Cambridge United made a real statement in front of the cameras as they clinched a commendable 1-0 victory against Sky Bet League One opponents Reading at the Abbey Stadium...
The U’s piled on the pressure from the get go and built on a positive first half by gaining a deserved winner late in the night through substitute Fejiri Okenabirhie, who thundered home his fourth strike of the season to rise his side into the top six.
Going through the gears on a scorching Monday evening, impressions were ready to be made and a real buzz was in the air for United - who aimed for a third home victory from their opening four. The newly-relegated visitors, in the third tier for the first time since 2002, were similarly out to make an instant return to winning ways.
Following their defeat in the capital nine days earlier, Mark Bonner named one change to his XI as an enforced swap between the sticks saw Jack Stevens – who had picked up a groin injury – make way for the returning Will Mannion. Elsewhere, Elias Kachunga was restored to the matchday squad, with deadline day signing John-Kymani Gordon also making the bench.
With just 35 seconds on the clock, the hosts came agonisingly close to drawing first blood when Sullay Kaikai skinned his man down the left and picked out an excellent cross to Gassan Ahadme inside the six-yard box, who powered a header but was astutely denied by David Button to prevent it from trickling in.
Authoritative and rapid in turning defence to attack, a floating delivery from Liam Bennett was touched down by James Brophy, with the winger jinking and cutting inside before teeing up Danny Andrew, who blazed a 25-yard effort over the crossbar.
The Royals conjured their first attempt of the night on the 9th minute when the silky Ben Elliott carried into the final third and set up young striker Caylon Vickers, who pulled the trigger with pace but a good U’s block forced a corner.
Heading into the midway stage of the first half, the tenacity petered out with very little chances of note. Despite Reading finding slightly more of the ball, United were ultimately unthreatened and knew that could play into their hands.
Turning the screw, Ruben Selles’ men were left to rue a potential opener on the half an hour mark when valiant, last-ditch defending from the U’s saw them deny a total of four attempts inside the penalty area, before clearing the scramble.
Amplifying the levels, it was Bonner’s side who were next to apply the pressure with two chances in rapid succession. First, the ball fell invitingly to L. Bennett from 20 yards out, whose clean and vicious strike was bravely headed behind, before Andrew’s cross couldn’t be tucked in by George Thomas from a matter of yards – the slightest of connections and first blood would have been drawn.
Remaining in the ascendency, a frenetic opening 45 was concluded when Paul Digby helped recycle and switch towards Brophy down the right, who danced into the box, composed himself and drilled just wide of Button’s left post. The U’s headed down the tunnel for the break with so much to be encouraged about.
After a brief period of pressure from the Berkshire side, Cambridge gained their foothold again and were presented with a golden opportunity on 56 when L. Bennett kickstarted an attack, Brophy did the marauding forwards and Digby with the finishing touches by squeezing into a tight angle and unleashing a near-post strike which was stopped by a diving Button.
Ten minutes later, Harlee Dean met Charlie Savage’s cross with a thunderous header, which flew just over Mannion’s bar, before Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan picked his spot from 20 yards and produced a curler which crucially skimmed away for a corner.
Seconds after entering the field as part of a triple substitution, Okenabirhie almost made an instant impact as he was released through on goal. In a one-on-one position, captain Nelson Abbey got a pivotal tackle in before clearing his lines.
Fejiri made the most of his second chance on the 83rd minute when livewire Brophy scampered down the right and picked out the energetic forward who blasted into the roof of the net from six yards to cue pandemonium in front of the Newmarket Road End.
With a matter of seconds left, former U Harvey Knibbs thought he had secured a last-gasp point after his close-range effort lashed against the crossbar and bounced on the line, but referee Darren Drysdale blew his whistle to the delight of the anxious home faithful.
Ultimately, it was a lead the U’s would go on to preserve, as their commitment helped them climb into the play-offs and rubber stamp their fine early season credentials.
Attention now turns to the Papa John’s Trophy next Tuesday evening (12th September) as the U’s take on Cambridgeshire rivals Peterborough United in the first Group D South clash.
Cambridge United: Mannion, L. Bennett, R. Bennett, Morrison, Andrew, Digby, Thomas, Brophy, Lankester (Kachunga, 71’), Kaikai (Gordon, 72’), Ahadme (Okenabirhie, 72’)
Subs Not Used: Holden, Dunk, Ibsen Rossi, Simper
Goalscorers: Okenabirhie (83’)
Reading: Button, Mbengue (Mola, 79’), Dean, Abbey, Carson (Yiadom, 57’), Azeez (Rushesha, 81’), Savage (Craig, 79’), Elliott (Ehibhatiomhan, 57’), Hutchinson, Knibbs, Vickers
Subs Not Used: Boyce-Clarke, McIntyre
Bookings: Dean, Hutchinson, Yiadom, Savage
Referee: Darren Drysdale
Attendance: 6789 (1151 away fans)
Man of the Match: L. Bennett