Cambridge United v Ipswich Town: East Anglian derby a reminder of the sad fall of Tractor Boys

CAMBRIDGE AND IPSWICH are around 50 miles apart, but given the lack of top-class football entities in East Anglian, the clash between the two clubs is always keenly anticipated. At League One level, Ipswich Town are a big club, along with the likes of Sunderland. But the “Tractor Boys” golden era is now long behind them and it is over 40 years since the club won the UEFA Cup. Since those halcyon days, Ipswich have fallen some way, spending only five seasons in the Premier League since its formation and suffering the indignity of relegation to League One in 2019. Sadly, Ipswich, like a number of clubs who once looked the big guns in the eye and competed with them, have become one of the Premier era’s forgotten clubs.

But perhaps better times are ahead as Ipswich Town were taken over in April 2021 by Gamechanger 20, an American consortium who paid £ 40 million for the privilege. The new owners include three board members of the US club Phoenix Rising and former owner Marcus Evans has retained a 5% stake.  

Cambridge, who are part of the Fair Game group of clubs urging for sustainable football, are owned by Paul Barry (70% stake), a lifetime fan of the club, as well as two American investors, Adam Webb (10%) and Mark Green (20%). Webb was present at the Abbey Stadium for the Ipswich game and there was a continuous welcome for him via the electronic scoreboard.

For Cambridge, the arrival of Ipswich represented a big day in their 2021-22 calendar and the game was a sell-out, with 2,500 away fans adding to the raucous atmosphere at the Abbey Stadium, which was full to almost 8,000 capacity. Cambridge’s form at home had deteriorated  and they had lost two of their three previous games, including a 5-1 humbling inflicted upon them by Lincoln. Their fixtures looked a little lop-sided, with the Ipswich game their seventh at home out of the first 11 of 2021-22.

There was a slightly old-fashioned feel to the ground thanks to the terracing and two sets of very vocal fans, Cambridge delighting in taunting their more illustrious visitors. There also seemed to be a group of Ipswich fans who had infiltrated the Cambridge end judging by the increasingly nervous police presence and the sight of dozens of noses pointing in the same direction towards the back of the main standing area, chanting “f*** off Ipswich”. Fortunately, there wasn’t an outbreak of trouble, although a couple of characters, who later turned up in the station pub after the game, seemed keen to agitate anyone who fancied it. People watching at football can be an interesting side project when you’re at a match.

Not that the action wasn’t engaging because it was a lively 90 minutes, beginning with Ipswich’s early efforts, which peaked in the 10th minute when Sone Aluko – now better known as former England women striker Eni Aluko’s brother – lobbed them ahead with a well taken goal. Although now 32 and the epitome of a journeyman, Aluko was troublesome for Cambridge and he added a second goal in the 40th minute when he scrambled the ball home after home keeper Dimitar Mitov made a mess of a corner. Cambridge responded almost immediately, with James Brophy shooting in off the crossbar with a fierce left-foot drive.

Ipswich were clearly the better side in the first half, but Cambridge came out in the second half with renewed spirit. Despite plenty of endeavour, it took them until the 88th minute to equalise, though, a header from  Joe Ironside after a corner had been nodded on. A fair result on the balance of play and an entertaining afternoon on a bright autumn day. It was the sort of contest that restored your faith in lower league football.

But it’s hard not to think about how the fortunes of these two clubs seem so very different. Ipswich will, surely, win promotion back to the Championship at some point, while Cambridge are probably happy to be in the third tier after their stint in exile in the non-league game. For now, at least – modern football demands ambition, or you risk stagnation, a condition that is rarely tolerated these days.

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