Words by Thomas Ripley – @talktalkmake
With three wins from their last five league games, Charlton came into this match with much expectancy. Their results improving dramatically after a terrible start where they only registered one win in their first 10 games. That many of the traveling United fans were dressed as Santa Claus seemed foreboding; visitors bearing gifts in December. But one victory in their last five underlined United’s hopeful yuletide spirit.
Caretaker manager and certified Charlton legend Johnnie Jackson’s instructions would inevitably focus on the visitors’ poor start to matches this season, and the weakness on the left side of defence. The Addicks duly pressed and harried early down the flanks especially, most likely targeting Dunk’s side through Jonathan Leko, resulting in Dunk’s 14th-minute booking. Although United’s longest-serving player has the gait of a reluctant long-distance runner, Dunk demonstrated his pace by catching Leko before barging into his man.
The U’s weathered the early storm and began to reply with counter-attacks, their first chance following in the 23rd minute. Charlton’s directness was repeatedly broken by Weir—whose agility and concentration alongside Digby often works more effectively than May’s. The dynamic and recently aggressive Brophy probed the Charlton left, Ironside misdirecting a header disappointingly without testing the keeper.
Shortly after, Smith should have scored. From almost the penalty spot the home side failed to clear, the ball controlled by Smith, who dragged his snapshot wide of the post from just inside the area. All in all it was a very bright start from United, unlike the typical away performance we’ve seen so far this season.
In the 30th minute Charlton broke the deadlock against the run of play, Iredale allowing space and time for Washington to control, turn, and dispatch a shot through Mitov into the far corner. Bonner’s recurring mantra could be heard rattling: at this level, teams score chances. Iredale at full-back is a formidable obstacle, but in the centre of defence his preference to allow space and rely on his pace was a gift to Washington, the veteran Championship and let’s not forget international forward. He gratefully gobbled up the visitors’ generosity, scoring with the home side’s first shot on target.
United, who all too often concede first-half goals, came back swinging. Williams doggedly closed down and bullied the home defence before finding space to deliver crosses. May scrambled and scuffed the ball to Ironside before the move broke down, but the attitude and work rate provided a clear statement of intent — United score away goals.
Ironside finished a very strong half by characteristically winning a header, catching the opposing defender with an arm in the process. The ensuing melee included an attempted head butt on Digby from Jaydon Stockley, once of this parish. Referee Ben Speedie’s aggressive Christmas Card policy came two weeks early, frequently booking players when a warning would suffice. Nine players saw yellow, three times Speedie’s average this season, in what was a good-natured but very competitive affair.
Half-time provided a familiar plot for the U’s, behind at the break with much to do in the second-half. But the stats showed parity in all regards except for Washington’s lethal instinct in front of goal. The away side produced the half’s best chances and could feel hard done by going in behind at the break. United’s players seemed boosted after the break, Bonner again finding a way to influence the game without changing personnel.
Brophy’s excellent work in the 50th minute, attacking and beating three defenders before being hauled down, brought a yellow card for Clare.
The game’s back-and-forth cup-like feel continued, this time the home side found space in the area and forced a solid double save from the otherwise untested Mitov. As it went on, the second-half began to feel like a home game for United; The Addicks vacillated between being overrun going backwards and spiritedly counter-attacking their mid-table guests.
At the other end Smith was blocked cynically before Williams went down with a seen-them-given shout in the box. May, from the same move, was played in brilliantly through on goal by Dunk, shooting straight at the keeper from a fairly tight angle.
With the 68th minute came the game’s best chance. Brophy turned cutely to beat Dobson before presenting May with the ball and time to pick a pass. His beautifully weighted ball dissected the home defence and offered Smith the one-on-one chance to beat the oncoming MacGillivray. The keeper’s outstretched leg parried the shot and the chance to equalise.
Ten minutes later the move repeated itself. Brophy delivering to May who had time and space to play a through ball over the top. From an almost identical spot Smith again failed to find the net, agonisingly missing the target when through on goal. The move made a good advertisement for diving, Charlton’s Souaré coming across Smith from behind with contact of the hugging variety. Smith’s perseverance to touch the ball goalward and not falling from the contact was punished by the referee. It began to feel like one of those days.
Washington’s second goal came from a Charlton overload. Williams threw caution to the wind in pursuit of the ball in the opponents’ half, exposing the right-hand flank of the United defense. A cross from the left bumbled into the area, finding the Northern Irishman who turned and humped the ball past Mitov. A sickening blow for United whose energy and aggression provided the deserved chances they apologetically and unselfishly squandered.
At the final whistle all Cambridge could take from the match was the satisfaction of giving the home side a good scare, presenting the games’ best chances only to lack the pedigree or the bloodthirst to convert them. Although the story was novel the outcome was familiar—Cambridge conceded two goals. Only this time, the first in 24 matches, United failed to score. With more guile the points could have escaped The Valley. Few among the bumper 24,886 crowd would doubt United should have taken something from this match. As it happened, the jolly travellers dropped three points down the home side’s chimney, much to the home crowds grateful and jubilant reception.
Line up: Mitov, Dunk (Lankester, 88), Iredale, Okedina, Williams, Digby, Weir (Knibbs, 76), Brophy, May, Smith (Worman, 94), Ironside
Man of the Match: James Brophy. A constant threat down the left as he has been so often recently.
Soundtrack of the Match: Bing Crosby – Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
An additional shout out for this too, it seems only fitting…