Into The Rabbit’s Warren

The Abbey Rabbit kicked off a long line of Cambridge United fanzines, and has been a huge inspiration for us here at UTAS. Others including Planet Amber, One Wonky Antler, The Amber Rollercoaster and United in Endeavor have been and gone, but the Rabbit soldiered on for fifty issues, under the stewardship of Dave Filce, Nigel Pearce, Mark Johnson and Steve Jillings.

Originally published in 1997 as the Abbey Rabbit celebrated its fiftieth edition, one of its founding editors, Nigel Pearce, recalls how it all started…

A RABBIT IS BORN

THE PROTAGONISTS

Millwall Dave (Filce) and myself were both members of the pathetically small band who trekked around the old Second Division with the Us during the sadly underrated Docherty era. But as John Ryan* and then Ken Shellito subsequently did their best to destroy the club, and we slid down the divisions to the verge of extinction, so Dave and I had both had enough and retreated from the scene – Dave to get married and a move from Peckham to Harlow (a glutton for punishment), and myself to study second generation west coast psychedelia. Gradually, though, we both started to creep back. Like giving up smoking, the craving is never gone – it hides in your subconscious waiting for a moment of weakness to return, stronger than ever…

THE BACKGROUND

By 1986 and 87 the U’s were in a real twilight period, hanging around the bottom half of the old fourth under Chris Turner (respect), the man who had saved our skins. Crowds often dipped under 2,000 and the allotment end was closed when the back wall started to fall down. Some truly dreadful players populated the team around this time – remember Ricky McEvoy, Lil Fuccillo, Les Lawrence, Neil Horwood, Jon Rigby, Wayne Ebanks and Mark Crowe? Not to mention Ian Benjamin. And we had taken Andy Sayer on loan from Wimbledon, what a w*nker he was. Things at the Abbey were pretty bleak (draw on this if you think things are bad at the moment), but more significantly football in general was on its dramatic popularity slide that would end only with Hillsborough, Italia 90 and Sky TV cash.

THE IDEA

But it was during these dark days the footie fanzine surfaced. Fanzines demonstrated that the popular hooligan image of the football fan, post Heysel and the rest, was not totally accurate and there was some humour knocking around the terraces. Reading  ‘When Saturday Comes’ in 1987 you would have seen about a dozen club fanzines listed. Dave and I had asked ourselves what it would take to get CUFC amongst that slowly growing number, and, following a particularly horrid FA Cup defeat at home to Yeovil, we badly needed a distraction. We decided to give it a go. 

THE NAME

I always imagined that one day I would start a band. Trouble was, some SoBs called Half Man Half Biscuit (student-rock at its very worst) stole my thunder, refusing to appear on The Tube once because their beloved Tranmere were at home. Bastards, that was going to be my trick – the Us played a lot of Friday night home games then. Anyway, the hardest part about forming your own band, I imagined, would be agreeing on a name.

Same would apply with a fanzine, but the name ‘The Abbey Rabbit’ didn’t excite much of a debate. For any younger readers (or anyone else who hasn’t quite grasped it) it was a delcious spin on an old Abbey National Building Society slogan (‘Get the Abbey habit’) combined with the cocker-ney term for incessant chatting (‘to rabbit’, popularised by the spoof North London pop duo Charles & David). The Abbey Rabbit. Geddit? Subline. The alternative was ‘Ian Benjamin couldn’t score when he was in the Stylistics either’, but it didn’t quite trip off the tongue.

THE LOGISTICS

Neither of us had done anything like this before. My missus, Lynn, used to contribute to the odd punk fanzine, but that was it. We scribbled a lot of nonsense, and commissioned a few articles. We even got them typed up by people here and there. Lynn’s sister could draw, so we got her to design us a logo and sketch a few cartoons and illustrations (and they were excellent, if I say so myself). This was hard work, we were going to have to get a momentum going so that as many people as possible could contribute. People would get sick and tired of reading crap from the same old tossers anyway. Too right.

Then we needed a printer. My art fella worked for the Cambridge University Press, but all I got from him was a load of piss-taking. Printers didn’t really want to know. “A what? A fanzine?”. We eventually tracked down a bloke and his dog in Catford who were up for it. This was Dave’s old manor, of course, and what a delightful place it was  – I remember the Kentucky had bars at the counter to protect staff from the locals. Russ jones of the Catford Copy Centre now reckons he is the country’s leading fanzine printer and advertises all over the place. Owes it all to the Rabbit.

THE POINT

Essentially the Rabbit was to be a platform for fans to discuss United. Don’t forget in those days there was no Radio Cambridgeshire football phone-in, and certainly no fans forums. If you had something to say you wrote a letter to Randall Butt. We didn’t know anything about how the Club was being run, who ran it even, but to be honest we didn’t care. We didn’t know anyone inside the Club, and we didn’t want to know anyone. As ordinary fans we just wanted to produce something on Cambridge United for other fans to read. Simple as that. No agendas. Let’s just do it and see where it goes. Oh, and it had to be funny. 

THE BUILD-UP 

This was getting exciting. We wanted the Rabbit to be totally independent, so we had made no contact whatsoever with the Club. At the home match prior to the launch (Orient, a rare win, 2-0 sealed by the excellent on-loan Ronnie Hildersley) we distributed a leaflet. It said simply the Abbey Rabbit, unofficially Cambridge United, was coming. Oooh. We did some marketing and persuaded a few local shops to sell it, too. And it turned out Sportspages bookshop in London was run by a United fan, so he’d shift some for us, no sweat.

THE BIG DAY

Tranmere Rovers, Saturday 19 March 1988. We had four of us selling – Millwall Dave, his wife Diane, Lynn and me. The Commercial Manager then was a charismatic individual called John Carter. He soon spotted Dave and Diane outside the Newmarket Road entrance, panicked and got the police. But we were not trespassing, and the Bill confirmed that as long as we were not causing an obstruction we could carry on. Nice one. I was at the Habbin footbridge, and the programme seller there took an immediate dislike to me. He accused me of being a student (below the belt). The louder I shouted my wares, the louder he shouted his. The Bill introduced themselves as they had done to Dave and Diane. Such fun. Lynn was covering the Main Stand in Cut Throat Lane. We had the place surrounded.

As kick-off arrived we packed up and went to watch the game (it finished 1-1, a late penalty equaliser conceded by the hapless Les Lawrence). I can still remember the halftime tannoy announcement: “There is a magazine on sale today which has absolutely nothing to do with the football club. Please do not buy it.” We moved around the ground to sell a few more – under the jacket, like. “Psst, wanna buy a fanzine?” It must have been like this in the French Resistance. We had printed a very optimistic 300 copies and sold the lot (we shifted over 1,000 copies of later issues). 

THE AFTERMATH

The following week we were ‘invited’ to see John Carter and Roy Johnston (the then secretary, physio, youth team coach, groundsman, chaplain and head chef). On a wall in the office was pinned a copy of our flyer from the Orient game – it had been found on the ground, handed in for forensic tests and then posted as a ‘wanted’ notice. We explained that our motives were honourable, and that we were not part of a national fanzine publishing set up! JC pointed out that programme sales for the Tranmere game were the lowest for years. Yes we said, but so was the attendance – a measly 1,400! But a compromise was found – we would be allowed to sell inside the ground so that we could not be confused with the programme sellers outside. Later we were the subject of a Board meeting, but we heard nothing further. 

My best moments as editor had certainly been that first issue, and later interviews with Bill Lievers, Peter Butler and David Crown (the last two in Southend after they had outrageously been sold). I would have had an interview with Laurie Ryan too, but I tackled him a bit worse for wear at Lincoln after a 3-0 defeat and literally frightened him off (he was only small).

I bowed out after about 8 issues and a couple of years. Pressures of work and some editorial differences you understand. Our hope was always that the Rabbit, once established, could be passed on to fresh, younger hands. Mark and then Steve subsequently provided those hands… well they are fresh! Since my time the Rabbit has appeared to move closer to, and then back away from the Club, but most importantly (and whatever people think of it and its editors) it has always provided a platform for fans to have their say. QED.

*Stop press: John Ryan has just been sacked after 4 unsuccessful months in charge of Dulwich Hamlet. How do people with CVs like his (and Ian Atkins’) continue to get jobs in football? 

You can read The Abbey Rabbit Issue 1 in full on the Coconuts site. Copies of the Abbey Rabbit pop up on eBay every now and again, and you can get copies of Under The Abbey Stand from our online shop.

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