As I Seen It - Cambridge (A)

ALREET on an old haunt revisited

Cambridge United 2 Pools 1 
League Two, 
Abbey Stadium, 
25th October, 2014

A lot had changed since I watched Pools in action against Luton Town only a week ago so it was with a mixture of realism and a hope for signs of green shoots that I approached the Abbey Stadium. It is several years since I last visited here but my initial impression was that little had changed. 

Reaching the visitors' area, however, I saw the old terracing behind the South End has now been replaced by a new all-seater stand. This end is reached by using a winding path that runs from the Newmarket Road and borders an area of grass which, in turn, follows the line of a small stream on the far side. As I joined the path, I had to negotiate my way over a cattle grid and noticed a water tank at the top end of the field. All became clear when I spoke to a home ‘volunteer’ who was offering fans a sweet from her tin of Cadbury Heroes and she said that the field is usually occupied by longhorn cattle. 

Before taking my seat, I had a chat with their programme seller who added that the cattle could also be spotted on green areas near to the city centre as the farmer had permission to graze them under an ancient by-law. Discussing Pools current plight with him, he said of the Conference: “You don’t want to go there”. Apart from the loss of Sky cash etc., we could forget about away fans and unless any young talent was secured, we would be unable to receive anything for them if they moved on. A sobering thought to take with me as I went off to watch the game.

Pools would be playing towards the home end in the first half but the ref had hardly blown his whistle to start the game when he had to blow it again. We conceded a free kick in the opening seconds courtesy of a hearty tackle from Crooks before the ball had a chance to clear the centre circle. Their keeper took the kick which was put behind for a corner but the resulting header was wide of the mark. A long ball found Franks wide on our right but, in attempting to weave his way around a couple of defenders, he only succeeded in losing the ball. 

A Wyke challenge on the halfway line resulted in a United free kick from which Duckworth was bypassed by two attackers but their cross was put out for a corner. A quick Pools counter-attack cut open the home defence but Crooks was just beaten to the ball by Dunn in the home goal. Austin was given a yellow card for a foul on ten minutes as Pools were coming under increasing pressure. We couldn’t keep possession and were having to defend resolutely to maintain a clean sheet. 
"Fortunately, a different Pools emerged after the break and we started to knock the ball about and forced the home side onto the back foot."

Walker showed a brief spark of retaliation when he played a long ball upfield from around the left touchline which the onrushing Franks just failed to connect with outside the far post. On twenty five minutes, a long ball from inside United’s half escaped a Pools challenge and found Sam backpedaling towards the corner flag. Although at the far end, my initial thought was that he could (and, as it transpired, should) have put the ball into Row Z but the ball went past him where it was collected by Donaldson (naturally) who fired the ball past Duckworth’s covering tackle and Flinders into the far corner. 

They almost scored a second when we scrambled the ball away only for Chadwick to put a tame shot straight at Flinders. Crooks then tried his luck from around twenty yards but his effort was blocked and diverted out for a corner. A deep cross from our left evaded Franks at the far post as the whistle sounded to close a very poor half for Pools.

The second half saw the introduction of Mighty Marlon for the ineffectual Brobbel. I was quite surprised by his re-emergence as only a few days earlier, he supposedly hadn’t "shown enough in training to warrant a return to the first team" or words to that effect. Whatever, Austin found Crooks who played a long ball down our left flank from which we won a corner but this proved fruitless. We then managed to string a five man move together but the ball again ended up in a harmless corner. 

This was far better than the preceding fare but things were a bit too rushed. There followed a separate game of head tennis which consisted of about seven or eight touches around the halfway line. Walker received the ball outside the penalty area and drilled in a shot which Dunn punched over from underneath his bar. Pools were beginning to string several passes together and starting to pose a threat to the home goal. 

Harewood won a corner which was cleared then Duckworth had to head the ball behind for a corner at the other end. Collins couldn’t connect properly from a Franks corner as the ball swung back upfield. Harewood chased a ball to the United goal line, then outmuscled two defenders before squaring the ball across the penalty box where it was met by Walker, who took a touch and cracked it home past the diving Dunn. This was just reward for two players who have been out of the side in recent weeks. From a Franks corner, Walker was then unlucky to see his header kept out by a defender standing on their line. 

Sam was leading by example at the back and we were beginning to look as if we might come away with a point. Franks was replaced by Smith and this was followed by Crooks receiving a booking for a foul. Crooks next move was to be substituted for Woods while Walker, who had grown in stature the longer the game progressed, got himself a yellow card for a nudge off the ball after it had been lost in midfield. 

Pools then conceded a free kick which was taken by Donaldson. He floated the ball in but their attacker was pulled up for clattering into Flinders and the danger passed. Harrison produced an impressive block to keep out a shot and Austin was penalized for a soft push but the resulting kick was headed wide for a goal kick. Walker got a shot away through a crowded area but it didn’t bother Dunn. 

Late in the game, we conceded a throw in on our left. The long throw was flicked on at our near post where the oddly named Harrison Dunk found himself between Sam and Duckworth and with a sharp swivel of his neck, thundered the ball past the helpless Flinders from six yards. We did manage a final scramble in the United penalty area but it came to nothing and Pools finished the game pointless once again.

Cambridge fielded the obligatory League Two team of seven foot plus giants and their tough style ensured that they comfortably ran the first half while we lacked punch and were restricted to long, hopeful punts without anyone being able to keep the ball under sustained home pressure. Our general play was scrappy and passes regularly went astray. We gave them too much space at times and their opening goal could have been avoided. In all seriousness, there was precious little to write about from a Pools perspective. 

Fortunately, a different Pools emerged after the break and we started to knock the ball about and forced the home side onto the back foot. We were able to press them in their own half which additionally had the effect of restricting any forays towards Flinders. I thought our defence were looking reasonably confident as the half wore on and, poor as we had been in the opening forty five minutes, I wouldn’t have been mightily surprised had we nicked a second goal. United had rarely threatened us but they had other ideas and their long throw changed all that. Once again though, we had two opportunities to clear he ball before Dunk was allowed his decisive free header. Paul Murray will have been given a deep insight into the long road which lies ahead.

Considering the bombardment we endured at times, Flinders wasn’t called into action that often and had a steady game in goal. Sam settled seamlessly back into defence and put his heart and soul into his role although I wasn’t too sure about his contribution towards both of their goals. Harrison looked solid alongside Sam, producing several decent blocks and winning important headers. Duckworth, understandably, wasn’t able to produce many of his attacking runs as we were pegged back but was more prominent in the second period while still performing his defensive duties. 

Austin was moved back to the wide left position to give the back line a familiar look. It was a standard performance from him and provided experience although I thought Jones had played well when I had watched him in recent games. Miller was another who was primarily employed on defensive duties as the pattern of play restricted his ability to play his passing game. My first sight of Crooks and he’s a big lad with bundles of enthusiasm as typified by his tackle straight from the kick off. He covered most of the pitch having been moved further forward and made some telling tackles, hit decent passes and managed to get some shots away. 

Brobbel found the going tough and was unable to get into the game. United’s style restricted his opportunities to run at them and he struggled to make an impact as a result. Franks played with spirit and chased lost causes but he runs with his head down which usually means ending up in no-man’s-land. Walker, I was happy to see, returned to something like the form which earned him a first team spot previously. He tackled well, provided decent balls around the pitch and was our most effective attacking option by far, having several shots on target. Wyke worked hard but found limited chances to impress. Harewood covered more grass than he must have done in all his previous appearances. He harassed their defenders and gave them something to think about, culminating in our goal but he will have to produce this and more with a goal or three thrown in if he is to force his way back into the team.