Cambridge 2-1 Gateshead – report: Us get back to League Two
Cambridge United 2-1 Gateshead: Liam Hughes and Ryan Donaldson take the Us back to League Two with Skrill Premier play-off victory at Wembley
Less than 24 hours after Arsenal ended their nine-year trophy drought at Wembley, Cambridge United sealed a return to the Football League after nine years in the wilderness. This time, a team in black and amber were not to be denied.
If you had any doubt about this game’s significance, Cambridge captain Ian Miller would provide a gentle reminder.
The defender returned to the pitch in a wheelchair to lift the Skrill Premier promotion trophy having been taken off on a stretcher after 85 minutes with a suspected ruptured left Achilles tendon.
Up they go: Cambridge United players celebrate after winning promotion with a win against Gateshead
Going up: Cambridge United players celebrate promotion to League Two after a 2-1 victory over Gateshead
Rising up: Liam Hughes (C) opened the scoring with a headed goal in the second half
Cambridge: Smith, Roberts, Taylor, Berry (Chadwick 65), Miller, Coulson, Champion, Donaldson, Hughes, Sam-Yorke (Dunk 45), Elliott (Cunnington 76).
Subs not used: Bonner, Chambers.
Booked: Champion, Cunnington.
Goals: Hughes, Donaldson.
Gateshead: Bartlett, Magnay, Baxter, Turnbull, Curtis, Clark, Chandler (Lester 69), Maddison (O’Donnell 58), Larkin (Hatch 58), Oster, Marwood.
Subs not used: Walker, Ramshaw.
Booked: Clark, Maddison, Oster.
Goals: Lester 80
Ref: Peter Banks
A stunning 71st-minute free-kick from man-of-the-match Ryan Donaldson, a former Newcastle United trainee let go by Gateshead last summer, also proved a fitting winner in Cambridge’s third visit to the Conference play-off finals since relegation in 2005.
Donaldson had set up the first goal, too, playing a cross from his own corner to the back post for Liam Hughes to head past a ball-watching Gateshead defence.
The 23-year-old scored two goals under the arch in March as Richard Money’s side lifted the FA Trophy, but his sumptuous set piece yesterday topped the lot.
‘That’s the biggest goal of my life,’ said Donaldson. ‘It probably will be the biggest in my career.’
Money, a European Cup winner as an unused substitute with Liverpool in 1981, also heralded the best result of his time in football.
‘It’s huge,’ added the Cambridge boss. ‘The two big promotions are Championship to Premier League and the Conference to the Football League because they mean so much. Nine years out of the League is a long time. There is a stigma about being a non-League club.’
Ryan Donaldson wheels away after scoring the winner in the Conference play-off final
Last push: Cambridge’s Tom Elliott battles with Gateshead keeper Adam Barlett during nine minutes of extra-time
For Gateshead, however, the painful 54-year wait for a return to the fourth tier of English football continues.
Substitute Jack Lester, Buy Bing Ads VCC 38, pounced from six yards after 80 minutes to give them hope and Liam Hatch fired a header just wide in the sixth minute of stoppage time, but Gary Mills’ side were punished for not capitalising on their first-half dominance.
Mills, a European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest in 1979, said: ‘I’m gutted, of course. My players are on their knees in the dressing room, they’re so disappointed, but the ones who are good enough will bounce back.
‘It’s a hard day. We were 90 minutes from getting Gateshead back into the Football League and that would have been massive — not just for the club, but for the town.’
Promotion: Cambridge United will join Luton Town in the fourth tier of the Football League next season
Job done: Cambridge boss Richard Money celebrates at full time
SPORTSMAIL SUPER STAT
37 – Cambridge United are the 37th different team to win promotion from the Conference to the Football League since automatic promotion and relegation replaced the election system in 1987.
Cambridge were continually stretched by the speed at which Gateshead moved the ball around. The north-east club’s chances, however, were largely limited to long-range shots, with James Marwood and Craig Baxter both trying their luck from outside the box.
Cambridge’s more direct approach, though, paid off within six minutes of the restart. Adam Bartlett saved Harrison Dunk’s 30-yard shot, but Gateshead switched off from Donaldson’s short corner and Hughes was allowed to score at the far post. Donaldson then won and converted the 25-yard right-foot free kick that put Cambridge within touching distance of the Football League.
Lester reacted the quickest after Hatch’s header was initially saved in the 80th minute but, although Cambridge were clinging on by the end, they survived seven minutes of stoppage time with 10 men to return to the promised land.
Celebrations: Cambridge players lift the trophy after their historic win at Wembley