A couple of weeks ago, hidden away in the news section of their website, Southern League club Cambridge City finally confirmed their farewell from Milton Road, the club’s home since 1922. The battle for Milton Road has been ongoing for several years now and is a wearyingly familiar story of a prime piece of city centre real estate being wrested from the ownership from a small football club with little thought for anything but making a profit. Yet the very fact that Cambridge City are even making it through to the end of the 2009/10 season is a testimony in itself to the hard work of those at the club that refused to be ripped off and, if they couldn’t prevent losing the ground in the fullness of time, at least managed to eventually earn themselves a deal which may end up securing their future in the long term.
For those that dimly remember Cambridge United making the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and coming close to getting promotion into the top division of the Football League in the early 1990s, it may come as a surprise to learn that for many years it was City that was the bigger of Cambridge’s two teams. In 1936 they turned down an offer to join the Football League with the league desperate expand the game’s appeal in East Anglia. Preferring to stay amateur, they declined the invitation which passed to Ipswich Town instead. Ipswich joined the League in 1938. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, however, Cambridge City remained one of the best supported clubs in non-league football, and Milton Road (also known as The City Ground) became one of the largest grounds in outside of the Football League. The club won the Southern League championship (a year after Ipswich Town had won the First Division championship) and turned professional in 1968.
City’s decline was due in no small part to United’s growth. Cambridge United were only promoted into the Southern League in 1961, but successive championships in 1969 and 1970 led to them being elected into the Football League in place of Bradford (Park Avenue 1970). Unable to hold onto support within the local population, City fell into difficulties and the cavernous ground was becoming too expensive for them to maintain. With the red bills mounting, the club sold a part of Milton Road in 1985, which was converted into offices, and a new, more compact ground was built next door to it. However, the club couldn’t emulate United’s success and remained members of the Southern League.
By the start of this decade, though, the club was back in financial difficulty again but the actions of the directors of the club at that time began a chain of events that will see Cambridge City leaving Milton Road at the end of this season. It started when Cambridge United were relegated from the Football League and the directors of the club announced their intention to vacate Milton Road, scrap its first team and play the reserves as a feeder club to United. By the time that this became apparent, however, in December 2005, the fate of Milton Road had already been sealed. Property developer Brian York had joined the board of directors of the club just over two years earlier and agreed to purchase Milton Road for £1.3m with a fifty per cent split between York and the club to be made of any increase in the value of the land once planning permission had been agreed for housing on the site.
With a supporters trust now formed and supporters furious at the news that their club was to be wound down, the directors of the club suddenly had a considerably greater fight on their hands than they might have expected. There was nothing illegal about the deal that York had struck, but what was found to have happened next was confirmed to be unlawful. York’s leading property advisor was a man called Paul Harney, and early in 2005 he had bought out Cambridge City’s fifty per cent share in any future profits from the sale of the land upon which the ground stood. The price that he had paid for this – £900,000 – was based on figures that Harney had calcluated that massively underestimated the value of the land in terms of how many houses could be built on the land and what sort of houses they could be. His offer was based on the land being valued at £7.8m, when the actual value of it was nearer to £14m.
In the meantime, and without this knowledge, the club accepted the £900,000 offer. Eastham, who had left the club, allowing the supporters trust to take over the running of the club, was found to have accepted a £10,000 payment from York in the middle of the negotiations for the sale. The supporters trust took the matter to court. They failed to get the original sale of the ground annulled, but they did at least manage to get the fifty per cent share in any profits from the sale of the ground reinstated, and an extension to continue to play at Milton Road until the end of this season when they had originally been given two months’ notice to leave the ground in November 2005.
All of which led to the club’s recent announcement. With Histon and Cambridge United now playing in the Blue Square Premier, the club – now two divisions below those towo in the Southern League Premier Division – has been forced to look further afield for a new ground for next season and they will start next season at Cricketfield Road, the home of Eastern Counties League club Newmarket Town. Although exiled from Cambridge, their new – and, they hope, temporary – home is still only a relatively short hop from Cambridge by public transport and the club hopes to hold on to most of its support. Key to being able to do this in anything like the medium to long term, however, is the sale of the land upon which The City Ground stands and a swift return to the city that bears their name.
Most importantly, though, Cambridge City Football Club is still there. With Histon said to be in financial difficulties and Cambridge United having slumped into the lower reaches of the Blue Square Premier, it has been a difficult season for football in the city, but Cambridge City’s continuing existence is a cause for optimism. The hard work of the trust board at the club, who refused to lay down and let this happen to their club, should act as an example to others that find themselves at risk and it is to be hoped that the final matches to be played at the old ground will be played in front of crowds befitting of their achievement. Relocated – to now – to Newmarket, Cambridge City will fight on, and that is more than had looked likely on several occasions not so long ago.