By Vinyl Perez for Issue 2 of Under The Abbey Stand fanzine, still available here.
They say learning to drive is a rite of passage, and as a seventeen year old there was nothing more I was looking forward to than getting behind the wheel for the first time. However, events of Autumn 2000 conspired to not only derail my motoring ambitions but also Cambridge United’s 2000/01 season. Read on.
The 2000/01 season was our second in Division Two (now League 1) after the great promotion season of 98/99. We got off to a decent start, beating Bristol City and Notts County and holding Bournemouth and Oxford to draws. With an attack including an ever-improving Tom Youngs, raw talent Zema Abbey, and prolific-for-Ipswich-Reserves Swedish star Jonas Axeldal, United were looking primed for a challenge that season.
But trouble was brewing outside of United’s control. The day before the Rotherham game farmers blockaded an oil refinery in Cheshire, whilst the next few days saw protests at Avonmouth, Cardiff and Milford Haven in protest at high levels of fuel duty. As a youngster having his first few driving lessons I wasn’t too concerned.
Rotherham had plenty of fuel in their bus as they arrived in Cambridge on Saturday. They got off to a strong start with Mark Robins (erstwhile saviour of Alex Ferguson’s job) putting the Millers ahead after only eight minutes. Spurred into action, United surged forward with the mercurial, and hugely underrated midfield dynamo Ian Ashbee drawing the U’s level on 17 minutes, and putting us ahead on 25. Twenty minutes later Tom Youngs popped up to give United a two-goal cushion on the stroke of half time.
Kicking off the second half, a pre-contract dispute Zema Abbey got a fourth, before Jonas Axeldal, a player who promised so much after scoring somewhere in the region of a goal a game for Ipswich Reserves, scored a fifth. It was left to Tom Youngs to round off the scoring to see a comprehensive victory for the U’s.
The following week saw Port Vale travel to the Abbey and leave on the wrong end of a 4-0 scoreline, with captain fantastic Paul Wanless, Alex Russell, Tom Youngs (again) and life and soul of the Christmas party Steve Slade getting the goals.
In the background, the fuel protests rumbled on, with further refinery blockades, the closure of over 3,000 petrol stations, and long queues of panic-buying customers outside the petrol stations that did remain open. Bus services, food deliveries and, worryingly for me, driving lessons were being cancelled everywhere.
After the 6-1 and 4-0 wins against Rotherham and Port Vale, United were due to travel to Swindon – they like every other football team in the country having secured enough diesel for the team bus to make the journey west.
Now, I’m not saying Swindon didn’t want to play the free-scoring U’s that weekend, but mindful of a thrashing they came up with the mother of all excuses. Their stewards didn’t have enough petrol in their cars to get to work and ensure the game could go safely ahead. Whinging to the FA, they somehow managed to get the game postponed until a Tuesday night a few weeks later. No other game in the Premier or Football League was postponed that weekend.
United, having had a week off, had now lost their momentum, and succumbed to a 3-0 home defeat to Bristol Rovers. When Swindon’s stewards eventually made it down to their nearest BP garage, we lost the rearranged game 3-1 on Halloween.
Can we blame Swindon for the subsequent implosion of our fortunes since then? It would be easy to, but to be honest, despite that bit of early season form we just weren’t very good that year. Despite players like Alex Russell, Lionel Perez and Ian Ashbee the rest weren’t quite up to scratch for the rigours of Division Two. Jonas Axeldal turned out to be shite, and Steve Slade wasn’t much better, whilst Zema Abbey upset the harmony in the dressing room by engineering a move to Norwich. A 4-1 defeat at Cripple Sidings Lane to that lot up the A1, and a 5-1 home drubbing by Millwall ensured United were in a relegation battle until the end of the season, although eventually safety was assured.
As karma would have it Swindon finished one point and one position below us, but sadly still stayed up. The bastards. Despite the cancelled lessons I passed my driving test a month or so later, and managed to write my Fiesta off another three months after that.