Located in a city better known for producing academics than footballers and spending eight years out of the League, Cambridge United’s renaissance has failed to capture the general public’s imagination this term, writes James Shield.
But, being a student as well as exponent of the beautiful game, Richard Money’s team is unlikely to take Jose Baxter by surprise.
“I’d watch 22 snails if they were having a kickabout,” the Sheffield United midfielder told The Star last night. “It doesn’t matter who is involved or what level they’re playing at, I’m interested in what’s going on.
“If I’m not involved in matches then I like to spend my time going to them or watching them on television. English, Spanish, Italian, it really doesn’t matter.
“I’m a fan as well as a player. I just love the sport that I’m in.”
Sunday’s FA Cup second round tie at the Abbey Stadium pits League One’s 20th placed team against the Conference leaders.
In theory, Luke Berry’s brace, which saw Cambridge win Tuesday’s replay with Bury, enhanced the visitors hopes of reaching the latter stages of a competition they last won in 1925.
In practice, the midfielder’s exploits presented them with the arguably the toughest possible test.
Cambridge, four points clear at the top of the table and with an unblemished record on home soil since August, will enter the match as confident underdogs.
And Baxter, a member of the Oldham Athletic squad which accounted for Nottingham Forest and Liverpool before giving Everton an almighty scare in the fifth round of last season’s tournament, knows from personal experience exactly how dangerous those can be.
“We knew as soon as the draw was made that, whether we ended up facing Bury or Cambridge, that we’d be regarded as the favourites,” Baxter, who supports the men from Anfield but started his career at Goodison Park, said. “But when you are the underdog, that can make you really tough to beat.
“You’ve got absolutely no pressure on you. Nothing whatsoever to lose which means you can approach things with a freedom that, in ordinary circumstances, is not going to be there.
“Every single team these days, no matter where they are, have got some good players. And they’ll know that they’ll be able to try things, little flicks and touches, that possibly the opposition can’t.
“Okay, so that’s taking a risk. But if it comes off then it can leave you in a really good position.”
“What happened at Oldham was something special,” he continued. “All of the things I’ve just mentioned happened and were there.
“It was pretty magical but, do you know what, looking back it was all a bit of a blur. Actually, I wish I could remember the details a little bit more because, on a personal level, coming-up against the team I supported and then my old club was brilliant.
“We were always confident but, being honest, it was only when we went back to Everton in a replay that things changed. We went into that one actually feeling we could win it, that we were the favourites and the whole dynamic changed.”
Born and bred in Bootle, Baxter’s relationship with the world’s oldest domestic knockout competition stretches back long before, aged 16, he became Everton’s youngest ever player.
“Back home, I think everyone knows that I’m a Red,” he said. “I used to watch all the finals on television and I’ve been among the crowd in quite a few.
“There was one, it was actually the League Cup against Chelsea in 2005, when I cried all the way home because that’s what they mean. Of course they’re still special.
“When Oldham got Liverpool I wasn’t actually watching the draw but my phone started going mad and I knew something was up.”
Despite being recognised as one of the Football League’s most accomplished talents, Baxter’s career has been punctuated by injury and regime change at Bramall Lane. Signed by Nigel Clough’s predecessor David Weir for a reported £300,000 three months ago, the United manager admitted to initially being “unsure” of the 21-year-old’s best position before handing him a prominent role against Leyton Orient last weekend.
Baxter repaid Clough’s faith by emerging as an instrumental figure in a performance which saw United hold the League One leaders to a draw and subsequently lift themselves out of the relegation zone.
“I was absolutely made-up to be involved,” he said. “And it meant a lot to get a pat on the back from the gaffer afterwards.
“It’s never nice when you’re not involved because all you want to do is play. I was signed by one person and then had to prove myself all over again.
“But I’ve got no problem with that. It’s part and parcel of football and you just have to get on with the job.
“The gaffer is very demanding but I’m really enjoying working under him and I know I’m going to learn a lot.
“Because I watch all the old classic games on television, I’ve seen footage of him when he played for Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and England too. He was a quality performer and a real talent so I know he can teach me a lot.
“One of the good things about the gaffer is that, although he’s very exacting, he’s really approachable too.
“All of the lads have been told that his door is always open and that’s he’s happy to talk to us about anything or answer questions we might have.
“I’m looking forward to tapping into all that knowledge he’s got.”