The 'Nearly' Boys
It was a cold, bleak afternoon on the 6th March 2012. A young Cambridge United team hosted former league side Mansfield Town at the Abbey Stadium in front of a crowd of 1,738. An attendance low, but to be expected of a team that, although fighting bravely on a shoe-string budget under passionate Jez George, was destined for no more than mid-table obscurity. A former club legend watched on as United went on to squander a goal lead to lose 2-1, much to the crowd's disappointment. He reminisced his playing days at the Abbey, an era where Cambridge United almost made the history books, and wondered how the club he had once loved and in return been adored by had drifted into obscurity.
Cambridge had achieved back-to-back promotions to Division 2 under manager John Beck. The controversial manager led the U's to two FA Cup Quarter-Finals and miraculously found themselves top of Division 2 come Christmas in the 91/92 Season. A lover of the long-ball game, Beck lead a well-disciplined, rigid, direct approach and it proved successful. But Beck turned from hero to villain mid-way through the 91/92 Season. After having played Cambridge United once already in the season and witnessed their style of play, the other teams in the division worked out how to play against Beck's system and frequently overcame it. Despite this knowledge and boasting a squad of players that were more than capable of getting the ball down and playing it (most went on to play Premier Division football), Beck stuck with his rigid long ball game and took drastic measures to ensure his players didn't venture from his approach. On many occasions a player would be subbed immediately after doing anything that went against the direct approach, such as a dribble or a build up of short passes. The team that were leading the table at Christmas fell down the league, finishing in 5th position. A 1-1 draw at the Abbey against Leicester City was a positive start, but was followed by a 5-0 thrashing away from home. Dreams of promotion to the first ever Premier League in the 92/93 Season were shattered and a talented team was stripped to the bones. Cambridge nearly made it three back-to-back promotions to the Premier League but crashed and burned.
Looking back, the former legend wondered what could have been and whether it could ever be achieved again.
The Return of a Legend
Fast forward twenty years in what has been a downward spiral for the club (except a Division 3 playoff win in 98/99) Cambridge United are entering the 2012/13 season in the Blue Square Premier. Having assembled a young squad, former youth team coach Jez George looked set to to take the club into their centenary year with relative optimism. However on the 17th July 2012, before the start of pre-season, George shocked the Amber Army by handing in his resignation stating that he had taken on the first team squad as far as he felt he could. He added that the pressures of first team manager affected his all round club responsibilities, as he looked to help work behind the scenes to secure a positive future for the club. Speculation as to whom would take over the helm was rife, with former Hatters manager Richard Money touted as the favourite. However another candidate had other plans. As the former legend heard the news, he thought to himself that this was his opportunity. He had spent a few years away from the game and was ready to take on a task as challenging as this, giving something back to the club that helped him make his name. After a very successful meeting with chairman Paul Barry, plans to appoint Money were scuppered and in a complete round-a-bout turn the unlikely united legend was unveiled as the new manager:
Having fired the U's to Glory in the late 80s and 90s averaging 15 goals a season, Dion became an icon as player. After being sold to Manchester United for a record 1 million, he went on to forge a successful career in the Premier League, notably for Coventry City and Aston Villa as well as representing his country. Since buying a new house in Cambridge in the 2000s the prospects of an Abbey Return for Dublin as a player and/or manager had been flirted with but had seemed to have never been seriously considered by either party. But Dublin shocked the football world by leaving the pundit box to join the dugout at the very club in which he made his name. He made the following statement:
"I am delighted to have been appointed manager of Cambridge United. The club is one I hold close to my heart, and I felt that now was the time to return. The club has a great history and a history I am proud to have contributed to, but I feel as a manager I can contribute much more to this. The club is destined for the football league and I can give it the direction it needs. But my real dream is to take this team to the Premier League. I had the chance as a player and we were so close. We were good enough and it was heartbreaking when we went out in the play-off. I feel that this is something I must achieve in my career and I believe in my ability to do it. It's not going to be easy, but I dream to re-visit Carrow Road, Villa Park and Old Trafford leading the U's as a Manager.
I am a man of principle and I will only do so playing an attractive style of football. I would like to offer my appreciation for the hard work Jez (George) has put into the team and I have spoke to him personally at length as he was heavily involved in the recruitment process. There is the basis of a squad that could do well in this league and players with potential, but I will be looking to put my own stamp on the team. Anyone deemed surplus to requirements players and staff wise will be sold or released and I will look to bring in the best players available to me under the budget. It is important that the club is kept in a good financial position, as such straight away I would like to arrange friendlies against some of my former clubs to generate money. I just can't wait to get stuck into this challenge!"
After the press conference Dublin toured the Abbey Stadium, signing autographs as chants echoed around the stadium and the sound of people playing the 'Dube' as opposed to the infamous Vuvuzelas.
" DION DUBLIN'S AMBER ARMY!!!"