Cambridge United pulled off a euphoric Sky Bet League One escape on the final day of the 2022/23 season courtesy of a determined 2-0 victory over Forest Green Rovers...
The U’s went into the break coasting thanks to long-serving Harrison Dunk’s header and Sam Smith’s sublime volley. With their job done and results elsewhere going in their favour, the prospect of a third season in the third tier soon became reality, with another mesmerising chapter in the club’s history written.
After a demanding season, it all came down to the final day. Fundamentally, the hosts’ focus was on rewarding the United faithful with a victory, but if fellow relegation rivals MK Dons and Morecambe could both avoid defeat, the great escape would be confirmed. In their way, a Rovers outfit who had been consigned to the basement for some time courtesy of one success since early December, but were eager to bow out in applaudable fashion.
Mark Bonner’s 46th and final selection of the season saw him name an unchanged XI for the third successive match, with the same seven substitutes from the defeat to Burton Albion on Wednesday evening.
Starting in authoritative fashion, the U’s carved out the first opportunity of the topsy-turvy afternoon on the 4th minute when, after dispossessing from the outskirts of the box, Harvey Knibbs teed up Conor McGrandles who curled his effort from 15 yards over Ross Doohan’s crossbar.
Five minutes later, the provider was presented with a great chance to open the scoring when he wriggled and jinked inside the area, beating a couple of men before a Rovers defender robbed him from pulling the trigger from a matter of yards owing to a firm tackle.
On the 24th minute, the purring hosts delivered the breakthrough when McGrandles cross was met at the back post by Dunk who headed towards the danger zone, forcing a goalmouth scramble which trickled in to cue pandemonium within CB5.
After feeling discomfort, Michael Morrison was forced off the pitch moments later, making way for Fejiri Okenabirhie. Retaining the system, the goalscorer moved to centre-back for the first time in his U’s career, with James Brophy to his left.
The visitors’ first promising opportunity landed on 27, when Harvey Bunker’s long-range attempt soared past Dimitar Mitov’s left post.
United were handed a two-goal cushion in scintillating fashion on the 36th minute when Jack Lankester picked out a ball, looped to Smith down the right who, from a tight angle with his weak foot, clattered a volley against the post and in.
Despite cruising, Bonner’s men were fortunate not to have conceded an immediate consolation when Jamie Robson picked out Dominic Bernard with a cross, but the defender lashed the woodwork with his head. So far, so good.
After a Forest Green corner was almost headed home by Lankester’s defensive header in the 49th minute, the U’s went on to enjoy a dominant period in possession.
Eager to wrap up the points, and with results still going their way, chaos in the box almost concluded in a brace for Dunk on 53 after his shot from 10 yards was deflected out for a corner.
Continuing to purr, Liam Bennett picked out the lively Lankester a few minutes later, whose drilled attempt from close-range was smothered well by Doohan.
Embarking on a mazy run, Lankester marauded down the left on 66 and finished it off with a venomous strike that hit the side netting.
With Duncan Ferguson ringing the changes, the game petered out from here. But with their job done, the agonising wait to the whistle was well worth it – the U’s were well and truly staying up. Cue bedlam.
Cambridge United: Mitov, L. Bennett, Morrison (Okenabirhie, 29’), R. Bennett, Dunk, Digby, McGrandles, Brophy, Lankester (Thomas, 67’), Knibbs, Smith
Subs Not Used: Mannion, Haunstrup, O’Neil, Ironside, Okedina
Goalscorers: Dunk (24’), Smith (36’)
Forest Green Rovers: Doohan, Bernard (O’Keeffe, 59), Casey, Cooper, Robson (McKenzie, 84’), Bunker, McGeouch (Savage, 67’), Brown (Peart-Harris, 58’), O’Brien (Sanniola, 84’), Garrick, Omotoye
Subs Not Used: Thomas
Bookings: Bunker, Cooper
Referee: Ben Toner
Attendance: 7493 (260 away fans)
Man of the Match: Dunk