Cambridge United bowed out of the FA Youth Cup at the Fifth Round stage with a gut-wrenching 3-5 defeat on penalties after a resolute stalemate against Premier League North outfit Nottingham Forest at the Abbey Stadium...
The sides could not be separated throughout what was a battling 120 minutes of football which showcased defensive grit and determination. In a tense penalty shootout, it was the visitors who prevailed and forcing an end to United’s mazy cup campaign – a feat that saw them equal their best-ever run.
Jimmy Unwin shuffled his pack by making two changes to the side that dominated Premier League opponents Leeds United in the previous round – Dan Barton and Joe Tarpey returned to the fold, replacing Frank Nzeh and Nathan Braithwaite respectively.
The hosts secured a barnstorming 9-0 victory over MK Dons in their previous outing, scintillating preparation ahead of the evening’s clash. They’d been great value for their four successes in the competition so far, holding their nerves through the spot twice along the way. They preserved their most commanding performance until last in the aforementioned Leeds game. With momentum generated, they were eager for another scalp as they once again looked to use a healthy crowd to their advantage. As for the visitors, who overpowered Bristol City and Peterborough United to reach this stage for the first time since 2018, arrived at CB5 on the back of an assuring run which consisted of four wins in their past six. Ultimately, it had bolstered the mood around the camp, where they sit 13th in the Premier League North - three points clear of the basement.
As they’ve been well accustomed to in the majority of their encounters this season, the U’s enjoyed a rampant start as they applied heavy pressure towards the visitors. A menacing cross into the final third caused havoc as it landed towards Harvey Beckett who pounced from close-range which was scooped towards a Forest defender and headed away from danger.
On the 12th minute, a clever tee-up from Dan Barton released Glenn McConnell down the left flank – allowing the midfielder to unleash an attempt from a tricky angle that lashed the side-netting.
Five minutes later, the restored Barton twisted and turned in the corner of the penalty box and arrowed a powerful shot that Aaron Bott palmed away.
Warren Joyce’s men forged their first real opportunity of the match after 24 minutes when a one-two between Kyle McAdam and Josh Powell resulted in the former pulling the trigger from 15 yards which was denied by Beckett’s last-ditch tackle.
More than holding their own, United kickstarted a counter attack through Kai Yearn on the 31st minute – the England youth international marauded forwards from the middle of the park and went to play in Brandon Njoku – despite generating too much power, it almost resulted in a freak own goal when Bott misplaced his touch as it trickled past the post and out for a corner.
After George Hoddle was brought down on the edge of the box on 37, Yearn was handed the opportunity to write more deadlines from a similar position to his opener last time out at the Abbey. The free-kick had venom as it floated towards the top left corner, but Bott caught it with assurance.
As the heavens opened on the slick pitch, the Reds were handed their fair share of chances. On 41, Esapa Osong was sent through down the left channel and drilled towards the side-netting with only Tom Finch to beat, who had his angles correct.
United’s keeper was called into action seconds after. When Jack Thompson picked up the ball from close-range, the home faithful feared the worst, but an outstanding save from the ever-present ensured deadlock going into the break. Overall, it concluded an extremely positive first period for the Category Three side who had asked serious questions of the boys in Garibaldi.
Remaining assertive defensively and posing a threat in the final third, the U’s delivered some quickfire attempts just shy of the hour mark. First, Njoku shrugged off his marker before pulling back for McConnell who poked wide, before a Yearn free-kick from 25 yards out had an audacious amount of curl and power which was matched by Bott’s diving save.
A slight storm had to be weathered from here. Jack Nadin performed a defence-splitting pass to release Osong on the 64th minute but the striker was denied by Finch’s no-nonsense save with his feet.
A slight communication mishap in the six-yard box four minutes later allowed Osong to capitalise and fire a header which Finch matched with a comfortable catch – the U’s number one had risen to the occasion every time he was called upon.
With seconds left on the clock, the hosts almost delivered a dramatic ending of the highest proportion when a floating cross fell towards the path of Reece Hipwell who executed a volley which was inches over the crossbar. It proved the last chance of an evenly-matched affair with nothing to separate the well-drilled sides.
Starting as they meant to go on, United were agonisingly close to drawing first blood with virtually the first kick of extra-time. In a one-on-one position, Njoku raced towards goal but under immense pressure couldn’t slot home as it rolled inches wide.
At the back end of the first 15, substitute Jack Perkins sent Osong through on goal with a pinpoint through ball but Finch was out well to clear the danger.
On the 107th minute, sublime linkup play between Njoku and Yearn resulted in the number 10 performing a jinking run that beat two Forest defenders before cannoning a shot that was denied by the heroics of Bott who got down low.
Without the net being bulged, drama was sparked on the 114th minute when dangerman Osong received a straight red card for a strong challenge on Hipwell outside the penalty area.
Unable to capitalise, the boys in amber were forced to dig deep with last-ditch defending to ensure Arron-Jay Korpal and Thompson couldn’t prod home a goalmouth scramble on 119.
It was the least the rearguard deserved after a resolute performance where they defended like trojans to ensure a clean sheet and force penalties for the third time this cup campaign. Cruelly, it wasn’t to be from 12 yards as they fell to a 3-5 defeat, confirming Forest will travel to Blackburn Rovers in the next round.
Whilst the circumstances of the loss is a difficult pill to swallow, the U18’s will have every right to feel immense pride for a thoroughly entertaining cup run where they’ve proven they’re a match for anyone.
United conclude their Youth Alliance league campaign on Saturday as they take on Stevenage with the primary aim of consolidating an applaudable 2nd position.
Cambridge United: Finch, Tarpey (Sandiford, 71), Beckett, Lott (Nzeh, 120), Hipwell, Hoddle (Braithwaite, 99), McConnell, Barton, Yearn, Akanbi, Njoku
Subs Not Used: Brumby, Winterbone, Chipps, Usman,
Nottingham Forest: Bott, Hammond, Abbott, Hanks, McAdam (Perkins, 72), Thompson, McDonnell, Powell, Nadin (Korpal, 113), Collins, Osong
Subs Not Used: Akers, Perry, Robinson, Gbopo, Whitehall
Bookings: McAdam, Perkins, Osong (RED)