Cambridge United and Derby County have one thing in common—both their managers are happy to not be in Rotherham. That’s where the similarities end. Today’s clash was the result of Derby’s leaden fall from grace and our own unlikely ascension; Derby (FA Cup winners and two time league champions) were in the Premier League while Cambridge languished in the Conference. Despite both clubs narrowly avoiding post-millennium liquidation, the financial gap between the two clubs remains vast. As ever, the pre-match remarks were bright and optimistic; we could beat anyone on our day, despite the disparity of resources. Derby’s lack of an away goal boosted the quiet sense of opportunity their visit offered.
As horrible as the Rams’ recent off-the-field management has been (it’s the reason they’re in League One), clearly their on-the-field caliber is unquestionable. None of Derby’s eleven had played lower than the Championship. Half of the visitors’ eleven had seen Premier League action. Chester and Davies between them have over 180 Premier League appearances between them, amassing over £40million in transfer fees. That said, the expected on-paper bloodbath did not come to pass. Little could be said of the match in which both sides played their part to shape a competitive but yawning scuffle. Derby’s first-half superiority was obvious, but United offered more edge and fight in a second-half that, at times, felt like it was going in the home side’s favor.
The match hinged on what should have been a non-event, United continuing their generous habit of presenting unforced errors to their competitors. This time it was Rossi, imperious in his debut against Morecambe, who offered the chance for Collins to slot home from an unmissable distance. A simple clearance for a Derby throw would have been easy and enough. Who knew what was going through his mind, but ultimately it was a gift to the visitors gratefully and greedily accepted without reciprocating in kind.
Derby looked a good side on the ball, quick to turn and look for space, hoping for the set-pieces their new manager is known for. Had Rossi’s costly error not given the visitors the opener, this match could have easily ended scoreless. A United goal would have been statistically criminal. Their expected goals—if you can believe in numbers—was the lowest recorded this season and made obvious by both the missing highlight reel and the flatlined pulses of the home crowd. There really wasn’t a test for the Derby keeper all day.
Individually it will be Rossi who finds himself under the microscope in the coming days but no United player came out blameless. Tracey was all too often leery and unambitious, cautious of the quality and pace between him and the touchline. Lankester’s standout performance against Morecambe failed to translate against better opposition, never finding the space he needed to be dangerous. Ironside was swamped by a three-headed beast with the nouse offered by far superior experience. Even the introduction of Knibbs, the perfect foil for the pressing style needed for such a game, proved joyless.
The gulf in experience wasn’t shown in the final third but the defensive work Derby made look pedestrian. Even Ironside, the biggest of headaches for League One defenders, could do nothing to unnerve the visiting back line. Derby were simply brilliant off the ball, isolating their counterparts, blocking passing opportunities, causing passing errors (half of United’s passes went astray), winning headers, and disappearing time on the ball for Lankester and May, the latter of which had his worst game in memory. On the plus side, Adam May’s corners did beat the first man more than once.
And yet. Even the most stoic of Habbin stand fans must have left happy for the real victory of the day. Three points were not the prize; this was not a fixture United would have expected points from. Paul Warne’s move south and the gap it left in Rotherham could have made this match the last for Mark Bonner as Cambridge manager. It was rumored to be a done deal, today’s match being a final send-off for one of the best and brightest young managers in the game.
Bonner’s ascension is special because he is one of us. His understanding of our club is the same as the kid from the council estate who marks their weeks by the 90 minute spells of possibility shared with friends. This manager’s miracle is part of the momentarily alignment of each part of our club. That we have a stadium of our own in a city as gentrified as ours is a slap in the face to the financial elite of Cambridge, and although United may be Cambridge in name only, Bonner’s commitment to his boyhood fantasy of reaching new heights is an inspiration. It is the collective pride we’ve all come to feel, remembering our place on the footballing landscape while providing a hopefulness through lockdown and the unknown future. His place as our figurehead is the reason we walk hopefully down Newmarket Road for the privilege of facing teams of such caliber, teams who fear our makeshift oddballs, who join the growing list of wayward giants whose noses we’ve bloodied. One day Mark Bonner will not be Cambridge’s manager. But for the time being, like a long stretch of open sky, we can all feel the warmth of knowing those clouds are not here yet.
Man of the Match: Harrison Dunk.
Soundtrack Of The Match: Let’s Live For Today by The Grass Roots