Adventures in Football #65: Abbey Stadium (Cambridge Utd)
OCTOBER 1, 2022
CAMBRIDGE UNITED vs. DERBY COUNTY (League 1)
I don’t hide the fact that I enjoy League 1 football. I’ve been to 13 League 1 grounds, which is more than any other league. I have a soft spot for half the division. Let’s hope for more of the same here!
Cambridge started life as Abbey United in 1912 but weren’t in any kind of competitive league until 1947. Their first FA Cup venture in 1945-46 they lost 8-0 to Cambridge Town. Football club names can get complicated. Cambridge Town changed their name to Cambridge City, for obvious reasons. While City have never advanced beyond tier six of the pyramid, Cambridge United have gone on to become a league team. They did so in 1970, having won back-to-back Southern League titles. This was back when you had to be elected to the league. Their election sent Bradford Park Avenue into non-league football. They never came back.
As a league team Cambridge have been a solid also-ran for the most part. They’ve been up and down the pyramid with rapidly changing fortunes at times. League 1-2 for the most part but they had a run in the second tier back in the late 70s, culminating in a P8 finish in what was then division two in 1980. One place above Newcastle United. However, by 1985 they were back in division four. The glory wasn’t over yet for Cambridge though and in 1990 and 1991 they made it to the quarter finals of the FA Cup. Losing to Crystal Palace and Arsenal respectively.
In those seasons Cambridge shot back up the leagues and finished P5 in division two the season before the Premier League was founded. They missed out in the play offs but were that close to being founder members of the Premier League. John Beck had performed minor miracles at Cambridge, but he was fired the following season and the club went into freefall.
In 2005 they ran into such horrendous financial problems that they had to sell Abbey Stadium, went into administration, were docked points and got relegated out of the league. Many teams in modern times have discovered that the Conference is hard to get out of. Really hard! Cambridge were there for 9 years, failing twice in the play offs before finally escaping in 2014 with a 2-1 win over Gateshead at Wembley in the play-off final. They also won the FA Trophy the same year, beating Gosport 4-0.
Back in the league Cambridge were promoted to League 1 in 2021 and recorded a respectable mid-table finish at their first attempt. The Abbey Stadium has just returned to club hands with various attempts to move to a new site having fallen through. The new plan is to expand and improve the existing ground. Unlike most football league grounds the Abbey isn’t all-seater. Only two sides are seated and the other two contain terracing. It’s almost as if the ground has only been halfway modernised because they were trying to build a new stadium and failed!
Game day and it’s on the road to sunny Cambridge. It’s hot AF today and everyone is out enjoying the sunshine. Which is unfortunate because Cambridge is the worst place in the world for traffic. I thought driving to Wembley on a Monday evening was bad. Holy shit, this sucked! It took 30 minutes to drive the last two miles and every car park was full. The car park I was aiming for? Full. So, we made a last gasp decision and went to park at the train station, which is £12.50 for 24 hours.
Because this is a guide, of sorts, I’ve circled where you should park if you go to Cambridge United. It’s the Abbey Leisure Complex, which is right by the ground and has free parking. I didn’t even see it. There’s also street parking all around this area. The central part of Cambridge is an absolute nightmare for cars though. A nightmare. Get there early and chill out. This was as close to missing kick-off as I’ve ever had.
On the way in we did drive past Parker’s Piece, the former home of Abbey United and a piece of footballing history. The location of the first game to take place under “Cambridge Rules”. We also spotted an insane number of cyclists. I’ve never seen so many people on bicycles. There are probably more bikes than people in Cambridge. Given how atrocious traffic conditions were this is a hardly a surprise. We took the route of a Victorian walking tour of the city before following the flow and spotting the distant floodlights.
And of course, we ended up on the wrong side. How does this happen every fucking time? After trying to walk around the ground and realising there’s a bloody allotment in the way we headed back to the road, past the club shop and down an alleyway to the actual entrance. Considering we left home in the morning and the journey time was around 2 hours, it’s now 2.45pm. On entering the ground, we tried to follow directions for Block F. We ended up under the main stand and the only way out was Block B. Another guy behind me asked if it was Block F. “I don’t know” was my honest reply and we headed back down, past some offices and stuff and into what might have been the changing rooms. There was a guy down there who helped guide us back out to the actual entrance. It’s a maze under there.
You can see the directions here on the left; Block A up the steps, all other blocks left. I must have missed a sign. On actually getting into the right block, we went down the wrong steps and found ourselves in Block E. What a fucking mess!
Maria needed to go to the toilet, so I did the noble husband thing and stood holding her coat while admiring the terracing. If I’d come here alone, I would definitely have stood up either here or in the background. One of the perks of getting completely lost under the stand was running into Marvin the Moose on the way out of the dungeon.
A selfie with a league mascot! What a day out!
We sit down and the game literally kicks off about a minute later. We were in our seats with seconds to spare. A close encounter. Not as bad as West Brom, where we missed 15 minutes of the game because of the terrible traffic but almost a disaster. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find a plan B on my phone because the mobile data in Cambridge was abysmal. I assume everyone was on their phones trying to find alternate routes. I’ve got some time to take in my surroundings and the obvious elephant in the room is that I can’t see the goal off to the right. The problem with older stadia is that, despite their charm, they were designed a hundred years ago and there are poles.
Off to the left it’s better and these are the Derby travelling support. They’ve packed that end out and were very loud throughout the game. It’s also worth noting there’s a huge space behind that goal. Have they made the pitch shorter? There’s no such space at the other end. If a Derby fan tried to run on the pitch he’d have been out of breath before getting to the touchline. Also, the family zone in the corner off to the left, which is a very weird choice. Sticking them next to the away fans? I’ve never seen that.
Oh hey, sup G?
My view is excellent, pole aside, and this is what it looks like to the naked eye. The first half isn’t a bad game of football but the work in the final third, from both sides, leaves a lot to be desired. Derby should have scored in the first minute as the Cambridge keeper came steaming out and left his net open. The shot from the angle slid wide. Zeno Ibsen-Rossi made a horrific blunder for the opener. His attempt to pass back to the keeper was to barely kick the ball and a thankful James Collins (formally of Luton) nipped in with the finish. 1-0 Derby and Cambridge only have themselves to blame.
That’s half time so I stand up to get this shot of the main stand. It’s a big one. The main stand contains the dugouts, media box, hospitality and the family zone. It’s a busy stand and the most useful of the four they have here. The away end is serviceable, and you’d like to think one of terraces can stay put so that makes the Habbin Stand a prime target for renovation. I’m sure the owners would love to bulldoze the entire thing and start over.
It being an old stand, how’s the legroom I hear you ask? Well, I ended up with a bruise on my knee from it constantly pressing against the seat in front. I also accidentally leant on the person behind me when someone tried to escape my aisle. It was cosy in there. I’ve had worse though and I’ll give the ground points for being a living piece of history. You don’t get many grounds this old in fairly reasonable condition. It’s also fairly unique in having cows grazing in the fields not far from where the away fans enter. I did a bit of a double take at the cattle grids on some of the walkways.
The players jog out for the second half, and I’ve captured this, as we were over the changing rooms, and opposite you can see the Habbin Stand. As the second half kicks off, I notice a flag daubed with “Chesterfield Rams” at the Derby end. It’s a bit embarrassing. You see, Chesterfield has a football team. They’re called Chesterfield. You could support them instead. They were at home too! You could have saved yourself a trek to Cambridge. Although in doing so, they’ve have seen Derby’s first away goal since April.
One of the many little quirks of the ground is this tiny scoreboard, situated on a section of the end terrace that everyone seems to have given up on. I’m guessing there’s a clubhouse back there somewhere but surely you’d move it back from the pitch a bit to allow, yanno, fans to stand there? That looks like something from the Sporting. Oh, I forgot the half time entertainment; two lads trying to chip shots into the Mick George skip. It went about as well as the last time I saw this happen at Peterborough.
The second half continues much like the first half. It’s a decent game but the last ball just isn’t there. It starts to rain and at one point both sets of fans were cheering because the referee had to do a repair job on a broken corner flag. They also had a Cambridge player have to retrieve the ball from down that terrace in the back because they didn’t have a ball boy in that area of the pitch. Fucking hell. Cambridge end up playing some decent ball in the latter stages so naturally Derby hit them on the break and James Collins, who hasn’t endeared himself with the locals, fires it in at the near post for 2-0. Game over and everyone starts to trek out of the building in the rain. It’s a bit depressing.
This is our exit route, and it really reminds me of Kenilworth Road. The maze under the main stand and some of the uneven bits and pieces around it also remind me of the Kenny. If they’re going to do a piece-by-piece repair job, I hope it ends up like that patchwork quilt of a ground in the long run. It already has so many of the quirky elements that remind me of Luton. Like the bit of walk space at the back of the stand, which is almost identical to Luton.
Before everyone gets run down about the outcome there’s a lovely rainbow over the fan zone. Aww. Now, let’s review how the day went down shall we?
FINAL SCORE: Cambridge 0 Derby 2
It was cracking. I’ve had tickets down the sidelines before and there’s no reaction from the crowd. Sometimes a goal goes in and we get nothing. It was pretty lively and made better by an outstanding performance from the Derby fans, who did not shut up all afternoon. ****
I paid £22 to get in. I’m pretty sure it’s less to stand. I paid more than this at Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday. ***
It was a decent game but obviously nowhere near as good as some of the thrillers I’ve had in League 1 over the past two years. ***
EASE OF ACCESS:
Most of my issues stemmed from Cambridge itself being a terrible city to drive into. A lack of research also caused me problems. Basically, my plan went to shit when the city was so busy. The signposting around the ground and even inside it was confusing. I’m going to mark it down. We nearly missed kick off. **
It has some lovely quirks to it. As I mentioned further up, it reminds me of Kenilworth Road in many ways and that’s a good thing. I did struggle to see the goal at one end. ***
A respectable score for Cambridge. It slots them between Rotherham and Man Utd. The ground is in Mike Bayly’s “British Football’s Greatest Grounds” book, and I can see why. It’s fairly unique. I’m glad I did an old ground on the back of a load of newer ones that I’ve been at recently. Doing a ground with a pole blocking my view of one goal the same week I went to Wembley just about sums up football in this country. The diversity is always a pleasure.