Cambridge United: a history

August 6, 2017

With Rovers playing Cambridge United in the First Round of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening we thought that we would take a look at the history of our visitors.

The club was founded in 1912 as Abbey United, named after the Abbey district of Cambridge in which they play, although a club called Cambridge United existed in Cambridge from 1909 but was not linked to the club that exists today. Abbey United played in local amateur leagues moving from ground to ground around Cambridge before settling at the Abbey Stadium in 1932.

In 1949 the club turned professional, and changed its name to Cambridge United two years later. They played in the Eastern Counties League until finishing as runners-up in 1957–58, which saw them elected to the Southern League. Three years later, Cambridge United were promoted to the Premier Division of the Southern League.

After winning back-to-back Southern League titles the club was elected to the Football League in 1970 to replace Bradford Park Avenue and eight years later they reached the Second Division, peaking at 8th place in 1980, but went back down to the Third Division in 1984 after winning just four league games all season. A second successive relegation followed in 1985, and a year later Cambridge finished fourth from bottom in the Fourth Division, this was the last season in which the league’s bottom four clubs had to apply for re-election. Luckily, Cambridge and the other three teams retained their league status

Cambridge gradually improved, and as the 1980s drew to a close, they were looking like promotion challengers again.

The club’s biggest successes came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They won the Fourth Division playoffs under John Beck in 1990, beating Chesterfield 1–0 at Wembley. The following year United were crowned champions of the Third Division. Their key player of this era was high scoring centre forward Dion Dublin, who had joined the club on a free transfer from Norwich City  in 1988 and Dublin powered Cambridge to their best-ever league finish in 1992 when they finished 5th in the Second Division and qualified for the promotion playoffs, hoping that they would complete a unique third successive promotion and play in the first season of the new Premier League. After drawing 1–1 at home in the first leg of the semi finals with Leicester City, they were beaten 5–0 in the second leg and their promotion dreams were over. Dublin left soon afterwards, for Manchester United in a £1million deal.

John Beck was sacked in October 1992 with Cambridge battling relegation from the new Division One, and Birmingham midfielder and future Rovers boss Ian Atkins was named player-manager. Atkins was unable to steer the U’s clear of relegation (although he did take them to the quarter-finals of the League Cup) and he was replaced by Beck’s former assistant Gary Johnson in another future Bristol link.

Cambridge finished 10th in the 1993–94 Division Two campaign, but they struggled the following season. They may be considered unlucky to be relegated as a league reconstruction that season meant the team finishing 5th from bottom went down, which is where United finished.

Tommy Taylor was appointed manager just before Cambridge’s relegation to Division Three, and they were among the pre-season favourites for promotion. A 16th-place finish in 1995–96 was way below expectations, but a promising start to 1996–97 gave supporters hope for promotion success.


Taylor then moved to Leyton Orient and was replaced by former England international Roy McFarland, who delivered promotion back to Division Two in 1999.

Since achieving that promotion to Division Two in 1999, United have been plagued by a series of problems on and off the pitch. Historically, United like many other clubs have relied on big player sales to fund wages. When the player market dried up, the directors turned to loans, supporter fund-raising and eventually a ground sale to pay off debts.

McFarland left the club in March 2001, with John Beck returning and saving the club from relegation. However this time around Beck was less than successful and was sacked half-way through the 2001-02 season to be replaced by veteran striker and former Rovers favourite John Taylor who was given the role of player-manager. Taylor took Cambridge to the final of the LDV Vans Trophy where they made their only appearance at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The U’s were easily beaten, losing 4–1. Taylor was also unable to prevent relegation to Division Three. He remained in charge until March 2004, with Cambridge struggling in the bottom half of Division Three, when the club’s board terminated his contract and named Frenchman Claude Le Roy as his successor. Le Roy won four of the remaining eight matches and kept United in the league by a comfortable margin. The following season he made way for assistant Herve Renard  who in turn lasted just five months before being sacked and replaced by Steve Thompson. The two brightest prospects, Dave Kitson and John Ruddy were sold in 2004 and 2005 respectively, but the club’s debts remained at over £500,000.

Thompson was unable to save Cambridge from relegation and their relegation to the Conference – after 35 years in the Football League was confirmed. This downfall came just 14 years after the club won the old Third Division title, and just 13 years after they almost gained promotion to the inaugural season of the Premier League. With no prospect of repaying its debts of nearly £1 million, the Club filed for administration. As part of a cost-cutting exercise, Thompson and four other backroom staff were sacked by the administrators. Coach Rob Newman (another Bristol link)  took over as team manager.

In July 2005 the club came out of administration with a deal being struck with HM Revenue and Customs at the eleventh hour, after the intervention of the sports minister.

Financial troubles remained, although with the burden of huge debts now lifted, and in December 2005 it was revealed that the club were in talks with their city neighbours Cambridge City about a possible merger. It was suggested by both parties that the city of Cambridge, with a population of only 110,000, was not big enough to support two professional football clubs and a merger would be beneficial for both teams and guarantee the future of at least one team in the city. However, both sets of fans reacted badly to the news citing their club’s individual identities as obstacles, with City fans particularly anxious that it would be a takeover by United rather than a merger.

Long standing Club Chairman Reg Smart resigned from his role in early 2002 after 12 years in charge. Following brief stints from Gary Harwood (2002–5) and Roger Hunt (2005–6), Terry Baker took over the reins in February 2006. However, Baker’s tenure ended suddenly at a Board meeting on 5 June 2006 citing unworkable relationships within the board as his reason for resignation, which led to the appointment of Brian Attmore (Fans’ Director) as Acting Chairman on 6 Jun] The fallout from this event led major shareholder Paul Barry to claim there are “deep divisions within the club at staff and board level” and that a new board had to be put in place to ensure stability at the club so that it could achieve the aim of promotion back to the Football League. Any new board would have to continue to deal with financial troubles which were reaffirmed with the news in late June 2006 that fans group Cambridge Fans United had loaned the club £20,000 to pay wages.

On the eve of the 2006–07 season, it was announced that former Norwich City striker Lee Power would be the club’s new chairman taking over from Brian Attmore’s interim reign. Jonny Hon was also to rejoin the board as vice-chairman after John Howard’s resignation on conflict of interests grounds (owing to his ownership of Bideawhile 445 Ltd, United’s landlords). Director Paul Barry also confirmed in August 2006 that the club would break even the forthcoming season after a fresh injection of funds following Howard’s resignation. The team made an appalling start to the season, and Newman was sacked immediately after a 3–1 defeat by Exeter City. After speculation that current Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder was leaving Halifax to take up the post but in September 2006 the club announced Jimmy Quinn as the new manager, with Steve Castle as his assistant. In December 2006, the team suffered a humiliating 5–0 defeat to local rivals Histon in the FA Trophy  and subsequently suffered a run of six consecutive league defeats, which many supporters found unacceptable and led to calls for the manager’s dismissal. A seven match unbeaten run gave renewed optimism, and although this was ended with two consecutive 5–0 defeat, the 7–0 demolition of Weymouth and the 4–2 victory over champions elect Dagenham & Redbridge led to an atmosphere of positivity around the club. The U’s ensured conference safety by winning five of their last seven conference games.

A strong start to the 2007-08 season saw Cambridge United establish themselves as one of the favourites for the Conference title and promotion back to football league but unfortunately Cambridge missed out on the title to Aldershot Town who won the league and the sole automatic promotion place. Despite making it to the Conference play-off final, the U’s were beaten 1-0 by Exeter City who subsequently took the second promotion place. The following season, United again finished runners-up, this time to Burton Albion and by only two points. Once again they made it to the play-off final, only to be beaten for the second year in succession, to another Devon side Torquay United.

Four seasons of mid table mediocrity followed, before Cambridge re-emerged as promotion contenders in the 2013-14 season, their second season under the management of Richard Money. They finished second in the Conference and triumphed 2-1 over Gateshead in the playoff final to end their nine-year exile from the Football League. Money stayed for one more season at the Abbey Stadium, seeing Cambridge take Manchester United to a replay in the third round of the FA Cup, before being succeeded as manager by Shaun Derry.


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