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04/05: Reports:

Football League Cup First Round, 24/08/04, 7.45pm
Cambridge United
Ming the Merciless
By Matt Rowson

I don't know what's up with the bloody weather. I stopped on the way home this evening to make a phone call, shut the windows in the lay-by to block out the traffic noise. By the time I started up again and opened the window, I was sweating like nobody's business, the hot August sun doing its damage through the glass.

Onto the M1, and suddenly there's black clouds ahead. I'm not talking a gradual clouding over, but an abrupt line terminating the blue skies that might have been smoke from some huge fire had the headlights and frantic wipers on the opposing carriageway not given the game away. This was biblical stuff, you half expected to see Ming the Merciless cackling away atop the leading storm cloud. Boy, did it rain... the traffic slowed almost to a halt in front in warning shortly before I hit the deluge, water hammering through the windscreen. And then, as quickly as it started, it had passed... blue skies and the occasional cheery cumulus in front of me, black nonsense in the rear view mirror.

There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm buggered if I know where it is. Here's the thing, though... Cambridge, however many years ago, a small club with a very decent bunch of players. Dion Dublin, Steve Claridge, Gary Rowett, Liam Daish, Alan Kimble. Cambridge today, a not particularly remarkable Division Four club. Back to "their level", probably. Now, granted, the fact that we've spent twenty-three of the last twenty-five seasons in the top two divisions probably makes us a Bigger club than Cambridge (not that Bigness in itself is anything to aspire to, a trip to Molineux is still the perfect antidote to that kind of thinking). But then Cambridge didn't have to cope with the fallout of extending their mortgage to breaking point just as interest rates were about to go bananas. Effectively. Yet we're still here, still in Division Two, still with, at the very least, a decent chance of being in the same division next season. And an element of the WML intelligentsia deem this unreasonable, their expectations higher, their standards loftier, if not their sense of perspective. Ray out, apparently. Someone else in, someone who'd do much much better and we'd win things and stuff. Time to make tough decisions apparently. Ha. Words fail me, which is probably a good job as I suspect that any words that did get out wouldn't be terribly polite.

Cambridge have had a so-so start to the season; new boss Herve Renard has come in for last season's bizarrest caretaker appointment, former Cameroon World Cup boss Claude Le Roy, and United have won one, drawn one, lost one of their opening three games. The squad is limited in terms of size, and made up largely of the standard Division Four stock of young kids and cast-offs from higher up the league. Renard hopes to increase his options, at least temporarily, by appealing to the good nature of his compatriots in top flight management positions; in the meantime, circumstances dictate a flexibility with formation and a style that's relatively low on penetration.

One possible star in the making is seventeen year-old keeper John Ruddy. A ball boy last season, Ruddy has displaced Shaun Marshall this term and is reputed to be already attracting attention from higher up the league.

At the back, United have fielded both a 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 already this season, but in any event former West Ham youth teamer Stevland Angus seems a cert, either at right-back or in the centre. An ex-Manchester United trainee Andy Duncan, United's longest serving player, may also play at the back whilst Renard's compatriot Igor Latte-Yedo has had an eventful start to his (to date) three game career at the Abbey Stadium: a red card on his debut, later rescinded, and a substitution before half time as United struggled to victory over Shrewsbury at the weekend.

Ashley Nicholls, a summer signing from Darlington following a loan last year, started that game at right-wing back and ended up on the right of a back four. Moroccan Abdou El Kholti, recruited from Yeovil in the summer, should play on the left of the defence, although he can appear anywhere down the left side. South African Warren Goodchild is another option in the centre having recovered from injury as is the eighteen year-old Dan Gleeson, whilst Adam Tann provides cover at right back or in the centre.

In midfield, the player to watch is Luke Guttridge, talented but hot-headed and ostensibly given the captaincy over the summer to dissuade him from accepting offers from a higher division. He was involved in an altercation with team-mate Danny Webb on Saturday following a difference of opinion concerning shooting options, which appears to have added volume to the questioning of his armband. Much travelled Justin Walker should also appear in midfield as well as Darren Quinton, another eighteen year-old who debuted on the first day of last season. Winger Shane Tudor is another option... he has pace, but too often uses it to batter blind alleys.

Up front, the aforementioned Webb, son of former Chelsea player and Brentford manager/owner Dave Webb, is being hailed as the sort of rough-and-ready bad boy that Cambridge need a few more of by Renard, desperately trying to put a positive spin on the weekend embarrassment but not sounding awfully convincing ("I don't want only good boys"). Webb has received four yellows already this season (including one in a pre-season friendly). He should be partnered either by target man Daniel Chillingworth, yet to impress this season, or pacy forward Jermaine Easter, who has missed a couple of games with a virus. Another teenager, John Turner, could be on the bench.

On the face of it class should tell in this one, particularly at home, but my journey home today illustrates that the most everyday things can yield nasty surprises. Not to mention the two legged encounter with the same opponents six years ago when we were, after all, on our way to the Premiership Massiveness that really isn't our rightful home.