Made of Stone by the Stone Roses greeted my arrival at Cambridge United for the final day of the Football League season. The 26 year old song, older than many of the players on show, seemed vaguely appropriate given the state of the stadium and, later that afternoon, the Cambridge United defence.
The day was devoted to the possibility of a league championship for the visitors and the remembrance of a hero of the home club, Chris Turner, who played and managed United during better and worse days than now. With over 7000 spectators present in the compact Abbey Stadium, the minute’s applause before kick-off was impressive and fitting for a great servant of the club, who sadly died last week after a nine year battle with dementia.
A League Two match is a world apart from the football we usually see on TV. The club chairman greets the fans as they enter the car park, the football is more physical than skilful and supporters applaud those appearing to give their all rather than those exhibiting a little skill. Two incidents typified this – a crunching tackle from United’s giant centre forward Tom Elliott on Burton’s John Moussinho as the latter dawdled slightly on the ball, and the jeers aimed at Dutchman Nasser El Khayati as he performed stepovers on the ball for the visitors in the second half. Elliott’s tackle from behind on Moussinho was even greeted by one of the largest cheers of the day from the home crowd despite the later arrival of two Cambridge goals.
One of the more talented players on show, Sullay Kaikai, a talented 19 year old winger on loan from Crystal Palace, seemed to be an exasperating presence for the home fans who were less than impressed with his diving or his tendency to run the ball out of play under pressure from the muscular presence of the Burton defence. He has no doubt had better days but perhaps his ability doesn’t quite fit the more physical style of defending that he encounters at this level.
A League Two match illustrates the efficiency of the market for players too. Almost everyone on show is what the Dutch would describe as “net niet”. They don’t quite have the ability to play at a higher level due to being slightly too slow, not being able to pass the ball quite accurately enough, not being able to shoot quite well enough and not being positionally aware enough. There is one exception – heading. League Two players are surely some of the greatest headers of the ball that we have ever seen.
However, football at this level is worth watching. Just like any other level, spectacular goals are scored and great moments can be witnessed. The rip of the ball into the net followed by that satisfying nanosecond of silence before the stadium erupts is, as at every ground, also present.
In some ways, it is more fun than experiences I have had at larger clubs. Humour dominates the terrace banter, even reaching the cruellest heights as half a stadium laugh their heads off at a member of their team ballooning a free kick out of the ground. Everything feels less serious than at higher levels and any aggression in word or deed is largely absent.
However, in the end perhaps you shouldn’t take me seriously. This is my team, followed as man and boy. My eyes probably view the spectacle differently to others as the old dilapidated stadium is filled with my memories. Memories of better times for the club, memories of fantastic nights under lights, memories of going with my father are all wrapped up in my experience. Cambridge United look like remaining at the Abbey Stadium and that, for me as a fan of long standing, is more important than anything else.