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A memorable debut season leaves Harvey Knibbs craving success at Cambridge United

Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Ben Phillips
Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Ben Phillips

When you hear the saying ‘it must run in the family’, you are not wrong when it comes to the Knibbs’ sporting pedigree.

Harvey Knibbs joined Cambridge United last summer and made quite a big impact, with two crucial late goals for victories and the winner in a penalty shoot-out.

He was joining the U’s as a 20-year-old and when he made his debut against Brentford in the Carabao Cup last August, it was also a maiden appearance in men’s football, but it could have been so different.

“I was quite sporty as a kid. I was very lucky that my dad was a professional athlete,” says Knibbs.

“He wanted me to go down his route which is rugby, so from a young age I was always playing that.

“I was playing tag rugby from the age of eight, and when my dad had games I would just be kicking through the posts – and with school as well – so I was playing rugby until the age of 14 or 15.

“There was actually a time when I got released from Forest’s academy when I was going to decide whether to play rugby or football, but luckily Aston Villa called a few weeks after and I went there and haven’t looked back since.”

The reference to his father gives a hint at the Knibbs ‘family tree’.

Harvey is a twin and his brother, Alex, is a 400m hurdler who won a bronze medal for Great Britain in the 4 x 400m at the IAAF Under-20 World Championships in Finland in 2018.

Their older sister was also an athlete and has done a lot of dancing, and you could guess that the sporting genes come from their father, Ralph.

The patriarch of the family is a former rugby union player for Bristol, and famously turned down the chance to go on the 1984 England rugby union tour of South Africa because of his opposition to apartheid. Work commitments then ruled him out of England’s tour to Australia in 1988.

He made more than 436 appearances for Bristol, scoring more than 123 tries.

Knibbs senior, who now holds a senior role with UK Athletics, has in the past outlined some of his proudest moments including a commendation from the Africa National Congress in 1984, dinner with Muhammed Ali and being listed in the Sunday Times as one of the top 10 rugby centres by Jeremy Guscott.

“Dad was a very good rugby player, and when we used to watch him, me and my brother would always be inspired to play,” says Harvey, a former fly-half, a position chosen as a result of the kicking prowess from football.

“He is one of the main reasons I like rugby, but it’s mainly always been No 2 to football.”

With everyone back at home during the pandemic – in an interview on the Bristol Bears website, Ralph described wife Kath as the “true legend” in the household, as an intensive care nurse on the frontline – it helped spur the sporting family on, and brought out the competitive side.

“Even in lockdown, someone will go to train and it will inspire the next person to go out and train as well, and sometimes do sessions together,” says Knibbs.

“Being a twin, you are always competitive with your brother in everything, and we play everything together. I think that competitive edge helped us both to be as good as we are and why we’re both professional athletes now."

Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Keith Heppell
Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Keith Heppell

But why did he choose football and not attempt to follow in the footsteps of his father?

One of the reasons is a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

He was Knibbs’ hero growing up, and fuelled his desire for the round-ball game, even influencing his position.

“All my life I’ve either played on the wing or upfront,” he says.

“In my youth team season at Aston Villa I played on the wing, and a few times this season as well.

“I think in the modern game you’ve got to be quite versatile with a change in formations so it’s always good to be able to play in different positions.”

Knibbs credits last season as going a lot better than expected at the U’s.

Having sat down with development coach Barry Corr at the start of the campaign, they set out a few targets, one of which was to become a regular fixture in the first team.

The second was to score 10 goals – he finished with nine, with nine games still to play – and the third was to make 20 appearances, he was on the pitch in 31 games.

The move to the Abbey Stadium was a big step.

Between the ages of nine and 14, he was at Nottingham Forest, and then spent the next six years at Aston Villa.

“It was a very good academy at Villa, a very good place to learn the fundamentals of the game and work on technique a lot,” he says.

“It was just unfortunate that I didn’t get my breakthrough really. I thought it was going to come in the last season.

“I played every pre-season game, scored in one of them, but things went against me and we moved on.

“Over the years I’ve trained with unbelievable players like John Terry, Jack Grealish, Charles N’Zogbia, Stilian Petrov, you just learn so much off these players.

“It’s mad in one training session how much you can take from them.

“Some of the feedback they give to the younger lads is really helpful.”

Knibbs did not have any loan spells during his time at Villa and so the only first-team experience came in pre-season games.

It meant that the transition to League Two football was hard at first – and adapting to becoming a team player rather than pursuing individual ambitions, which is ultimately what those in under-23 football are seeking to do by getting into the first team.

“The physicality is a lot different to under-23s football, but I just hoped my technical ability, etc would help me shine through and I can still score goals at this level,” Knibbs explains.

“It’s been good adapting and I would like to think I’m moulding my body more now to be able to play even more minutes and score even more goals in League Two.

“One of the biggest differences is that under-23s football is more individual.

“You know that in your team there is only going to be a few of you that are going to make it so it is all on individual stats, so going from that to a team environment where you’re all working towards the same goal, it’s a big transition.

“You’re working as a team collectively, our goal was to get promoted, but when you’re in the under-23s it’s just to get into the first team, so it is all individual.”

Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Ben Phillips
Harvey Knibbs in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Ben Phillips

Knibbs was the fulcrum in showing that team spirit on three separate occasions last season.

He scored the dramatic late winners to complete the U’s comebacks at the Abbey against both Colchester United and Bradford City.

And he could not have scripted his first-team debut any better.

A second-half substitute in the Carabao Cup tie at Championship side Brentford, Knibbs scored the winning spot-kick.

“The penalty was a very nervous moment but just relief when it went in,” he says.

“All the hard work that had gone into getting to that moment, it was a relief to score it. Picking the ball up, it just felt like my moment.

“There was no doubt that I might miss, I just thought ‘let’s take it’ and it was a great introduction to the game and a great introduction to the club because you become an instant hero with the fans.”

Those late winners helped to cement a growing reputation among U’s supporters and, in his own words, the goals will get “higher and higher” to no doubt further enhance the Knibbs family name.

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