Cast your mind back two years, to 18 January 2020. Covid was nothing more than a footnote in the news, and Colin Calderwood was three months into a two year contract extension, hastily agreed to quash interest from Leyton Orient. At the Abbey, Cambridge United were lining up to take on the bottom of the league side, Stevenage – who had only won one game since October and were on an eleven game winless streak. We all know what happened next…
In a way, that result, coupled with another heavy defeat to Salford a week later set in motion the success we’re seeing now. Calderwood was gone by the end of the month, in came Mark Bonner – initially as caretaker – and striker Paul Mullin joined on loan a couple of days later. We definitely all know what happened next that time.
Three of the side that capitulated 4-0 to Stevenage that day were in our starting 11 last night, with another on the bench. Had Greg Taylor been uninjured that would have been four starters, almost half the team from 2020 which really shows you the amazing job Mark Bonner has done. The U’s lined up in their familiar home colours of Amber shirts and Black shorts, despite the good omens and positive results that Amber shorts bring. Were we tempting fate? Time would tell.
It looked as if the decision to wear black shorts was going to be a bad one as Doncaster were immediately on the offensive, attacking United with a gusto not normally seen from a team bottom of the league. Dimi Mitov was again on excellent form, producing a number of class saves, as was Jubril Okedina, playing as a wing back but still managing to be back in time to clear off the line when needed. United were creating little of meaningful attacks, but still seeing enough of the ball to stay in the contest.
It was from another Doncaster attack that United broke, Ironside harrying the ball towards Brophy, who played an excellent pass forward to Lankester, the former Ipswich man teeing up an onrushing Harvey Knibbs who couldn’t miss one on one with the keeper. Right on the stroke of half time, United fortunate to go in with the lead.
Doncaster came out for the second half with a similar energy, and again looked the more likely of the teams to score. On 62 minutes the ball was crossed in to Harrison Dunk, who leapt majestically above everyone to nod in his first goal since 2018. The joy on his face was clear to see as he celebrated in front of the NRE, the only question was could United now see out the win and maintain the record of winning every game Dunk has scored in?
Shortly after Joe Ironside, carrying a knock made way for Sam Smith who got stuck right into the game, and Liam O’Neil came on for the impressive Harvey Knibbs shortly after that. For a few minutes it almost felt like we were back in 2020 with Knibbs and Smith up front, and during this period Doncaster pulled a goal back to set up a nervy finish.
As it always seems to be with teams at the bottom of the league they are often there due to bad luck and an inability to see the game out rather than any real lack of quality. We’ve been in that position enough times ourselves, and Doncaster, whilst not a bad team, struggled to really impose themselves on the remaining game. Attempting to attack only left them open at the back, and it was another quick counter by James Brophy that bought the ball into the box and allowed Sam Smith to finish from close range with virtually the last kick of the game.
So, the result flattered us then? A bit, but also not really. United played well, and mopped up Doncasters numerous attacks. Yes a better team could have been 4-0 up by half time, but Doncaster weren’t that team. It’s unfair to say they deserve to be bottom of the league, as there is quality in the side, but for whatever reason it isn’t gelling for them right now, and they don’t have too long to fix it. As for the U’s, we’re now nine points clear of Morecambe in 21st, and that’s a nice enough buffer to have at this point of the season. The games are coming thick and fast though, so we can’t take our eyes off the ball, with games against Crewe and Fleetwood yet to come, plus tough Tuesday night trips to Bolton and Gillingham, both behind us in the table.
We’ve known since August that we’ve got a really tough end to the season, so it’s crucial we’re getting points on the board where we can. It’s still too early to say whether we’ll be dragged into a relegation battle, but at the moment the signs are looking like we should just stay clear of it. Anything can happen in football though, so we need to make sure we keep up our levels of performance and pick up the points we need over the next few weeks. You trust this squad and Mark Bonner to make sure standards don’t drop.
Man of the Match: James Brophy and Harvey Knibbs both showed their best attributes on a frustrating night, whilst Dimi Mitov was again excellent between the sticks. But, on the night when he scored his first goal in 170-odd games, the award goes to Harrison Dunk. A United mainstay, legend of two promotion seasons, and just getting better and better whatever task he’s asked to do. A shout out must also go to Jack Lankester – starting to show us just what he’s capable of.
Soundtrack of the Match: The Clash – Train In Vain