During the summer I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering with a brilliant bunch of Cambridge United fans. Together we’ve painted and prepped all corners of The Abbey Stadium ready for the new season. On Day 44 of #100DaysNoTV I took our boys to the ground on the eve of the 2018/19 season to see the fruits of our labour of love. The Abbey was looking at its beautiful best.
The boys had been to The Abbey a couple of times before. The photos below show them visiting during the spring half-term break, shortly after I began volunteering. I wouldn’t dream of forcing them to support a particular team, but they do look good in amber. 😉
my love for U’s
I became a U’s supporter in 1990 – the year in which (coincidentally?) the club gained promotion with a Dion Dublin header in the Division Four play-off final at Wembley and Italia ’90 happened!
From then on I was hooked. My Grandma saved every edition of the Cambridge Evening News which I then scoured for any U’s news for my scrapbooks (which I still have!), and I joined St John’s Ambulance as a little birdie told me it was a way to get into U’s games for free. Yes, I’m a terrible person … but I was at school and had precious few pennies!
The following season I did buy a season ticket, and I held one for 17 years.
back to the present
Twenty-eight years on, my life is very different. I have a young family and a freelance career as a proofreader. During the last few years, it hasn’t been as easy to get to U’s matches.
Last September our youngest started school and being a freelancer I have flexibility with my work hours. So when Fans’ Director Dave Matthew-Jones (DMJ) called for volunteers to help Stadium Manager & Head Groundsman Ian Darler and his right-hand man Mick Brown with painting and maintenance of The Abbey, I knew I could make it work.
It meant I could do something to help my beloved club, from which I’d felt a little estranged, and it allowed me to step away from my house and office for a few hours, and switch off from the mayhem of being a mum and business owner.
a shared passion
On my first shift, I joined Alan Burge as his “apprentice”. 🙂 It wasn’t the first time we’d met. When I was a teenager I trained a few times with Pye Ladies, who Alan managed for 14 years. Being a shy youngster I felt an established team wasn’t for me, and not long after I chose to join the inaugural Cambridge United Women’s Football Club.
The first job for Alan & I was to wash down some of the rear panels of the Habbin Stand before giving them a fresh coat of amber.
Some comments in a supporters’ survey suggested the ground lacked club identity. So after a generous donation of bespoke amber paint, the ground began to get a splash of amber on panels & tunnels, accessible stands, doors, gates, windows & hatches, turnstiles, the home & away dugouts and walls with retro artwork (project by Ben Phillips & James (Crammy) Cranwell).
It’s an old stadium which needs care & attention in a few areas – the more you look, the more you find! Some safety work was required too: repainting of yellow lines on steps & exits and a new coat of protective black paint to barriers on the terraces and around the ground.
I don’t think there is a corner of the ground that has not had a lick of paint, been washed, repaired, or had cobwebs removed (and removed again – spiders are persistent). I’ve only managed to get there one day a week; some of these guys go every single day. I should reiterate that it’s a voluntary team; none of us is paid and most of the paint & equipment is donated.
My favourite job was painting the home & away dugouts from a scuffed-white look to black & amber. On the day I finished the home dugout, Head Coach Joe Dunne was at the ground. DMJ brought him over to have a look and we got his seal of approval, which was wonderful.
I can only list some of the other jobs because they’re endless: over the last couple of months, the team has collectively cleared stands, cut back ivy, tidied cables, cleaned changing rooms, watered plants, washed kits & nets and fixed lawnmowers. And more, so much more.
It’s been fascinating to see the evolution of the brand new pitch. It started from scratch with seed in late May, with a super tight two-month turnaround. Never doubted that we’d have the lush green grass we have today. A pitch to be proud of, as ever.
The spirit here is unlike anything I’ve known before in a workplace; I suppose it’s the common bond we all have – cut us and we’d bleed black & amber. In the Abbey Arms, we have tea breaks and lunch together, with a side dish of light-hearted banter – it’s great.
I have to admit it wasn’t easy for me to step back into a team working environment. I get bad social anxiety in unfamiliar situations – being a freelancer can be isolating, and it was quite a big step for me at first. I’m by far the quietest person, but I never feel left out; I’m grateful to them all for that. They’re a great bunch and I always leave The Abbey happier than when I arrived. 🙂
Ollie and Ben’s first ever U’s match was the pre-season game against Millwall on 21st July. We took some close friends and their children and we all had a wonderful day – despite the defeat! As a special surprise, DMJ took us for a few post-match photographs then on to meet the players to get some autographs.
I vividly remember the first time I waited to get autographs, all those years ago. I know this experience will have created some special memories for the boys and their friends too, and I’m very grateful to DMJ for that opportunity.
final pre-season visit
After coming to the ground back in June, the boys loved their follow-up walk around to see all the changes (and the chance to pose on the pitch!). There was a lot of, “Mummy, did you paint that bit?” 🙂 They understand why I’ve been spending time at The Abbey, and to show them what we’ve achieved while reaffirming what it means to be a volunteer in life was very special.
The new season is upon us, but our work doesn’t end. With an average of 22 hours’ work required after every match, there won’t be much rest…
If you’ve considered volunteering in your local community or – like DMJ – would like to grow a team of volunteers, I hope this inspires you to do so. 🙂 I’m always here to chat if you need me.
Bye for now!