In Conversation with Tom Champion: The Unsung Hero

There are some players who take the limelight, stealing it, grasping it and relishing in it. These are important players, which are few and far between and which are essential for any successful team. Equally as necessary TOM CHAMPION, The Unsung Hero

There are some players who take the limelight, stealing it, grasping it and relishing in it. These are important players, which are few and far between and which are essential for any successful team. Equally as necessary are the players who lie in the shadows, who do the dirty work; an interception here, a robust tackle there. Sometimes it’s as simple as occupying a space, not allowing a move to mount, strangling it and asphyxiating any attacking creativity before it has a chance to damage you.

Without these players, structure becomes obsolete, and the balance of a squad becomes a perfect matrimony of disorder and mismanagement. There is Claude Makélélé, N’Golo Kanté, Sergio Busquets, Patrick Vieira, Michael Carrick, Pep Guardiola. Gary Deegan, I guess (the argument from a successful team becomes rather obsolete in this instance). And for the U’s, in those radiant sunshine-y days, there was Tom Champion.

Tom Champion’s journey into the professional game is by no means ordinary. Originally a centre-back, and having trained with Watford’s academy as a schoolboy, Champion signed for Barnet where a promotion winning season back into the Football League saw him, as a 17 year-old, released and without a club, questioning his dream and sobering to the reality of life. At this point there was a crucial decision to make; pursue being a professional footballer in sacrifice of other options, or go to university in search of an education and a step into the real world. Tom chose university.

“I thought I could keep playing football as much as I could around it, but I guess that was me thinking professional football would be something that I ended up doing years later, if I ever did. You decide to go to uni for three years, the chances of you making it back into professional game are slim – it sort of puts you on a different track”.

Tom went to Birmingham University to study Sport Science, and throughout his three years travelled back to play for non-league Bishops Stortford every weekend, under ex-Arsenal Martin Hayes and alongside Steve Morison and Danny Green, amongst others. “He used to pretty much just let me travel back on the Friday, I’d play the Saturday, and then travel back up to Birmingham on the Sunday” – let’s leave a thought in for the other poor bastard putting hours into training every week just for some student to waltz in and steal his place every weekend. That bench can get really cold in the winter.

Even though this kept his eye in the game, after graduating Tom threw himself not into football, but into full-time employment as a Recruitment Agent at a Sports and Leisure Company.

“I moved from Bishops Stortford to play for Dartford, who were part time, so it was 9-5 hours and then going to training on a Tuesday and Thursday night, using most of my annual leave at work to travel up to Wrexham and Gateshead and all that.”

“I was aware that Cambridge wanted to sign me through Tom Bonner’s agent. The talk was that the following season Money was going to ship a load out and ship a load in and have a real go at it.”

“It sounded really exciting, but there was giving up a relatively stable 9-5 job, the whole routine, and I wasn’t sure how it would work with going back to full-time. It was a bit of a gamble really, in that sense I was a bit sceptical. But as soon as I spoke to Jez and Richard Money, they were both really keen and they had a real vision – they knew who they wanted to get and why they wanted to get them. They had a real idea of where they were going.”

“What made it a no-brainer for me is they made it clear why they wanted me specifically, and why they wanted somebody else specifically. It wasn’t ‘we’re just looking for a type of player’, it was ‘we want you to do this in our team’. They clearly defined exactly what they wanted in the team. They made it a no-brainer.”

“When I’m thinking back to it now it’s easy to say that ‘yeah, straight away we knew we were onto something’, but I genuinely do remember really early on in pre-season just feeling like we were going to be really good, even before the games started it was clear we actually were onto something. Everyone was there for the same reason, they had all bought into this thing, they had all signed for the same reasons and they’d all had the same conversations; ‘oh, they sold you the dream as well!’

In hindsight it seems obvious that what was key to this squad’s cohesion and unity was that everyone was the right type of person and the right type of player. Everyone was hungry for success for different reasons, players from smaller clubs like Champion and Bonner and players with a point to prove like Donaldson and Tait. They were the right ages, the right times in their career – no one from big clubs with big money, and no spoilt brats. This clear vision and idea of how they would balance the team is ultimately what made the squad so successful; hanging on to a key contingent of Berry, Coulson, Taylor, Dunk, and Elliot and bringing in the crucial game-changers that took the squad where it needed to be.

And so followed the greatest start to a season in recent U’s history. From a 5-1 demolition of Halifax on the opening day, United only lost twice in the league between then and the end of January. All that squad building, the preparation, the hard work and planning leading up to it had the finishing touch of a perfect, brutal execution.

“I remember hitting the ground running. I always think beating Halifax 5-1, in front of the cameras, that can happen because everyone’s feeling good and playing well on a nice sunny day, but for me it was always the games, away, somewhere horrible, where you’ve just got to be professional and win ugly – I know it’s a cliché.”

And it’s getting through these gritty, miserable away games, scraping points, using every ounce of resilience and grit, utilising the precise balance that Money had constructed – it’s what made this team so successful.

“We were just so resolute at that stage, it felt like if we scored first we’d win. It wasn’t a Total Football team; it was built on the fact that everybody knew their job so well.  Kwesi was another one, it just fitted perfectly. When he joined we weren’t even struggling but it was someone who could just take us to the next level, someone who you knew if there was a chance he was going to score. The timing was perfect because he became the go-to man for goals.”

One of the highlights of the first half of the season was a return to where it had all started for Champion, at Barnet. Saturday teatime in front of the cameras, United provided one of the first-half displays of the season and a showcase for one of our finest finishers in recent years. Some might also remember the assist for the second of Kwesi’s goals.

“I mean I’ll claim an assist but I think it’s more of a tackle, I’ve just tackled someone and it’s run through! I did end up going to play for Barnet again afterwards, and there was a few boys there who played that game, and I joked with them about that smoke bomb. It was crazy! There was a late corner, the ball goes up into the smoke, then the ball drops down and everyone’s waiting thinking the ball would drop way behind the bar, and it comes out of the smoke, dropped in front of the bar, hit someone and went in. And then the lino’s flagging so everyone’s like ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah!’, pointing over at him!”

As the season went on it was clear that United would be challenging right at the top, but the strength and relative power of Luton had proved too much and they went on to win the league by mid-April, a crucial late equaliser at the Abbey helping them on their way. Play-offs were all but confirmed, and for United fans it meant that same agonising route to regain league status that had proved unsuccessful years earlier. What was crucial was going into the play-offs on a decent run of form…

“We couldn’t have gone into the play-offs in any worse form. There was a lot of talk of ‘uh-oh’, and obviously you try not to pay attention. I’d be lying to say if things didn’t change because we’d been so consistent and knowing what type of team we were for so long that towards the end when things started to slip a little bit you start to ask yourself if we’re gonna throw it away, and all of those negative things do come into play a little bit. As a manager when you’re winning and everything’s going well you’re just able to concentrate on the next match and then the next match etc. As soon as things start to slip a little it’s difficult not to get too panicked.”

“Cullen’s equaliser [at the Abbey] was one of the low memories, because obviously us and Luton were battling the whole way through, and because of Richard Money and his connection there that was the grudge match, and we had to win just to make a little bit of ground up and stop them winning it there and then. Subconsciously it probably did have an effect on the squad, because of the start to the season that we’d had and being so far ahead of them at one point, seeing that go you start looking over your shoulder rather than looking forward a little bit more. So it was probably in the back of people’s minds, but I still think that we’d had enough confidence and enough about us to know that on our day we’d be better than most teams and we could get it together again. We knew it was still there.”

“I think we knew that looking within ourselves, if you threw that same starting 11 out on the pitch each week we’d be able to find a way to win, but it had been so long since we’d had that winning feeling going into the playoffs that I think probably everyone was a little bit nervous thinking ‘are we gunna get this together or not?’.

And then, all of a sudden, the play-off semi-finals were upon us. It would begin where it had begun at the start of August, against a club from a minster town in West Yorkshire. A Lee Gregory penalty for Halifax had been enough to kick-off the play-off campaign in the worst way possible.

“Personally, I remember having one of the worst game I’ve ever had. Not just for Cambridge that year, but in general. That result hit so hard after the game, you start to think the worst a little bit, that after the season that we’ve had we can’t be throwing it away now. I remember being so low, thinking we’re going to have to really dig deep to try and pull this out of the bag.”

And, my word, did we.

“Obviously, Delano, that guy. There wasn’t really any sign leading into that game that he was going to be the one to pull us out, but he always threatened. On his day he was unplayable at times but he was just inconsistent, a bit up and down, he hadn’t played regularly. But when he was flying, he was flying. He was an instinctive player, off the cuff. That day on the final whistle there was a feeling we’d just needed to try and stop the rot of all those performances. It turned the tide on Wembley, and we knew that in a one-off game we would back ourselves. We also knew that Gateshead would be going into the game as a kind of free-hit, because they were maybe not expected to challenge at the start of the season to end up where they were, so it was a little bit more of an unknown thing with them.”

“Leading up to the game, one of the things the club were so good at was they didn’t let anybody get carried away with build up, doing interviews and media stuff, and getting really distracted. I remember they were dampening it down. We weren’t even that overawed about the fact it was Wembley because we’d been there for the Trophy final which made a massive difference. After the Trophy final I remember the celebrations being really clinical. They were probably about an hour old before Richard Money’s saying ‘just remember this, put it behind us now because we’re going to come back here in a couple of months and win the promotion final’.”

“Money was saying this is just another game we’ve got to win to get where we want to get to. There was no talk of enjoy the occasion, it was we’re here to win, we have to win. Block out what’s around you, all we have to do is beat Gateshead to get where we want to get to.”

It was hot, hotter than anything. It was not just nerve-racking, but as if my central nervous system had been taken hostage, tortured to within an inch of it’s electrical impulses, and spat out to die on the street; shaking, pale and terrified. Hughesy’s salmon-like leap to nose United ahead went someway to calm us, but then mid-way through the half the referee gives a free-kick, and there follows one of the most iconic moments in Cambridge United’s history.

“I remember standing behind Donaldson’s free-kick thinking if this goes in, it’s the moment. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a feeling like that goal ever. I don’t know how Ryan must have felt putting that in, I think I’d have run out of the stadium if it was me, non-stop celebrating for about a week! It sounds pathetic, but I remember collapsing, sort of sinking to my knees. It’s the adrenaline more than anything else, you don’t know whether to run, jump, cry, laugh.”

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“Then you have to navigate another 20 minutes, but it felt like playing another full 90. I sat much deeper, and I remember being told not to move, just stay there and head and kick anything that comes your way. Looking back there’s always those defining moments, and there was definitely a bit of that seeing Ian Miller hobbling off and everyone’s looking at each other, sun beating down, and it’s ‘right boys, this is it’.”

And it was it. It was to be the end of nine years’ non-league isolation (for now…).  That team has since gone down in history, and justifiably so. The project had worked. If Josh Coulson was the beating heart of that team, Ian Miller the muscle, Kwesi the looks, Berry the energy, then Tom Champion was the veins that tied it all together. Unrelenting and uncompromising, under the surface and under the radar. And what had brought it all together? Richard Money, the brains behind it all.

“I have nothing but positive memories from the way that he was, being the manager that took us to where everybody wanted to be. He led all of those boys to their dream season, winning twice at Wembley, getting promoted, and getting the club back to where it should be. You could feel the buzz of the club just growing, everyone got addicted to the fact we were a part of something that was going to make history. We are the team that is going to live on, and Richard Money is the man that led us there.”

“That season he was the best manager I’ve ever had. Just as a coach, his attention to detail, how clearly defined he made everybody’s role in that time, tactically he was unbelievable at making us this machine that could grind out results. I’ve never met somebody so emotionally invested, and the best managers are obsessed, and that year he was obsessed with getting it right.”

“That was probably why when we had a bit of a blip, he wasn’t the sort of manager to be like ‘okay, don’t worry, put that to bed that’s fine’, it would drive him insane. He was the most intense man, it all came from this goal and that relentless drive, when we were wobbling a bit there was a sense that he was struggling to keep his emotions at bay to keep a level head about it because he was just so hungry and obsessed for the whole year, he just couldn’t accept us being second best.”

“At that time it had just been one good thing after the next; promotion, starting the season and doing well, the feeling around the place at the time was like nothing I’d ever had.”

And the reward came in the form of a lucrative FA Cup draw, not Sutton at home or Guiseley away (bit of a sore spot this), but Manchester United, the most successful team in English football. This was a fixture to savour, not a nerve-shattering, traumatising 90+ minutes, but one we could enjoy, and hope in the way only cup draws like this let you. Champion himself had the deserved honour of captaining the U’s on both nights.

“At the time Man United weren’t the Man United that they were, but… I remember watching the draw at home on my own in a flat in Clapham, and we came out of the hat and being disappointed that we weren’t away, and thinking the only way we can make up for that is pulling someone big, and then that comes out!”

“Weirdly, going into the game, we had belief that we could do something against them. Even in the preparation it wasn’t like ‘oh just go out there and enjoy it lads’, we were preparing against those stars as if they were League 2 players, Richard Money on the analysis board, instead of it being Morecambe it was Falcao. It was hard not to giggle at times. I mean, how do we deal with Falcao and Di Maria? How do we contain that?!”

“As the captain I would go into the referee’s room before games. I remember before the game, it was me, Richard Money, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. The ref’s giving his spiel and I’m just gazing into Giggs’ eyes.”

“After the first 10 minutes the feeling just grew. 0-0 after 20 minutes this is a good start, we’ve settled. If you go 1-0 down early on in a game like that it’s like bursting a balloon. There was a lot of talk in the team that the longer we keep it at 0-0, the atmosphere would just build, cheering every misplaced pass, and I remember Phil Jones kicking the ball off the pitch a few times and it got the biggest cheer, celebrating a misplaced pass like it was a goal!”

“Half-time we came in at 0-0 and we were sort of having to remind ourselves that it’s them. Everyone’s just on the job like it’s a normal game and it only starts to sink in last 10 minutes. We’re 10 minutes away from achieving something that will mean so much for the club. It’s nothing like the last 10 minutes against Gateshead, because that’s just pure, pure pressure, anything else is going to be a failure, but it was like something special is so close it made everybody more excited and play better. ”

It all came down to Old Trafford, 9,000 U’s on a pilgrimage, the glamour cup tie and (with great regret) the magic of the cup, I guess. It wasn’t about winning, it was just being there. 75,000 people watching Ryan Donaldson and Tom Champion. It was deserved. Imagine if we could score, if we could just score…

“I remember shutting down a pass to somebody, and Daley Blind puts a bad pass in and Tommy Elliot was in. Time stood still, I’m watching someone from my team baring down on David De Gea, he’s about to score! And I’m half off, half sprinting. There’s that moment, he has so much time to think, any other time in a League 2 game he probably just slides that in, but he just tried to put too much on it, it just clips the outside of the post. The difference that would’ve made for our fans going 1-0 up at Old Trafford, it’s unbelievable.”

“[Before the game] I was in the ref’s room with Rooney, who was captain that night, and thinking this is my opportunity to ask for his shirt early before anyone gets dibs on it. I remember it was so awkward, like what do I even call him? Wazza? Wayne? Mr Rooney? But they were all really nice, Mata being the nicest guy. Him and Donaldson swapped shirts, Mata gave Ryan his shirt and Ryan looked at him and Mata was waiting around and said ‘so can I get your shirt?’ and Ryan thought he was joking; ‘you want my shirt?!’, probably thinking more about the £30 he’d have to give up for it!”

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That’s a privilege for you, Juan, that fabled amber and black number 7. Looking back now, for all the good, for all the bad, for all the in-betweens, it proved that the two week period between the two cup ties was to be the high point, the summit and the magnificent reward for this magnificent team.

“Second half of the second season, I think [Money] had reached a point where he’d lost a bit of trust with the players that they could be the team he wanted them to be. Once we’d been on a bad run long enough and the form wasn’t what he wanted, he struggled to bring that back again and being back to the manager that he was before when things were going well.”

“And that was maybe his downfall, because a couple of losses suddenly felt like the end of the world and so a month without winning all the players were feeling like we were letting him down, how has this happened, we don’t recognise ourselves, all of that started creeping in but actually we’re doing alright. All of the players that had gone up with him were definitely not looking at him like it was his fault, it was more everybody was feeling so down on themselves.”

“He changed the playing squad a little bit but we still had a real core of the players that got promoted, and I can safely say that none of the lads that got promoted with him were sniping behind his back, especially when you’ve been through a season like we had been through with him. There was none of that. When you’ve achieved what we had achieved, we had his back. There was a sense that it wasn’t the same anymore, but not so far that players had lost it with him.”

“I definitely didn’t want to leave. We’d finished on a bit of a lull rather than all the highs we’d been used to, but they were still the best two seasons ever. There was a lot of talk towards the end about whether Money was going to stay, so I think a lot of the players weren’t sure what was going to happen.”

“There’d been plenty of talk mid-way through the season around January when it was just one good thing to the next. I’d been offered a new contract a couple of times and was really keen to sign it, but for whatever reason I said ‘oh no rush, I’m enjoying myself, we can deal with it at the end of the season’. The longer time went on, the team wasn’t doing so great and I lost a bit of my form, and it’s football, the picture changes so quickly. I still wasn’t sure coming to the end of the season whether I was going to get the offer again, but I still assumed there would be an offer there for me. I met with Richard and Jez at the training ground and they said ‘we’re gunna let you go, we’re getting some fresh ideas, some new impetus’. Money had said if he was going to carry on in the job he needed new faces, new people to buy into what he wanted to do. They were trying to go a whole new direction I think, and I sort of took it on the chin.”

“I still remember being surprised. We got on great, we had a really good relationship, so I think they were sort of reluctantly saying that we were going to go our separate ways, but we ended on really good terms. Their words were ‘we’re not sure it’s the right decision but that’s the decision we’ve made and we’re going to move on’. I remember leaving then and being like ‘oh, right…’, because I hadn’t really thought about other options. It was the end of that chapter.

“In football you can have a long career but you very rarely get somewhere where you’re just going to have such a good time and pure success for two years. I think they felt they wanted a new set of ears and new ideas, and sometimes it works or sometimes it doesn’t, they could have easily hit the ground running with that fresh set of players like they did with us and it could have gone one way, there’s so many sets of variables.”

In essence, the idea was to get rid of almost the entire squad, start from scratch. The club decided to back the manager not the players, but in the end maybe it was too much change all in one go. We can argue whether this decision was right for the club – it’s not as if we haven’t seen a few fabulous players in and out of the club since – but the old romantic in me would favour keeping the squad together, pandering to the team that had been so successful and which everyone, unanimously, to a man, loved and adored.

“Fans get the sense when there’s something to get behind. It’s not even to do with ability, and you know people are capable. It comes back to getting the right type of people so that there’s a real solid foundation there, and then the flair players add to that, but you have to have a solid identity of what Cambridge United are and what type of team we are. You can quite easily lose that when you change a lot of players. It either really works if it connects early or it doesn’t and you have to ship out more players and get new players in and you’re on a bit of an endless cycle.”

“I follow Cambridge all the time, and it seems they haven’t managed to find that real consistency. I thought it was going to go from strength to strength because everything was there on the outside, I thought they’d go and recruit really well, but sometimes it takes something to kick start it all again.”

“I just felt I had so much more to offer, but I sort of understood. That was always the frustration because you look back now and think ‘ah what could have been’, reaching what you wanted to do but with that team, just go again, go again, keep building something, it felt like there was more left to do.”

“I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I still play against some of the boys from that team. I played Ryan against Hartlepool last week and you just have that instant thing, as soon as you see each other there’s an instant connection and a bond that doesn’t go. If you asked that to all the lads they’d all say yes straight away.”

It’s one of those memories now, vapid and wistful, too far away to touch but so near as to remember every smell, every sound, every goal. These were the heroes, and these were the days. As far as I’m concerned, I’d have done everything possible to keep that team as together as possible. It was clear they were born for victory and bred for success.

In the gloom of current affairs, it’s important to reminisce on these times, because as a football fan it’s all about these moments, these teams that inspire you and consume your every moment. We have had far many better technically gifted players pass through our days since, but there is no replacement for effort, togetherness, and playing for a cause. Tom Champion, more than anyone, embodied this. Unpretentious, un-flashy, unglamorous, but the perfect and unique fit.

Oh captain, my captain. They were the best of times, they were simply the best of times.

are the players who lie in the shadows, who do the dirty work; an interception here, a robust tackle there. Sometimes it’s as simple as occupying a space, not allowing a move to mount, strangling it and asphyxiating any attacking creativity before it has a chance to damage you.

Written by Julian Roberts. Illustrations by Jamie Cranwell.

This article appeared in Issue #2 of the Under The Abbey Stand fanzine. If you’re mad and you haven’t bought one yet, we have some knocking around in a garage somewhere. Follow this link to get one, read loads of good stuff, and help the UTAS lads out: https://undertheabbeystand.com/shop/

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