Cambridge United and Cheltenham Town battle to showcase their incredible progression


When the fixture list was released last summer, Cambridge United vs Cheltenham Town caught the eye.

This wasn’t to be a blockbuster match. Neither the U’s nor the Robins matched the size of some of the division’s behemoths such as Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland. But the intrigue emanated from the fact that the two teams were promoted together from League Two, finishing first and second. Most people expected both of them to be already relegated by the time they met at The Abbey on the final day of the season.

However, as they prepare for their last 90 minutes of the campaign, Cambridge and Cheltenham find themselves in 14th and 15th respectively, with mathematical safety long since confirmed.

In fact, neither side was ever in immediate danger of dropping into the bottom four over the course of the campaign. Both had largely maintained their position in mid-table, allowing for a pressure-free run-in that has seen both sides flourish.

Since the start of the 2020/21 season, Cambridge and Cheltenham have largely mirrored each other. Both sides started with inexperienced managers in Mark Bonner and Michael Duff who had never coached at a higher level before. While the U’s adopted an ultra-attacking, gung ho attitude to the fourth tier, the Robins were much more resolute and cautious. They both sealed automatic promotion, but the Gloucestershire outfit took the title after Mark Bonner’s men slipped up at the death.

Regarding style, the two sides have almost swapped identities. Cambridge have maintained much of their swashbuckling attacking play, but have become renowned for grinding out results and striking on the counter instead. Victories away at Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic immediately spring to mind, as does their astonishing 1-0 win away at Newcastle United in the FA Cup third round.

Conversely, Cheltenham have become one of the most entertaining sides in the division, becoming the highest scoring team in the bottom half of the League One table and even finding the back of the net more times than pre-season title favourites Ipswich. However, they’ve had to sacrifice much of their defensive strength as a result, conceding the tied-fourth most goals in the division.

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case, and the reverse fixture is a prime example of that. Cambridge, fresh off a nightmare run of fixtures, travelled to Cheltenham and won 5-0. At the time, they became just the second side to win at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium, and the result remains the tied biggest away win of the League One campaign.

Yet going into the final day, just two points separate the teams. However, only one can still achieve a top half finish. That’s Cambridge, who sit just two points behind 12th place Charlton. This can only be achieved if the U’s beat Cheltenham at The Abbey, the Addicks lose away at Ipswich and 13th place Accrington Stanley fail to defeat AFC Wimbledon.

Regardless, what Cambridge and Cheltenham have achieved on two of the smallest budgets in the league is nothing short of remarkable, and both Bonner and Duff will undoubtedly be two of the most in-demand managers in the division after consecutive overachieving campaigns.

While their final day clash will undoubtedly be a celebration of that, it could also be used as a chance to prepare for the future and give a number of younger players some game time before the start of pre-season. This is a strategy that Cambridge used ahead of their run-in, albeit that their performance levels often dipped when fielding highly rotated teams.

At the same time, it may be a final farewell for Wes Hoolahan as well, and it would be a major shock if he didn’t start what could be his final ever match against Cheltenham. The Norwich City legend is set to turn 40 next month, boasting a playing career that has spanned over 20 years. However, with rumours of retirement or a return to boyhood club Shelbourne, it is expected that this will be his final match for Cambridge.

The same could be said for Jack Iredale, with the left-back set to leave the U’s on a free transfer after turning down a new contract at the club. While his achievements are dwarfed by that of Hoolahan’s, Iredale played a crucial part in Cambridge’s promotion campaign and was a near ever-present figure in their back-line before his injury in February. Bolton Wanderers are the reported frontrunners for his signature.

With most of the drama unfolding at the very top and bottom of the division, there will likely be very little attention on Saturday’s game at The Abbey, with both the League One title and second automatic promotion spot up for grabs, as well as three of the four relegation places. But a pressure-free final day may allow both sides to let loose and entertain the supporters one last time before the summer.

But as much as both Cambridge and Cheltenham have achieved in the last two campaigns, what really matters is maintaining it for as long as possible. Bonner and Duff will certainly have their eyes on a top-half finish next season.

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East Anglian football editor for Prost International.

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