There we have it then, with four games remaining the U’s are officially safe in League One for another season. Truth be told, we’ve been effectively safe for some time now, but Saturday’s win over struggling Morecambe set it in stone, and barring the biggest miracle at Easter ever – the return of the Cambs derby next season.
Once again Bonner chose to experiment with the side, returning the three dropped from Tuesday to the starting eleven, but giving a break to George Williams and Adam May, replacing them with youngsters Liam Bennett and making his league debut, Lewis Simper. Other than that it was business as usual for United, with Dimi in goal, Jones and Sherring flanked by Bennett and Iredale, Digby joining Simper in the middle with Smith and Brophy either side of Harvey Knibbs in the hole just behind Big Joe Ironside.
Morecambe have been on a decent run lately, but they’re still fighting for points to avoid filling the remaining relegation spots, they were aided by 21 goal striker Cole Stockton, without whom they’d probably have been relegated already. That said, it was Morecambe who looked the stronger side in the first twenty-five minutes of the first half, having more of the chances, although none that troubled Dimi too much. One early highlight was a double goal line clearance from Bennett to prevent the Shrimpers taking a first half lead. There were also chances for Smith and Ironside but neither team took the initiative.
Just as it looked as if we were heading for the break at a deadlock, James Brophy surged into the box, Knibbs made space to turn and shoot, and his shot was poked past the keeper by Sam Smith to give United the lead.
After a heartening half time display on the pitch by the participants of the clubs various Community Trust programs it was the turn of those in the South Stand to be treated to one of the finest goals ever struck at the Abbey, as Sam Sherring’s headed clearance only fell as far as Cole Stocktons right foot, his sweetly struck volley flying into the net leaving Mitov absolutely no chance.
Three minutes later United were back in front, Iredale playing in Knibbs, whos run across the defender bought an (admittedly soft) penalty, but the ref blew for it regardless. In all honesty we’d probably be annoyed if that was given against us, but there was definitely contact with Knibbs, although whether he’d have reached the ball is another matter. Anyway, cometh the hour, cometh Joe Ironside who stepped up and restored the lead.
The penalty knocked the wind out of Morecambe’s sails and after that there only looked like being one winner. We’ve seen ourselves numerous times that when you’re down the bottom things don’t go your way, and heads do drop and we saw that from Morecambe on Saturday. As ‘Coconuts’ rang out on full time and United’s safety was mathematically confirmed it was clear that what we’ve said all season has come to pass – namely that we were good enough to stay up if we worked hard, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. It means now we can look forward to those away trips to Wigan and Sunderland without fearing the drop, without needing to fight for every last point for survival. We’ll still go there and fight, as a top half finish is still a possibility (but only just), but we’ll be under no illusions that these games are going to be tough as Wigan look to wrap up the title and Sunderland try to cement their position in the play-offs. Regardless of the result we’ll put in a performance and hopefully get to see a bit more of the fringe players in the squad.
Man of the Match: Tough one this, as Simper looked composed on his debut and looked like a player who’d played 100 games, whilst Knibbs ran and ran and is keeping Wes Hoolahan out of the team based on his form and workrate alone. He’s been involved with most of our goals lately and long may it continue. We’re going to give it to Liam Bennett though, like Simper you wouldn’t guess that he’s only recently had a taste of first team football, and with two man of the match awards to his name in only two appearances (despite playing in different positions each time) it’s clear we’ve got a talent on our hands. His job now is to try and unseat George Williams, who’s been excellent this season, and that’s going to be a hell of a challenge but one he’ll relish.
Soundtrack of the Match: Men Without Hats – Safety Dance