute kitchen sink, pandemonium stuff from Exeter, trying everything they could to get that crucial equaliser, including bringing the keeper up for 2 corners, to no avail.
United just about weathered the storm, and were across the line when Jenson Weir was brought down in the Exeter box on a counter attack, and United were awarded a penalty. Ironside stepped up, and the penalty was saved but time had run out for the Grecians and United could celebrate a prospect of a trip to Man City or Spurs – even though we know we’ll inevitably get Rotherham away. A real cup-tie was enjoyed and endured by all, now to take a breath and look forward to the draw.
Man of the Match: May played a solid game again, but Hoolahan shades it for me, with that exquisite, late cross (and general top-level balling).
Line up: Mitov, Williams, Okedina, Iredale, Dunk (Masterson, 79), Digby, May (Weir, 79), Tracey (Smith, 61), Hoolahan, Brophy (Knibbs, 79), Ironside
Soundtrack of the match: ABBA – The Winner Takes It All