Abundant evidence, not that it’s ever needed, that you can’t beat the FA Cup. Ever.
Ordinarily, two fourth division sides on a stinking wet Saturday in January wouldn’t get you out of bed. Leave ’em to it. Who needs the smell of stale, stewed onions or a nasty virus picked up from coughs and wheezes of a football throng?
But sprinkle the FA Cup fairydust on the unlikely charms of Cambridge and Luton players and hey presto, everybody’s a prince for the day. The third round is Christmas for journeyman footballers.
The clergy called the faithful and it was time to worship the almighty FA Cup at the Abbey.
The stadium, reassuringly 50s-style apart from the new away end, which rather spoils it for me, is a throwback to 20th century old skool stuff.
Back in the League this year after eight years’ Conferencing, the last time I saw Cambridge in the FA Cup they joyously and swaggeringly pulverised Bristol City 5-1 in the fifth round in 1990 before losing to Crystal Palace in the following round; Palace then recording their famous 4-3 semi-final win over Liverpool, that ended the Scousers’ era as all-conquering giants.
That United side were a Fourth Division outfit going places. The best fiver’s entertainment in the land. They were great. Managed by the maligned John Beck they featured players like Dion Dublin, later to play for England, Alan Kimble, later to star for Wimbledon, whizzy Michael Cheetham on the wing and one of my all-time favourite lower league players the remarkable John Taylor. Brilliant in the air, good on the floor, more energy than a pack of dingos chasing down a gazelle.
Which was just as well as he had to do plenty of that.
Beck was brutally condemned for his long-ball stuff and his efforts with Lincoln later in the 90s were ugly to behold.
But his Cambridge team reached fifth in the Second Division on a diet of long ball stuff but also quality crossing and great heart.
The fans too were gloriously belligerent, not in a hoolie way, but funny. Visiting keepers, when taking restarts in front of the Newmarket Road End, would have their individual steps back marked with a quacking sound before the kick itself was punctuated by the bellowed word ‘Moose’. You probably had to be there to it and and I still haven’t worked it out. Nicely surreal. That practice has ended but the club mascot is, I note, a moose.
Twenty-five years later it was time to rejoin this sainted city’s Nobel Prize winners, professors and heart surgeons on the terrace again.
The Newmarket Road End still looks as refreshingly no-frills now as it did then though there are fewer potholes in the car park outside.
The terrace intelligentsia welcomed the Hatters with: “Luton’s a shithole, you should go home.”
Having lived there, it’s hard to argue with that one, although I arrived rootin’ for Luton after being unable to secure a ticket in the away end.
No player names stood out – ex-Man U Luke Chadwick probably the best-known talent on show.
United’s left midfielder Ryan Donaldson had looked a prime candidate for subbing at half-time when up he popped to burst through the middle on goal, forcing a reaction from Hatters netminder Mark Tyler who brought him down.
Even then United nearly fluffed it. Tyler tipped the penalty on to the post, and it rebounded to taker Robbie Simpson who this time made no mistake. 1-0 after 27.
Pretty much against the run of play. Cambridge keeper Chris Dunn then kept out a great sweeping move to deny an equaliser.
Dunn had a fairly poor game. It was noticeable in the warm-up that his kicking was erratic to say the least. One pre-match practice punt of the pink ball ended up nearly braining someone in what I took to be the directors’ box near the half-way line. His game kicking wasn’t a great deal better.
And his forays to the edge of the box to clear high balls were largely unsuccessful and panicked the home fans.
A second-half Luton attack in the 66th minute was foiled after they’d committed too many men forward – well they had to.
Donaldson was fed in his own half and he scarpered 60 yards upfield in a straight line, defenders backing off him or trailing in his wake when they now probably regret not rugby tackling him.
His unconfronted advance drew Tyler out to face him from about ten yards and he neatly lifted the ball over him into the net.
A truly brilliant goal – stupefyingly good – that deserved to win any game and having watched Match of the Day, no goal among the 17 ties bettered that. It might be fourth division stuff (yes, I know they wrongly call it League Two) but there’s still gems among the journeymen.
There was mayhem among the Moose-lovers who, what with their Ph.Ds, CBEs and the rest of it, recognised at half-time that Luton looked neater and they required a second goal.
Thirteen minutes later Donaldson was subbed – he looked trashed and is probably still in bed 36 hours later.
By this time Michael Harriman had nodded in Welshman Jake Howells’ cross to set up a not entirely rollicking last 15 minutes.
Cambridge got a bit too keen to hear the final whistle and players were looking for corner flag kerfuffles at least ten minutes before the final whistle when actually had they made better choices with men to spare they could have nailed a third goal.
The Newmarket End drummer struck up and the choruses of ‘Yellow and Black Army’ rang out for a rousing finale. It really is a good terrace to watch football from, I won’t wait another 25 years before coming back.
On-pitch stewards were nodding their heads in time to the best and one even started singing along.
United fans were whistling and groaning out loud for minutes towards the end, a sure sign Luton were scaring them badly. The whistle came and Cambridge could crow: “Two-one to the runner-up” – a reference to both teams rising from the Conference last year.
Luton unlucky really, but the cup is all about luck. It’s ruthless like that and that’s what it makes it wonderful.
Don’t fancy Cambridge’s chances in the fourth round much, but it was a totally enthralling epitome of why the cup is the best thing in British sport.