FIRST PUBLISHED: Ice, December 2001
By Chris Hunt


What makes football great? It’s the dream that even a Cambridge fan can have his day!


There were days that have meant more to me! Days when I have screamed myself hoarse, where I’ve grabbed complete strangers like they were my closest friends; days when I partied harder, danced longer and chanted louder. And while I may never have opted to wear one of those ludicrous black and amber afro wigs on the road to the Wembley play-offs, or waved a large pointing foam-rubber ‘glad hand’ in the air in time to We Will Rock You, there were most definitely days when I lost control and got carried away by the kind of emotion that you can only experience when you get to see your team win away!


There was that make or break tie with Aldershot just days before the club went to the wall and the glorious night against Maidstone. There was the time we were robbed at Ewood Park on New Year’s Day, and Dion Dublin’s dream goal at Highbury. There were all those days and more, but at the time nothing seemed more important than Steve Claridge’s scrambled goal against Ipswich at Portman Road in ’91. Why? Simple. The Us were top of the league!


For the one and only period in the short league career of Cambridge United we were a team on top of the world. Well, not quite the world, but Football League Division One as they call it now, and from those heady heights the view seemed beautiful. It was a little way off in the distance, but over the horizon we could just about make out the first ever Premier League. It seemed to be waving to us, telling us to come right in and make ourselves at home. And boy, were we happy. After all, United were top and for a minute it seemed this feeling was going to last forever.


Of course, just a few months later a 5-0 drubbing by Leicester City in the 1992 play-off semi-finals put paid to our Premiership dream, but whether you’re Cambridge or Carlisle, the dream is the thing that makes football the greatest sport on the planet, the reason we all want to get in a car on a Friday night and travel 140 miles to see our team lose 5-0 away to Port Vale – as I did just last Friday! Yes, a Friday night spent watching Port Vale stick five goals past you can really help you to put football into context. It’s not fun, but it’s an experience you have to go through.


After an evenly matched first-half, Cambridge went off just a goal down. “It’s one of those games where you can see us getting a result,” I recall saying at half-time, “as long as we don’t concede a stupid early goal!” But just 14-minutes into the second-half we were 5-0 down. Somewhere among the Port Vale faithful was a fan celebrating just like I would have been if I was in his position. And me? I’m sitting with my head in my hands, wondering where it all went wrong. Around me there’s the sound of fury that you can only hear on a football terrace. The same fans who applauded Saturday’s impressive 2-1 win over QPR, have now all turned into Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.


Full of rage and vitriol, their abuse is passionate and deep-seated. One man screams like his head is going to explode, while others try to orchestrate a mass walkout, arguing that waiting in the car park until full-time would be a better way to spend their time.


The hatred is directed at the manager, John Beck. In his second spell at the club, he’s the same man who ten years earlier nearly delivered Cambridge their illusive dream by giving us consecutive promotions, two FA Cup quarter-finals and who had taken us to within a couple of games of the Premiership. Some fans have short memories – and some fans seem to think that the club is owed that success by right.


Former United manager John Ryan once famously said “the problem with Cambridge is that they think they’re a big club languishing in the bottom division, whereas they’re a small club who had a couple of lucky years!” Of course, that view is not exclusive to Cambridge, it’s shared by fans all over the country, who each Saturday call for the head of the manager, or the chairman, or whoever it is they blame for not getting them their share of glory nights. This rage is fuelled by the belief that every fan is owed success for his £12 weekly down-payment. But it’s the days when you’ve spent hours on the M6 to see the team lose 5-0 that make you understand. It’s the memory of these dreadful nights that make the good times taste even sweeter when they finally come around again.


As close as we once came, it’s inconceivable that I’ll see Cambridge in the Premiership, but it’s this dream that justifies all the effort and sacrifice. It’s the same at every level though. Football is a game of ups and downs, of relegations and promotions – and the only guarantee is that football is a game full of surprises!


As a fan dedicated to travelling the world for the highs that football can bring, I’ve had my share of big nights. I’ve stood among the fireworks of the Milan derby, lived through Real v Barça at the Bernabeu, and was at the Nou Camp to see Teddy Shez win the European Cup for Man. United. I witnessed France lift the World Cup in Paris, Liverpool’s 5-4 UEFA Cup Final thriller in Dortmund and England’s 5-1 triumph in Munich. I’ve seen all those matches and more, but none of them can beat the day that Cambridge United nicked an away win at Ipswich.


That was a day when we were top of the league and everything seemed possible – a day that made all the shitty 5-0 defeats worthwhile. But, hey, that’s football, isn’t it?



© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007