One might think, upon hearing there is a professional soccer club in Cambridge, England, that the stadium might be made of ancient stone, the crowd might be waving tweed hats in the air, and the songs might be along the lines of “Assail them, assail them, make them relinquish the ball.”
For yes, it is that Cambridge, the one with the chapels and the halls and the Nobel winners and all that. But there is this idea called “town and gown,” which sometimes means conflict, but in this case just seems to mean “co-existing worlds.” Which is to say, there is a beautiful, charming, historically rich university town called Cambridge which one really must see, and somewhere near, or around, it is a city called Cambridge that has a football club, which is also worth a visit.
In fact, just near the station, there lies a large field in which those two worlds diverged many years ago. It’s called Parkers Piece, and it looks for all the world like your very standard city park. But back in the 1850s, bunches of “gownsmen” would gather here and play the new game sweeping the land, a thing called football. And since no one yet agreed on what the rules of football were, the folks in Cambridge decided among other things that there should be no catching the ball, nor “hacking” one another to the ground. And being Cambridge folk, they took the time to write down said rules.
Their rules largely agreed with those drawn up in Sheffield — I would probably start a fight were I not to mention Sheffield here — and those two “codes” largley carried the debate at the formation, a few years later, of the Football Association at a pub in London.
They became known as the Association Rules, and after another set of rules — allowing catching and hacking, and known as the Rugby Rules — also caught on, each code was given a nickname. Rugby Football was shortened to rugger, and Association Football was cut to soccer.
So, my fellow Americans, take no shit from any Brit about the word soccer, for they invented the damned thing.
Right, so let’s say hello to the town and club of Cambridge.
I will make no attempt at a comprehensive guide to Cambridge, as books have already been written on the subject. I will just give it my down-and-dirty, as they say.
Cambridge is a 45-minute train ride from Kings Cross Station in London, and I got there for £16.90 roundtrip (return in England). It’s nonstop if you get the right train, but it’s about 40 minutes longer on the milk run if, say, you’re exhausted after a long day and a game and you just hop on the next train to London, then wind up stopping at every damned town along the way. Theoretically speaking.
From the station, walk straight ahead on the main road, look for a war memorial, and find just behind it the 40-acre Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Being Cambridge, this isn’t just a garden; it was founded by Charles Darwin’s mentor, is home to seven themed glasshouses, 8,000 plant species from all over the world and also the national collections of tulips, geraniums, and a bunch of others you might recognize were you a gardener. Worth a walk around.
Making your way back on the main drag, Regent Road, look for Parkers Piece on the right, and see if you can find the plaque referring to its place in soccer history; I couldn’t, but it seems it ought to be on or near the building on the far side, which is the former cricket lodge. In the middle of Parkers Piece stands a somewhat famous lamp post known as the Reality Checkpoint. Various explanations all involve some variation on drunken students stumbling between the university world and the “real” world. In the festive season, there is a little North Pole-themed amusement park here.
From there, I suggest two ways of approaching the town, or a combination: walk around on your own, or take a tour. I did a two-hour tour through the official tourist agency (£29, 11:30 to 1:30) that included an hour of walking with an impossibly charming Scottish gentleman and then a bit of punting on the River Cam.
Punting, of course, isn’t a reference to one of the very rare times an American football player connects his foot with the ball, rather a famous low-lying boat propelled along the river by pole in the hands of a story-telling guide who, one hopes, will not entirely avoid running into some of the other punts on the river. My tour included hot chocolate at a pub where Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd got his nickname; get used to such historical factoids around town.
For food and drink, there is a very famous pub called The Eagle, which your guidebook surely mentions. It’s very old by American standards, has a room whose ceiling was graffitied by World War II flyers, has another with a ghost and a window left permanently open to not piss her off, and probably has good food and drink but was way too crowded for my tastes and timing.
Otherwise, it’s Cambridge — halls, chapels, Stephen Hawking, traditions, architecture, the birth of nuclear physics, the discovery of DNA (announced in The Eagle), Sir Isaac Newton and an apple tree grafted from that apple tree, a bizarre clock run by a winking mythical grasshopper … Do your thing around town, and then head for the football ground. Kickoff will almost certainly be Saturday at 3, as traditions die a bit harder in places like Cambridge, as well as down in the fourth tier of English football.
Meet Cambridge United FC
Yes, there is a football club here, and your tour guide will be impressed if you happen to know that. They are a true local club with very little history of note, no former players you will have heard of, but a friendly vibe that offers a grounding break from all the old-school charm in town.
The Us, which is funny because Oxford United uses the same thing.
The Abbey Stadium holds 8,127 people and frankly confuses the hell out of me as to why they don’t call it a ground. (People need to make up their minds about this whole stadium vs ground thing.). Their home since 1932 is now the usual League Two old-fashioned combination of seats and terraces with a couple of twists and a certain … railyard feeling? I mean, you enter through a car wash, see mostly corrugated metal from there, and go into the home terrace on the side by stepping over a cattle gate, skirting a marshy field, and then grabbing a beer in a gravely side lot.
Back at the main entrance, however, there is a nice-looking bar which, unless it’s a rivalry match, will usually let in away supporters, as well.
Started as Abbey United in 1912, they changed their name in 1951 and were in the Football League from 1970 — back when you still had to be elected in — until relegation in 2005. They spent nine years in whites now called the National League and got back to League Two, the lowest level of the Football League, in 2014.
That same year they won the FA Trophy at Wembley and also got to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, drawing Manchester United at home; they got a draw and then lost the replay 3-0 at Old Trafford. The media made much of the fact that United paid £231 million for their starting lineup and Cambridge £0 — 10 free transfers and a loan signing. Cambridge took 6,600 people to the away leg, so fair play to them all around.
They made it as high as the second tier (now the Championship) from 1978 to 1984 and again from 1991 to 1993. In the middle of the latter run, they actually made the playoffs to get into the Premier League — imagine those clubs coming here!
They do the same “YEL-lows” chant that I heard at Oxford United. Really, the same colors, the same nickname, Oxford v Cambridge … and this isn’t a rivalry? They need to sort this out.
Peterborough, which is just 38 miles up the road, seems to be the biggest. I guess they also don’t like Northampton Town, Colchester United and Luton Town, but honestly, after seeing a game at Cambridge, I seriously doubt anything gets particularly heated there. Millwall it ain’t.
Food and Drink:
Out by the ground it’s a pretty generic scene, with a mall and a Pizza Hut, etc. There is the bar at the ground, and a nice little market on Saturdays in town. Otherwise, I mean, it’s a 900-year-old university town. I’m thinking there are some cool pubs in town.
My Day at the Ground:
I made it a day trip from London, which works pretty well unless you really want to do the Cambridge tourist thing. It was less than £20 return; I left Kings Cross around 9, was in town by 10, walked around on my own for 90 minutes, did the tour til 1:30, grabbed some food at the market, and took the #3 bus (St. Andrews Christ College) for £2.60 single to avoid a 40-minute walk to the ground.
Arriving on the scene, I was immediately hit with the warm, welcoming feeling I always get at these little lower-league grounds. You see kids sitting on a wall, waiting for their friends; older folks greeting each other; little munchkin kids in yellow hats reaching up to hold their dads’ hands; program sellers greeting customers by first name; a ticket office that looks like a trailer with four windows hacked into it; and turnstiles that look more like tool sheds from a distance. I absolutely love it.
I got a ticket in the North Habbins Terrace, which sounded very Hobbitsy, and then tried accidentally to enter the North Terrace. The lady had already torn my ticket when she realized I was in the wrong place, so she just handed me the whole thing back and said, “Don’t worry loov, just go and hand that to the gentleman ‘round the side, and e’ll let you in.” And so he did — after I skirted a marshy field, crossed a cattle guard and a little bridge over a ditch, and found the right tool shed.
Up on the terraces, it was as it always is. Thank goodness.
Physically I’m getting a little old to stand for that long, but I just can’t see sitting at a League Two match.
You need to be standing among the lads, bovril or hot chocolate in hand, and explaining to the friendly steward that, no, you didn’t actually come all the way from Oregon just to see the U’s, and yes, you understand that you’ll have to put the big camera away once the game starts, and thank you, it really is lovely to be here. And yes, I will tell my friends back home to come and support your club.
I took my traditional kickoff photo, winked at the steward, tucked my camera into my pack, and damn near missed the first goal! United went right down, slipped in a through ball, and George Maris tucked it away! 33 seconds — fastest goal I ever saw. They missed two more great chances in the next 20 minutes and then got their second in the 27th. We were all starting to laugh about how much fun this was when Crewe — supported by a hearty band of 182 fans, officially — got one back before the break.
I went out at the break to sit at a picnic table, have a hot cocoa, and take note of something which may be irrelevant but might also tell us something about Cambridge as a town and club. I saw more young-ish people on dates here than I can remember from any other club, and I must say that the ladies in these parts are quite lovely. Rare that I think such things at a football game, single though I am.
Back in the game — right, the game! — Crewe came close twice but were denied by some “how did he do that?” goalkeeping and some “what the hell just happened?” defending on the line. And then the big lad up front — that’s what I kept calling Cambridge’s number 9, whose actual name is Uche Ikpeazu — won a ball in the corner, dug it away from a couple of defenders, kicked it back out to a winger and a round of applause, then made a long, looping run into the area and leapt to meet a cross from said winger, tucking it top-corner and then standing in front of the rowdies behind the goal with his arms held wide and a giant smile on this face — even though he had lost a tooth during all of this! My kind of goal, my kind of lad.
That made it 3-1, and from there on in the Us coasted, except that at one point the referee seems to have remembered that he was supposed to give a red card today, because suddenly he just turned to a Cambridge man and sent him off. It was later described as an “off the ball incident,” but I preferred the live tweet from the club’s official feed:
The only other thing I recall from the rest of the game is that just about every substitution could not have been more British: Jordan Berry for Chris Porter, Jordan Kirk for George Cooper, and so on. Premier League it ain’t!
Here are the highlights:
I walked back to the station to get the blood flowing through my feet again, and by this time the weather had come in, chaos broken out on the rails, and a Saturday evening December 30 getting into London was positively mad. Signs were wrong at the station, everyone was running around, and finally I saw a train that said it was going to London, I confirmed this with an agent, and got on it.
Alas, as it pulled out the lady-voice read off the names of the towns we’d be calling in — Foxton, Shepreth, Meldreth, Royston, Ashwell and Morten, Baldock, Letchworth Garden City, Hitchin, Stevenage … you get the idea. In addition to being a fabulously English list of names, it was also twice the trip getting home as it had been coming out. But it didn’t ruin a lovely day and I strongly encourage my fellow tourists and groundhoppers to go and make a day of it in Cambridge.