There’s always next year

Cambridge United’s Centenary season has been a bit of an anti-climax. With one game to go and a top-half finish the only thing at stake, the well-worn phrase ‘there’s always next year’ has been echoing around the Abbey Stadium for a while now.

The U’s brought their home season to a close last Saturday with a 2-1 win over Barrow, a result that condemned their visitors to Blue Square Bet North after an unsteady five years in non-league football’s top flight. It was United’s first win in seven games, just the kind of sequence that has epitomised a stop-start campaign.

It had all started, as seasons tend to do, with optimism, if not unbridled then at least buoyant. Manager Jez George had assembled, at limited cost, a squad combining experience, youth and raw enthusiasm that, on paper at least, looked as if it might bring some cheer to Newmarket Road to mark this special season.

Football, as you will have noticed, isn’t played on paper, but one or two of the newly assembled United squad looked as if they might be made of it. Winger Billy Gibson was a good example. Much heralded on arrival as the right-sided midfielder we lacked, the former Yeovil man gained an intimate acquaintance with the treatment room in a season that saw him start just twice, with three appearances from the bench.

The season started brightly. Unbeaten in their first four games and with big Tom Elliott  scoring in all of them, the future looked amber and bright, only for an eight game winless run to restore normal service. To give full credit to board, they acted with speed. George went back upstairs into a new Director of Football role and the wizened former Luton boss Richard Money took over the Abbey hot seat.

Money’s honeymoon lasted exactly 90 minutes as the U’s thumped potential champions Mansfield 4-1 at the Abbey. Five games without a win ensued, culminating in a 6-2 debacle at Newport. Ass was kicked, changes were made. The defence was given a fresh injection of confidence as young Norwich keeper Jed steer signed on loan, one of four United keepers in a season that has seen no fewer than 39 players don the amber and black.

The defeat at Newport was followed by a 12-game sequence that saw only a single league defeat as Cambridge climbed from 20th to seventh and the words ‘play-offs’ began to emerge cautiously from the lips of fans and pundits. Naturally, such utterances proved to be a deathly kiss as United slumped to four consecutive defeats, their opponents scoring three on each occasion.

Saturday’s win left Money’s side 13th in the Blue Square Premier and a win against Macclesfield on Saturday could land them a top-half finish if other results go their way. There have been some positives. Elliott emerged as top scorer and the only new signing to have any real impact, notching 15 goals in 30 starts and playing his football with a smile. And we could even finish above Luton, whose fans will want to see the back of a dreadful campaign even more than we do.

Money has made his mark and has also intimated that there will be wholesale changes in the summer. They are needed, provided they are the right ones. He comes across as a bit of a grumpy old man, but he commands respect and has begun to mould his own group of players. The close season will be fascinating, just to see who comes and goes. I have a feeling he won’t just be tinkering at the edges. Major surgery is needed.

Roll on August. 

Michael Barnes