Norman the (non-league) Conqueror

13 November 2008

Norman Gautrey, Cambridge United CEO. The name conjured up images of a 1960s flat-cap wearing, pipe-smoking footballing veteran but what I found was an experienced, straight-talking businessman and more importantly, a Cambridge United fan, who has a clear and definitive vision of where the future of Cambridge United lay; namely in League football.

Only two years ago that Cambridge United were on the brink of bankruptcy. A brand new £1million stand built in 2002 and the untimely demise of then Football League sponsor ITV Digital, the club teetered on the brink of football extinction. Only an 11th hour intervention from then Sports’ Minister, Richard Caborn, prevented the club and its rich footballing heritage going under.

Despite haemorrhaging cash before his arrival, Gautrey, with his background in the construction industry, has laid the foundations for the club’s revival in little over a year. The club lost 1-0 in the play-off final to Exeter last year and taking that next step remains the foremost thought in Norman’s mind. “As long as we’re in the mix come the end of the season, I can’t see failing again … last year was unbearable. Exeter (currently 4th in League 2) has shown what’s possible once you get up there”.

It is both surprising and shocking that a club in a city the size of Cambridge should struggle to fill a stadium on a Saturday afternoon. There is a huge population, both permanent and student, many of them avid football fans. A lack of supporters at match days has left the club with difficulties in fulfilling interest and loan repayments and leaves Gautrey with the unenviable task of balancing the books following his predecessors’ mismanagement. “The South Stand was a stupid idea … why they did it I’ll never know, it was never going to work. It has been a total white elephant and only now are managing to get back on track”.

The club’s present and future plans now focus on utilising this “white elephant” for the benefit of both themselves and more importantly the community which has supported them through difficult times. What has become known as the “South Stand Initiative” (SSI) involves encouraging new groups of fans to fill an otherwise empty stand.

“When we were in the League, you’d get maybe one or two thousand travelling fans. Now you’re lucky if you get several hundred, unless we’re playing Histon of course.” He added, “It has become a great opportunity for us to help the community and for them to help us … particularly in getting people to the football who wouldn’t usually come”. In recent months, free tickets have been distributed to local junior football teams, the emergency services, Addenbrookes hospital and the Army. Norman is particularly proud of the club’s efforts to reach out to the local community and hopes it reaps rewards for both sides in the future.

“We’ve targeted those” he added, “who might not get the chance to come to games, whether that be because of work, illness, or having to rely on parents. All of these people deserve a bit of something back for everything they give to the club and the community and although it’s only a small token, I hope they can take advantage of it”.

When asked about why students are now being targeted, he commented, “It’s funny really how the students have been neglected for so long. The city is famous for its University, its student population and its sporting heritage … but there’s almost been a them and us mentality which is all wrong. Hopefully we can start to put it right and attract fans, who either support Cambridge or can’t get to the team they usually support. If we can help , you can hopefully help the team with your support.”

Norman, the management and the Cambridge staff clearly have their work cut out. Ambitious plans outline the necessity of League football by August 2010, getting the club making profits by this time, increasing supporter numbers by 10% a year and perhaps most ambitiously, getting three youth players a year into the senior set-up. “It’s all going to plan so far. We just missed out on promotion last year and supporter numbers are up over 9% … and we’ve had 3 or 4 lads from the youth set-up playing regularly this season.”

When probed whether this youth policy might have a negative effect on the club due to interest in players from bigger clubs, Norman remained pragmatic; “There’s not much we can do really when a bigger club comes in, say from League1 or 2. On a financial level there’s just no competition It does reflect well on the club though.”.

Cambridge alumni include Steve Claridge, Dave Kitson, Jody Craddock and Hull’s Ian Ashbee, whilst Dion Dublin and Andy Sinton represented England. The most recent product of Cambridge’s youth system is 20 year old Michael Morrison who after making over 100 U’s appearances has made himself a regular in the Leicester City line-up; attracting attention from Premiership clubs for his commanding defensive performances.”It will take time to get where we want but we have the structure and the personnel in place now”.

Norman speaks with the passion of a man who has supported the club for over 30 years, through all the highs and more recently, lows. The manager himself was out house-hunting on my arrival, a sign perhaps of his intention of staying for the long haul. Whatever happens to the club though, let’s hope we all play a part in the club’s success. Whether it be for a year, three or even longer, Cambridge is our city. And Cambridge United is our club.