Cambridge United's terrible season might have been even worse, but for the LDV Vans Trophy. Andrew Bennett gives thanks for a much maligned competition
As far as the family of cup competitions goes, it would be fair to say that the LDV Vans Trophy is the runt of the litter. But for the supporters and staff of Cambridge United, it has been nothing short of a lifeline in a season spent tossing on the choppy seas of relegation. And not even a decisive and bubble-bursting 4-1 defeat at the hands of Blackpool in the final could spoil the occasion as a welcome, if all too temporary, relief from all the ills of a season that has lurched from the merely dismal to the disastrous.
Particular gratitude to the good people at LDV is due from John Taylor, whose league record during his tenure as caretaker manager after the departure of John Beck read: Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 5. Nevertheless, he got the nod as full-time boss. The fact that this spell also included wins over Brighton and Barnet to progress to the LDV’s regional final must surely have turned the directors’ heads. And, nothing if not consistent, Taylor’s side has continued in exactly the same vein since, winning a grand total of one league game in their last 15 at the time of writing.
Remarkably, United have won the same number of games in the LDV this season as they have in the league… five. OK, they needed two golden goals and a penalty shoot-out to do it, but the only team in “first class” football to fail to win away all season has done so twice in our favourite cup. And the talisman for all this knockout glory has been a towering French teenager called Armand One (that’s “Oh-Nay”, for any PA announcers who may be reading).
Acquired from Nantes in a complex transfer deal (we can’t wait to see who benefits from the sell-ons when he moves), he is 6ft 4in of lolloping, twinkle-toed Bambitude, described as “a big baby” by his boss, although the presence of a partner and son who looks some way out of nappies suggests hitherto hidden Gallic precocity. His laid-back style and complete unfamiliarity with the concepts of heading and tackling have led to criticism from the terraces, to which he characteristically responded: “Sometimes they shout that I am lazy, but that doesn’t upset me. I am lazy.”
He is also chronically lacking in fitness after injury and difficulties caused by rapid growth, and he invariably but somehow endearingly contrives to look exhausted, mouth guppily agape, within minutes of entering the fray. His match-winning cameo appearances in the LDV, however, have got him noticed all the way up to the dizzy heights of Middlesbrough. His 20-yard thunderbolt was a golden goal winner at Exeter in round one, while his goal in round two was the sole highlight of a knuckle-chewingly awful game decided on penalties against Cheltenham. The latter occasion was particularly remarkable when you consider that United have missed a phenomenal seven penalties this season in the league.
Round three saw another One golden goal put paid to divisional leaders Brighton (admittedly they rested nine players), then an unusually routine defeat of Barnet set up a two-legged area final against Bristol City, already 3-0 victors at the Abbey in the league. A 0-0 home draw in front of literally dozens of barely live TV viewers on the hapless ITV Sport channel led to fairly convincing rumours of mass hotel bookings in Cardiff by the Bristol board, but cometh the hour, cometh le bébé. In the return, the Armand Hammer belted in one in each half as once again United’s pitiful away record (now W0 D4 L16) was abracadabra’d away by the magic of the Cup. The U’s were on the way to the first major(ish) final in their short League career.
But could a day out at the magnificent MillStad compensate for a catastrophic league season which has seen United all but relegated before Easter? Opinion was, inevitably, divided, but realistically, most supporters would cheerfully have foregone Cardiff for survival. Cambridge United, however, simply don’t do mid-table mediocrity: six promotions, six relegations, a Premiership play-off and a re-election in their 32 seasons in the League bear ample testimony to that.
The final was at its most basic level a nice reward for the supporters who had doggedly attended all those away games in the Micawberesque hope that something would eventually turn up. The glory hunters came out of their ten-year hibernation and there were even unprecedented sightings of a chap with a barrow in the city centre selling unofficial souvenir merchandise during the preceding week. Unsentimental reality, however, lurked at the other end of the M4.
United’s allocation of the “unlucky” South Stand proved prophetic (feng shui “doctor” notwithstanding) for the 7,100 Cantabridgians, an impressive turnout given that the hardcore support this rock-bottom season has numbered barely more than 2,500. As in so many away games this season, the team held their own in the first half, even (gasp) converting a penalty, but the second period was a bridge too far for United’s young side and they succumbed to all too familiar defeat to a superior Blackpool outfit. Even Armand couldn’t conjure up a miracle this time in his 17 minutes on the field.
Blackpool’s future, with a wealthy, cash-spraying owner and a rapidly regenerating stadium, looks fairly bright. For Cambridge United and their peers among the “little” clubs in the League basement, only fickle uncertainty beckons. In the Third Division next season, with or without the Monkey money, pure survival will be the top priority. The LDV has provided a modest cash boost, a cracking day out and a welcome feelgood factor in a thoroughly feelbad season, but only the burgeoning redevelopment of the dilapidated Abbey Stadium will provide any sort of long-term security. We wouldn’t say no to another day out in Cardiff next March, though.
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month