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Cambridge United's Liam O'Neil believes club's returning players can be key in the promotion hunt in Sky Bet League Two





Cambridge-born midfielder Liam O'Neil believes the U's returning players can have a decisive impact on driving the club on to promotion in Sky Bet League Two this season.

The 27-year-old former West Bromich Albion youth player admitted he has felt like a kid putting his boots on for current leaders Cambridge United in the last two matches.

His 72 minutes in Saturday's 3-0 win at Mansfield Town saw him return to Mark Bonner's starting line-up for the first time since the opening day of the campaign.

Liam O'Neil got his first minutes since the opening day of the season as a substitute in Cambridge United's 1-1 draw at Colchester United on January 16 Picture: Simon Lankester
Liam O'Neil got his first minutes since the opening day of the season as a substitute in Cambridge United's 1-1 draw at Colchester United on January 16 Picture: Simon Lankester

It was back on September 12 that the combative midfielder, who signed from Chesterfield in January 2017, departed the field in pain just 28 minutes in after succumbing to a serious hamstring injury.

But after playing his part in that impressive return to winning ways in Nottinghamshire, he followed it up with another 75 minutes in Tuesday's 1-0 home defeat to promotion rivals Cheltenham Town.

"To be honest I was just buzzing to get out there," he said.

Liam O'Neil's return has given the midfield a fresh look, and he believes they will benefit from the return of others too Picture: Keith Heppell
Liam O'Neil's return has given the midfield a fresh look, and he believes they will benefit from the return of others too Picture: Keith Heppell

"I was quite fortunate that we were finally able to put some reserve games on and try and get the most out of them.

"Every day in training I was also doing extra bits after the session but also being smart about it as well and not overloading which is a good thing and hopefully long may it continue."

He added: "I've been managed well by Bonz (Bonner) and Mikey (Mikey Burroughs, head of medical services) and Matt the sports scientist.

"It was really good to get through them, it was just a shame about the result Tuesday night but I think we can take a lot of positives from it.

Liam O'Neil admits the squad are boosted by remaining top of the Sky Bet League Town table, following Forest Green Rovers' defeat at home to lowly Southend United on Wednesday Picture: Simon Lankester
Liam O'Neil admits the squad are boosted by remaining top of the Sky Bet League Town table, following Forest Green Rovers' defeat at home to lowly Southend United on Wednesday Picture: Simon Lankester

"They are a top team and it was a cagey affair and two top teams going at it really."

The midweek match at the Abbey Stadium also saw fellow central midfielder Hiram Boateng make his surprise injury return , with Bonner having ruled out seeing him just yet in the pre-match press conference.

The MK Dons loanee replaced O'Neil to get 15 minutes under his belt for his first action since going off early in the 1-0 defeat to Mansfield Town on December 2.

And O'Neil believes the extra competition in central midfield, with Paul Digby also building up for a return from an ankle tendon problem, can provide a fresh impetus for United's promotion run-in.

"It's a case of being as fresh as we can going into each game but also getting the fine balance between not over-doing it as well," he said.

"Hiram is going to take a bit of time to get his complete match fitness but as you can see, and all the fans can see, he's a good player as well and has got a lot of quality.

"I thought when he came on the other night he did really well.

"I spoke to him after and he said a lot of it was just due to the adrenaline of playing.

"But that happens. He will be in and around the team soon and we're looking forward to having him back.

"Same with Paul Digby as well. He will just help us along the way as well and hopefully for a very successful run-in."

The player who has racked up 109 appearances in amber and black added: "When competition is high it makes people perform even better.

"We've got four players (in central midfield) that you would like to think can help with a positive effect on the team to win games and we have games coming up now that we would like to say we can get three points from, or at least a point and go from there really.

"Speaking to Bonz he is more excited just to have that opportunity to have that headache which is good. And with the amount of games we are going to need everybody.

"If we can get everyone back as fit as possible and as close to match fitness as we can then we have got a real good chance."

O'Neil, who played in three Premier League matches early in his career for West Brom, says his immediate focus though is just helping get results back on track at Vale Park tomorrow.

The U's head up to Staffordshire to face an 18th-placed Port Vale side rejuvenated from the recent appointment of new manager Darrell Clarke.

"We're excited for another game on Saturday and obviously we want to put it right from the Cheltenham game," he said.

"I think we've shown a lot of resilience this season and hopefully long may it continue.

"I don't think the loss to Cheltenham is the be all and end all.

"At the end of the day we would have liked to come out of that game with three points or even a point. And I feel to a certain extent that we deserved that.

"If look at the chances and even on the Sky Sports app, all the chances are us other than the goal.

"They are a good outfit and we came up against a top team, and we would like to think we are a top team as well and it was a close encounter.

"But we will go into the Port Vale game with players rested a bit more and look after today and tomorrow and hopefully go there and get the three points."

Following Forest Green Rovers' surprise home slip-up against previous basement dwellers Southend United on Tuesday, United's squad have been boosted by remaining leader leaders, he admitted.

"Yes, definitely," he said. "We are all buzzing to be up there, we're not going to lie about that. It is a great feeling to be at the top of any league.

"For us everyone has come in today and not mentioned too much about it because we're just going about our own business but it just shows in this league anyone can beat anyone.

"We've got the points on the board at the minute. A lot of teams have games in hand on us and can go above us but if you looked at it on a points per game basis the majority of the time teams aren't going to win three or four in a row just based on oppositions and conditions they're playing in.

"We're obviously happy. I was checking it (Wednesday's matches) non-stop. I was just hoping Newport wouldn't get a result either but these things happen.

"We're just going to concentrate on ourselves and go from there and if we can get as many points on the board as possible then I think we put ourselves in a good position."

Read more: Mark Bonner preparing players for battle at rejuvenated Port Vale



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