Non League Club

Three cheers for the Royal Mail

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on July 22, 2012

Did you know that Cambridge United could have been Cambridge City?  Did you even know of the existence of Cambridge City?  No, well what about Cambridge..yes! Right, let’s start again.

The City versus United debate is not one that is restricted just to Manchester in England. Oh, no we also have the situation in Oxbridge.  When I was at school I often wondered where Oxbridge was, and why the toffs got to sit a special exam to go there (It was like Hogwarts in my imagination).  Years later I realised it was an abbreviation of Oxford and Cambridge, and both have a City and a United too.  In cities, it is the United’s who have had the most success, but it is the City’s who won the right of the name (stop press – we also thought of Lincoln having both a United and a City during half time).

In Cambridge’s case the team started off as Cambridge Town back in 1908, competing in the regional non leagues until the Second World War.  In 1951 good King George VI had a night out in Cambridge, enjoying a punt on the Fens, a pint in The Anchor, and a gentleman’s dance in Talk of the Town and agreed to give the city City status.  Both football clubs saw an opportunity to rebrand themselves and wrote a letter to the city’s Alderman and because Town’s application had a first class stamp on and arrived in the morning post, they were granted the title.  Arise Cambridge City.

However, it was United who had the success, being elected into the almost closed-shop of the Football League in 1970 to replace Bradford Park Avenue.  City tried to follow suit, applying time and time again for a place in the league.  They were attracting bigger crowds than their cross city neighbours, often welcoming crowds of 10,000 for non league games.  But the Football League were having none of it, and after their last application in 1974, City realised that their place was in the non leagues.

The two teams headed in different directions during the late Seventies and early Eighties, with United hitting the heights of the second tier of English Football, whilst City found themselves in the Southern League Midland Division playing the likes of Moor Green in front of a few hundred fans.

Whilst the inter-city rivalry always existed, it never reached the same heights of other provincial towns.  United fell on hard times in the early years of this century, ironically at a time when City enjoyed their best period in decades, bringing the clubs within one division for a couple of seasons.  However, City’s Achilles Heel in the past ten years has been their ground.

Milton Road has been City’s home for ninety years.  It was for many-a-year one of the biggest in Non League football, and reflective of their status as one of the Non League giants.  However, financial problems saw the ground fall into disrepair, and despite an attempt at introducing greyhound racing, the club were forced to sell off part of the ground for redevelopment for office space in 1985.  A few years later I had to visit a client in this building and admired the ground from his office.  All of a sudden he produced a football and within minutes we were having a kick about in our suits, using a Danny Last inspired magic door into the ground.

Then all sorts of legal shenanigans took place that saw the club evicted, re-housed, demoted, unevicted and finally given notice to leave.  Through a number of legal loopholes, petitions and sheer dedication from a faithful few, City will start this season for the final time at Milton Road.  This time next year they will be playing their home games down the A14 at Newmarket Town’s Jockeys Cricket Field Road whilst the bulldozers will finally have the chance to do their worst.  The club still dream of a new Community Stadium on the edge of the city but without a financial model in place that could be a few years away.

Every year the two clubs meet in a pre-season friendly for the bragging rights of Jesus Green.  It has always been a fixture to tick off, especially with Milton Road on borrowed time and so when Danny suggested a day out in the city, my hand went straight up in the air.  A few real ale pubs (I am a sucker for an Old Slapper or a  Burton Snatch these days), some long-awaited sunshine and the cut and thrust of a local derby.  What more could a man ask for (apart from the love of a good woman, but he wont be discussing the goings on between myself and CMF on these pages I can tell you).

Apparently last night I had ended up at The Dripping Pan to see Lewes v Crystal Palace.  I say apparently as I had spent the day at The Oval with Sleepy John, Fat Matt and my brother.  This annual JBO starts at 8am in Weatherspoons and normally ends around 8pm.  But last night I must have used the early finish due to the rain to get on a train, go down to the Pan and still manage to make it home before midnight.  Palace won 5-1 but my memories of the evening are hazy to say the least.

An early start on Saturday wasn’t what the doctored ordered but with the Olympic Torch passing down the end of our road at 8:58am I was up and ready (ironically almost a year to the day when another man ran down the same street with a flame in his hand, although that was a petrol bomb) with one question on my mind –  City or United?  My foolproof method was simple in its genius.  If the first student I saw on a bike that caused me to swear due to their poor road handling ability was female I would support City; male and it would be United.  We’d only left the motor way for a mile or so when a tandem, ridden by a old woman and a man swerved out in front of us.  Bugger – so the draw it was then.

After meeting up with Mr Last and Mr Deacon, along with Foreign Office Phil, we headed to the Live and Let Live in the backstreets.  Perfect small little pub with a range of a dozen ales.  Four locals in their usual positions at the bar ready to pass judgment on any beer you ordered..”Oooooh, you don’t want the Summertime Breeze.  You want a pint of Punting Crick..although you’d have to invent a time machine and go back to last Saturday”..oh how we all laughed.  We ordered a taxi to take us to the ground from the pub and right on cue the barman rang the bell at 2.30pm to tell us it had arrived.  Well, not quite.  He was calling last orders….at 2.30pm…on a Saturday…in a city centre…in the 21st Century…Welcome to Cambridge.

Cambridge City 1 Cambridge United 3 – Milton Road – Saturday 24th July 2012
There is no better place to be on a Saturday afternoon than standing watching football in the sunshine with a beer in your hand.  I’ve been to some fine places in my time (Have I mentioned my trip to the Playboy Mansion before or even flying to Vegas First Class after a big win at PartyCasino?) but few can match the feeling.  Today was a perfect example.  Good company, boisterous crowd and even some decent football.  I was so filled with bonhomie that I left Danny Last loose on the camera (on loan from James Boyes’s Camera Emporium).

Our first major chuckle of the day was when the teams were announced.  Captaining Cambridge City was Adrian Cambridge.  Of course it was.  Every team should try to make the effort to find a player with their surname.  The Seagulls wouldn’t have to look far as James Brighton was lining up for United.  The City mascot took to the field clutching her doll – again, something that the branding police at a Premier League club would never let happen.  Formalities over it was time for some action.

We didn’t have to wait long for the first bit of class.  Just over five minutes on the clock and  David Prada superbly chipped the ball over the United keeper to put the hosts 1-0 up.  The goals here at Milton Road got our thumbs up.  Trevor Brooking stanchions (what do you mean, What?  Look here for the legendary moment in footballing history)and nets so shallow they put the old ones from the Dell to shame (Hang on, what do you mean, Where is the Dell?  Football history 101…ok – look here).  It was almost impossible for any ball to “nestle” in the back of those.

Despite the backing of the United fans in the small wooden stand who, in case you wonder, are going to “win the league this year” (I think the betting experts such as Blue Square think otherwise, having them at 16-1 for the title), the visitors struggled to break down an organised City team.  Dave Theobald almost doubled the lead for City and the excitement became too much to bear so we headed inside for a beer.

The second half saw United make a host of changes, including Michael Gash who proved to be a cut above the rest, netting the equaliser with a smart header.  No fannying about from young Michael I can tell you although City felt that the original ball in from Moko had been from an offside position.  They scored a second soon after when Gash’s beavering away set up Moko and his cross this time was finished by Luke Berry.

United showed the difference in league position in the final fifteen minutes, looking fitter and more comfortable to sit back on the ball.  The third came towards the end when Thorpe’s long-range effort took a wicked deflection and sailed over the City keeper.  Three one was on the balance a fair result for an enjoyable afternoon of football.

It is always a shame to see traditional grounds like Milton Road meet their maker but that is the world we live in today unfortunately.  Despite the tireless work of the club and from the core support of the fans, economics mean that they simply cannot continue to play here.  Whilst the move down the A14 to Newmarket will be a bitter pill to swallow, if it is a stepping stone to an eventual return to the city then it is a necessary evil.  Having seen the positivity at Maidstone just seven days ago after the inaugural game at the Gallagher Stadium, there is proof that short-term pain can give long-term gain.

We couldn’t go any further to the end of the spectrum that our next football outing in just five days – the Olympic Games….stay tuned for all the thrills of Honduras v Morocco from Hampden Park.

For more photos from the day including those taken by my official Artistic Director Mr Last, head over here.

ABBEY NOT WELL – Cambridge United v Kidderminster Harriers

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 20, 2011

We’ve all seen those American movies immortalising the road trip, that carefree adventure on the open road, punctuated by freedom, adventure and hilarious consequences normally involving accidentally driving into “no go” areas, visiting churches dressed as strippers (or strip joints dressed as Nuns) and setting fire to hotel rooms. Well occasionally we get the opportunity to go on a road trip of our own. Who needs strippers and alcohol fuelled conceptual pranks when you could go to Cambridge, Mansfield, Hyde and Gainsborough all in the space of five days. We are really living the dream here I can tell you.

And who needs a convertible to cruise Route 66 when you can have a 6 year old Zafira with crappy air conditioning cruising up the A1? It was of course Half Term and thus that means time with the family and football. The two go hand in hand right? Well, they do in the TBIR book and so we were heading up north to spend time with the extended CMF family, meaning some jolly japes with Northern Steve. And he had lined up quite a feast of football fun for us. A Evostik Premier League double header with Glapwell versus Stamford followed by a trip to see Gainsborough Trinity versus Gloucester City with the Blue Square Bet North game sandwiched in the middle between local Manchester rivals Hyde United and Stalybridge Celtic? Jealous yet? Well how about if I tell you they would be book-ended by Cambridge United versus Kidderminster Harriers and Lewes versus Ebbsfleet United. An 800 mile road trip encompassing five games in five counties. Green with envy now?

Non League football is important to me, and it should be to you dear readers too. Because if Non League football dies, then eventually so will the game at the highest level. I love nothing better these days than heading off for some new grass roots destination and feeling the history ooze through the pores of a ground with real history. Attendances in all levels of football are falling on the whole. Premier League, Championship, Football League and Non League. Some fans are being priced out, but in general we are now reaping the reward of the lost generation of fans, the teenagers and young adults who were priced out of attending games in the past decade. And the situation is just going to get worse. Unless clubs start to encourage Dads and Sons back onto the terraces/shiny plastic seats those seats will sit empty in ten years time.

Non League clubs are doing their bit to grab this space. Many clubs at the Blue Square Bet level offer free admission for children, others charge a nominal pound or two. So I was going to do my own research as to how five different clubs were approaching the situation, starting with a Friday night visit to The Abbey Stadium to watch Cambridge United host Kidderminster Harriers in the Blue Square Bet Premier league.

A few weeks before the game there was some doubt if there was actually be a game on at all. Despite a decade ago this game being a Football League clash, Kidderminster had come into the game in a whole world of financial trouble. On Sunday 6th February The Non League Paper had led with the headline of a potential move into administration for the club, the result of trying to chase the dream back of the Football League.

Cambridge United themselves were hardly out of the financial woods. They too had invested in trying to get back in the league, and went into the Play Off Final in 2009 against Torquay United as favourites, only to see the Seagulls win 2-0 on the day.  Manager Gary Brabin was announced as the Conference manager of the season and was then promptly sacked by the board for not getting them back into the lead.  Nothing like a dose of realism from the men in charge.

He was replaced by ex-Leyton Orient manager Martin Ling, who lasted just 8 days, resigning over “irrecoverable differences of opinion with owner George Rolls”.  Rolls then left and a new board was appointed and guess who they chose as new manager?  Martin Ling.

Cambridge finished Ling’s first season in 10th place. This season, with the club sitting again in 10th place in early January the club’s owners put the club up for sale citing the need for new funds to take the club forward. Despite interest being expressed from a number of parties, no new owner has yet been found. The club’s landlords Grosvenor Group revealed the plans for a new community stadium, including potential new locations both within the city and outside it.  As if this wasn’t enough for the long suffering fans, Martin Ling left the club and has been replaced for the time being by Jez George. Who needs stability in football eh?

Our last trip to The Abbey Stadium had been in September 2009 in an eventful game for more than one reason. On that sunny day we had seen the home team take a 3-0 first half lead against ten-men Luton Town, only to end up losing 4-3 in a game that ended with riot police on the pitch. On that day we had been guests of Luton Town manager Mick Harford and after the game we sat down with him and discussed his tactical genius and what he said in the dressing room at half time. Harford was a hero to the Luton faithful and so hundreds, if not thousands of fans were amazed that just four days later he was sacked by the club as they sat in 5th place after just a handful of games into their first game since relegation from the Football League. And where did they finish eight months later? In 5th place of course. Football madness at its best.

Cambridge United 1 Kidderminster Harriers 2 – The Abbey Stadium – Friday 18th February 2011
I simply cannot get my head around some of these ground names.  Earlier today I read an excellent blog post on European Football Weekends about the Hamburg derby, which was being played at the Intech Arena.  Where?  Well apparently HSV’s Volksparkstadion had been renamed AGAIN this summer.  AOL Arena, HSH Nordbank, Colorline, Mighty Mouse Arena – it’s all the same to me.  So forgive me Cambridge fans for not saying I visited the R Costings Stadium for this game.  It is the Abbey, and will always be the Abbey.  Rant over.

There was a time not long ago when Cambridge United won an award for the best League ground to visit(a scoring matrix from a book written by Jon Ladd) primarily due to their bacon rolls.  Unfortunately the bacon was not as I always remembered it and so I headed for a drink instead.  After a quick beer in the Green King portable pub in the car park (a portakabin done out with a bar inside) I headed Stand behind the south end goal at The Abbey and you can feel the history seeping its way from the old Main Stand or the covered terrace, in a time when John Beck played it long, and Dion Dublin well was simply long.  On a cold February night with the TV cameras from Premier Sports in attendance the locals had come out to support their team.

Ah Premier Sports.  Now that is a strange deal.  Picking up the pieces from the collapse of Setanta, Premier Sports are showing 30 games this season on a pay per view model.  So far they have not released any subscription figures but I would not imagine many nationwide fans would have paid their £6.99 for this one.  So it is unclear who is the winner in this deal.

The game started with a flurry of open play with both teams on the front foot.  Both keepers were called into action during the opening twenty minutes and a goal looked imminent, ruining my 8/1 on a goalless draw.

Almost on the stroke of half time Kidderminster opened the scoring, perhaps against the run of play.  A long cross from the right was missed by the Cambridge defence and found its way to Sean Canham who drilled the ball home.  Just two minutes later Cambridge were almost level when a free kick from the edge of the box was headed off the line by a Kidderminster defender.

The main talking point in the half was the five yellow cards shown by the referee.  Was there a bad tackle anywhere?  No, but he fell into the trap of booking one player so early on that any similar tackle had to result in a booking.  Shame really as it spoilt an attacking half.

Oh, I forgot to mention that one the way I heard a cringeworthy advert on the radio on the way up.  “A right old cockney knees up” can be had by all on Monday night at Upton Park for the game versus Burnley.  For ONLY £49 you get a pie and mash supper, a pint, a programme, a padded seat and “much much more”…well based on the fact a ticket is £15, a programme £3.50, a pint the same and pie and mash is lets say a £5 it must be more than £23 worth of “much more”.  Desperate measures from an increasingly desperate club.  Back to the Blue Square Bet Premier…

How’s your luck! Five minutes in, Cambridge break and Kidderminster full back Vaughan who has already been booked hacks down the Cambridge forward.  The referee calls him over, and it appears he is going to get a second yellow.  Harriers captain Briggs protests, the referee sees the linesman’s flag up for offside and so cannot book Vaughan for the tackle but books Briggs instead for his protest!

The game ebbed and flowed after that.  Both team had chances and with the last throw of the dice Cambridge used up their substitutes.  With the first minute of injury time played Adam Marriott looked to have rescued a point for the home side as he scored from a free kick some 25 yards out.  But when the luck isn’t with you, it really isn’t with you and two minutes later Kidderminster’s substitute Jamille Matt headed home the winner from Matty Blair’s excellent cross.

The defeat meant that Cambridge had now gone eight games without a win and slid further down the table, whilst three points game the Harriers a vital boost upwards towards the playoffs.

The roadtrip was well underway…next stop Glapwell, or so we thought!

More pictures from the evening can be found at our Flickr stream here.