Cambridge United’s development side were crowned the champions of the 2021/22 Cambridgeshire Invitational Cup with an impressive 2-1 victory over Ely City at the Abbey Stadium...
Saleem Akanbi drew first blood for the hosts with a composed attempt that nestled into the corner. A thunderstrike of a volley from Ash Walter made it all to play for going into the second half. The U’s eventually capitalised on their flurry of chances courtesy of a moment of magic from Kai Yearn – a worthy matchwinner as the boys in amber lifted the competition for the fourth time.
Peter Gill made four changes from the side that ensured progression to the showpiece contest earlier in the month. Mamadou Jobe and Tom Dickens, who had received rave reviews out on loan this campaign, made up the defensive pairing, with scholars Dan Barton and Akanbi adding to the attack.
In a repeat of the 2018 final, the talented young U’s crop would fancy their chances of bringing some silverware to CB5 after late showings helped them dispatch Soham Town Rangers 1-3 and Cambridge City 2-4 in the previous rounds. The visitors - who were languishing in 12th in the Thurlow Nunn Premier Division - were seen as real specialists in this competition, appearing in six of the past nine finals and aiming for a third successive triumph.
The development side made an encouraging start to the encounter, driving at their opponents with tenacity at every given opportunity. That was made evident on the 5th minute when captain Liam Bennett embarked on a mazy run from the middle of the park before being taken out 25 yards from goal. Lewis Simper, who was on the bench in the previous final, stepped up with a speculative effort which Harry Reynolds kept out to his right.
The Robins had utilised Ryan Gibbs well in the opening stages – the striker was at the heart of a handy attempt on the 18th minute when he was fouled from 20 yards and fired the resulting free-kick wide after generating too much power.
United showcased immense energy and a threat on the counter attack by scampering up the other end and breaking the deadlock. A pinpoint pass from Yearn released Akanbi down the left who picked his spot and showed real assurance in delicately drilling past an onrushing Reynolds.
The visitors’ response was a strong one. On the 22nd minute, a loose clearance fell to Taylor Hastings from outside of the box who connected superbly by unleashing a volley which darted a couple of inches over the crossbar.
The sides were level after 30 minutes when a long throw was cleared towards Walter who timed his volley to perfection by thundering past a helpless Louis Chadwick from 20 yards to spark euphoria amongst the travelling contingent.
As the first period drew to a close, it was the U’s who enjoyed the flurry of chances. On 35, excellent link-up play from Yearn and Akanbi resulted in the goalscorer planting an attempt towards the top corner which Reynolds pawed away from danger.
The shot stopper was called into action again moments later when Dan Barton played Yearn in from 12 yards. The youngest scorer in the U’s history looked for the near post but was denied by the legs of Reynolds. It concluded a tight first half with both sides satisfied with their work rate but perhaps aggrieved not to have capitalised on dominant spells.
Ten minutes after the break, the hosts were scratching their heads wondering how they were still level. A jinking run from Glenn McConnell freed up Barton who beat his man and fired at Akanbi who pulled the trigger twice which captain Tom Williams astutely denied both times.
In the ascendency, Simper flashed a shot wide of the mark just after the hour mark before the inspired Reynolds kept out McConnell’s menacing attempt from distance in the next attack.
The gas had been turned on for some time, with the resistance finally broken on the 71st minute when the young U’s took the lead once more. Yearn provided the magic by picking out the top corner with an audacious curler into the top corner which Reynolds could only watch.
A third almost looked inevitable. Gill’s men should have been home and dry on 75 when livewire Akanbi sent in a low cross to McConnell who fired over the bar from 12 yards.
City had chances to force extra-time as the game reached its dying embers. Gibbs raced into the six-yard box and played a fizzed ball towards substitute Jordan Foster on 80 but he couldn’t tuck home from a scramble as it hit the post and the U’s survived.
The aforementioned target man conjured up the last attempt of the match minutes from time when he outmuscled his man but couldn’t direct home from a tight angle.
Ultimately, the damage was done. For the first time since 1957, Cambridge United got their hands on the county trophy. A night to remember and one which will no doubt them in good stead for their future endeavours in the game.
Cambridge United: Chadwick, Bennett, Dickens, Jobe, Tarpey (Sandiford, 76), Cowling, McConnell, Simper, Barton Yearn, Akanbi
Subs Not Used: Gill, Usman, Chipps, Hoddle
Goalscorers: Akanbi (19), Yearn (71)
Bookings: Dickens, Cowling
Ely City: Reynolds, Revell, Williams, Hastings, Capel, Crisp, Hunt, Walter, Young (Foster, 75), Gibbs, Tait (Chambers-Shaw, 83)
Subs Not Used: Jenkins, Theobald, Bull
Goalscorers: Walter (29)
Bookings: Williams, Walter
Referee: Tom Kelly