Improve transport access to Cambridge United Football Club – or build a new stadium elsewhere on the edge of town

For those of you that follow football locally, Cambridge United FC are doing quite well – with more than a good chance of promotion to League 1 of the Football League. And just before lockdown, plans for a new stadium near Teversham and Bottisham were announced.

In my early years of secondary school in the early 1990s, I was a regular spectator at The Abbey Stadium, in the days of Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge amongst others. As I grew older I lost interest – mainly because I felt that money was ruining the game, Cambridge being one of the last clubs of that era who went from the old Division 4 in 1989/90 up to Division 1 in 1992/93. (And back down again!). My first football match wasn’t at The Abbey – it was at the old Wembley Stadium. (Which I still think had more character to it than the new one).

The gap today between those at the top of the Premier League, and the rest of the professional clubs is now far too big to surmount. You only have to look at the clubs that ‘yo-yo’ from Premier League down to the Championship and back up again on a regular basis.

These days I play football with the Cambridge United Mens Mental Health Sessions. Or did until Lockdown came back in again.

Note the shopping bags under my eyes – symptoms of an insomniac!

Hours stuck in traffic jams in the early 1990s

In the early 1990s, Cambridge United came within a whisker of being one of the founding clubs of the Premier League. Had Cambridge beaten Leicester City away (we lost the 5-0, one of my best friends from school at the time travelled up for that match) and then beaten Blackburn in the playoff final at Wembley, it would have happened. In the end though, the club drew a number of matches at home in the cold winter of 1991 against lower placed clubs that should have been easy wins. It cost the club dearly because at the time they were top of the division.

At the time, the average attendance for football matches was around 5-6000 supporters. If visiting sides did not sell enough tickets, they would be tucked away in the corner of the ground and the then unsheltered allotments end terrace would be filled with home fans. The local derby match with rivals Ipswich Town drew nearly 10,000 people that season. They had a very competent side that season – one group of family friends at the time being solid Ipswich fans who made the trek every other weekend. The final home game of the season against Port Vale drew over 7,500 people.

Yet the hard transport infrastructure has hardly changed in all of that time, give or take the resurfacing of a footpath or two. The only significant additional piece of new transport infrastructure is the Chisholm Trail which took Jim Chisholm & the Cambridge Cycling Campaign decades of campaigning before politicians and councillors signed it off.

Above – via the Cambridge Cycling Campaign – the Chisholm Trail plan from 2015.

There is potential for improvements – whether through a new metro (Whether CAM Metro, or Cambridge Connect Light Rail), or even the re-opening of the old Barnwell Junction station – which would require the re-siting of the platforms as the old station building is now someone’s home.

Missed opportunities to engage constructively with supporters

With the various consultations that have happened on transport schemes, despite suggesting to them on numerous occasions, I’m surprised how little direct engagement with the club and its supporters was carried out by the councils and constituted transport partnerships. Given the number of potential interested people that could have taken part – an audience not full of ‘the usual suspects’ of people who normally respond to such consultations, I wanted to see large open space workshops full of interesting and creative activities to get people to come up with ideas on how to overhaul transport access to/from the Abbey Stadium, and also whether moving ground was a more attractive move instead.

A move to Trumpington rejected in 2013

I remember this at the time, questioning a number of Liberal Democrat councillors then in political control of Cambridge City Council as. to why this was. Essentially they said there was no proven community need, and that the developer – Grosvenor, which also owns the Abbey Stadium, wanted to build too many homes as part of the scheme which would have been on designated Green Belt Land. Either way, the decision came as a surprise to the club and fans alike, who claimed that planning officers had not raised the demonstration of community need as an issue. See WSC here – which also raised the case of Cambridge City Football Club, who had to sell their home on Milton Road for housing. Their new stadium out at Sawston (initially squished on a technicality at appeal) is now under construction, but again there’s no public transport, mass transit system, or high quality cycle path. So it’s buses and cars again.

A new stadium for 2019?

This was the announcement in December just after the general election

The proposed site is not far from one of the previous proposed sites was – at Teversham. You can read the 2019 article here from the BBC, with the map below extracted from it..

And from G-maps below

Above – the A1303 road running horizontally through the image just above the airport site – Newmarket Road. Of the three A1303 labels, it’s the one on the right of the trio that is just above the proposed site from the 2019 article.

From a road transport infrastructure perspective it looks fine – you have the A14 close by, which takes you to the A11 and down to London/up to Norwich, or you can head westwards to the A1. But then if sales of petrol & diesel-fuelled automobiles are due to be banned by 2035, what’s going to replace them? Because there are not enough precious metals in the world for a like-for-like replacement with electric vehicles. Hence a light rail stop would be essential for such a stadium to function. Furthermore it should provide enough training ground space not just for the mens sides, but for the women as well. I still think it’s a scandal that the women for both Cambridge United and Cambridge City have had to base themselves *outside* of the city boundaries – ones that need refreshing anyway because they date from the 1930s, and our population is already spilling out over them. Just ask the residents of Orchard Park and Cherry Hinton.

Planners inviting football players, fans and families to get involved

In fact I think there’s a huge opportunity for Cambridge’s planners (which covers South Cambs too) to invite people who take part in and/or watch live sports in person (i.e. not on telly except in Lockdown) on a regular basis. In particular I think it’s essential because it then compels the planners and councillors to look beyond commuting as a transport function. This means hosting workshops on the next Greater Cambridge Local Plan which will be for the period beginning 2030. It also means for residents and voters – mindful of the local elections in May 2021, to question candidates campaigning for their votes, what their plans are for transport access to sporting facilities. Not just football but any new leisure centres (Cambridge needs at least another municipal swimming pool given that the population has since doubled since the opening of Parkside Pool in 1963), the new Ice Rink on the Newmarket Road Park & Ride (forced to close just after it opened, following a 35 year wait!), and those being built in the West Cambridge university quarters.

If residents want these new leisure facilities, they need to start contacting their councillors, and once the nominations for the elections are in (by 09 April 2021) questioning the candidates campaigning for their votes.

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