Cambridge United fans may have woken up with sore heads, the morning after drowning their sorrows after their play-off defeat to Exeter last month but, as the haze of Wembley clears, there’s a danger that the the club is still working off their own hangover and could be facing a difficult follow-up season.
After two seasons of stabilising after their relegation from the league in 2005, the U’s looked to have turned the corner with the appointment of Jimmy Quinn but after coming within 90 minutes of regaining their league status, Cambridge are somewhat in limbo with Quinn now gone and over half of the starting 11 at Wembley also departing the Abbey.
Back from the brink
The Us have had a rocky ride in recent years and last season’s on-the-pitch success came as welcome relief from several difficult seasons both on and off the pitch. It’s a far cry from the early 90s when, under the stewardship of John Beck, Cambridge came within a whisker of becoming the first team to achieve successive promotions from the fourth to the first division. Had they gone up, Beck’s unique if not overly attractive style of football would have seen the U’s become founder members of the Premier League.
That, though, was as good as it gone for Cambridge. The next season Beck was sacked and the club found themselves back in the second (or old third) division. Another relegation followed but despite a brief promotion back to Division Two, the U’s soon found themselves in the basement division and despite the fire-fighting from Steve Thompson, Cambridge tumbled back into non-league for the first time since 1970, when they’d replaced Bradford Park Avenue.
But at that stage, keeping the club alive was of more concern to fans and directors. Due to the collapse of ITV digital, the club’s debts had been steadily building as they slipped down the leagues and, in the season they were relegated to the Conference, the Abbey Stadium was sold for £1.9m to director John Howard’s holding company before being leased back to Cambridge. As part of that deal, the U’s pay £200,000 in rent each season, an arrangement that continues to this day.
That wasn’t enough to solve the cashflow problems and, on the verge of losing their league status, Cambridge filed for administration and took the ten point penalty in a desperate effort to stay afloat. The close season of 2005 was a nervy one for fans and, on several occasions, it seemed unlikely the team would make it through the summer. But on the even of the season, thanks in part to an intervention from Sports Minister Richard Carbon, the U’s exited administration after striking a team with HM Customs and Excise, their biggest creditor.
With the club’s future secure, new boss Rob Newman could finally get around to putting together a team of old pros, youth players and trialists who impressed pre-season. It wasn’t a squad to challenge for the title, but at least it was a squad.
For their first two seasons in the Conference, Cambridge were a mid-to-lower table side. Newman’s patched-together team flirted with relegation on occasions but finished strongly enough to suggest there was a decent spine throughout the side. While, on the pitch, the season couldn’t have been described as a success, the club was gradually becoming stable and looking to find its feet again.
But it took a difficult start to the 2006/07 season for any kind of corner to truly be turned. Newman was sacked after a dismal run of form and replaced by former Northern Ireland striker Jimmy Quinn, who had already guided Shrewsbury out of the Conference at the first attempt three seasons earlier, only to resign four months into the new season.
But Quinn had the nous and the experience needed and after a difficult bedding in period, including a five-nil loss to local rivals Histon, the second half of the season saw Cambridge avoid relegation on the last day of the season, but all the time Quinn was moulding the team he believed could take them back into the football league.
The squad he assembled for the following season did not, in football terms, come cheaply. It included the prolific Canvey Island striker Lee Boylan and former Chelsea trainee Rob Wolleaston among others and was a formidable team to break down, finishing the season with one of the best defensive records in the league.
The U’s were hardly out of the top five during the season but were never quite close enough to catch Aldershot and settled for a decent third, seeing off Burton in the play-off semis before ultimately losing out at Wembley to Exeter City. It’s at this point we join Cambridge fans in a state of limbo and uncertainty.
A play-off hangover may be a cliche but it’s not uncommon in the Conference since the the league received a second promotion spot in 2002. Hereford have faired better than most with three successive play-off spots before finally gaining promotion, but both Morecombe and Exeter managed to bounce back. But other sides, either overstretching themselves and forced to sell star player, or taking time to kick into gear the following season (or a mixture of both) have struggled after a top-five finish, most notably the now-collapsed Halifax Town, who were within a whisker of a return to the football league in 2005 before losing out to Hereford. Thereafter, Town spent much of their time battling relegation before collapsing financially.
Of the three sides who contested the playoff the season before Cambridge, only Exeter managed a top-five finish and even they struggled in the first couple of months. York found the going tough and needed to change their manager to pull away from the relegation zone, while Oxford, who’d budgeted for promotion, had to severely scale back and spent much of last season in transition.
The same could be true for Cambridge next season. Before Quinn’s departure several players, including tricky winger Courtney Pitt and veteran striker Leo Fortune-West were released before experienced defender Mark Albrighton left for promotion hopefuls Stevenage, while Wolleaston was lured away to big-spending Rushden and Diamonds. Then, after being told no more players were for sale, star striker Boylan was sold to Stevenage after claiming Quinn didn’t see the frontman as part of his plans.
Boylan’s departure took the number of players to leave the Abbey after Wembley to 11 and, just when fans were wondering what else could go wrong, news broke than Quinn would also be leaving, even though the then-manager was on holiday at the time.
If Quinn’s exit was a shock to fans, it was somewhat of a surprise to the Northern Irishman who waited several days before breaking his silence, although he refused to give the exact reason for his departure, other than mentioning instability behind the scenes and not seeing eye-to-eye with one director.
With pre-season only a couple of weeks away, no manager, 11 depatures, and just one new signing (Lee McEvilly, who’d been on loan from Accrington the previous season, and claimed not to get on with Quinn) Cambridge will have to move fast and take whatever footballing paracetemol is available if they’re to avoid next season being as disappointing as their first two back at non-league level.