On 28 December 1999, Cambridge United drew 0-0 at home to Cardiff City in Division Two (now League One). Nothing remarkable there. Until you realise that Cardiff City had three men sent off – one for deliberate handball on the line. Yet Cambridge still couldn’t get three points.
My memories of standing on the north terrace that day are pretty hazy. But I distinctly remember being excited that David Elleray was the referee. Who knows what mistake he’d made in the Premier League the week before to be sent down to our level but he was by some distance the most famous person on the pitch. And he meant business.
He sent off one of their players before half-time, another with half an hour to go. Finally, with seven or eight minutes left, their substitute Lee Phillips made a decent save and Ellery gave the penalty and sent Phillips off.
By then the atmosphere in our end was a mixture of disbelief and hilarity. Eleven v nine was ridiculous enough. It was a training game. But we just could not score. We barely looked like scoring.
As Martin Butler placed the ball on the spot – against eight men – I obviously wanted him to score. We’d had our fun. We’d laughed at how we couldn’t beat nine men. Now we’d have both victory and a funny story for later. Butler was a lovely footballer and a decent penalty taker. But Jon Hallworth – all blonde hair and blonde eyebrows – saved it, and Cardiff held on, very briefly going down to seven men when one of their players was stretchered off in injury time.
I urge anyone to listen to the Cardiff commentary from that day. I recently mentioned the game on a podcast and the commentator Phil Stead got in touch. “I had just started working for the club and recorded it on a dictaphone to try it out as a new fangled audio download. It was my first and last commentary. We played it on the bus speakers on the way home.”
As a one and only commentary, it is sensational – improved by the terrible audio quality and the fact he’s just standing in the away end. The words without the atmosphere don’t do them justice, but it’s quite the monologue.
“Elleray must blow up any second. We’re in the third minute of injury time … And it’s all over and Cardiff City celebrate as they draw 0-0 with eight men. A remarkable performance. Cambridge United nil, Cardiff City nil. And we celebrate! We celebrate as if we’ve won the European Champions League! A great day in the history of Cardiff City. And this is emotional … this is emotional here in Cambridge. This is what it’s all about. Cardiff City! The greatest team in the world. Richie Humphries come here my son. And he goes into the City crowd. The man’s a hero. They are all heroes … We are surely the greatest team in the history of football. This is what it’s all about. Man United? No. Chelsea? No. Tottenham? No. Barcelona? No. Real Madrid? No. Cardiff City. That’s what it’s all about!”
Sadly for Cardiff, we beat them 4-0 at Ninian Park when it was 11 versus 11 and they got relegated that season, finishing four points below us.
From a Cambridge perspective, this game epitomises what it means to be a lower league fan. Most of it is bad. Occasionally hilariously bad.
There have been great victories – Chesterfield in the first play-off final at Wembley in 1990. Those cup runs in the 90s – 5-1 v Bristol City in a fifth-round replay in 1990 and 4-0 over Sheffield Wednesday the following year. There have even been stoic defeats – 2-1 to Arsenal in 1991, when Dion Dublin equalised and David O’Leary should have been sent off, but nothing sums up my supporting experience better than a goalless draw against eight men.