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Playing away from home
By Apollo Latham

The analogy is obvious : a man marries young, but finds years later that his wife has gone to seed a bit. He meets a younger woman, who has many of the qualities of his wife in her youth, and they have an exhilarating affair, but eventually reality intervenes and he returns to the familiarity of his first love, wanting someone to grow old with and missing the shared memories. The affair eventually takes on the status of a dream - a brief escape from the mundanity of everyday life.

I was that soldier. Watford, the wife. The mistress, unlikely as this may sound, Cambridge Utd.

October, 1989. As I started my first term as an obnoxious Cambridge undergraduate, the idea of slumming it for a bit with a Fourth Division side seemed to have a kind of perverse attraction. I had only really known First Division football at Watford, apart from the play-off season (88/89), and still thought of us as promotion contenders (ah, the folly of youth!). At the time, the "U"s were 91st out of 92 league clubs. Scunthorpe at home was to be my inauguration. "We" won 5-3, with 3 goals in the first ten minutes, 2 from the half-way line in the howling wind. I never looked back - nor did Cambridge, who started a run of seven consecutive wins.

The league form was good, if unspectacular, but the F.A.Cup was the spark that really got the ball rolling, as Ron Atkinson would say. Close-run wins against Aldershot, Woking and Darlington were followed by a glamour tie against First Division Millwall. This too was won in a replay, in extra-time with the luckiest own goal imaginable, and then Bristol City, still two divisions above Cambridge, succumbed 5-1 in a second replay. To get to the quarter-finals was a major achievement, though sadly Crystal Palace sneaked a 1-0 win with a late goal from Geoff Thomas, damn his eyes, through a forest of players. Palace went on to the memorable 4-3 semi-final against Liverpool. The vagaries of ticket pricing and allocation meant I actually paid more for my ticket to the Palace game than I did for my ticket to the World Cup final a few months later.

Every ill wind has a silver lining, and with the end of the cup run came the realisation that with so many games in hand the play-offs were a realistic possibility. Under the new manager, John Beck, who had taken over in January, an excellent run-in ensued, and a win at Aldershot was enough to get us into the play-offs. I travelled all the way to Dartford to watch a nail-biting win over Maidstone. Well into extra-time, with an away goals defeat looming, Dion Dublin scored two goals to take Cambridge to Wembley for the first time in their history. Chesterfield went down 1-0 in the final, and lo and behold, Cambridge were in the dizzy heights of Division Three.

So where were Watford in all this? I plead not guilty, well, not entirely guilty. I did see Watford in the vacations, even missing the poll tax demo to watch Colin Lee's barmiest of armies beat Blackburn in one of his first (and, let's face it, only) victories. But with only meaningless end-of-season games remaining at Vicarage Road, my thoughts were starting to wander to events in Cambridge.

The start of the 90/91 season was grim for Watford. By the time term had started, we were a quarter of the way through the season and without a win. I was serving chips in a canteen and was glad to escape. Cambridge were doing well - and yet at this time the first signs of criticism of the long ball style were being heard. Still, it was good to go to a game confident of victory, and to see that confidence rewarded more often than not. 1991 was an annus mirabilis for Cambridge, and best of all was the cup run. The coup de grace was the 5th round 4-0 win against Ron Atkinson's Sheffield Wednesday, who won the League Cup that season and got promoted to Division One. Ron Atkinson was a former Cambridge manager, which was the icing on the coup de grace. It took Arsenal, who went on to win the league, to beat us, 2-1 away, in the quarter-final. In the league Cambridge were always near the top, and again took advantage of games in hand to get promoted, and went top for the first time on the last day of the season to clinch the championship. By this stage the stadium was often filled to capacity, and incredibly I was in a position to call the other fans glory-hunters.

It was at this time that the comparison to the Glory Days at Watford seemed appropriate - Cambridge made a rapid climb up the table, were derided for their long-ball tactics, had great cup runs, played in yellow, and had a ground with a vaguely ecclesiastical name. Truth to tell, that was about it, and Cambridge's kick-and-rush was really a pale imitation of the exciting attacking wing-based football of Watford earlier. Still, it felt good at the time.

Watford of course were staging a memorable come-back of their (sorry, our) own. We had been drinking in the last chance saloon without a paddle, but our brave new manager, Steve Perryman, provided us with an extraordinary end-of-season run-in, and we avoided the drop.

Cambridge managed to start the 1991/92 season well, but already by November the tide was beginning to go pear-shaped. Nevertheless, we were top of the table, easily a record league position, and promotion looked likely. January that year saw my first clash of loyalties, with Cambridge playing Watford at the Abbey Stadium. Ironically it was in the vacation, so I still had a long trip, but I dutifully went to the away end. Baiting the opposition didn't seem quite so much fun that game I remember, and the usual joy of nicking a totally undeserved win (David James played a blinder) wasn't quite there. By this stage the Cambridge names were more familiar than some of the Watford ones, the moose song and "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts" were as much a part of my footballing identity as Z-Cars. I even bought a yellow and black scarf, kidding myself I could wear it at either team's matches. Watford were still my team, and I saw them when I could, but...

Cambridge were pretty poor over the second half of the season, and went out the cup in the third round. Fortunately no-one else in the division played with any consistency either, and we managed to scrape into the play-offs. There we faced Leicester, who nicked an undeserved 1-1 draw before winning 5-0 at Filbert Street. Thus Cambridge missed the chance of being founder members of the Premier League, the play-off place instead going to Blackburn. I left Cambridge and moved to Brighton, still intending to follow Cambridge as a kind of "second team".

Cambridge's glory days ended even more suddenly than Watford's. Dion Dublin went to Man Utd, and Shaggy, another significant player, had already left. Colin Bailie, still in his 20s, retired from football rather than play for John Beck again, and Steve Claridge took an even more drastic measure - he went to Luton. All this before the end of the summer following the play-offs. New signings (including Devon White) failed to catch on, and soon John Beck resigned. He had never been particularly popular with the fans, possibly in part because he'd inherited almost all the players that won his success. Cambridge went down on the last day of the season, and after a failed attempt at the play-offs, went back down to the bottom division in 94/95. Like Aeneas, I saw the smoke from the funeral pyre, and knew what was going on, but didn't turn around. It wasn't really my problem anymore.

A few of that Cambridge team have managed to have reasonable success - Dion Dublin, Steve Claridge, Alan Kimble - and a few more like Lee Philpott and Danny O'Shea have had brief flirtations with the Premiership. John Beck seems to be having a rollercoaster career and is doing okay at the moment at Lincoln. I've seen Cambridge once since I left, a 1-0 defeat away to Bournemouth in November in the season they went down to the third division. Already the tables had turned full circle, and Cambridge were just another lower division side, with few fans and fading memories. Nothing remained of the team I had loved, and then callously tossed aside when it suited me. Shortly afterwards I even stopped checking Cambridge's results in the Sunday paper.

Looking back, I suppose I could have done something a little more productive at University. I often wish I'd done a bit more work, especially when I'm teaching idle students now and have to learn the stuff I didn't do first time round. After all, part of what makes going to football worthwhile is the way in which each game adds to a shared sum of experience, a continuous set of memories against which you can measure your life. Every game, good or bad, adds to this, and to your status as a fan, and thus your self-esteem. Playing away from home doesn't really add anything meaningful, it can only be a substitute for the real thing, and looking back, you wonder if it ever really happened, and what it was all for.