The U’s attackBen Phillips

Forget cold and wet Tuesday nights in Stoke, this week love was in the air at Cambridge United. Or expectation at least. The Amber Army were facing relegation rivals Cheltenham Town as they looked to record their first win of the year in League One. It was the perfect night for 200 college footballers to lend their support.

The game marked the next step in a budding relationship between the Us and the University. Organised by the Cambridge United CEO Alex Tunbridge and CUAFC men’s president Ben Adam, it is part of a continuing effort to encourage students to attend home fixtures. Having already developed the student voucher together, where university members can attend five selected home games for just £5 per match, the game against the Robins was a Valentine’s gift.

Speaking to Ben before kickoff, he was extremely grateful for the gesture, describing the student body as “a great untapped resource” and citing the potential for “an extremely mutually-beneficial relationship”. Both the men’s and women’s teams played their Varsity Match at the Abbey Stadium last year in front of over 2,000 supporters, including people who didn’t have much of a connection to the university. Ben is hoping that this support will follow the Light Blues this year as both teams look for revenge against Oxford on Sunday 19 March at the Breyer Group Stadium, home of Leyton Orient.

“The game against the Robins was a Valentine’s gift”

The students who attended Tuesday night’s game helped bolster the 5,018 strong crowd, a fantastic turnout on a misty Valentine’s evening. For two of them it was the perfect date night. Having been a few times before, a getaway to the romantic terraces under the lights of the Abbey Stadium was a welcome “return to the real world from the Cambridge bubble”. Talk of a fancy restaurant before the game was quickly dispelled by the thoughts of burgers, pies and chips. Even the lack of hotdogs did nothing to dampen the mood before kickoff.

As for the game, there was no love lost between the two sides. Cheltenham started stronger, with Charlie Brown crashing an effort off the crossbar after just four minutes. The U’s grew into the game with most of their bright attacking play coming through Liam Bennett on the right-hand side, whose teasing cross just evaded Joe Ironside in the six-yard box. Ironside then forced Robins keeper Luke Southwood into a smart save with a header from another Bennett cross. The end of the first half left a lot to be desired, as lacklustre as the fan game of “Mr & Mrs” that made up the halftime entertainment.


Mountain View

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The U’s started the second half brightly before a thunderous 35-yard strike from Elliot Bonds gave Cheltenham the lead. Just four minutes later, however, Cambridge were level. Conor McGrandles was awarded a soft penalty for a push by Taylor Perry which Ironside converted low to the keeper’s right. The Newmarket Road End Terrace was bouncing again. Maybe love was in the air.

“It was a Valentine’s to forget for the Amber Army on the pitch”

Yet Cambridge failed to capitalise on their momentum, inviting pressure as Cheltenham looked the most likely to score a winner. It was the substitute James Olayinka who sealed the points for the visitors, slotting through Dimitar Mitov’s legs from fellow substitute Aidan Keena’s cutback. Cue pandemonium among the 126 visiting supporters who had made the 266-mile round-trip. U’s boss Mark Bonner reacted by sending on Shilow Tracey for the final ten minutes, but the final whistle and a spattering of jeers extended their winless run in 2023. Three points from safety and 23rd in League One, it was a Valentine’s to forget for the Amber Army on the pitch.

On the sidelines, however, new relationships are being forged and there is much to be excited about from a student perspective. Extending the pre-existing ties between the U’s and CUAFC to incorporate college footballers and all university members into such exciting initiatives suggests a positive future ahead for all involved.

Valentine’s Day was just the first date. Here’s to many more.