DREAMT UP FROM THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR!
FOR a few fleeting seconds, as Tom Elliott bore down on David De Gea, the impossible dream was on. Cambridge United, the smallest team in the FA Cup, were going 1-0 up at Old Trafford. Then Elliott slipped, left foot collapsing as he drew back his right. His miscued shot clipped the post, and with that clanking impact went the U’s only chance.
“It was agony,” said Cambridge defender Ian Miller, watching from the dugout. “It’s the sort of thing that you think about for the rest of your career. Tom’s big enough and ugly enough to brush it off but if that had gone in… you never know.” Cambridge’s players are entitled to deal in if onlys. And after watching Louis van Gaal’s superstars recover to grind out a routine 3-0 win, so are the 6,600 travelling fans.
But in the boardroom, those days are gone. No longer do the men in the Abbey’s corridors of power deal in fortune and happenstance.
Jez George has been at the club since 2006, first as head of youth, then as manager, now as chief executive. Described as “the heart and soul” of the club by U’s legend Dion Dublin, George arrived shortly after relegation to the Conference and saw a succession of chairmen throw money at promotion only to find themselves back at square one.
Whilst other fallen giants like Exeter, Oxford and Mansfield climbed back into the league, the U’s remained rooted, twice losing play-off finals. In 2011, they almost went bust.
“I think the club was almost in denial about being in the Conference,” says George.“The club would spend a lot of money on wages, either be successful or not,sack the manager,lose all the staff, then start all over again.There was no scouting network. A reliance on agents. It is the same at a lot of clubs, but not the well-run ones. You need to have something sustainable.”
It was then that George implemented his vision;no longer would the U’s be a cash cow for agents and mercenaries. They would grow their own players and put them on the park, come hell or high water. Now, four years on, they are back in League Two with an estimated £1m in the bank from that run to Old Trafford.
“I’m sure a lot of people laughed when we set up in the Conference with
a head coach and director of football,” adds George. “I think we were expected to fall flat on our faces.
“But we believed in bringing through our players, in having a solid scouting network. It took a fantastic head coach to accelerate the process but we feel it’s been validated.”
That coach is Richard Money, the former Luton and Walsall boss affectionately nicknamed Dickie Dosh by the Bescott faithful. A European Cup winner with Liverpool, the 59-year-old got the loudest cheer of the night when he responded to the travelling fans’ request for wave and afterwards spoke of his pride at how far the club had come.
“When you’ve been out the Football League for nine years, there isn’t much left,” he said. “For the last two or three years, this club been run by volunteers with a handful of full-time staff. That’s the reality. We’ve done brilliantly to get this far and we aren’t going to start do anything differently just because we’ve come to Old Trafford.
“We need a new stadium, more facilities. We’re a club that needs to grow and what the money means is that we can probably grow a little bit quicker than we thought.”
For the U’s fans, too, this was a chance to revel in a return to the big stage. Those old enough to survive without the internet still remember the days when John Beck’s bruisers challenged for a place in the inaugural Premier League.
Since then they have been, if not to hell and back, then certainly to Hyde and back.So many made the journey to Old Trafford that roads were blocked and kick-off delayed.
Once settled, they never stopped singing, branding Wayne Rooney ‘f***ing useless’ and revelling in telling £60m winger Angel Di Maria he was a waste of money. Even after Marcus Rojo, Juan Mata and James Wilson had wrapped things up, the shouts of ‘Richard Money’s Amber Army’ never slackened.
“They were awesome,” said Miller. “We took 6,600 fans and they out-sang 68,000 Man United fans all night long. Those people took time off work and made four-five hour round trips just to see us. That tells you which way the club is going.”
In some ways, Miller was the story of the night. Having ruptured knee ligaments during the U’s play-off victory over Gateshead at Wembley, the 31year-old club captain returned only in November and still lacks match fitness.
But Money – who called himself a big softy in the post-match press conference – always planned to give the defender a run and his number was finally held aloft in the 85th minute.
“I said to my wife before the game ‘I want to be able to tell my two little boys that their dad has played against Man United at Old Trafford’,” said Miller, who has spent the last six years in Non-League. “A lot of people can play for 20 years and never get the chance to play at a place like that in front of 74,000 people. It was a really nice gesture from Richard and my only regret was that my dad couldn’t get time off work to be there. He watched it on TV and I’m sure he was jumping round the room when I got on.
“It was a fantastic experience, not just for me put for everyone at Cambridge. So much hard work has gone into getting this club back in shape and I think Tuesday night was a reward for all of them.”
BANG ON THE MONEY: Richard Money was rightly proud of his players for their efforts at Old Trafford NIGHT TO REMEMBER: Cambridge United applaud their fans at full time, while Tom Elliott misses a rare early chance, right
SAY CHEESE! Josh Coulson and Ian Miller take a selfie