Take a peek at this afternoon’s match programme, available around the ground for just £3, by reading Cambridge United CEO Jez George’s notes.
Every year, when every club starts their campaign in this competition, a simple phrase springs to mind: "The magic of the FA Cup". Our opponents this afternoon experienced that at first hand last season, with an incredible run that culminated in them hosting Arsenal at Gander Green Lane. I am old enough to remember their last famous FA Cup run, in 1989, when Coventry City were dispatched courtesy of two smartly worked set plays amidst the musings of John Motson, synonymous with an FA Cup shock ever since Hereford, Ronnie Radford, Ricky George and the invasion of Parker coats, and the pipe smoking manager, Barry Williams. Last season's team will have gone down in folklore, alongside the likes of Matt Hanlon from a previous century. And that is what the cup is all about for clubs at our level. The chance to make heroes, the chance to create history, the chance to create memories, the chance of glory. That is what football once was. That is why, despite the Champions League being a bigger trophy for some than actual silverware, it does really matter for the likes of Sutton United and ourselves.
Our paths almost crossed last season. We lost to Leeds, despite a rousing opening 45 minutes in front of a sell-out crowd, while Sutton beat their near neighbours in a replay on their grass, to dispel that particular media myth that they could only play on artificial turf, and then went one better than us to set up that tie with Arsene Wenger's aristocrats. Only one of us can keep the dream of a big third round tie alive this year, so we hope that home advantage can prove decisive and that Sutton United can then concentrate on promotion to the Football League, which would be a remarkable feat but one well within their capabilities. Rest assured, today is a tough assignment.
Talking of which, our First Round FA Youth Cup draw this year was exactly that and the victory was obviously even more the sweeter due to our opponent and venue. Sam Bennett ("Sharkey") has been with Cambridge United since he was seven years old, along with Fin Iron, Leon Davies, Steve Shaw, Lee Watkins, Sam Squire, Ben Worman, Joe Neal and Jake Battersby, still an U16, who all featured on Tuesday evening and due to their time at the club knew what the fixture meant, even beyond a normal FA Youth Cup tie.
That is the great joy of producing your own players; they love the club, it's their club and they really understand the rivalries, just like a fan. What they have to do though is handle it like professionals, and that maturity, beyond their years, allied to their sheer desire, commitment and refusal to lose, is why we can look forward to at least another game in the competition. The Youth Team are impressive. We have a really talented group of scholars, but as we would hope when so many of them have grown up at Cambridge United, just as impressive are their other qualities. We talk about honesty, humility, and commitment to hard work being the attributes required at CUFC. They have all those in abundance.
This is typified by a player who had no role on Tuesday except supporting his mates. Prince missed the game as he suffered concussion from a challenge on Saturday, in the youth game against Southend. Brave doesn't always pay short-term dividends; Prince was devastated to miss such a big game when he's another player to have spent more than half his life at CUFC. But long-term, his superb character will give him a chance. That is what it eventually comes down to: personality, character, mentality. Ability is a given at this stage. At this level, physical limitations can curtail opportunities for players to progress in professional football (at the biggest clubs, physical attributes are also a given), but mentality is usually the defining factor.
So, a word about our captain, Lee Watkins, in his 12th season with us and someone who epitomises everything we value about CUFC. He's the sort of lad that you would employ in any job. And then Sam Goode, who six months ago was playing in our Shadow Academy and on Tuesday started at London Road. Cambridge boy, Cambridge United fan, now Cambridge United player. And Jordan Norville-Williams. He's a talent, so powerful and explosive from left back, but on Tuesday he came of age as a character and as a leader. That's why the FA Youth Cup is such an important competition. It ratchets up the pressure and it can therefore be the making of players.
I should also highlight a few other notable contributors, who may normally go under the radar. The fitness of the players, and their mental as well as physical toughness going into extra-time on Tuesday was really apparent. Obviously Bonz, Pelly and Adam Bridgeford deserve some credit, but so do the Sports Science & Medical staff, under the expert guidance of Matt Walker. Their fitness, strength and physical robustness is testament to Matt's unbelievable knowledge and ability to create a way of working that over time can create a competitive advantage for the players against their counterparts with less skilled conditioning. The GPS data from our team on Tuesday was phenomenal. Inglian Hasani ran over 15,000m! And over 100 sprints, covering more than 1800m. They are really crazy numbers. When I think of his skill-level and technical ability, he has some potential when his physical output is off the scale! At 16 years old!
Two unsung heroes are Dan Taylor and Chris Gibbons, Academy Lead Sports Scientist and Physiotherapist respectively. They work ridiculously hard, with long hours and often 7-day weeks, and are really valued members of staff, respected by the players, and contribute massively across the entire Academy, as well as towards the result on Tuesday evening. Ditto Pedro, our analyst, who spent his Saturday afternoon/evening with Bonz in preparing the video and match preparation for the players.
The Academy is a team on and off the pitch, with talented staff and players, who are all representing "their club", mostly due to the fact that they were born and/or live locally, but with a few that we have adopted, and we should be proud of them.
With no competitive game against Peterborough United at any level for 16 years, we now have two fixtures in a week. Please forget whatever you think about the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday. This isn't about B Teams or the Premier League. This is United v Posh, at our stadium, and we can't let our team go onto the pitch without our supporters massively outnumbering the visiting fans. And from sales to date, we expect them to sell their entire allocation. Let's make it two massive games in three days, and really get behind the players.
In talking with Shaun his mindset is simple; it's a massive derby match, not a game in the Checkatrade Trophy.
Enjoy this afternoon. Let's hope it’s like Fleetwood in 2013. A game that starts something that ends with something extremely memorable.