Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Brentford fan, but I’m going to make an admission. I’m an apostate. The first club I followed as a child (after the usual dalliance with Manchester United when the only football I had seen was on the telly) was that of my home town from the age of 6 and where my mum still lives 36 years on, Cambridge United.
In a few hours time, Cambridge will be playing host to Man U in the 4th round of the FA Cup in what will be their highest profile game since they were beaten in the play-offs to become one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992 (6-1 on aggregate to Leicester City who lost in the final to Blackburn who went on to win the Premier League 3 years later, by which time Cambridge were being relegated to the fourth tier).
But that was the peak of Cambridge’s years of relative success under the controversial management of John Beck. Beck was a pioneer in the application of statistical analysis in football and took the club up from the old Fourth Division to the brink of the top flight, playing a brand of direct football perhaps even purer than that of Wimbledon. But, by that time, I only followed the club vicariously through the local news. My memories of the club are more from the early 80s when I’d go a few times a season when one or other of my friends’ dads would bring me along to matches. Most of them were guys who’d been brought up with the club from its time in non-league football up to 1970 and had been there for their ascent, mainly under Ron Atkinson (wonder whatever became of him) to being a fairly established second tier club. My recollections of the time are understandably hazy – it is about 30 years since I went to the Abbey Stadium as a home fan (the last time I went at all was to witness them beating Brentford on Boxing Day 2001 to start the Bees’ five game winter losing streak which was the real reason for failing to win automatic promotion even if Jamie Cureton’s equaliser for Reading on the last day is what sticks in most fans’ minds). Mushy Pea Pies. What seemed to a 10 year old to be a frightening cage to hold the fans in the Newmarket Road end (in the pre-Hillsborough era). Wooden benches for seats. George Reilly (but after his strike partner Alan Biley had been sold to Derby). Tom Finney (not that one, the one who went to the 1982 World Cup with Northern Ireland), Lindsay Smith. An inexplicable song about a wooden leg.
But, the effect of the back to back relegations in 1984 and 1985 (the first involving a then record-breaking 31 game winless streak, the second a record equalling 33 defeats in a season) described admirably by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, was to put many of those dads off watching the club ever again or at least to make them unwilling to inflict the agony on their sons and their friends. Many Bees fans stopped letting Brentford bear their hopes after the 1997 third tier play off defeat to Crewe, but Cambridge’s horror show of the mid 80s was of a different order of magnitude. So, for me, the bond was broken well before Dion Dublin helped to fire Cambridge’s renaissance at the end of the decade. While the handful of years between the end of the era when I watched the club to the beginning of the Beck era seems now to be a short time, for me they were the difference between pre-teen and looking forward to moving away to go to university: an age. By the time I went to see Brentford win the fourth tier championship at the Abbey Stadium, even though I sat with the home fans (easier to get a home ticket than an away one using my mum’s Cambridge address), there was no split allegiance.
Nevertheless, seeing numerous facebook posts today from Cambridge friends reminded me of those long distant days and I hope that their dreams are rewarded by beating Man U. The dads who took me back in the early 80s remembered a win in a friendly against Chelsea from the early 70s as the club’s finest hour and for small clubs like Cambridge, even if they struggle around League 2 or the Conference (hopefully never again) a win tonight will sustain their dreams. And if Daz and his dad still go, I’m sorry for likening the level on Jet Set Willy called The Forgotten Abbey to the Abbey Stadium in those dark days of 1984 and deserved having my ears boxed for it.