They will always have Newcastle. Third-round heroes Cambridge couldn’t extend their FA Cup run. They were completely overtaken by an expert from the Luton team to punish the mistakes of their opponents.
First-half goals from Reece Burke and Carlos Mendes Gomes, and a late strike from the impressive Admiral Muskwe, were enough to guide Luton through to the fifth round for the first time in nine years.
Despite eight changes, Nathan Jones’ side still looked hardened by the Championship, where they are mounting a serious play-off challenge. They were rocked early on to kill the home side’s momentum with Burke’s 17th-minute header and Mendes Gomes’ first goal for the club six minutes later.
“It was a tough draw to come to Cambridge,” said Jones, relieved by painless progress that allowed him to rest the players for a promotion push. “The pitch was lively, the wind was blowing everywhere. I made sure we weren’t a tippy-tappy championship team that got roughed up. I thought we were very professional.
Cambridge manager Mark Bonner made an almost gladiating entrance before the game as he strode onto the pitch whipping the home fans. Cambridge and Luton were rekindling a rivalry dating back to darker days when the two clubs entered non-league football. He and Jones are close friends who share a Christian faith, but that was sidelined in a tough challenge contest where Luton’s physical prowess was finally on display.
“We didn’t quite have enough to get through,” Bonner said. “I think the score is tough for us. But they didn’t have to work too hard for the goals they scored. It was Cambridge’s biggest home game since they hosted Manchester United seven years ago at the same stage in the competition. This Cup run also managed to capture the local imagination, producing a fourth sale of the season.
There was no Joe Ironside, with the Cambridge goalscoring hero at St James’ Park missing with an ankle injury. Jack Iredale, outstanding in defense that day, was another of the six missing first-team players. “Damn, those players would make a difference for a lot of teams and they’re essential for us,” Bonner said. Wes Hoolahan, 40 in May, played as an old-school schemer, the former Ireland international a throwback to falling divisions for love of the game, and his touch was a cut above in those early moments when Cambridge’s speed and passing game had Luton worried.
“We had a brilliant start to the game,” Bonner said, but Burke’s goal came immediately after Hoolahan magic created a chance for James Brophy. Former Tottenham youngster Elliot Thorpe marked his senior debut with a searing free-kick from the right. Burke, once from West Ham, climbed the highest to nod into the bottom left corner.
The mood of the home supporters quickly darkened. Gomes was assisted by fellow Premier League veteran in Cameron Jerome, and his high profile celebration did not go well at all.
Cambridge’s desire to play from the back was admirable, but also the source of much of Luton’s threat, with Peter Kioso and Fred Onyedinma charging the pitch from behind and Muskwe causing huge problems moving forward from an unknown midfield role.
Sam Smith missed Cambridge’s best chance when he widened the hour before Luton’s defense was reconfigured to five backs from three amid increased pressure. “It’s hard to create chances against them,” admitted Bonner. Hoolahan finished the 90, clearly tired, but still managed to put together a late move from which substitute Ben Worman tested Jed Steer, on loan from Aston Villa and another making his Luton debut.
Such pressure from Cambridge amounted to extra space. Muskwe finished the job, quenching the romance with a deflected finish. Cambridge is returning to normal mid-table life in Ligue 1, but at least with memories to cherish.