Cambridge United concluded their first campaign back in Sky Bet League One with a respectable 14th place finish after an entertaining 2-2 draw against Cheltenham Town at a lively Abbey Stadium...
An audacious curler from Sam Smith got the ball rolling for an intriguing spectacle, only to be instantly pegged back by Alfie May seconds later. Moments after the break, United’s top goalscorer bagged his 21st of the campaign with a first-class volley to hand a lead which was agonisingly close to being protected when the Robins striker grabbed his second at the death despite seeing captain Will Boyle sent off not long earlier. It proved the last action of a pulsating season as the U’s recorded their highest league finish since 1993/94.
Mark Bonner’s 46th and final selection him make six changes from the XI that succumbed to defeat at Sunderland a week earlier. Defenders Jack Iredale, Lloyd Jones and Jubril Okedina all retained their place, alongside attacking options Harvey Knibbs and Sam Smith.
Warming up in excellent end-of-season conditions, there was a sense of pride amongst the third tier newcomers, who had more than established themselves throughout the previous nine months to ensure mid-table finishes. The visitors had been dangerous in front of goal, but had won just three of their 22 clashes on the road. As for the hosts, they occupied a more stubborn defence and were out to rectify successive defeats and close the curtains with three points.
The U’s showcased plenty of early tenacity by creating the first chance of the afternoon on the 3rd minute when Wes Hoolahan’s delicate flick with the outside of his boot floated towards Smith in the six-yard box who powered a header towards Scott Flinders.
With 10 minutes on the clock, Michael Duff’s side fired an attempt of their own when May was released down the right before touching it down and, in the midst of pressure, drilled towards the far corner before taking a touch as it sailed wide of Mannion’s right post.
The deadlock was broken on the 22nd minute, falling the way of the hosts when Knibbs cut in from the left side by bravely wriggling past his man before teeing up Smith who curled a delightful shot home from the stroke of the penalty area.
It only opened the floodgates for the scoring as the Robins conjured the most rapid of responses by racing up the other end and equalising seconds later. After being played clean through, amid offside cries, livewire May rounded Mannion and tapped into an empty net.
Looking to score in successive final day encounters, Liam O’Neil jinked around a populated penalty area on the half an hour mark before his delivery vitally deflected off former U Sean Long as it scraped the crossbar. The levelling of matters had opened up the game immensely.
Finishing the first half in the ascendency, George Lloyd picked his spot from 20 yards on the cusp of the whistle and lashed towards the corner which took a nick off United’s backline and out. Although not quite an end-to-end encounter as originally threatened, both teams had enjoyed bright spells to take heart from.
Straight out of the blocks firing, the U’s took the lead for the second time through the same man on the 49th minute with a first-class move that oozed class. Iredale’s outrageous long ball was pinpoint for Smith who cracked a venomous volley into the net before wheeling away to celebrate his 21st of the season.
United were agonisingly close to extending their advantage four minutes later when Shilow Tracey was released down the middle from Smith, scampering towards goal but arguably had too much time to think as Flinders bravely denied the winger from a matter of yards. The resulting corner sparked a scramble which Knibbs couldn’t poke home due to a deflection.
Enjoying an excellent breakthrough season, Liam Bennett raced forwards and unleashed a piledriver on 64 which was denied by Flinders at full stretch to paw before Knibbs’ rebound was well-blocked by a sea of blue.
The visitors had been menacing on the counter attack. They showed it once again by marauding down the other end through May, who beat two recovering U’s men and, with the goal gaping, clattered against the side netting.
An explosive second half petered out until the 81st minute when visiting captain Will Boyle received his marching orders after a clashing with substitute Joe Ironside saw him booked for a second time – allowing United to stretch their opposite number and finish in an assuring manner.
Academy starlet Kai Yearn came on for his league debut on the 87th minute, replacing Hoolahan who received a rapturous reception for another sound performance and season.
United were dealt with a blow at the death on 90 when Okedina unfortunately slipped in the box, allowing May to rush in and slide the ball under Mannion to ensure a point apiece was the outcome.
After the last ball was kicked, the trophies were handed out for excellent seasons before the whole of CB5 received a warm reception in a lap of honour as Bonner’s men acknowledged their appreciation for the United faithful’s admirable support all throughout.
Cambridge United: Mitov, Bennett, Okedina, Jones, Iredale, O’Neil (May, 61), Simper, Tracey (Ironside, 75), Hoolahan (Yearn, 87), Knibbs, Smith
Subs Not Used: Mitov, Brophy, Lankester, Worman
Goalscorers: Smith (22, 49)
Bookings: Simper, O’Neil
Cheltenham Town: Flinders, Long (Brown, 61), Raglan, Pollock, Boyle, Freestone (Williams, 72), Bonds (Ramsey, 72), Sercombe, Wright, May, Lloyd
Subs Not Used: Evans, Chapman, Hutchinson, Guinan
Goalscorers: May (23, 90)
Bookings: Long, Boyle (RED), Raglan
Referee: Tom Reeves
Attendance: 5880 (392 away fans)
Man of the Match: Smith