Non-League Football

Calling in on….Cambridge City, exile on Bridge Road

Gary Roberts...which direction home?

Gary Roberts…which direction home?

Sharing a football ground is rarely a happy marriage. The tenant never quite feels at home, supporter association doesn’t really happen and the locals seldom adopt the team that is playing at the landlord’s ground. It can only really be temporary and any groundsharing agreement has to be backed-up by concrete plans to end the arrangement. In other words, a permanent home has to be just around the corner.

In the case of Cambridge City, their proposed permanent new stadium is some nine miles away from the club’s now defunct ground of Milton Road. It’s a long way round that corner and fan loyalty and acquisition will be severely tested.

Histon, where City are playing until their new ground at Sawston is complete, is a symbol of the “Icarus factor”. No, it’s not a film with a reverbed guitar soundtrack (usually with someone like Michael Caine playing a starring role) but what happens when a small non-league club flies too high and crashes to earth. The Glassworld Stadium is the result of Histon Football Club’s rise through the ranks to the Conference – from the Eastern Counties Premier to the Conference National in seven years – and now barely 200 people turn up at their impressive, but underused stadium. It’s a long way from the days when Histon beat Swindon Town and Leeds United in the FA Cup.

Down the road from the ground is the Red Lion pub. Any trip to this Cambridgeshire village has to include a visit to this home-from-home hostelry, where an enthusiastic landlord will doubtless engage you in football talk. The Red Lion is more black and white than red – mine host is a Grimsby Town fan and has rechristened the pub “The Home of the Histon Mariners” and adorned it with reminders of the colours of his beloved club. Actually, he’s a dislusioned Anfield refugee and comes from Birkenhead. By sheer coincidence, Grimsby’s colours gel quite nicely with Cambridge City’s own livery.

If Histon have seen better days, so too have City. The Red Lion proudly says that it specialises in “Funerals and Wakes” and the way the season has progressed for the two occupants of stadium, it makes for the ideal post-match destination!

P1050864 (300x267)The 2014-15 campaign is shaping up to be Cambridge City’s worst for some years. Since Gary Roberts took over as manager in January 2003, they have more often than not been, to use a well-worn cliché, “there or thereabouts” and for the past two seasons, have missed out on promotion in the play-offs. In 2013-14, they finished third. But while they always seemed to have the odd outstanding player or two, this season, there is a somewhat anonymous look about them. Andrew Phillips, arguably their most notable player (and one that was sent off in October after head-butting a team-mate) may be on his way to another club if you believe the rumour mill. But Roberts has always been able to put together a decent side and is one of non-league football’s ferrets, always looking for new talent and unearthing the occasional diamond.

Right now, he needs some. Cambridge City are crying out for some inspiration. They started the season with an unbeaten run of four games and even beat their landlords 6-0 at the end of August, but they finished 2014 with a run of three wins in 20 league games. It’s the sort of sequence that can cost a manager his job, and there were reports that Roberts was on his way to St. Neots Town around the Christmas period. What’s more, City’s cup record in 2014-15 is dire, losing in the FA Cup at the first time asking at Needham Market and, similarly, at home to Rushall Olympic in the FA Trophy.

Attendances have held up reasonably well – the average at Bridge Road is around 270, exactly the same as last season and comparable to Milton Road in the club’s final years in the city. But on New Year’s Day, when City welcomed one of Roberts’ old clubs, Hitchin Town, to Histon, only 260 people turned up. True, it was a miserable, fuzzy-head of a day after the revelry of December 31, but with around 50 people making the journey from Hitchin, surely City would have expected more than a sub-300 gate?

It was soon easy to see why people may be reluctant to emerge on a drizzly post-party environment. Hitchin, who have had enjoyed an improved run of late, scored twice in a five minute spell before half-time, one from the livewire Jonny McNamara (surely a target for a more senior outfit) and the other a superb 25 yard chip-cum-shot from the impressive Lewis Rolfe. Cambridge pulled one back from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time to liven-up what had been a dullish first half.

Hitchin’s introduction of substitute Callum Donnelly helped to cement victory for the visitors. Donnelly, who has just returned to the Canaries side after a health scare that could have threatened his football career, started the season at Cambridge but by the leaves were falling, he was back at his home town club.

Donnelly was just the latest in a seemingly long line of Hitchin players that have been lured to Cambridge City by Roberts. Ieuan Lewis, Tom Pepper, Robbie Burns and Mark Smith are among the Canaries who taken this route, with varying degrees of success. Naturally, this has irritated Hitchin fans at times, but that’s the nature of non-league football – a transient workforce that can easily be picked off by an extra 50 quid a week.

Donnelly sped away just minutes after coming on and was brought down by Adam Murray in the area. It should have been a red card, but the Cambridge defender was dealt with leniently. Rolfe scored from the penalty spot to extend Hitchin’s lead. But within a minute or so, Danny Kelly had a free header to reduce the margin once more.

It was left to Donnelly to provide the hammer blow, twisting and turning in the area before shooting low inside Jamie Head’s right hand post. 4-2 to Hitchin. The Cambridge fans were not happy and there were some grumbles of discontent among their faithful at the final whistle. Perhaps they were heading for the Red Lion for the post-mortem?

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