The U's fought their way to a well deserved point against the league leaders this afternoon in a fiercely contested 0-0 draw with Gillingham.
United handed a debut to Johnny Mullins at centre-half, with Simon Heslop returning to midfield and Ryan Clarke in goal once more. Clarke turned in a Man of the Match performance with some superb saves to keep a first clean sheet in nine league games. The keeper immediately justified his place with a magnificent double save in just the second minute. First he did brilliantly to push away Danny Kedwell’s shot, then he made an even more stunning save, somehow getting to his feet to plunge down again and keep out Adam Barrett’s follow up. It set the tone for a United performance where they simply refused to be beaten.
The U's had their first real attack after five minutes with Sean Rigg smashing Deane Smalley’s pass wide from 25 yards, the move prompted by one of several incisive moves by the ever impressive Jake Forster-Caskey.
It was an open game on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, with the visitors looking well drilled and unsurprisingly confident after winning every away game so far this season and sitting at the top of the table. United were matching them in the opening quarter though, with a 4-1-4-1 system in defence allowing Adam Chapman to link defence and midfield and Smalley working very hard as the lone frontman until Potter and Rigg could join him when United had the ball to make it 4-3-3.
The leaders had a couple of long-range efforts fly over the top, but it was pretty even in most areas of the pitch throughout the first half.
The closest United came to a goal in that period was after 40 minutes when another lung-busting run forward by the back-to-form Simon Heslop led to a sweeping pass from the right, instantly controlled by Rigg on the left edge of the box. His deep cross was met by Potter at the far post but his header floated over keeper Stuart Nelson and off the cross bar.
Those of you on injury watch will be interested to note that Damian Batt was forced to limp off just before the break with what looked to be a groin problem, with Danny Boateng coming on to give United a back four in which only Jake Wright had played more than three games for the club. That unfamiliar back four were indebted to Clarke once more on the break as he clawed away Deon Burton’s far post effort when a goal seemed inevitable.
Clarke was called into action again in the fourth minute of the second half, diving full-length to his right to palm away a Deon Burton drive. Gillingham continued on the front foot, with United relieving the pressure as Heslop sent Rigg on a run. In the 56th minute United almost made a break count as Tom Craddock, on at half-time for the injured Deane Smalley, sent Potter clear. As a defender closed him down he tried an audacious chip over Nelson, but the keeper clawed the ball away.
United suffered another injury after 64 minutes when Mullins, excellent throughout, landed badly after rising to win yet another header. After a few moments of concern it appeared that the new boy was merely winded and he was able to continue. There were players aplenty going down injured, with Rigg feeling the effects of a knock and Gillingham’s Whelpdale also requiring treatment, although it was never a dirty game.
The arrival of James Constable for the closing stages added new impetus and almost teed up the decisive goal from fellow sub Tom Craddock as Constable's cut back was smashed over the bar from ten yards out via a brave deflection by Tom Flanagan, while the impressive Mullins saw his header from the resulting corner cleared off the line as United pressed for a winner.
No goals then, but no shortage of effort or commitment from the Yellows who became the first side to take points of the Gills on the road this season. You suspect that the visitors will be serious title contenders. Based on the way United have bounced back and taken four points from two tough games the U's have now begun their quest in earnest to close the gap on those early front runners.
Fifty-50 draw: 249750 wins £1,158.50
Report by Chris Williams. Pictures by Steve Daniels. Stats by PA Sports