Cambridge United were dealt a killer blow at the death as Fleetwood Town stole all three Sky Bet League One points with a 1-0 win at Highbury Stadium...
The U’s were forced to rue their well-worked missed opportunities as Shaun Rooney’s late close-range header separated the sides on what proved to be a gut-wrenching evening in Lancashire.
Spurred on by a first win of 2023 last time out, the U’s were eager to secure consecutive league victories for the first time since September and climb out of the relegation zone with the gap from 20th a solitary point prior. Six places above them were the Cod Army, who had started to pick up steam by collecting seven points from their previous three matches.
Head Coach Mark Bonner felt there no need to change a winning formula as he retained the same XI that returned to winning ways three days earlier against Oxford United. The only difference to the matchday squad was the absence of George Thomas, who did not travel owing to a knock he picked up in training.
The U’s early application to the encounter was a positive one. Their route into carving out the first opportunity of the evening was by finding space in the wings, with James Brophy and Liam Bennett finding the space to peg the hosts back.
The latter warmed the gloves of Jay Lynch on the 13th minute when the youngster danced from the right to cut inside, before pulling the trigger from under 25 yards which was comfortably collected by the goalkeeper.
All in all, it had been an organised and disciplined opening half an hour for United, who had not offered the powerful Cod Army attack a sniff at goal. Their aggressive nature to win the ball back was pleasing, but the only attempt they could conjure was Michael Morrison’s speculative shot from distance on 22, who connected well but couldn’t keep it down as it arrowed over the crossbar.
Bonner’s men passed the first real test of their defensive grit on the 31st minute when Rooney’s cross into the danger area eventually fell to Josh Vela, who from a tight angle aimed for goal but was denied by Lloyd Jones’ well-anticipated block.
A few minutes later, the experienced Jack Marriott tested his luck on the turn from 25 yards, lashing past the onrushing men in sky blue and Dimitar Mitov’s right post, who had it covered.
It proved the last action of an encouraging half from the U’s, who were neat and tidy in and out of possession, but were just lacking the end product. They were excellent value for their clean sheet, nonetheless, despite Scott Brown’s men ending in the ascendency.
Undoubtedly the golden chance fell to the hosts ten minutes into the second period when an in-swinging free-kick from Phoenix Patterson was flicked on by Brendan Wiredu and on a plate for Jayden Stockley, but the former U couldn’t direct his header home from a matter of yards.
Heavy pressure from the U’s on 57 almost proved fruitful when the ball twice fell to Sam Smith inside the box, but each time the forward was denied by a sea of red following excellent jinking runs down the left from Brophy and then Jack Lankester.
The ardent faithful in the away end were agonisingly close to celebrating the opener on the 68th minute when applaudable defending and a long ball from L. Bennett was held up by Joe Ironside – he presented Smith with the opportunity to pick out a splitting through ball to Lankester who raced towards goal in a one-on-one position and picked his spot but was denied by Lynch’s crucial stop.
With the clash approaching its latter stages, the Cod Army had since brought on five options to find a winner, but the visitors looked likeliest to steal the points. On 81, L. Bennett’s sublime cross was met by Smith who got venom on the header and almost enough accuracy as it clattered the post.
Three minutes later, heroic defending ensured the match remained goalless after a mix up in the defence from Conor McGrandles set Cian Hayes free with the goal gaping. His touch allowed a scampering Brophy to track back and superbly deny the goal bound attempt.
United were dealt a sucker punch on the 87th minute when substitute Josh Earl’s cross was latched at by Rooney who rose highest to power a header past Mitov.
With the last kick of the game, Jones raced to keep the ball in play from a long free-kick, teeing up Smith who fired wide from five yards to ensure the U’s would travel home empty-handed despite an improved attacking performance.
Up next, the U’s travel to the other side of country on Saturday (25th February) as they descend down to Devon ahead of their tie with Exeter City – be sure to back the boys.
Fleetwood Town: Lynch, Holgate, Nsiala (Earl, 70), Sarpong-Wiredu, Rooney, Vela, Warrington, Patterson (Dolan, 77), Marriott (Omochere, 59), Mendes Gomes (Macadam, 77), Stockley (Hayes, 70)
Subs Not Used: McMullan, Ndaba
Goalscorers: Rooney (87’)
Bookings: Mendes Gomes, Warrington, Vela
Cambridge United: Mitov, Morrison, R. Bennett, Jones, L. Bennett, Digby, McGrandles, Brophy, Lankester, Smith, Ironside
Subs Not Used: Mannion, Williams, Haunstrup, O’Neil, Okedina, Worman
Bookings: L. Bennett
Referee: Declan Bourne