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The story of how Cambridge United won promotion to League One



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Cambridge United win promotion to League One. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United win promotion to League One. Picture: Keith Heppell

Who would have thought when Robbie Cundy headed Cambridge United to a surprise victory at Championship side Birmingham City it would have been the forerunner to promotion?

It was the on-loan defender’s first appearance for the U’s and the only goal in the 1-0 victory in the EFL Cup was to set the tone for what was to come.

The foundations were built upon a week later in the opening Sky Bet League Two game of the season, when United defeated Carlisle United 3-0 at the Abbey Stadium.

The scoreline in many ways encapsulates what Mark Bonner’s side have gone on to become and achieve.

It may seem a long time ago now, but they were clinical in front of goal - with Luke Hannant, Paul Mullin and Joe Ironside on target - and rock solid defensively.

Carlisle had posed a stern threat but could not find a way through, with Ironside getting the U’s third in the 86th minute.

If those two matches were the warm-up act - after an exit in the EFL Cup at Newport - what was to come next teased for the season ahead.

Wes Hoolahan opened his account for the club, Mullin grabbed a hat-trick and Adam May was also on target as United let loose at Morecambe, clinching a 5-0 victory.

Even the most optimistic U’s supporters were caught off guard, but you could sense the beginning of what Bonner had always promised - a team that people would want to watch.

In the early days, United were learning how to tough it out in matches, a 0-0 draw with Tranmere Rovers followed - when James Vaughan had a goal disallowed for the visitors to the Abbey - and then a first league defeat of the season, 2-0 at Exeter.

League leaders Newport County were next up, but what United were to go on and set their stall out for the campaign.

In appalling conditions that saturated the pitch, Mullin bagged a brace in a 2-1 win; this resilience to bounce back from defeat was to become a hallmark of the campaign.

Ian Darler in action for Cambridge United against Newport County. Picture: Simon Lankester (42662631)
Ian Darler in action for Cambridge United against Newport County. Picture: Simon Lankester (42662631)

The goals flowed again the following Saturday, with a 5-0 win at Scunthorpe United, thanks to braces from Mullin and Ironside and an own goal.

People were beginning to wake up to a squad that was showing a lot of enduring qualities.

Port Vale arrived at the Abbey Stadium and another fine show of attacking football saw them put to the sword through a Mullin hat-trick.

Highly-fancied Bolton Wanderers, who had not had the best of starts, were next up at home, and they nicked a late equaliser to get a 1-1 draw after United had taken the lead through Billy Crellin’s own goal.

There was no dwelling on the result though, as United went on their travels to triumph 2-0 at Walsall, bringing an end to the hosts’ long unbeaten run at the Bescot Stadium. Mullin and Ironside were on target.

A bright start at Crawley Town through Ironside’s third minute goal did not bring any rewards, as United slipped to a 2-1 defeat, just their second of the campaign.

When Salford City took the lead at the Abbey in the next game, in midweek, United’s composure shone through.

Jack Iredale and Ironside struck either side of half time to secure the hosts a 2-1 win, and keep them in second place.

Cambridge United's Jack Iredale.
Cambridge United's Jack Iredale.

It was the tale of two last-minute goals for their next couple of fixtures, and it again showed the character that has been so evident all year.

Ironside had put them ahead against Barrow, but the impressive Bluebirds equalised in the 96th minute to earn a 1-1 draw. However, at promotion rivals Cheltenham four days later, the boot was on the other foot.

Ben Tozer scored for Cheltenham just before half time but Mullin equalised in the fifth minute of stoppage time in what had been another strong performance from the U’s.

The only matches that supporters have been able to attend in the league all season came in December, and that is the only month in which United have not held a place in the top three at some point.

A disappointing display in a 1-0 defeat to Mansfield Town was followed by a 2-1 loss to a well-drilled Oldham Athletic, with Mullin scoring a late goal having had a first-half penalty saved.

Next up, United were beaten 2-0 at Forest Green Rovers, and there was a nervousness about the U’s faithful after three successive defeats, but it definitely did not play on the mind of the squad, who almost seemed oblivious to the dip - an indication of the sense of belief in the group.

Paul Mullin celebrates scoring for Cambridge United against Colchester United. Picture: Simon Lankester (44416199)
Paul Mullin celebrates scoring for Cambridge United against Colchester United. Picture: Simon Lankester (44416199)

The character was there for all to see against Colchester United at home. Having been on that run, going a goal down to Courtney Senior’s strike may have caused unease, but not with this side, as Mullin struck twice to earn a 2-1 win.

The external worry continued after 1-0 defeats to Bradford City and Stevenage, which sandwiched a 2-1 win over Leyton Orient on Boxing Day when Hoolahan and Mullin were on target.

But with a new year came new vigour.

United set off on a seven-match unbeaten run, which included five wins, which took them to the top of the table, and they have never been out of the top two since.

They showed they were capable of dealing with anything thrown at them.

May and Mullin struck in a 2-1 win at Grimsby Town, and Ironside and Hoolahan fired them to a 2-1 success in the fog against Harrogate Town.

There was a feeling that if the opposition worked hard to score, then United would work even harder to get more goals of their own.

Wes Hoolahan in action for Cambridge United against Harrogate Town. Picture: Simon Lankester (43911841)
Wes Hoolahan in action for Cambridge United against Harrogate Town. Picture: Simon Lankester (43911841)

In awful conditions in the snow at Colchester United, other sides may have either not fancied it or even requested the game be called off, but United rolled up their sleeves to clinch a 1-1 draw through Harvey Knibbs’ effort on a virtually unplayable pitch.

Dealing with the wind was the next challenge at Southend United, and they turned around a one-goal half-time deficit to seal a 2-1 victory thanks to Iredale and Ironside.

A dogged display in a 0-0 draw with Bradford City at the Abbey was followed by a highly impressive 3-1 win over Crawley Town, with Ironside, Hoolahan and Kyle Knoyle on target.

Two long treks in four days followed, with Mullin and Ironside scoring a 2-0 win at Barrow, but they could not repeat it at Salford City, who caught the eye to maintain their unbeaten home record with a 4-1 success. Mullin got United’s consolation.

A mammoth effort was made to get the game on the following Saturday against Southend United, with only one other match in the division played because of the freezing conditions.

In a scrappy affair, Bonner’s side added a point in a 0-0 draw, but it was these invaluable points when they were not playing well that just helped them set the pace.

They were back to winning ways at Mansfield Town as two goals from Mullin and one from Knibbs gave them a 3-0 win then came a strange run.

It was a case of win on a Saturday and lose on a Tuesday night.

They lost 1-0 to Cheltenham Town at the Abbey, Liam O’Neil’s 85th minute long-range strike gave them a 1-0 success at Port Vale, they were beaten 1-0 by Scunthorpe United at home and then Mullin got a 94th-minute winner against Walsall at home.

Paul Mullin celebrates scoring Cambridge United's winner against Walsall. Picture: Simon Lankester (44965783)
Paul Mullin celebrates scoring Cambridge United's winner against Walsall. Picture: Simon Lankester (44965783)

The final game in that run was a 2-1 defeat at Bolton Wanderers, when Knoyle scored for the U’s, but that was against a side that looked very good for 75 minutes and had hit their stride after a slow start to the season.

It is difficult to underestimate how much resolve, resilience and grit United have shown not just during the season, but in matches as well. It is a huge credit to all involved, players and staff, and none more so was it on show than at Oldham Athletic away.

The hosts went 2-0 up inside the first 11 minutes, with United looking a bit dishevelled, but they had a resounding response.

Iredale got two goals and Mullin and Hannant netted one apiece in a 4-2 victory.

A blistering first-half performance and a superb goal from Hoolahan saw them clinch a 1-0 win over promotion rivals Forest Green at the Abbey.

Just as in the spell in January and early February, the juggernaut was on the move again.

May hit a last-minute winner in a 2-1 victory at Carlisle United, when Mullin had scored in the first half.

Liam O'Neil in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Keith Heppell
Liam O'Neil in action for Cambridge United. Picture: Keith Heppell

Fellow automatic promotion-chasers Morecambe arrived at the Abbey on Good Friday, but they were seen off 2-1 by two goals from Mullin.

Mullin was at it again at Tranmere Rovers on Easter Monday in a 1-1 draw.

There was a slight blip against Exeter City, with the Grecians being good value for a 4-1 victory at the Abbey. Ironside got United’s consolation.

It was almost a return to those early season performances in South Wales, as United dug deep to earn a 1-0 victory at Newport County thanks to Declan Drysdale’s first senior career goal - it was a win that typified the character of the squad and their appetite for a fight.

A breathtaking game at Leyton Orient followed in midweek when Ironside netted twice and Shilow Tracey and Mullin got one apiece to put United within touching distance of League One.

There were high hopes that it would be completed at the Abbey Stadium against near-neighbours Stevenage, but it was not to be.

A leggy United side looked to be paying the cost of a tough week as Luke Norris scored the only goal in a 1-0 win for Stevenage, so it meant that the chase rolled on to Harrogate Town.

But that too was to end in disappointment.

Bonner had talked of racing over the line rather than crawling over it, but a 5-4 defeat to Harrogate in a crazy game meant they still needed a point going into their final game of the season at home to Grimsby.

Harrogate surged into a 3-0 lead inside 20 minutes, but Hoolahan and Hannant pulled goals back for the U's only for Harrogate to get a fourth before half time.

Mullin then bagged a brace to make it 4-4 after 74 minutes, but Kevin Lokko popped up with a late winner for the hosts in the 85th minute.

It came down to the final day, when just a point would do it.

But promotion was secured in style with a 3-0 win over Grimsby Town, with goals from O'Neil, Hoolahan and Mullin securing them second place and a place in League One for the first time in 19 years.

Cambridge United v Grimsby Town , Cambridge are promoted. Picture: Keith Heppell. (46963787)
Cambridge United v Grimsby Town , Cambridge are promoted. Picture: Keith Heppell. (46963787)


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