One thing that can be said about tonight’s FA Cup tie at the Abbey Stadium is that form is not an issue. Leeds United have put few feet wrong in the past three months but Cambridge United are peaking in much same way, up in League Two’s play-offs positions after a very slow start.
A 94th-minute equaliser at Leyton Orient is all that stood between Cambridge and seven straight league wins and their results around Christmas have been eye-catching: a 5-0 rout of Hartlepool United and a 4-0 thrashing of Notts County last week. The club reached the FA Cup’s third round and earned a tie against Leeds by putting four unanswered goals past Coventry City in round two.
Shaun Derry, the Cambridge manager and Leeds’ one-time midfield enforcer, was as pleased as he could have been when the draw yielded a home meeting with his former club but the weeks in between have encouraged some quiet confidence in his camp.
The Abbey Stadium is sold out for this evening and Derry knows his players have a chance.
They are no longer talked about as the squad who began the season with a winless streak of seven matches.
“We’re in real form and we’re high on confidence,” Derry said. “We’ve got good results behind us at the moment, a lot of points taken from games, and at the very least it gives us an opportunity. We’d be confident of producing a good performance, put it that way.
“Everything about this tie is ideal from our point of view. One, it’s against Leeds United – a massive club as I know full well. Two, we’re at home and we’ll have a full house. And three, it’s televised. It was a great draw at the time and it’s nice to be able to focus on it properly now.
“We had it tough in terms of results at the start of the season but if you look at the teams we dropped points to back then, quite a few of them are up near the top of the league. I can honestly say we haven’t changed anything between now and then. We’ve worked in the same way, we’ve prepared and played in the same way and like anything in football, it just needed time.”
In that respect he and Garry Monk should understand each other well. Leeds were 22nd in the Championship in mid-September but fifth after Monday’s 3-0 win over Rotherham. Cambridge did not win a league fixture until September 24 and were bottom of the table at the time. They are seventh now, in League Two’s last play-off position. At boardroom level both clubs have been rewarded for letting the barren spells play out.
As mindful as Derry is of Cambridge’s results, he is not oblivious to United’s. He travelled to Villa Park on December 29 to watch Leeds outplay Villa in the second half but concede a late penalty and draw 1-1.
“They were impressive that night and they’re impressive full stop,” Derry said. “I said when the draw for the third round was first made that Garry’s done a terrific job there and the last month has been as good as any. This is a massive challenge for us, make no mistake about that. But I have to be confident in backing the players to produce the sort of performance they’ve been producing consistently. That’s the thing about us – for a while now we’ve been consistent, just like Leeds have, and that’s what makes for a good season.”
Derry agreed that a home draw was in Cambridge’s favour this evening.
“You could say that,” he said. “Elland Road’s such a great stage but Leeds are very strong there and I know full well the backing they’d have. But it’s be a really tough draw either way.”
The biggest threat in Cambridge’s team is no secret: Luke Berry, a 24-year-old who once played for Barnsley and has an astonishing tally of 15 goals from midfield this season. All four of Cambridge’s in their 4-0 second-round win over Coventry were scored by him.
Berry was a standard centre-mid when Derry took charge at Cambridge in November 2015.
“I had a look at him and decided to push him up the pitch,” Derry said. “I thought he could be more of an attacking threat for us.
“He’s a talent, that’s what we’ve got here, and you can see he likes a goal. He had a little sniff of life in a higher division (at Barnsley) and that’s what all of the players will get against Leeds. I hope it brings the best out of us.”