With just five games to go in League Two, Cambridge United are five points clear inside the automatic promotion places and on the verge of a return to League One for the first time since 2002.
The position the club find themselves in is remarkable given it has been a season like no other due to the impact of the global pandemic. Supporters across the country have been unable to attend stadiums reduced to watching their side from their living rooms – and for many Cambridge fans, occasionally from behind their sofas.
One of those fans who has done just this each week is Cambridge supporter Max Rushden, host of The Guardian Football Weekly podcast and working as a presenter for talkSPORT.
With Rushden working on Saturdays in recent years, his ability to attend games has been limited. The iFollow streaming service has therefore been a blessing as it has allowed him to fully reconnect with the team.
“It is the first time for years I have watched them weekly because I work on a Saturday and it is hard to get to games on a Tuesday. This season, because I get to see them, I know what the players can do,” Rushden said.
“I know what Hiram Boateng can do, spinning around just like Mousa Dembele used to do and not losing the ball. Also, now when I am watching, when I see a player I sometimes think, oh I wish that was on his right foot there and these are the sorts of things that are really important for your love for a lower league football team.”
Rushden’s engagement with the club like many others has been further fuelled by the superb season the team has had. Cambridge are currently sitting in second on 71 points, sandwiched between league leaders Cheltenham Town and Bolton Wanderers, who are third.
As the top three sides in the division are promoted automatically, Cambridge know that if they can attain ten more points promotion will be secured because of their superior goal difference and points tally compared to fourth placed Morecambe. They could well only need just another six.
While it has been a monumental effort from the entire squad to get to this position, the performances of striker Paul Mullin, who has notched 28 goals in the league, eclipsing the previous record of 24 that David Crown achieved 35 years ago, and former Norwich City legend Wes Hoolahan have been of crucial importance.
Rushden was unsurprisingly full of praise for Mullin and captain Greg Taylor but Hoolahan, who has notched five goals and seven assists this term, is where his focus was most drawn to.
“I have never seen a central midfielder like Wes [Hoolahan] ever. I am trying to think of a player who was that good on the ball and made such a difference. He keeps the ball but is always moving forward,” said Rushden.
“I have seen brilliant centre forwards. Dion Dublin, John Taylor and Steve Claridge and we have had players go on and play in the Premier League, but I think he is the best centre midfielder we have ever had. A different type of player compared to Paul Wanless and Ian Ashbee but yeah, I think Wes is the best ever.”
As Rushden recalled the names of these previous Cambridge greats, he wore a smile on his face. Having first become attached to the club when he was a child in the late 1980s, Rushden has experienced what U’s fans have not had in the previous 20 years. Success.
Reflecting on that period, he said: ‘In my seminal years of football, we went on that run from 1990-1992 and I was going to games and expecting to win every single time. After we got to the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 1990 and then we got promoted, I remember my dad saying, this does not happen every year Max, and I thought, yeah fine.”
“However, the next year in 1991 we got to the quarter-final of the FA Cup again and won the third division and I was like, I do think this happens every year. It was an amazing time to be a Cambridge fan.”
Cambridge lost to Arsenal 2-1 in that 1991 FA Cup quarter final that Rushden mentions, with Dublin equalising for the U’s. This, alongside a 3-3 draw with Nottingham Forest in 1998, when Cambridge had comeback from 3-0 down before eventually losing on penalties are two moments that Rushden is most fond of.
However, this season, those magical moments, albeit from a computer screen, have returned again, with recent late winners against Walsall, Carlisle United and Port Vale particular highlights.
For Rushden, the 85th minute thunderbolt from Liam O’Neill against Port Vale is the standout one.
“What a hit and that game was an absolute shower, and nothing was happening, and I just could not believe it,” Rushden said.
“There was a build-up to some of the other late goals that made you think there might be a goal but that was just out of nowhere and he will never kick a ball like that again and it was so fucking great.”
In a season full of joy for Cambridge, with late winners such as these bringing dramatic scenes across the county and beyond, there has been one significantly low moment which was nothing short of a disgrace.
This was when a section of Cambridge fans booed the club taking the knee ahead of the home game against Colchester United in December. While it was something that enraged Rushden, the response of head coach Mark Bonner to the situation pleased him.
He said: “The most impressed I was with Mark Bonner was after some of our fans booed taking the knee and I thought he spoke really well afterwards. I was so gutted and incandescent with rage when that happened, yet for Bonner, who is only 35 which is quite young, to come out and speak so concisely and articulately about something so important was so impressive.”
Following the incident, the club took a strong stance, handing out bans to those involved.
With focus returning to the pitch since then, the club are now on the brink of a first promotion since 2014, and a first in the Football League since 1999. Discussing this made Rushden reflect on what lower league football is all about.
“When you support a lower league team, my expectations at the start of the season are zero so to have achieved what we have achieved is amazing. I feel we really deserve it. What a sensational job Mark Bonner has done,” Rushden said.
“I spend a lot of time talking about PSG and Kylian Mbappe and I enjoy that, but it is so far removed from League Two. It is the honesty and grit to it that I love at this level.
“It is the joy it brings you, for example that game when Scott Rendell scored, I was on the pitch going wild. Then in comparison, you have the agony of the final ten minutes against Gateshead at Wembley. Those moments are so hard to describe but I think they connect all lower league football fans.”
Cambridge supporters will hope more history can be written in the next month as the season reaches its climax, starting on Saturday against fellow promotion chasers Newport County.