The recent news that Cambridge United would be buying back the Abbey was greeted with cheers across the City, but how did we get here in the first place, and what does the future hold for the Abbey Stadium?
We’ve been playing on the current site since 1932, and it feels like there hasn’t been much development of the ground since then. The Habbin stand was built with the aid of fans back in 1954, and the Newmarket Road End, a small terrace that only caters for about 1/2 of the width of the pitch came around the same time. The Main Stand was extended down to pitch level in the 1970’s with a few rows of hugely uncomfortable bench seats, and the South Stand was built back in 2002, as the first phase of a ground redevelopment that was due to include a hotel and accomodation plus an impressive new frontage onto Newmarket Road. More recently, some paint around the ground, new toilets and an extension to the main stand hospitality suite and a new Portakabin for the club shop has been the extent of the investment in the stadium.
Those who’ve been following the club for some time will have seen much chat about the possibility of a move away from the Abbey, and even as far back as 1990 the club were researching the possibility although the council could never identify a suitable site. In the late 1990’s it was settled upon that we would redevelop the Abbey, moderninsing the stadium so the club could bring in much-needed non-matchday income from conferencing, executive boxes and hospitality, as well as the potential for a hotel behind the NRE. The current South Stand was the first phase of this, replacing the old Allotments End terrace.
Around this time ITV Digital entered the fray, offering Football League clubs large sums of money in exchange for the rights to show matches on TV – the deal was a disaster for all involved and ended up with the channel going into administration, shortly followed by a number of football clubs. After soldiering on for a couple of years, the burden of the uncompleted redevelopment, plus players signed on large contracts expecting healthy TV revenue caught up with United, and we were in big trouble financially.
At this point in stepped board member and property developer John Howard, who purchased the ground for £2,000,000, with chairman Gary Harwood claiming this money would enable the U’s to avoid going into administration. Despite vociferous protests at the clubs AGM, and a band of fans travelling to protest outside the homes of Howard and his co-conspirator, the sale was voted through and soon after United fell into administration, and were within minutes of going bust.
Howard charged an unsustainable rent of £200,000 per year, and it was in his best interests for United to go under, freeing up the site for him to develop housing on. We all know that Cambridge United don’t give up that easily though, and after surviving those early Conference years Howard eventually realised he wasn’t going to kill the U’s, and he sold to Grosvenor Estates.
Grosvenor – to give them their due – were decent landlords, and looked to work with the club to find a new home. Various sites were discussed, including Trumpington, Milton, Duxford, Shelford and finally a stadium served by a tram at the edge of the Marshalls site. The City Council, being as useless as they are put paid to the majority of these plans, and once the Mayor of Cambridgeshire cancelled the plan for a tram (that would have connected communities as far as St Neots and Haverhill via a network of tunnels under the City centre, but might just as well have been constructed from a fleet of flying pigs) then it looked like United were out of options again.
Then, in March 2022 the club tweeted to “stay tuned for some big news at 4pm”. As most U’s fans expected an announcement of a contract extension for one of the players, or a great deal on a crate of Carabao energy drink it actually turned out that majority owner Paul Barry, plus major shareholders Mark Green and Adam Webb had purchased the Abbey Stadium for a fair and reasonable price. What’s more, in a heartfelt letter to U’s fans where Barry talks about righting the wrongs of the past, he also stated that a Golden Share would be issued to suitable parties to ensure such things can never happen again.
So what does the future hold for the Abbey then? Despite the investment in the ground recently it still needs a hell of a lot of work to bring it up to date, and Barry has made it clear that we shouldn’t expect to see any major works in the near future. Hopefully that means the magnificent floodlights are safe for a while yet. On the plus side, it means we keep the Abbey, with all it’s soul and character, and it’s reasonable location, being just about close enough to the City centre that somewhere out by the A14 wouldn’t be.
Years down the line then yes, we will need a capacity increase, and even though the Supporters Club also own a chunk of the land fronting Newmarket Road, we should have enough to increase the size of the Abbey to give us the number of seats we need to establish ourselves at League One/Championship level. Realistically that’s probably going to be enough for the time being.
What’s important for now though, is despite the actions of John Howard, Gary Harwood, the City Council, every chancer that’s come into this club with bad intentions, all those ‘fans’ that deserted us for Histon in our time of need and everyone else that thought this little club, little old Cambridge, would falter and die is that we’re thriving, our future is in our hands and not those of some property developer and all over the City, all over the County as our horrid neighbours crash and burn out of the Championship yet again, you can hear loud and proud: CAMBRIDGE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED.