Cambridge City had enjoyed a fantastic run before the termination of the 2019/20 seasonCambridge City FC

Cambridge City Football Club (est. 1908) play their matches in the Isthmian League Division One North (level four of the non-league pyramid), and are currently based at Bridge Road, just a short cycle out of the city centre. Shortly before lockdown I spoke to Chris Cox, the club’s Media and Communications Director, to learn a bit more about the club and its work on and off the pitch.

We started by talking about what the last few months have looked like for the Lilywhites. When lockdown first hit back in March, the team had gone seven games without a loss (or a goal conceded), and were eyeing up promotion slots. And, while in terms of football, the league's suspension ‘came at a really bad moment’, it was clear that the club was immediately focused on how it could help during the pandemic.

Chris describes how City is ‘a community club, we’ve always prided ourselves on our community, so we kind of turned coronavirus into a positive’ and were ‘really just doing what we could’. The club started advertising and championing local businesses, and ‘took some time to focus on [its] volunteers – everyone at the club is a volunteer’.

"We’ve always prided ourselves on our community, so we kind of turned coronavirus into a positive"

Although it was never possible to resume the 2019/20 season, the Lilywhites, classed as a non-elite club, were able to have up to 400 supporters at their opening home matches of this campaign. This was ‘really beneficial both for the club and for the fans as well’, and it was clear to Chris how the fans ‘coming through the turnstiles really just appreciated that they could see their friends again and get out the house’.

Of course, that all changed with the most recent lockdown, which has seen the league suspended yet again. In the few months of competition that could take place before the shutdown, Cambridge City had put together their best FA Cup run since 2012 after reaching the fourth qualifying round (where they eventually lost 2-0 at Darlington). 

This success has really boosted the club, not only because of ‘the prize money for that, but also just that feel-good factor’ – City’s last home Cup game, a 2-0 victory against Halesowen Town, was witnessed by a celebrating sell-out, and socially-distanced, crowd.

Chris is keen to emphasize that alongside their men’s first eleven, Cambridge City has thriving ladies’, youth, girls’, and ParAbility teams. The ladies’ and girls’ teams run from Under 11s through to the senior team, which competes in the FA Women's National League (Division 1 South East) and has won the Eastern Region Women’s League Cup and Premier Division in recent years. The two girls’ U15 teams play in a boys’ league.

Each of the ParAbility teams have enjoyed success recently, too: the Championship (level 2) team were league champions 2018/19, and the League (level 1) team have won their competition in three of the last four seasons. These teams have been particularly affected by the pandemic, with many players being in at-risk categories, so Chris is looking forward to ‘being able to get them back on the pitch’ as soon as it is safe to do so.

Lower-league and grassroots clubs, where people often attend and play football matches for the first time, are hugely important in shaping the values of the game at all levels. Alongside the ParAbility teams, Cambridge City has been focusing on its inclusivity in other ways, too, recently appointing Roger de Ste Croix as Equality and Diversity Lead and backing the FA’s Equality in Football Leadership Code. The club was already a supporter of the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football’ campaign, but was keen to do more.

‘We were monitoring what was happening with the Black Lives Matter movement’ and ‘working out where we fitted in it’, explains Chris. The club was aware how ‘it’s easy to see it on the telly and on the news’, but they wanted to make sure that they made an informed and effective response, guided directly by the views of the club’s black members.

Through speaking to, among others, Neil Midgley, Assistant Manager and Head of Youth, City ‘decided to pre-empt the stuff that was coming out of the FA and form our own equality and inclusion group’.

This group has ‘got representatives from the ParAbility team, the ladies’, the youth, the first team, and fans, and it’s really taken off and they’re working together to really make sure the club’s a club for all. Going forward into our new stadium as well, we want to make sure that we arrive and people feel welcome – that’s the main thing for us’. Chris describes how getting to the point where the Lilywhites are a ‘role model for other clubs’ would be his ‘ideal situation’.

These aspirations are also evident in the fundraising work Cambridge City has been running for many years, but particularly over the last few months. The Supporters Trust is a ‘key element of the club’, in charge of ‘everything from running the volunteers to liaising with people in our future home of Sawston, to running fundraising events’.

Every year the club has a different charity partner, and after supporting CPSL Mind last year (and joining in the Duke of Cambridge’s Heads Up Campaign), City are now fundraising for Cambridge City Foodbank. They ran collection points after the men’s and ladies’ first team matches, and it has ‘been really fantastic to see’ the supporters get involved, says Chris, and bring along items to matches clearly bought specifically for donation.

"Every year the club has a different charity partner, and after supporting CPSL Mind last year (and joining in the Duke of Cambridge’s Heads Up Campaign), City are now fundraising for Cambridge City Foodbank"

We then moved onto talking about the ongoing story of the Lilywhites’ new stadium development. City left their home at Milton Road in 2013 (they had played there since 1922, and it could hold over 12,000 people). After this they shared with Histon, then St Ives Town, and now they are back with Histon. A move to a new stadium in Sawston has been mooted since about 2010.

After some planning battles and various other obstacles, Chris says they are now at the point where ‘the land’s there, the surveys have been done, we’re just waiting to have all our grants rubber stamped by things like the Football Foundation, to make sure the facility we build is not just perfect for the club now but sustains the future of the club’.

The new stadium is intended to benefit everyone at the club and also locals. ‘As well as the main grass pitch there’s going to be an artificial pitch that will supports our ladies’, youth, and ParAbility teams’. The Sawston ground will also provide ‘revenue streams for local clubs to use’ and ‘a social hub – function rooms, a bar, and catering facilities’, alongside creating ‘a huge area for [Sawston Parish Council] to put sports pitches on’.

I asked Chris what it has been like sharing a ground with a team that was once the Lilywhites’ main rival, and although some fans have found it ‘a challenge’, he acknowledges how in fact coronavirus has ‘brought the clubs together…and that can only be a positive’. They have worked together to get through these difficult times.

We finished by talking about how the league has gone so far this season. City, managed by former player Robbie Nightingale, sit 17th out of 20 at the moment, with at least one game in hand over nearly all other teams. It has been a ‘mixed bag’ so far, but Chris is optimistic that the Lilywhites are ‘the horse just sort of lulling at the back, just minding its own business, and we’re hoping we’ll canter through and push to the front’.

Fingers crossed, then, that the league will be able to resume soon, and City have a successful re-start. When matches return, Chris emphasizes how ‘students are always welcome down at the club’.

If there are some good footballing things to come out of the pandemic, the reminder of how important these community-focused, local clubs are is definitely one. Since coronavirus first hit, Chris says ‘we’ve done our best – that’s all we could do, and I think that we’ve done it’. I would agree.

You can listen back to the full interview on the Cam FM website. 

December 2nd now also marks the long awaited return to stadiums for all areas not classified as ‘Very High Alert’ - do your bit to support your local sports teams (and get back to a bit of normality) by buying a ticket and watching a live match.