A testing year off-the-pitch but one for the ages on it, the year of 2021 is safely stored in Cambridge United folklore. Here’s why...
January: Mark Bonner’s men approached 2021 in 8th position in Sky Bet League Two, with goal difference separating themselves from a play-off spot. A promising start to the season ensured top seven aspirations were a genuine possibility. Starting the year as they meant to go on, first-half strikes from Adam May and Paul Mullin helped secure a 1-2 victory over Grimsby Town before Joe Ironside and Wes Hoolahan completed a 2-1 comeback win against Harrogate Town at a fog-stricken Abbey Stadium.
Despite exiting the Papa John’s Trophy at the hands of Oxford United, a 1-1 share of the spoils at Colchester United was then followed up by a 1-2 success at Roots Hall with Jack Iredale’s barnstormer the pick of the bunch as the U’s flexed their comeback speciality once more.
They were made to battle in a stalemate vs Bradford City before concluding an unbeaten month with a 3-1 win over Crawley Town courtesy of Ironside, a Kyle Knoyle rocket and a goal from Wes Hoolahan to seal the deal. Impeccable, the Irish wizard picked up the player of the month gong with Bonner securing the managers’ award for the second time in five months. This rampant form moved United to the summit, three points clear of their rivals in a promotion battle bursting at the seams.
February: Luckily for the U’s, they were chomping at the bit. A professional afternoon saw newcomers Barrow be dispatched 0-2, with the tormentous strike force of Mullin and Ironside both bulging the onion bag. The seven-game unbeaten streak was banished by a slick Salford City side the following Tuesday as the Ammies recorded a 4-1 win, before Southend United valiantly held the U's to a 0-0 draw. In typical United fashion, they responded with an assuring 0-3 triumph at Mansfield Town via a quickfire Mullin brace and a neat Harvey Knibbs effort.
The Abbey then hosted a midweek title-chasing clash against Cheltenham Town – where the Robins clinched a 0-1 win to apply the pressure. February was culminated with an invaluable 0-1 success against Port Vale, a cagey encounter that was decided by Liam O’Neil’s sublime piledriver on the cusp of the final whistle. Top of the pile, the U’s had quietly gone from play-off contenders to one of the title favourites.
March: Dealt a killer blow, Bonner’s men were on the receiving end of a 0-1 smash-and-grab Scunthorpe United victory. Nonetheless, they bounced back in dramatic circumstances when Mullin produced one of the moments of the season, unleashing an unstoppable finish at the death to decide a slender tie against Walsall. Frustratingly, their Tuesday woes continued at Bolton Wanderers when the resurgent Trotters picked up a handy 2-1 win.
Four losses in eight, the U’s needed a late-season surge, for the division was well and truly one for the taking. If you had to pinpoint one specific game that this occurred, look no further than the trip to Boundary Park. With Oldham Athletic 2-0 up and cruising, the visitors were shellshocked. United in endeavour, they recovered thanks to Mullin, Iredale’s brace and Luke Hannant, after Callum Burton showcased heroics from the penalty spot.
Silky feet from Hoolahan helped edge out Forest Green Rovers 1-0, before May sparked euphoria with a last-gasp decisive goal at Carlisle United. Title credentials were more than enhanced – the U’s were heading into the penultimate month of the campaign in pole position.
April: The formidable - and quite frankly inevitable – Mullin helped himself to a brace, the first in front of his very own stand, as United side saw off 10-man Morecambe. The four-game winning streak ended at the hands of Tranmere Rovers, where a creditable point apiece was picked up after Mullin cancelled out his former employers.
Next up, Exeter City travelled home from the Abbey with a 1-4 victory as they knocked the U’s off their perch. Providentially, despite boasting several games in hand, United’s competitors continued to fail to capitalise with their free hits, meaning promotion was destined to go to the wire.
Loanee Declan Drysdale grabbed his only goal for the CB5 outfit on 80 minutes at Rodney Parade, setting up the longest ten minutes since Wembley 2014. Holding their nerve, a 0-1 success was grinded out. Reminiscent of their early-season displays, a breathtaking evening at Leyton Orient saw Ironside net twice with Shilow Tracey and Mullin getting in on the act. The sole task was simple, one win from their final three would ensure delirium.
Things didn’t go to plan, as the U’s slipped to a 0-1 defeat against Stevenage before Harrogate recorded a ludicrous 5-4 win. Still, there was still one more chance as we went to the final game of the season.
May: Third time lucky? Never in doubt. Delivering when it mattered the most, finishes from O’Neil, Hoolahan and Mullin helped get the job done as they cruised to a 3-0 victory over relegated Grimsby Town at the Abbey. They’d been brave, they’d been resilient, but most importantly, they’d been united. The damage was done - it was Cambridge United’s time.
Moments after the banners were up and the champagne was on ice, the players raced towards the plethora of yellow smoke and the sizzling atmosphere flowing behind the Newmarket Road End. Candidly, this was for them. The U’s were back in the third tier of English football for the first time since 2002. Cue pandemonium.
The ever-present Knoyle, the prodigious Mullin and the genius that is Hoolahan all deservedly cemented their place in the League Two team of the season, with the aforementioned striker awarded the player of the season as he smashed records aplenty. His 32 goals in the Football League was a new U’s record, breaking David Crown’s attempt of 24 in 1985/86. It also proved a League Two record, seeing out Tom Pope’s effort of 31 in 2012/13.
Pre-Season: The pack was shuffled during the summer. Mullin, Knoyle, Hannant, Burton and Andrew Dallas all ventured to Wrexham, Doncaster Rovers, Colchester, Plymouth Argyle and Solihull Moors respectively, with the rest of the out-of-contract players extending their stay at the club. The club secured the signatures of eight players, including: Jack Lankester, James Brophy, Lloyd Jones, George Williams, Will Mannion and the familiar, but this time permanent, faces of Tracey, Jubril Okedina and Sam Smith.
August: Optimism was understandably in the air ahead of the 2021/22 campaign – what was most pleasing was the return of fans, ready to make a boisterous noise and spur on this United side labelled as confident underdogs. 6444 flocked to the Abbey to witness a 1-1 opening day draw against Oxford United – an Ironside penalty, on top of defensive grit and determination, ensured a deserved point.
Progression to the Second Round of the Carabao Cup was sealed three days later when Dimitar Mitov’s heroics from the spot secured a shootout victory over Swindon Town. A first defeat of the season was tasted at Accrington Stanley when the U’s fell 2-1, before responding with another 1-1 draw at Plymouth Argyle thanks to a third goal in succession for Ironside. The monumental first three points came on the 21st August when two own goals and a Smith finish wrapped up a comprehensive 3-0 conquest against early pace-setters Burton Albion. Despite taking the lead through Williams, the U’s bowed out of the Carabao Cup at the hands of Millwall at the Den.
Back to the bread and butter - consecutive wins was attained when Tracey’s well-executed attempt helped overcome Bolton 1-0 at the Abbey. A busy month of football climaxed with a commanding 4-1 thumping of Oxford in the Papa John’s Trophy, the highlight being Kai Yearn becoming the U’s youngest ever goalscorer. A cornucopia of cup spirit and the ability to nullify their opponents and be clinical when it mattered, United ended the month in a healthy 10th position and had most definitely found their feet.
September: A sorrowing start to the month saw Lincoln City inflcit a 1-5 thrashing of the U’s – a harsh reflection for the hosts. In spite of that, they dusted themselves off and secured a first ever win at Fratton Park a week later, dispatching Portsmouth 1-2 courtesy of a typical O’Neil scorcher and an Ironside header.
Another slice of Papa John’s success was grabbed by Smith as his goal helped edge out a spirited Tottenham Hotspur U21s. A triple whammy at the Abbey was then concluded with a 2-2 draw against Fleetwood Town where May and Tracey latched home, before succumbing to a 0-2 defeat to Gillingham – the first time Bonner’s group had not found the back of the net in a league fixture.
October: Teams at this level will punish you, more than ever. How would this team deal with major setbacks? It turns out, rather well. The U’s were depleted after Crewe Alexandra raced into a 2-0 lead at Gresty Road, but a vivacious second-half inspired another fine comeback, as a forced own goal and Adam May strike rescued a point for Bonner's team. A sense of déjà vu filled the air at a sold-out Abbey a fortnight later, when Brophy and Ironside snatched a 2-2 draw against Ipswich Town. The never-say-die attitude was discussed post-match as the Head Coach heaped praise on the character his side had shown.
Next up, another near-capacity crowd flocked to CB5 to roar United on to a spirited 1-1 tie against Sheffield Wednesday – a performance to be proud of after being in the ascendency for large periods of the game. A crash in their high-level intensity materialised at Shrewsbury Town, as United succumbed to a 4-1 defeat. In retaliation, the points were shared at Doncaster in a 1-1 draw, before a looping Jensen Weir header ensured a first victory in eight as AFC Wimbledon were put to the sword. As they were a month prior, the U’s were established in 15th going into a gruelling month of matchups.
November: One major improvement pinpointed from last campaign was that the U’s exhibited more identity in their midweek fixtures. This continued at Morecambe when a Ben Worman goal of the season contender and an Ironside penalty helped register morale-boosting back-to-back wins. Smith and Conor Masterson churned out an Emirates FA Cup Replay against Northampton Town, prior to one of the youngest XI in recent times tumbling to a meaningless 1-0 loss to Stevenage in the Papa John’s Trophy.
A 4-1 drubbing at MK Dons was followed up by progression to the FA Cup Second Round as Smith, Knibbs and Worman made light work of the Cobblers. Leaders of the pack Rotherham United eventually saw off the U’s 3-1, despite Smith’s fourth consecutive goal proving a handy consolation. Former FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic produced drama at the death in a thrilling 2-2 draw after Ironside and May tucked home.
Then, the Abbey was packed to the rafters once again as another former Premier League outfit in Sunderland valiantly acquired a 1-2 win in blusterous conditions – perhaps a result that got away from the hosts who produced havoc in the six-yard box. The month was wrapped up with a ticket into the Round of 16 in the Papa John’s Trophy as Walsall were thwarted 2-0. Two cups to play for and a respectable 16th position to their name – just like it had been all year, that feel-good factor continued to brew.
December: A first appearance in the FA Cup Third Round for five years beckoned when Knibbs sparked jubilation with a do-or-die winner on the stroke of added time, to overpower Exeter 2-1 at the Abbey. Breeding confidence, they then dismantled Cheltenham 0-5 at Whaddon Road. The inspired Smith garnered the breakthrough, before a forced own goal set the stage for the battering ram that is Ironside to seize the perfect hat-trick – this was the first time since September 2000 that United has poached five goals in a third tier encounter.
Frustratingly, this commendable form couldn’t continue as Charlton Athletic picked up a 2-0 win at the Valley and then Rotherham were made to battle for a 0-1 success. Despite nothing to show for their endeavour, managers in the opposite dugout didn’t shy away from complimenting United’s execution and overall ability on the ball.
With a Christmas schedule depleted, the curtain closed prematurely for 2021. Slotting in seamlessly, the side sit in 16th with a strong cushion from the relegation zone – a decade previously, the U’s were languishing in 7th in the Conference Premier.
A steady rise but a journey to very much be proud of thanks to those who have made it possible. Especially to you, the amber nation, who have been there in your numbers to inspire and galvanise the side in a year like no other.
Unpredictability awaits for the next 12 months, but our exploits from the previous plants the seeds for prosperity. One thing we do know, however, is that the future is bright. The future is amber.