Revolving doors

As Martin Ling begins his second spell as Cambridge United manager in the space of a few weeks,  Matthew Gooding reflects on a bizarre sequence of events at the Abbey stadium.

Although it isn’t unusual to see a manager returning to his former club, it’s rare to hear of one going back to the job he left just a week previously. And when you also consider that Martin Ling’s first spell in charge of Cambridge United only lasted eight days, you begin to get a flavour of what a bizarre summer it has been for fans of the Blue Square Premier club.

Ling took charge a couple of weeks before the start of the season but little more than a week later he was gone, citing “irreconcilable differences” with forthright club chairman George Rolls. Ling’s departure saw fans and major shareholder Paul Barry turn on Rolls, leading to him and his vice-chairman Terry Baker resigning from the board.

It was a sad end to Rolls’s reign at the Abbey Stadium. The 34-year-old has undoubtedly done some good work behind the scenes at the club but his questionable people skills, and habit of engaging mouth before brain, led to a total breakdown in communications with Ling and previous manager Gary Brabin.

Brabin had led United to the play-off final in his first full season in charge, picking up the Blue Square Premier manager of the year award in the process, so it came as a shock when he was fired after just three pre-season friendlies. In the week leading up to Brabin’s departure, he and Rolls embarked on a thoroughly undistinguished slanging match in the local press, with the manager unhappy that his budget for the coming season had been slashed.

Rolls and his fellow directors eventually gave Brabin the boot and, following a two-week interview process, installed Ling on a three-year contract. All looked set fair for the new season, until it emerged that Ling wasn’t the only one to be offered the job. Rolls reportedly also summoned former U’s coach Alan Lewer and Ebbsfleet boss Liam Daish to Cambridge, promising both that they would be named the new boss later that day.

Of course only Ling was unveiled, with the other two candidates apparently being informed of this via text message. Rolls denies this was the case but it is thought that when Ling got wind of this he decided to get out. It’s all the more incomprehensible when you consider that Rolls is a recruitment agent by trade. After he stepped down, Barry took the reins, and wasted little time in bringing Ling back to the club. “I would never have signed the original contract if I knew what was going to go on,” said the former Leyton Orient boss on his return. “The situation is right now and I’m sitting here today to move forward and draw a line under everything that’s gone on previously.”

United fans will be hoping that this is the case but doubts remain about the club’s long-term future. After his departure, Rolls and his cronies leaked a series of emails which suggest that new chairman Barry is looking to sell his shares and will be putting no more money into the club. They also revealed details of a bid by Barry and fellow director Adrian Hanauer to purchase the Abbey Stadium from United’s landlords, Churchmanor Estates, who currently lease the stadium at a cost of £240,000 per year. Rolls claims this was done behind the back of the other board members, and questions the motives of Barry and Hanauer, both of whom are based in America.

Representatives from supporters’ trust Cambridge Fans United have subsequently met with Barry and CFU chairman David Matthew-Jones said they were “satisfied” by the his version of events. Barry is a life-long Cambridge fan, who has bailed the club out financially on numerous occasions, and for the moment will probably get the benefit of the doubt from the majority of supporters. But while he maintains a public silence it is impossible to be entirely sure whether United are heading in the right direction.

Meanwhile Ling is going about the business of mounting a promotion push, in spite of a massively reduced budget and a squad peppered with untried youngsters. They currently lie one point outside the play-offs.

Ling is the 12th full-time boss United have had in the last 15 years, and if he sees out his contract he will be only the second of those dozen to last three years or more. The other, Roy McFarland, was the architect of Cambridge’s only promotion in recent memory, which perhaps says all you need to know about the merits of managerial stability. United fans will be hoping Ling’s appointment will signal the end of short-term thinking at the Abbey Stadium.

From WSC 272 October 2009