Cambridge United began with a goalless draw with Bradford City on the opening day after a decent first pre-season for Colin Calderwood at the club. What’s the mood been like at Abbey Stadium over the last month?
It’s strange, but I guess there’s an air of cautious optimism, especially after the first game. Pre-season was strange because they only actually played two games in front of the fans; the rest were behind closed doors. Those line-ups were filled with trialists, not many of whom actually signed, like Wes Hoolahan who turned the club down in favour of a move to Australia. They have had Samir Carruthers from Sheffield United on trial recently, along with Elliott Ward who left Notts County in the summer. They’ve got a lad called Andrew Dallas who played for Rangers in a behind-closed-doors friendly - he scored, Cambridge invited him on trial and now they’ve signed him – a classic Football Manager tactic!
Going up to Bradford was always going to be one of the acid tests to see how far the team has actually come and they did really well. There was a big crowd, they were down to ten men for half an hour and they held on and dug deep, when last season they would have rolled over, to be perfectly honest. People have trust in what Calderwood is trying to do and there’s quite a good squad, even without Hoolahan. I guess the big thing is where the goals are going to come from – there are five strikers on the books, none of whom have amazing goalscoring tallies – but if they can play with the same effort and guile that they displayed against Bradford, there’s no reason they can’t have a much more controlled season that last time, if nothing else.
Barring last season, when they avoided relegation by just a handful of points, the club had posted three successive mid-table finishes over the last three campaigns. Is this season primarily about getting back to that level?
Calderwood mentioned the Play-Offs in the first press conference of the season, but I think you have to say something like that because if you say you’re aiming to finish 10th, you’ll finish about 14th! I think what people want to see is a more long-term plan of what’s actually going on. In terms of recruitment, they’ve signed some young guys on quite lengthy contracts and, for the first time in a few seasons, they’ve actually got a few assets. Getting to the Play-Offs is probably a push, but in League Two there’s not much between 10th and 24th, really! It needs to be a more inspiring season than last year because they would fall behind early and you’d be thinking that there was another defeat on the cards.
Youth development seems to be a high priority, with summer recruits Callum Burton and Kyle Knoyle both boasting youth caps with England. What have you made of Cambridge’s business this summer?
Burton has been brought in as second-choice ‘keeper, but it is very close between him and Dimitar Mitov; they are both only 22, so you’ve got a young goalkeeping unit, which is quite unusual, but it’s a really solid signing and they will certainly push each other. As you said, Knoyle is another prospect signed this summer. He’s a right-back signed from Swindon Town and the reaction from the Swindon fans alone suggests that he is a really good signing. They lost Brad Halliday to Doncaster Rovers and Knoyle is a like-for-like replacement; a really attacking full-back. The club have done what they had to do, which was to add a bit more strength in depth all over the pitch, but I can’t forget to mention the loss of Jevani Brown to Colchester, either. He was the top goalscorer and assist provider, so if you take a player like that out of the team, it’s always going to be problematic. But with the potential additions of Carruthers and Ward, you can’t really argue with what the club have done.
Who’s the star man Brentford fans should be keeping an eye on this evening?
This is a really difficult one - someone asked me this the other day and I didn’t really know what to say! I think one player would be Kyle Knoyle, who is a really exciting prospect, but he’s a right-back so it’s not the most exciting area of the pitch! I would probably say Dallas again because he’s a bit of an unknown quantity, but he’s really, really sharp and you can tell he’s got good pedigree having been at Rangers from a young age. But then again, there’s Luke Hannant, who was signed from Port Vale - he’s just staggeringly fit. That sounds like a stupid thing to say about a professional footballer, but he just does not stop running.
How are Cambridge likely to set up?
It will be an incredibly solid 4-4-2. I think he’ll rotate a few players and you’ll see the likes of Callum Burton, Harry Darling and Louis John at centre-back, as well as people like Harvey Knibbs, who will likely make his debut. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marc Richards made his debut as well. They’ve been really defensive over the last month and I think that’s one thing they have this season that Calderwood has really sorted out. They keep their shape really well and just know exactly what their roles are in defence – the centre-backs don’t really venture out of the first quarter of the pitch. They’ve got the defensive solidity, but they are also quite good at the transition into attack, especially from the wide areas. Up front, there’s the classic big guy to hold the ball up, while someone else has to do all his running, then there’s Reggie Lambe who provides the link. You can see what they are trying to do, to play on the counter, but the final pass has never been there through pre-season.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I don’t think I’ve seen Cambridge win a knockout cup game in all of my time covering the club and I’ve been covering them for three years! However, I’m going to go for a 1-1 draw, with Cambridge to win on penalties.
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