Cambridge United 1 Hull City 2

Ian Thomson reports on the burgeoning Tigers revival, as Jan Molby finally records his first win at the City helm in grand style.
Abbey Stadium is, with the exception of course of the Ark, the one League ground I have visited the most often, albeit that the last occasion I saw a game there which did not feature the Tigers is now over twenty years past. In those dim and distant days the home side, after only about ten seasons or so in the League, were enjoying a spell of some half dozen years or so in the old Second Division, and more than holding their own in the process; I witnessed the likes of Newcastle and Bolton fall there, saw Cambridge score twice in injury time to earn an unlikely 3-3 draw versus Sunderland, and most famously of all remember a much more highly-regarded Villa side than the present one hanging on by the skin of their teeth for a 1-1 draw in the Cup, with all of 12 000 shoehorned into the ground to the point that your feet had nowhere to rest save the ankles of the bloke in front. These recollections are proffered not out of some desire to emulate Nick Hornby (although the tales of the latter’s so-called experiences have no doubt done his bank balance no harm), but rather are inspired by my recollection, during a bit of forward thinking to yesterday’s match in the days which preceded it, of how the Cambridge side of that era, bereft of almost any names you would recognise, relied totally for their success not on flashy skills and clever tricks with the ball, for in truth they, almost to a man, possessed the ability to perform neither, but on a formidable work ethic, meticulous organisation, and large helpings of sheer bloody guts. Not pretty, but on many occasions ruthlessly effective. How, I reflected to myself, the present City side is in need of precisely those qualities. Whilst yesterday’s Tiger offering might not quite have matched the standards of that erstwhile Cambridge team in the relevant departments, it marked a highly-encouraging step in the right direction, carrying on the germination of the seeds of improvement which, by all accounts, were planted last week against Orient. As a performance, it never spawned the levels of dynamism and general barnstorming seen in the second half at Bristol, but was in many respects more valuable to us than that; we were treated to an XI who all seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing and did it, who were willing to work for and support each other, who kept going without ever letting the home side, of whom much was expected following their demolition of the much-vaunted Irthlingborough last week, dominate at any time, and for once this season not only failed to sit back on a lead, but – yes – actually turned the screw as well. A performance in many ways evocative of the charge to the play-offs of a couple of seasons ago, delivered by a team who actually showed that, well, maybe perhaps, they might just be capable of getting the hang of understanding – and, more importantly, delivering – what it takes to get out of this Division by the skylight as opposed to the trapdoor. Oh yes, and we won. Did I mention that? As widely foreshadowed, a place was found in the starting line-up for the Grimsby refugee Phil Jevons at the expense of the Dude and Bradshaw, apart from which, given the injury situation, the City line-up, with Molby again, and, some would say, wisely for this particular fixture, opting for 4-4-2, contained no other real surprises:-

Glennon Regan Anderson Whittle Smith Johnson Ashbee Keates Williams Alexander Jevons

Subs: Peat (for Johnson, 70 mins), Edwards (for Jevons, 85 mins). Despite the gloomy promises of rain all week from the Met Office, the neat Abbey was bathed in sunshine and remained so for the remainder of the afternoon as the game kicked-off, with City, in their all-white change strip, kicking away from the visiting support, at a guess 6-700 strong and in apprehensive rather than boisterous mood, approximately half-filling the new South Stand, a well-appointed if rather anonymous structure offering a view infinitely superior to the narrow and shallow terrace, complete with high-security fence, which preceded it, but with the same polite yet slightly officious stewards. In the early stages most of the dash and sparkle took place some distance from the Tiger following, as our heroes kept the home side pushed back into their own half, not allowing the latter any room or time and repeatedly making them resort to the long ball in an effort to make headway. But City, despite forcing a succession of corners, were finding the Cambridge defence in resolute mood, the result of which, coupled with the fact that our front runners still don’t seem to have found their sea legs for the season, was that even half-chances were few and far between, and which means that in truth there isn’t a lot that happened in the first period to report on. City’s best effort of the half came as early as seven minutes in, when a deft chip over the top found Alex, whose effort was tipped over by Marshall in the home goal. Indeed, it was difficult, come the half-time whistle, to think of a 45 minutes containing a greater dearth of real threat to either goal. More significant, though was the manner in which the home side, not renowned for taking prisoners on their own patch, were palpably struggling to stamp any sort of authority on the proceedings, and to that extent the half was not without its compensations. But, barring a City lapse, it did have a whiff of a possible 0- 0 about it at this stage. Half-time, and nice to note (and indeed sample the evidence) that the bacon rolls, the long-time specialit√© de la maison at the Abbey, had not been swept into oblivion by the tide of progress that is the building of the new stand. Rather less palatable was the observation that the match programme contained one or two more gloating references to City and our recent under-achievement than might have been thought appropriate as well as a number of factual inaccuracies, such that, until reaching the bottom and seeing the offending article attributed to one Dave Brown, one imagined that it may have been written by Fieldhouse. Oh yes, and did anyone else notice that the programme gave their colours as “amber”, but City’s as “yellow”? If anyone from Cambridge is reading this, let me just remind you that Hull City were playing in amber long before Cambridge United were even thought of. So on to the second half, and within two minutes of its commencement the home side made their first real onslaught on the City goal. But it didn’t take the Tigers long to respond, and our best chance to date came another couple of minutes on when a through ball found Jevons, who perceptibly became more settled as the game went on, and on this showing ought to prove to be one of our most successful ventures into the loan market. The Grimsby loanee held off his marker tenaciously and steered the ball goalwards only for Marshall, who had advanced off his line, to spread himself well and make a fine block. The ex-Evertonian was also unlucky when he almost capitalised on a Marshall fuble but the ball went agonisingly just wide. Both sides were cutting loose rather more now, however, and Glennon, who turned in his most assured performance for some time, made an equally impressive save in a one-on-one situation on 57 minutes. Indeed, this marked the start of something of a purple patch for the home side, and for the first time in the game City found themselves on the back foot, surviving another scare on 66 when a rare piece of defensive slackness following a corner left a Cam unmarked, but thankfully the shot went high. But that seemed to mark the end of the Cambridge purple patch, and after Peat’s introduction City took what was undoubtedly a deserved lead, courtesy of a man of such boundless talent that, not content with straightening out our early-season defensive frailties, he now took it upon himself to show the front men how their job should be done. Step forward Mr Justin Whittle. A Jevons header was deflected out on 71 minutes, and from the resultant corner from the left the City no 15, whose form so far has surely been the biggest plus of the season to date, rose like a salmon at the near post to plant an unstoppable header into the top corner past the statuesque Marshall. A good insurance policy against defeat, it seemed; after all, this is what we have become conditioned to expect from years of inept defending of leads by City teams past and present. But no, this particular Tiger was about to live up to its name in devastating style. A mere three minutes on, and an arguably slightly generous free-kick to the Tigers, slightly to the left some 25 yards out. We have, of course, had free-kicks in similar positions already this season, and seen them squandered appallingly, not least because Shaun Smith – a recognised free-kick expert – has been denied the chance to take them. Word is that Molby has not been best pleased about this and that the instruction that Smith must take them has gone out. So, the City number 3, who had his most comfortable game of the season by a country mile yesterday, duly stepped up and curled a beauty into the top right hand corner which Marshall, rather ill-advisedly positioning himself too far to his right some might have said, could only help into the net. The Tiger hordes behind Marshall’s goal celebrated wildly, and so did the players, now palpably imbued with the belief that they were, after all, capable of winning. This rediscovered self-belief was now all too evident in the way City conducted themselves over what would normally have been a nerve-racking last quarter of an hour, playing the game as far upfield as they could, still making forays deep into the Cambridge half in the process, and having the confidence to make runs, find men and keep playing football generally. Even when, in the final minute of normal time, Cambridge top-scorer Kitson forced the ball home following what looked from the other end to have been a fortunate deflection into his path, City remained unruffled, keeping possession and forcing errors from the home side. Accordingly the two minutes of added time passed without any real threat, and “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” remained in the Cambridge PA man’s tape rack. At the final whistle the celebrations were noisy and prolonged, and the applause deservedly generous for a most accomplished performance against a team high on confidence and well capable of turning us over big style given the opportunity. Talking to some Cambridge fans on the bus into town after the match, their view was that the difference between yesterday’s game and their defeat of Rushden was the quality of City’s performance, which if true is most encouraging to hear. Much was made of the expression of despair on Pearson’s face after the Hartlepool game; I didn’t see his face after yesterday’s game, but if it wasn’t bearing an ear-to-ear grin it damn well ought to have been. Of course, the early shoots of recovery are ever fragile, and nobody (except, no doubt, the usual suspects on the City Independent message board) should treat this as anything other than a firm and very positive step along the steep path of rehabilitation to complement last week’s rather more tentative one. There will inevitably be steps back as well as forward, but at least we now know ? which I doubt we did with any conviction before yesterday – that we do after all have a management and team which does know how to get out of this ruddy Division. The trick now is to keep doing it for the next 39 games (and maybe the three after that).

HULL CITY: Glennon, Regan, Whittle, Anderson, Smith, Johnson, Ashbee, Keates, Williams, Alexander, Jevons.¬† Subs: Peat (for Johnson, 65), Edwards (for Jevons, 85), Musselwhite, Philpott, Bradshaw Goals: Whittle 71, Smith 74 Booked: Keates, Peat Sent Off: None   CAMBRIDGE UNITED: Marshall, Warner, Duncan, Angus, Murray, Tudor, Guttridge, Fleming, Riza, Youngs, Kitson.¬† Subs: Bridges (for Guttridge, 71), Scully (for Riza, 72), Brennan, Nacca, Paynter Goals: Kitson 90 Booked: Duncan, Tudor Sent Off: none   ATTENDANCE: 4,258