Cambridge United walked out at Wembley Stadium twice last season, winning the FA Trophy and promotion back to the Football League, but at Abbey Stadium they wrote another chapter in their history.
Completely unflattered by their goalless draw with a side 76 places above them in the league ladder, they will play Manchester United in a replay under the Theatre of Dreams’ stage lights in 10 days’ time.
Cambridge 0-0 Man Utd
The FA Cup
Fourth Round Proper
Friday 23 January
Winners receive £90,000 from prize fund
Louis van Gaal described the Third Round tie with League One Yeovil Town as a battle for the “death or the gladioli” – but it was League Two Cambridge who came up smelling of flowers at Abbey Stadium, while the Red Devils were made to fight for their lives.
Manchester United had a handful of chances, but Cambridge were heroic in defence, with Chris Dunn a remarkable presence in goal, and the hosts conjured opportunities of their own.
For fans of upsets, the early signs were promising. The drum in the Newmarket Road stand thumped like a heartbeat, the mist hanged in the air and the Cambridge fans were in full voice, imploring the Yellows to shake football’s traditional order.
Manchester United’s travelling fans picked up the sense of occasion too, but their players were less forthcoming, and Cambridge enjoyed the better first-half opportunities.
Corners were a particular hazard for the visitors, and boss Louis van Gaal was suitably concerned to detail all 11 players back into the six-yard-box at times, and Ryan Donaldson’s deliveries were far superior to Phil Jones’s at the other end.
Josh Coulson came close to capitalising on chaos in the Manchester United penalty area, heading just over when a header on target surely would have beaten a stranded David de Gea.
The lively Sullay Kaikai, on loan from Crystal Palace, threatened on the left wing before tiring after the break, and might have had a clear shot on goal had Ryan Donaldson not overcooked his through-pass.
It was a rare low moment for the classy and creative Donaldson, the former England U17s and U19s international, who has his own Wembley tradition after scoring twice as Cambridge won the Trophy, and then firing the winner to send the U’s up in the Conference National play-off final.
Striker Tom Elliott also represented the Young Lions in his early career, but he offered the kind of threat more commonly associated with a League Two club, running powerfully and purposefully, and lifting the crowd with his hard graft.
United, the red one, did have some chances in the first-half, Daley Blind firing tamely towards Dunn, and Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao had similar efforts blocked.
But the pattern was familiar, as possession was often squandered and shots at goal were generally speculative and in front of an amassed Cambridge defence.
Head coach Richard Money would have watched his charges trot off at half-time with no little pride.
With an hour gone Dunn had had a far quieter night that he might have anticipated, but he had to be his best when Radamel Falcao forced a fine reflex save.
United cranked up the pressure with 15 minutes remaining and Cambridge began to look more like fourth-tier opposition.
Louis van Gaal brought on Ander Herrera and Robin van Persie, and the latter fired wide almost immediately after latching on to Di Maria’s through-ball.
On several occasions Dunn punched wildly and effectively as Manchester United bombarded their penalty area in a way John Beck might have enjoyed.
With five minutes remaining Cambridge briefly reversed the trend, as Donaldson seared down the right wing before delivering a swinging cross that Jones could only clear for a corner, which De Gea had to scramble clear.
Di Maria forced a desperate save from Dunn deep into added time but the final whistle blew to a roar of enormous pride and satisfaction from the Abbey Stadium congregation.
Cambridge United (4-4-2): 1 Chris Dunn; 2 Richard Tait, 4 Josh Coulson, 18 Michael Nelson, 3 Greg Taylor; 7 Ryan Donaldson, 8 Tom Champion (c), 17 Liam Hughes, 31 Sullay Kakkai; 20 Cameron McGeehan, 10 Tom Elliott.
Substitutes: 11 Harrison Dunk for Kaikai 53, 22 Luke Chadwick for Hughes 76.
Substitutes not used: 13 Will Norris, 6 Ian Miller, 15 Robbie Simpson, 19 Dominic Ball, 32 Ryan Bird.
Manchester United (4-1-3-2): 1 David de Gea; 25 Antonio Valencia, 4 Phil Jones, 5 Marcos Rojo, 17 Daley Blind; 16 Michael Carrick (c); 7 Angel Di Maria, 31 Marouane Fellaini, 11 Adnan Januzaj; 9 Radamel Falcao.
Substitutes: 21 Ander Herrera for Fellaini 67, 20 Robin van Persie for Wilson 67, 3 Luke Shaw for Blind 86.
Substitutes not used: 32 Victor Valdes, 2 Rafael da Silva, 24 Darren Fletcher, 33 Paddy McNair.
Referee: Chris Hoy.
Highlights of the Fourth Round Proper tie at the Abbey Stadium.