Watch Ian Darler, the longest serving groundsman in the Football League, mark out the pitch at the Abbey Stadium, and it tells you a lot about Cambridge United.
Darler, with 43 years under his mower, takes the utmost care over his work on the new-laid turf, which looks a picture of health and vitality in the early autumn sunshine.
And that sums up the Us. The club is flourishing.
It has a sensible owner, savvy chief executive, an ambitious young coaching team and diligent staff.
Cambridge United it a well-run club and won promotion to League One without overspending
Together they won promotion from League Two last season and are giving as good as they get in the third tier this time around.
But behind the scenes, Cambridge have concerns that not all their rivals playing by the same rules.
The chancers and gamblers of the game can still risk everything on a promotion push and leave well-run clubs trailing in their wake, while forcing up wages for all.
‘Human instinct is people will gamble, will do reckless things and it ends in a mess. Sometimes people need saving from themselves,’ said Cambridge chief executive Ian Mather, who is a powerful advocate for an independent regulator in the game.
‘We need an organisation that prevents that sort of behaviour. Look at the Derby example. They falsely inflated the value of the club.
Ian Darler, Cambridge United’s long-serving groundsman, keeps the Abbey Stadium pitch in tip-top condition
The Abbey Stadium has a new pitch and the club is flourishing in League One this season
‘If they were having to submit their accounts on a quarterly basis to a regulator or at least scrutinised annually they would not have been allowed to get into the position they are in.’
Derby County are currently in administration with problem debts of more than £60 million and the future of the club hangs in the balance after years of overspending to reach the Premier League.
Cambridge United manager Mark Bonner believes the football pyramid must be protected
Former sports minister and Conservative MP Tracey Crouch is about to issue a report on football governance and is expected to recommend that the government approves the creation of a well-funded regulator.
It will then be up to Government to decide if it will implement the findings of the far-reaching review.
‘There needs to be a level playing field with clubs sticking to clear rules that are enforced,’ he said. ‘Recent history shows that some clubs are not sticking with the rules by inflating revenues or not depreciating assets. What you might call clever accounting, but it’s not that clever. There are not enough checks.’
Mather would favour a regulator that can deduct points for financial mismanagement during a season.
Of course, Cambridge is not immune to the temptations that lead football clubs astray. Stepping up to League One has seen costs rise by more than £500,000.
That was planned for, but even so, there is always a reason to push the budget a bit further. For Cambridge, the reason was Paul Mullin. He was the club’s record scorer last season, bagging 34 goals in all competitions.
Wrexham came in with a whopping offer and Mather had to decide if his club would match it to retain the services of the man who fired the Us to promotion.
How Cambridge must have wanted to hang onto Mullin. But it could have added around £100,000 to the wage bill. Mather said no.
Ian Mather, Cambridge United chief executive, is pushing for independent football regulator
‘We were very clear about what we were prepared to pay. You have a budget to work to. It sounds unsexy but you can only work with what you have got.’
Player pay is the biggest challenge facing football, but the expenditure required to keep a club afloat is extensive and varied.
MP Tracey Crouch is chairing the Fan-Led Review of Football
Walking around the almost 90-year-old Abbey Stadium with Mather it is clear that there are costs everywhere. The floodlight pylons cost £60,000 to repaint this summer, another £60,000 went on heat lamps to maintain the grass during the winter and the pitch itself cost ‘well into six figures’, even though Darler ‘did a deal’.
Then there is the Category Three academy, the lease on the training ground at Clare College, Cambridge, the coaches and pitch hire for the regional development centres, where thousands of local youngsters benefit from top-level training.
And of course, there is only limited income, which comes in the form of gate receipts (average attendance is up by 1,000 to 5,500 this season), retail revenue, sponsorship and solidarity payments from the Premier League.
Norwich City (pictured) and Watford both won promotion to the Premier League lastseason after being relegated previously. Fair Game is looking for a solution to parachute payments
Mather, an employment lawyer by trade, openly admits that Cambridge budget for a loss, like most professional clubs, and that is made up by the owner and boyhood fan, Paul Barry, who now lives in Seattle.
But they do try to stay within their budget, like a normal business. Cambridge pays below the average wage in League One and comfortably fits within Salary Cost Management Protocol, which requires a limit on wage spending of 60 per cent of club revenue.
The key to regulation for Mather will be to share more of the Premier League riches with the rest of the Football League, to link player pay to revenues and then impose strict accounting rules with quarterly checks backed by an in-season points deduction, to ensure no club is gaming the system.
Paul Mullin was Cambridge’s top scorer last season, but the club could not afford him now
‘It has to have real teeth,’ said Mather. ‘You cannot faff around and what hurts clubs is a points deduction.’
Cambridge has had its fair share of troubles in the past. In 2005, the club went into administration and struck a deal with HMRC at the eleventh hour to survive.
There were subsequent divisions on the board, but since then the club has emerged from the Conference. Now, Cambridge is enjoying the ride in League One, where they are looking forward to sell-out crowds against some of the country’s biggest teams, starting with their home game against Ipswich Town on October 16.
With the bigger crowds comes more money and two new investors are on board, as well.
There is an enthusiasm, but also a calmness about the club, epitomised by head coach, Mark Bonner’s mantra, ‘no drama’.
That motto cuts through all levels.
Cambridge United knocked Tottenham Hotspur’s U23 side out of the EFL Trophy this year
When Mullin eventually left for Wrexham, Bonner and sporting director Ben Strang were already developing a replacement: Joe Ironside, signed from Macclesfield on a free transfer in the summer of 2020.
Last season he scored 14 goals in 44 League Two appearances. This term he has five in 10 at the higher level.
The head coach produces a video for the directors and management team ahead of each match to highlight the game plan, so the executives can make sense of what they are seeing. It helps keep everyone pulling in the same direction.
When Cambridge were thumped 5-1 at home by Lincoln City, last month, the boardroom at least had an understanding of what went wrong.
‘Lincoln played really well,’ reflected Mather. ‘We are going to lose some games. That’s football. If we expect to win every game it is not realistic.
‘Paul in Seattle was the same. Move on. Go to the next game.’
The next one was away to Portsmouth, where Cambridge won 2-1.
‘It is for the coaching staff to deal with what is going on on the pitch,’ added Mather, who grew up a Manchester United fan in a City household in Withington, in Manchester.
‘For the business side, it is to deliver whatever they need to do the best they can. I am not qualified in any way to tell the coach how to do his job, but I don’t think he would want to do mine either.
‘Let’s all do our job to the best of our ability to run the club in a sustainable way and play at the highest level we can.’ No drama.
CLUBS CALLING FOR ‘FAIR GAME’
Football clubs are calling for an independent regulator, a ban on B teams in national competitions, protection for the Carabao Cup a and tougher test for potential owners to prevent clubs from going out of business and protect the game.
The rapidly growing Fair Game movement, in which Cambridge United are a leading member, has given evidence to the Government’s Fan-led Review of Football Governance. Recommendations from the review are expected later this month. Fair Game is calling for:
Sustainability – reward good practice
The game in its current form is not sustainable. We want:
• Greater transparency on financial reporting, ownership structures, balance sheets and a more realistic, long-term view of the financial health of clubs
• A far more rigorous and properly applied fit and proper person’s test applied to potential owners
• A more equitable and transparent sharing of funds through the pyramid (including effectively addressing parachute payments, and controls of payments to agents and players)
• A ban on leveraged debt
Integrity – protect the pyramid
The integrity of the domestic competition structure is under threat. We want:
• No erosion of the current value of domestic cup competitions
• No B teams to compete at any level of the pyramid
• No removal of relegation/promotion at any level
Transparency – Independent regulation with teeth
Football needs to be better regulated. We want:
• The Government and key decision makers to enshrine a new regulator in legislation.
• Outside, independent regulation and processes for auditing, dispute resolution and arbitration
• Rules and regulations adhered to and acted upon.
• Enforceable penalties
Community – Clubs rooted in the community
The community and social role of football clubs is critical. This needs:
• Embedded and structured fan engagement at all clubs
• An Advisory Fans Board around protected issues
• Significant strengthening of current asset transfer and protection provisions in legislation
• Clubs to take a leadership role in tackling all forms of discrimination
• Local political and other stakeholders to work constructively and proactively with clubs and their community foundations, with tax breaks available
• Protection of cultural assets to maintain club and community identity
• Learn from best practice overseas