The joy that was, and may yet again be, the Abbey Stadium
Posted by John Beech on January 18, 2011
Perhaps not the obvious stadium to refer to as a ‘joy’, but it has a special place in my personal history. My very first football-related memory is of being driven along the Newmarket Road as a child aged about 4 years and suddenly catching sight of this enticing building. Yes, it was oddly enticing. Frequent family visits to my grandmother’s in Cambridge had no doubt made me blasé about the wonders of mediaeval architecture. Here though was a truly intriguing building – what could be its purpose? I should perhaps mention that my earliest years were spent in the rural Surrey/Hampshire borders, and, to be honest, Haslemere Recreation Ground just didn’t cut it.
This must have been in the very early fifties, who knows, perhaps just even in the ‘Abbey United’ era. Certainly they still played in the Eastern Counties League, and it was to be roughly twenty years before they followed in the path of Headington United (now known as Oxford United) to the heights of the Football League in 1970, replacing Bradford Park Avenue.
In 1992 they made it to 5th place in what is now the Championship, but the last decade has been less kind to the club.
One strength of the club was owning their stadium. That is, until the fall to the Conference in 2005, alongside going into Administration, brought a not untypical sell-and-lease-back scenario for the Abbey (1), the sale being to Bideawhile, a company owned by one of the club’s directors.
In a less typical dimension to this, ten years ago the fans formed a Supporters Trust, Cambridge Fans United (2), and, by 2003, the Trust had raised £100,000 and was the club’s third largest shareholder (3).
In April 2005 the club, on the strength of a proposed loan from Dr Johnny Hon, a club director, made an offer of £2.2m to buy the Abbey back again, but Bideawhile, whose director John Howard was still Vice Chairman of the club, refused the offer (Bideawhile had bought the ground for £1.92m at the end of the previous November incidentally). As Cambridge Fans United director Brian Attmore said at the time “This is a kick in the teeth for all our supporters. It puts United’s future in the real jeopardy. It is for the whole board to determine what is right for the club and not for one individual with his own commercial agenda. This is precisely the conflict of interest we feared would happen.” (4) Bideawhile ignored a petition signed by 3,000 fans (5), stating that they had “long term plans to help the U’s relocate to a new community stadium.“. Ah, relocation.
Long term? Well, 13 days later Bideawhile (what an ironic name) announced that “Football will be played at Abbey Stadium for 50 years, unless the directors and shareholders feel the best thing is to relocate. The ground is safe in the short-term, no matter what people may think.” (6)
Less than a week later the club filed for Administration (7). Dr Johnny Hon had resigned as a director (8) a fortnight before
By November the club had managed to agree a CVA, but not without the involvement of then Sports Minister Richard Caborn (8).
The following month there was talk of a possible groundshare and even merger with Cambridge City (9), who had managed to climb as high as the Conference South in 2004, but most would agree were the junior of the two sides – perhaps a ‘Bristol Rovers’ to a ‘Bristol City’. While no doubt this would have been anathema to both sets of fans, it would have made good economic sense. I’ve advocated ‘thinking the unthinkable’ before, and Cambridge is, in my opinion, better served by one bigger rather than two smaller clubs . Or perhaps that should, by then, be three – Histon were to win the Southern League that season, and who, as I write, are bottom of the Conference National.
August 2006 saw some shakedowns in the board room (10), (11), (12). The new Chairman, Lee Power, said the club would look at another attempt to buy the ground back from Bideawhile (13). The pressure of having to pay rent was beginning to tell, and by December the club was turning to its directors who were guarantors (14). In March a new (US) investor appeared on the scene (15).
Early in 2009 there was another flurry of activity with board room appointments (16) and (17). ’Stability’ remained the mantra if not the reality. Finances remained a strain, and in July manager Gary Brabin left (18). George Rolls, by then the Chairman, explained “There have been disagreements between Gary and myself which have festered over the summer. Gary has pressed the issue to sign more players, when we can’t.” Brabin’s successor, Martin Ling, lasted roughly a week, having signed a three-year contract (19), the club citing “irreconcilable differences between Martin Ling and chairman George Rolls“. The next day Rolls quit the club (20), as did Vice Chairman Terry Baker. Rolls declared “Lots of fans won’t want to hear this but I’m sure I’ll be back one day owning the club. I made a lot of bad decisions but it hasn’t put me off. Yes it wasn’t good business and I had no other option but to stand down. I’ve got no regrets, just happy memories. I’m not going to cry over anything. I’ll be back there.” (21) I suspect most fans would hope not. Martin Ling would presumably hope not; he was promptly reappointed Manager (22). Rolls meanwhile was firing off as if in an exit interview, warning of a £900,000 shortfall in revenues:”They have to start living within their means. It’s a sad day for me if the club wants to keep gambling all the time. I kept forewarning the fans cuts would have to take place. If it meant upsetting managers along the way because they were over budget and trying to sign people, I’ll take that, I interfered. But I’m sure the fans would rather have me interfere than six months’ time the club go into administration.” (23)
In a surprise turn of events (well, to me at least!) this time last year, who should come on board at the Abbey Stadium but Gareth Baldwin, late of Histon! (24) Showing a multiplicity of ’till I die’ approaches is of course the norm for players, but such a switch at board level between two local rivals is somewhat rarer. In this case it turns out, he ‘admitted’ “a lifelong love of United” (25). Gosh, he must have been tortured during his time at Histon. Shortly his wife became Secretary at Cambridge United, a role she had previously held at, where else, Histon (26).
A bombshell at the end of February was the news that Bideawhile – remember, the company owned by United’s then Vice Chairman John Howard who had bought the stadium for £1.92m in December 2004 had sold the ground to Grosvenor Estates for, wait for it, £3.5m (27). And no, that’s not a typo. Be warned – there’s a name to watch out for if appointed as a director in a club near you: J-O-H-N H-O-W-A-R-D. The Supporters’ Trust were, to be fair, given the opportunity to match the £3.5m bid, in a time frame of, er, 18 days! (28). John Howard had finally stepped down, at the request of the rest of the board, because of his blatant conflict of interests in August 2006 (29).
Sadly, if not unsurprisingly, they failed to manage that, but they did raise over £1m in that very short period (30).
[Definitely a new paragraph, just to give you time to let that sink in...]
That brings us more or less up to date, save for the news at the beginning of this month that Cambridge United itself is up for sale (31). Baldwin has expressed an interest in buying the club (32), as have those mythical beasties (forgive my cynicism, but I am a Pompey fan) ‘foreign investors’ (33).
Last night Cambridge Fans United decided they too would seek to buy the club (my source for this is Twitter – I’ll post a link in ‘Comments’ once the minutes of the meeting are online). Present at the meeting was Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct. He offered me the following thoughts:
“Cambridge United fans need to recognise that they’re at something of a crossroads.
“To my mind they have three choices:
- they could either take the chance with the same, tired model of ownership where a small group of directors including CFU continue to keep the ship afloat every year but basically manage long-term decline; this hasn’t worked already, despite the best efforts of those concerned;
- or they could wait for the mythical white knight to appear – the less said about that the better;
- the final, and only real option left on the table, is community and supporter ownership; yes, it seems scary to some people, but the chance to create a vibrant, outward looking club, harnessing the energies, talent, collective wisdom – and finances – of the several thousand CUFC fans out there is surely too good an opportunity to turn down.“
Cambridge Fans United certainly are in with a chance. They have existed for ten years and have recently raised £1m at very short notice. May joy yet again be found at the Abbey Stadium.
Food for thought there for Plymouth Argyle fans… And indeed for fans at any club that hasn’t yet established a Supporters’ Trust. Plymouth fans have now done so (34), I appreciate, and good luck to the Argyle Fans’ Trust, but how different their position might have been with ten year’s experience behind them.