A rough guide to... Cambridge United

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

1 August 2016

Cambridge want young, hungry players for a young, hungry manager. But is it only the local catering industry that is anticipating good times?

How are you?

Cambridge were up when we were up, then they were down even before we were down. Now they are eager to be up again.

Short time, no see?

In 2014, Cambridge United ended a nine-year stay in the Conference doing what Town could not manage: a play-off final/FA Trophy double. So how have they fared in their two seasons since?

Highlight of the 2014-15 campaign was a run to the fourth round of the FA Cup and a 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United. The United who sell slightly more replica shirts won the replay 3-0. In the league, Cambridge finished 19th, safe by 10 points from an immediate return to the Conference.

Last season started well enough with seven points from their first three games. However, just three more wins until the end of October was not enough to satisfy the Cambridge board, and Richard Money, the manager who had led the club out of the Conference, was sacked. It’s a measure of their expectations that the Us were just five points off the play-off places at the time.

His replacement was, and still is, Shaun Derry, a 38-year-old escapee from the Notts County ejector seat. The thinking behind his appointment appears to have been that they wanted someone younger, hungrier and more willing to say "going forward" than the 60-year-old Money.

Derry had an immediate impact, winning the December manager of the month title after a six-match unbeaten run. That left Cambridge one point off the play-off places but through 2016 their form remained stubbornly short of promotion standard. Cambridge’s frustrations were summarised in consecutive games when, having failed to score against a Carlisle team who finished the game with nine players, they put seven past Morecambe. 'Could do better' was the final verdict on a final position of ninth, seven points behind the last play-off position.

How are you feeling?

In terms of resources and potential, Cambridge are a bit above mid-table for the fourth division. A play-off place is their most likely destination, and the mood among Cambridge fans appeared to be one of cautious optimism when the season began.

In fact, Cambridge made a poor start to the seaon, a home defeat by Morecambe leaving them bottom of the table in mid-September. Since then, though, the Us have won three games and drawn at Blackpool. Anything is still possible.

Shaun Derry remains something of an unknown quantity but his transfer activity last season – mainly involving loan deals – was enough to feed hopes that the club will improve when he has shaped the squad to his own liking. One of his first loan signings was the pacy forward Ben Williamson, who went on to sign a permanent deal in January. He was among the top scorers last season, along with Luke Berry, a hard-working midfielder in his second spell at Cambridge, and 31-year-old Irish striker Barry Corr.

Of the Us' new signings, wingers Piero Mingoia and Medy Elito both rejected offers from Accrington and Newport respectively to go to the Abbey Stadium. They are also joined by the ex-Barnsley midfielder George Maris and David Gregory, a goalkeeper released by Crystal Palace. The oldest of those four players is 26. Not only is Shaun Derry a young and hungry manager: he also wants young, hungry players. The optimism among Cambridge café owners is a bit more than just cautious.

Where are you from?

The first time I went to Cambridge was in 1988. I was in a quiet bookshop when someone spoke: "Hello Matthew, what are you doing here?" I hid behind what was almost certainly a case of mistaken first name – one of my brothers is called Matthew – rather than mistaken identity and ignored them, although there was no one else in earshot. Cambridge is the kind of city where, at least in the late 80s, you felt a bit embarrassed to admit you had gone to watch fourth-division footie.

Perhaps the story says more about me in my 20s than it does about Cambridge. But when I was wandering among the elegant and imposing college buildings in the city centre, signposts directing you to the Abbey Stadium were conspicuous only by their absence. Mention Grimsby the world over and you are likely to hear "Where?", "Is that the place with the fish?" and "What division are you in nowadays?" Say Cambridge and it's more likely to be "My cousin studied physics there", "Are you a professor?" and "Do they even have a football team?"

You must be so conflicted about John Beck?

In 1991-92, a Cambridge team led by Dion Dublin and Steve Claridge briefly led the second flight. The putative Premiership shuddered. If the Wimbledon side of the time was route one, Cambridge were route 0.5. Manager John Beck once subbed Claridge for cutting inside his marker.

The limitations of their style soon caught up with them. Town were in a relegation battle when we travelled to the Abbey Stadium that spring, but we won 1-0. It remains one of my favourite away days. Grimsby took the lead against the run of play and then stood up against the barrage of long balls, always in the right place as they always knew exactly what to expect. The diminutive Paul Reece excelled that day, not because he was called on to make a series of stunning saves but because he was like a lion cub dealing with their crosses and the barging that went with them.

Cambridge were eventually beaten in the play-offs and three years later they were back in the fourth flight from which they had risen with Grimsby and Southend.
Despite their spectacular success, the notoriety of his tactics meant Beck struggled to find another job in football. Unless you count Lincoln as a football team.

Nevertheless, that was the nearest Cambridge have ever been to the big time. Imagine having your proudest moments as a football club tarnished in the eyes of others. Imagine if instead of catastrophe, Mike Lyons' tactics at the close of 1986-87 had brought success and the fans of other clubs associated Town with a single top-flight season of thuggish hoofball. Would we hold that season dear? Imagine being a Corbynite being forced to listen to a lecture about how Tony Blair is the Labour Party's most successful Prime Minister. Do three election wins outweigh the entrenchment of Margaret Thatcher's economic policies and a disastrous war?

If you meet a Cambridge fan, don't harangue them but ask them about John Beck. It could be a fascinating conversation.

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