Letter from Paul Barry on the future of the Abbey Stadium

Letter from Paul Barry, Majority Owner of Cambridge United Football Club...

Dear fellow U,

Almost 20 years ago the freehold of the Abbey Stadium was sold. Many of you will remember it well for all the wrong reasons. It came at a time of crisis for the Club that was followed by tough years both on and off the pitch, including an administration period that saw Cambridge United within hours of folding and nine years out of the League, with a relegation battle to prevent us falling further. During this whole period we relied on hand to mouth financial support just to keep the Club going.

We all know that things are very different today both on and off the pitch with the Club genuinely united from top to bottom, alongside a flourishing Trust.  There will be time at the end of the season to reflect on our progress but today I wanted to let you know how we will right the wrong of the Abbey Stadium sale and make sure something similar can never happen again.

Since 2010 we have been very fortunate to have Grosvenor Property UK as our landlord. It is genuinely hard to put into words just what a great friend, partner and supporter they have been to the Club. From rent reductions and write-offs at times of need, to their positive support of the Trust, they have been a constant support to us. During this time, they have always been open to constructive, open and practical discussions regarding the multiple and ultimately failed attempts to relocate the Club away from the Abbey. It has not been for want of effort from countless people at the Club over many years that we haven’t been able to find another home. And deep down we have always known that the Abbey is where we really wanted to stay, recognising that for all its imperfections and quirkiness it is our home, one full of character and memories.

So I am pleased to be able to tell you all that today we have agreement in principle with Grosvenor for the Club to buy back the freehold of the Abbey Stadium. We have agreed a very fair and reasonable price. The funding plan is in place and we hope to conclude the purchase by the summer. We all owe Grosvenor a great debt and they will always be a valued part of this football club.

Like many of you, I remember well the hurt and pain of the Abbey sale and whilst I speak for everyone at the Club now - from owners down - that we would never countenance a repeat, that is self-evidently not enough.

None of us can predict the future so guarantees need to be in place to ensure that this can never happen again, that the Abbey Stadium can remain the home of Cambridge United and that the Club can only move from it with consent if there is an alternative genuinely considered to be in the best interests of the Club. 

Today’s announcement comes shortly after the important Fan Led Review by Tracey Crouch MP, a process in which we were pleased to be the only EFL Club represented on her Expert Panel. Her Review talks about the importance of football stadia being recognised and protected as community assets, with a Golden Share in place to provide safeguards for fans.

I am very pleased to say that Tracey has agreed to help the Club on this alongside Kevin Miles, the Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association. We want this to be a model for other clubs at a critical point for football. We would envisage a small number of representatives from different associated groups holding the Golden Share on behalf of the Club, so the principle of consent is enshrined and the true interests of fans represented in any future discussions.

In simple terms, if future owners wanted to sell the Abbey and relocate the Club, those holding the Golden Share could veto the decision unless they considered it to be the right thing for the Club.

While Mark, Adam and I are nominally the co-owners of the Club, we have always recognised we are simply its custodians and we must ensure that the Abbey can never be used as a property development pawn in the future.

We will be saying more about the detail of the golden share in the coming months so there is transparency for everyone on what it would mean, how it would work and the protections it would give. 

As mentioned at the start, we have been through some tough financial times where survival has essentially been prioritised over any investment in the physical infrastructure across the wider Club estate. We are now prioritising buying back the Abbey to right the wrong of the past and to give us the chance to control our future.

We recognise the Stadium is in need of modernisation. We appreciate that the fan experience needs to be better. And to manage expectations it will take time and a shared will and means to do it. But I am sure you agree that this is the most important first step.

But we do also want to make improvements now, in particular to our training ground. We are proud to be a League One Club again and we want to have the best possible working environment we can at this level.

We have been very fortunate to lease our training ground from Clare College over recent years and we are now at the point where we can make substantial investment on the site at Bentley Road. We will be saying more about this shortly and are very grateful to Clare College for their trust and long term support in what we are trying to do as a Club both on the pitch and in the community. 

Taken together, these investments represent significant sums, but it should not encourage anyone to think that we are suddenly awash with money or that the Club is suddenly in a very different financial position. We are not.

Rather, as custodians of Cambridge United we have decided to invest strategically in its infrastructure for the long term and to take advantage of this window of opportunity to repurchase our ground. It will continue to be the ambition of owners and the Board to run the Club sustainably in the future with a prudent but competitive playing budget. 

It is important to say that we have only got here through one huge team effort over many, many years. The work of Board members and staff past and present, the performances of the team in recent times and most importantly the support from you - the fans - who are, and always will be Cambridge United.

As one family we have all been genuinely United In Endeavour for the Club we all love. I don’t want to mention any individuals by name as the list would be too long but I do want to finish by thanking my co-owners Mark and Adam. Their passion for the Club is only matched by their desire, like mine, to see Cambridge United move forward. We are doing this together and it would not have been possible without them. 

There will inevitably be questions following this announcement but I hope you understand that we won’t be saying anything further or doing any interviews for a short while as we work though the detail. However, I believed it was important to let you all know directly from me as soon as the Club was in a position to make an announcement. 

When I was over from the States last month I watched the Accrington game from the NRE and was in the direct sight line behind Wes’s superb last minute finish. A great team goal and yet another wonderful moment at the Abbey. After today I believe we can all be confident there will be many more. 

Yours United In Endeavour,

Paul Barry