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.

Cambridge Utd’s authenticity is a world away from Messi & Ronaldo

OLD SCHOOL ground it may be, but Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium evokes the spirit of BBC Sports Report, rattles and swaying terraces. It can also be a raucous place at times, but the atmosphere is everything you’d want from a football match, far more compelling than many supressed venues you find in the modern game.

Although it is not, in any way, a football hotbed, the city has played its part in the history of the game – the first rules were formulated in 1848 in Cambridge and on Parker’s Piece, a statue created by two artists, Neville Gabie and Alan Ward, was unveiled a few years ago to mark the achievement.

You might think the club should benefit from the presence of two universities in the city and 22,000 students. But having so many young people in your population doesn’t guarantee instant support, as many clubs around seats of learning have discovered. There are many distractions in Cambridge, not least the many bars and restaurants that proliferate the city. They’ve even got them right outside the railway station now, a pleasing recent development that provides a warmer welcome for people arriving in Cambridge.

Cambridge United are on the up at the moment in terms of their playing fortunes, having won promotion to League One in 2020-21 by finishing runners-up to Cheltenham Town in League Two. The 2021-22 season is their first at this level in 19 years and has continued the club’s upward trajectory after they fell out of the Football League in 2005 and spent nine years in non-league football.

On the financial front, the club, like so many others, has been badly hit by the cost of the pandemic. In fact, additional investment from the owners was needed to ensure the sustainability of Cambridge United, around £ 1 million being injected into the club. 

Cambridge were hosting unbeaten Bolton Wanderers on the last Saturday in August – autumn was beckoning. Bolton brought with them a healthy travelling continent, but then they are a relatively sizeable club at League One level. This made for a good atmosphere inside the stadium and a healthy crowd of over 6,000.

It was a lively game and Cambridge scored what proved to be the winner in the 16th minute, a well-taken effort from winger Shilow Tracey, who netted his first goal since joining the club permanently from Tottenham in the summer. Bolton had three quarters of the possession, but their shooting was appalling and they could only manage one on-target effort. “It’s a long way to travel home after a defeat,” moaned the Bolton fans as they queued to get out of the stadium down the narrow pathway between ground and neighbouring houses.

What’s not to like about a trip to Cambridge? But those that have never been should do so now – you never know when a ground like the Abbey Stadium will disappear, and the club has said the long-term survival of the U’s does depend on a new ground. GOTP is returning in a couple of weeks.

Messi – emotional rescue

Lionel Messi’s arrival in Paris has captured the imagination of the French capital’s football fans, but even for a club used to short-termism, the expensive capture of a 34 year-old is an example of instant gratification. PSG want that Champions League trophy and they clearly don’t care how they do it. But is Paris the right place for a character like Messi? He has been in the somewhat rarified world of Barcelona since he was a child, it has been his home, his employer, his emotional crutch and his extended family. Messi is different than the travelling show that Cristiano Ronaldo has become. You rarely hear Messi speak, he’s very private, always looks like he’s in something of a daydream until he gets the ball at his feet. Now he’s in a city where he’s a stranger and he’s surely dying to get a few games and goals under his belt. It is by no means a certainty that Messi and PSG will be a successful fit. Footballing-wise, it will be fine, more than fine, in fact. But will Messi be happy?

Ronaldo – waiting on a friend

And so, we move on to CR7 or the playing formerly known as CR7. Manchester United feel they have pulled off a coup in signing him. Is that how they should be feeling? First of all, Ronaldo’s bucket list of possible new employers was always going to be quite small – quite simply, there are only a handful of clubs who could afford him. He’s 36 and an investment in a player of that age, regardless of his superstar status, is a risk. Injuries at that age take a long time to clear up and can have a longer-term impact. From a publicity perspective, the club will benefit hugely from his return to Old Trafford, but it is likely that the move will do more for Ronaldo than it will United. Why is a club of United’s standing positioning the second coming of Ronaldo as a gift from God? This is the sort of move that a lower level club makes when a former hero returns home at the end of his career. OK, it’s Ronaldo, and he’s still got dynamite in his boots, but will the Premier League prove too much for him? With the greatest respect to Italy, where he scored 101 goals in 134 games, he’s moving into a more demanding environment. If nothing else, it is going to be fun and who knows, maybe Ronaldo is about to write another stunning chapter?

Arteta – it’s all over now

Arsenal bottom of the league and still without a goal. The decline of the club continues but most people are aware of the solutions. But here’s the rub; the transfer window is ending and they’ve already spent big, the season has started and the Gunners are already nine points behind Spurs, who are top. Only three games have gone, but Mikel Arteta will be judged over 20 months and frankly, Arsenal’s fall from Champions League contenders to European exiles (with began before Arteta was hired) is startling for a club of their size. Actually, it isn’t all Arteta’s fault – Arsenal went bold in bringing in Unai Emery. but that didn’t appear to work (in hindsight, did they sack him too soon?), so they went even bolder by installing an untried protégé of Pep Guardiola. Their transfer market activity has been poor, the real villains could be those that identify players, and the owner fails to connect with the fans. Arsenal will recover, but they need vision, genuine courage and top-class hirings.