You have to feel a little sorry for Cambridge. After being one of the better sides in the Conference they failed in the playoffs again this season, losing 2-0 to Torquay at Wembley. Here is a club desperate to return to the league. You can see it in every aspect of the organisation, even as I listened to the final on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire the commentator moaned ‘Back to Barrow next season…’. Probably not intended as an insult to all at Holker Street, it was more down to Barrow being seen as a typical Conference club that happens to be quite far away rather than a nasty place to visit, but an example of how geared towards a return to League football they are.
Cambridge United were founded back in 1909, alas not the Cambridge United that went on to greater things as is the tangled web of football history. The current United were formed as Abbey United a few years later in 1912. The club only changed its name in 1951, a couple of years after they had turned professional, and they were promoted from the Eastern Counties League to the Southern League in 1958.
When ailing Bradford Park Avenue were spared of their league place in 1970, Cambridge were there to make the step up. The U’s league positions over the next thirty years when plotted onto a graph resembles an Alpine landscape, after an initial climb to the Second division. The Third Division seemed to have no meaning for Cambridge United as they either passed it on the way up or fell through on the way back.
There seems little point reiterating the John Beck years, as all but the youngest Wimbledon supporters will be aware of them, and in simplest terms it would be fair to compare Beck as a slightly less successful version of Harry Bassett. Unlike Bassett, who relied on knowing his players inside out and giving them licence to bond into a unit that could achieve the impossible, Beck had a system, and took its implementation to almost military levels.
Beck took a small town club to the verge of the first ever Premier League season via back-to-back promotions. Cambridge were a successful playoff campaign away from joining the Dons in the inaugural Premier League, but sadly Leicester had other ideas. Beck was reliant on his game plan, and Cambridge were found out on several occasions in their second season in the second tier, before Beck was fired and Cambridge slumped back to the bottom tier of English professional football.
Cambridge found their 35 year Football League history ended in 2005, and followed the familiar tale of clubs dropping out of the League taking a couple of seasons to find themselves. This was set to a background of saving the club from extinction, as the club plunged into administration. They were only saved from extinction, in football terms, deep, deep into stoppage time by the intervention of Sports Minister Richard Caborn (and after all the moaning from Ryman clubs regarding Jim Sturman QC battling our 18 point deduction its nice to see another club with friends in high places!).
As you could gather by back to back playoff finals, the club are back on a firm footing, and after finishing second over the past two seasons could consider themselves unlucky not to be back in the Football League, pipped the season before last to the title by the side Terry Brown built, Aldershot Town.
The U’s must have watched slightly envious as the side that defeated them in the 2008 Conference playoff final, Exeter City, continued their forward momentum by snatching a promotion place and will find themselves in League 1 next season. Cambridge on the other hand, put together an extremely decent season, chasing down long time leaders Burton to the very last day. They needed a 4-0 victory against Altrincham, but in front of a full house at the Abbey Stadium couldn’t break them down.
Taking a huge amount of momentum into the playoffs they defeated Conference nearly men Stevenage after a second leg home comeback, notching the winner seconds from the end of extra time. This time around another Devon club stood in their way, Torquay. Cambridge were to face more Wembley heartache losing 2-0, and find themselves in an intriguing position entering 09/10.
Cambridge United are too big for the Conference. Sadly so are Oxford, Luton, and (dare I say it) AFC Wimbledon. Of course the Dons are unlikely to be serious promotion challengers this coming season, but only one of those clubs can win automatic promotion next season. And as Cambridge know, once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.
As a club, Cambridge are set for the Football League, no problems. They have the stadium (which lets face it, we don’t have yet… although we are waiting for promotion to the Football League to improve it further), the manager and a decent core of players. Boss Gary Brabin had been linked with a move to Blackpool, and the news he is staying must be a massive boost to the club.
Plus of course they have the supporters. The average of 3.500 has barely changed over the past couple of seasons, and the U’s will be one of a handful of clubs who can match the Dons attendances next term. So with big league rivalries and a blossoming local affair with Histon (albeit one that U’s fans probably feel hugely embarrassed about – remember when our local rivals from the village down the road turned up at our place and did us 4-0? Still, who’s in the Conference now, eh?!), our matches with Cambridge next season will be way down the list of who United fans check for when the fixtures come out in June.
As well as this they have something called Marvin The Moose as their mascot, who according to their website wears ‘oversized antlers and preposterously large boots’ – make sure they bring him to Kingsmeadow then as it sounds as though he could be someone Haydon could actually beat in a penalty shootout!
The Abbey Stadium is the sort of place I’d kind of like to visit for our first game. Like Newport last season we can take a couple of thousand there, wander round the city like we own the place, easily outsing the locals, hopefully catch them on an early season off day and come home with a thumping victory, knowing that we were well and truly back where we belonged.
In reality we’d probably end up there on a cold Tuesday in February with a hardcore few hundred watching a 0-1 defeat. But what a place to go to see us lose! It’s a proper League ground, one that we have been starved of apart from the friendly at Brentford. It’s been probably twenty years since my only visit to the Abbey Stadium for a non-Dons Friday night game that the home team won 4-3 if my memory serves me well. But I know the recently built stand behind the goal at the far end is seated and will be open to Dons fans presuming it’s a Saturday game, if not there’s plenty of space on the adjacent terrace, which apparently holds 1000 away fans.
(Dons home admission in brackets for comparison)
TERRACE – £15 (£12) Conc £11 (£8) U16 £5 (£2)
SEATS – £17/18 (£14/16) Conc £13/12 (£7/8) U16 £9/10 (£3/4)
Higher price tickets for a club that may have hoped to be back in the League by now – however Cambridge have an early bird season ticket price which actually comes in cheaper than the Dons, of which they have apparently shifted nearly 2000 already (more than us!).
AFC Era – None
All time Wimbledon –
The first meeting between The Dons and The U’s took place back in December 1964 at Plough Lane in the Eastern Professional Floodlight League, and finished with a 5-1 victory for the home team. The sides met regularly in the Southern League during the late sixties, however haven’t met in the league since, Wimbledon FC’s yo-yo years between the Third and Fourth Divisions coincided with a prolonged Cambridge stay in the Second Division.
The last time a Wimbledon team met Cambridge was in the Littlewoods Cup Second Round 1987, which Cambridge won on away goals following a 2-2 draw at Plough Lane.