Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughAspiring to mediocrity - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Aspiring to mediocrity - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Aspiring to mediocrity

It’s often said that the Blue Square Bet Premier is “a competitive league where everyone is capable of beating everybody else.” One variant of this mantra is that it’s a league steeped in mediocrity, full of ex-Football League has-beens desperate to regain their rightful place in League Two, with little to choose between them.

The Cambridge United version is along these lines. “Newly promoted? Struggling at the wrong end of the table? Visit the Abbey Stadium and help yourself to three easy points.” Dartford, Hyde and Nuneaton, each of them elevated from the regional tier, have all headed home from Cambridge with a win and a smug smile, contrary to the league table but totally in keeping with United’s consistent inability to deal with beatable opposition.  U’s fans really can’t say they are looking forward to Woking’s visit in March.

Tuesday night saw more of the same. Granted, Alfreton Town are in their second season in the Conference, but we have form against them, of the wrong kind. The tone was set in January 2011 during Town’s promotion season. United twice recovered from going a goal behind at the Impact Arena to draw 3-3 and were expected to walk the replay, right? Wrong. It was 3-3 again after 90 minutes at the Abbey, but Town striker Paul Clayton completed his hat-trick and the Conference North side won 6-3.

A degree of revenge was exacted last season when United triumphed 3-0 at the Abbey, only to lose the away game 2-1, and in December the U’s just about managed a 1-1 draw in Derbyshire with an injury-time Michael Gash penalty. Alfreton were five points ahead of the drop zone in 18th when they arrived at the Abbey on Tuesday, while United’s run of only one defeat in twelve games hit the buffers at Kidderminster last Saturday.

Cambridge made it to half-time with their clean sheet intact but failed to convert several half chances, while Alfreton looked average but with one or two accomplished players in their line-up. Nobody was really surprised when the United defence went AWOL shortly after the break to allow Town to take the lead, and by the time it had become 3-0 in stoppage time, the exodus from the stadium was of fire drill proportions.

In the intervening 45 minutes, United had shown that ‘average’ was a level they could only aspire to. It was horrible, embarrassing. A farce, surpassing even the ineptitude of last month’s 3-1 home capitulation to Nuneaton.

The list of departures from the Abbey playing staff in recent months reads like a Second World War evacuation register, with players sold and loaned out at an alarming rate, often without replacement. The situation has been made worse by an ever-lengthening injury-list. What does Richard Money do to them in training?

In addition to two new signings, Tuesday’s line-up featured players in positions they wouldn’t have chosen for preference. Inexperienced defender Charlie Wassmer was shunted into central midfield and Rossi Jarvis, so impressive in a central role, looked marooned out on the right, while young Liam Hughes (Money: I don’t care where he plays, just get him on the pitch) roamed out on the left and did, to be fair, have a half-decent game there. Midfield wunderkind Luke Berry, hurried back from long-term injury at Kidderminster, was off the pace – though he wasn’t alone in that.

Left-back Joe Anderson – newly-arrived from part-time Billericay – attacked way better than he defended and striker Jamie Reed, acquired from York, showed promise, but this was a cobbled-together Cambridge side, square pegs in round holes and some pegs in no hole at all. And with the club losing money on a weekly basis – the gate of 1,779 including 29 hardy souls from Derbyshire was the season’s second lowest – it is looking very much as if the remainder of the season will be a damage-limitation exercise, with an at best mid-table finish the price to be paid for financial survival.

This is the world of Conference football. At this stage of the season, if you’re not injured, or if you’re not paid too much, you play. It’s not just Cambridge, it’s the majority at this level. Sure, they need to roll up their sleeves and fight, not let their heads drop as soon as they go a goal down, but without a wealthy benefactor, a return to the promised land – as at least half the teams in this league can testify – is as far away as ever.

Michael Barnes