Cambridge United were made to wait for their first Sky Bet League One points of 2023 after Bristol Rovers came from behind to secure a 1-2 victory at the Abbey Stadium...
Despite a really spirited opening 20 minutes, where the U’s dominated proceedings and found themselves a goal to the good courtesy of Sam Smith’s well-executed header, they couldn’t go from strength to strength as the potent Gas attack broke through in rapid fashion thanks to finishes from Josh Coburn and Scott Sinclair, before holding out for the success.
In the midst of a dogfight near the relegation zone, it was another crucial game for Mark Bonner’s men - who had won one in eight, but had recently shown encouraging signs on home soil, losing one in four. In Joey Barton’s Pirates, they hosted a top-half side who had proven an exciting watch and were out to register back-to-back wins.
Following the heavy 5-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday five days earlier, Mark Bonner rotated his squad by naming four changes to his XI. In a switch of full-backs, George Williams returned from illness whilst Steve Seddon made his debut for the club. Elsewhere, Ben Worman recovered from his knock and Shilow Tracey was drafted into the wings.
In a blistering introduction to the encounter, the U’s drew first blood in the 4th minute when Harvey Knibbs’ teasing cross down the right floated to a looming Smith at the back post who, in slow motion, executed a pinpoint header against the post and in. For just the second time this season, United had scored within the opening quarter of an hour.
In an industrious mood, the hosts continued to maraud forward. Minutes after their celebrations concluded, Tracey finished a neat passing move by unleashing a drilled attempt which James Connolly importantly blocked. In the following corner, Worman’s astute delivery was met by the inspired Smith whose bullet header was expertly tipped over the crossbar by James Belshaw.
Out of the blocks firing, the U’s tenacity helped them continue to win every ball, with Worman’s crosses proving deadly and the attempts coming at a consistent pace.
Against the run of play, the Pirates carved open Bonner’s men and drew level on the 21st minute after dangerous duo Aaron Collins and Coburn linked up. After the former played in the Middlesbrough loanee, he had plenty of time in a one-on-one position to compose himself and pick his spot – although Will Mannion denied him at first, the number 40 tapped in the rebound.
The U’s positive start was soon undone as Rovers completed the quickfire comeback on 28. Coburn’s exquisite ball was met by Luca Hoole deep down the right, who fed Sinclair with an inch-perfect ball at the back post - the former Premier League man made no mistake, latching home from close range.
In response, the men in amber were presented with a promising opportunity on the 36th minute when the ball fell invitingly to Tracey on the outskirts of the box, but he skewed it wide of goal.
Deep into additional time for the first half, Oxford loanee Seddon was forced off on a stretcher after taking a blow to the head whilst he and Mannion dealt with a lurking Collins – with the full-back receiving a round of applause from all four sections of the ground.
Four minutes after the break, Smith was found in acres of space from 12 yards after being teed up, but the Gas dug in to block the attempt and clear their lines.
Undoubtedly the golden chance of the half fell to the hands of Smith on 62 when Liam Bennett ventured forward and dissected the backline with a pass to James Brophy, who raced down the left and delivered towards the number 10, who connected well on the half-volley but skimmed the crossbar.
Needing a route back into the game, Bonner added the impetus of Joe Ironside and Jack Lankester with 20 minutes left on the clock. During this spell, they were enjoying the possession in the final third but were yet to create anything clear-cut to test Belshaw.
A teasing corner on 79 almost proved a killer with the towering Coburn rising highest from a matter of yards, but it evaded the striker and fell out of play.
The hosts strived to steal at least a point from the encounter, but Joey Barton’s side remained stubborn to succumb United to three consecutive defeats.
Action at the Abbey continues next Saturday (14th January) as Morecambe make the journey down from Lancashire in yet another crucial Sky Bet League One matchup – be sure to back the boys.
Cambridge United: Mannion, Williams, Taylor, Okedina, Seddon (Bennett, 45+5), Digby, Worman, Tracey (Lankester, 70), Knibbs (Ironside, 70), Brophy, Smith
Subs Not Used: Holden, Janneh, Simper, Yearn
Goalscorers: Smith (4)
Bookings: Seddon, Digby, Lankester
Bristol Rovers: Belshaw, Hoole, Connolly, Thomas, Gibbons, Finley, Coutts, Sinclair (Gordon, 79), Collins (Evans, 79), Loft (Marquis, 64), Coburn
Subs Not Used: Jaakkola, Saunders, McCormick, Whelan
Goalscorers: Coburn (21), Sinclair (28)
Bookings: Connolly, Loft, Coutts, Marquis
Referee: Thomas Parsons
Attendance: 5703 (764 away fans)