Words by Marc Manning – @mmanning98
The visit to Cheltenham was an absolutely crucial one for the U’s heading into the traditionally packed festive fixture period. With trips to Charlton and Wycombe on the horizon, sandwiched by a visit of table-topping Rotherham, it was vital that United came away from The Jonny Rocks Stadium with all three points in the bag – or at the very, very least one. Going into the game, Bonner said in his pre-match presser that “Cheltenham don’t concede many goals”. So let’s see how it went…
The first half was a scrappy affair with four yellow cards dished out for both sides combined. Cheltenham had the majority of chances throughout the half albeit rarely testing Mitov between the Cambridge sticks. Alfie May came the closest with a curling effort from a free kick which the vast majority of the stadium thought had sailed into the top corner… until the referee then blew for a goal kick.
And that was it for The Robins in terms of efforts on goal for the rest of the half because it was the U’s who broke the deadlock with 37 minutes played. A lofted through ball from the ever-energetic Shilow Tracey played through Sam Smith who comfortably slotted the ball home for his eleventh of the season in all competitions. Many doubted Smith on his return to the club in the summer but the ex-Cheltenham loanee has really hit top form recently and is really holding down that starting spot in the team.
After an unfortunate injury towards the end of the first half brought Shilow Tracey’s game to an end, James Brophy entered the fray at half time and made an instant impact. His link-up play with Harrison Dunk down the left side was a real delight to watch throughout the second half and he’s coming on leaps and bounds in recent weeks – clearly he’s listening to UTAS and working hard to prove us wrong.
But it was down the right side of the pitch where the second goal of the night came from. A delicate ball from Adam May into George Williams split open the Cheltenham defence with the right back drilling the ball across the face of goal, leaving Scott Pollock only able to hook the ball into the back of the Cambridge net.
Things got even worse for last year’s League Two champions soon after with Big Joe Ironside getting in on the act. Some excellent play in the midfield from May and Weir saw the ball shift into the path of Smith, whose forceful through-ball fell to our talismanic striker who fired the ball past the flailing Flinders to make it 3-0 the U’s and sent the Amber Army behind the goal into delirium.
Cheltenham were looking like a shadow of the team they were last season with silly mistakes creeping into their game more frequently in the second half. United were absolutely all over them and it was a delight to see. Midway through the second half it came to Dan Crowley to make a complete fool of himself by intentionally handling the ball outside of the area gifting the U’s a free-kick in a dangerous position. A delicious ball by May from the free-kick sailed into the area beating everyone bar Big Joe who once again bulged the net with a fantastic diving header. The U’s were in dreamland and really looking the business against a team who came into this one unbeaten in five games in the League and four points ahead in the table.
Not long after the fourth hit the net, Bonner made his last changes of the game bringing on Harvey Knibbs and Jack Lankester for a deserved runout in the League after impressing in last week’s Pizza Cup win v Walsall. The two subs linked up exceptionally well for the fifth and last goal of the night, completing Big Joe’s perfect hat-trick which should be a contender for the Goal of the Season award come the end of the campaign.
A roulette spin from Knibbs, a pinpoint through ball by Lankester, a sublime touch and backheel from Brophy and an empathic finish from Big Joe = perfection. A goal to sum up the U’s performance… energetic, ambitious and passionate.
Onto Charlton (a) and all aboard HMS Ironside.
Man of the match: Obviously Big Joe gets it for his hat-trick and for leading the line exceptionally all night, but it could easily go to Dunk, May or Smith – it was that sort of night.
Line up: Mitov; Williams, Okedina, Iredale, Dunk; Digby, Weir; Smith (Knibbs ‘81), May (Lankester ‘81), Tracey (Brophy ‘46); Big Joe.
Soundtrack of the match: Status Quo – Rockin’ All Over The World