Chief Executive Jez George Programme Notes
I spoke at the end of August about the lunacy of the transfer window and the even greater lunacy that it is now a "brand" with its own show, both live and then a highlights package afterwards. Sky Sports has hyped it to such a degree that signings for the likes of Stoke and Everton are met with hysteria because the likes of Manchester City refused to flex their financial muscles. In the absence of a stellar signing, the light blues announced the imminent arrival of their next manager. That is now also box office. The speculation surrounding Guardiola's protagonist in Spain, when they faced each other in many an El Classico, will undoubtedly reach fever pitch by the summer. On Tuesday, what really matters - the game itself - resumed. And in the case of Leicester City this season, normal service was resumed. I've also covered the subject of how the Premier League is becoming more competitive due to the amount of money available to every Premier League club effectively making the competition more equal than ever before. I think this will be a growing rather than fleeting change. Imagine predicting that Leicester City would lead the table in February, with Manchester United 5, Liverpool 11 and Chelsea 17 points outside the Champions League places! It's the one quality, amongst all the madness, that football retains. It's sheer unpredictability. It's what makes every game so captivating.
A few levels down the food chain, the last month can be equally stressful and frustrating. It's really important to remain cool and calm, have a clear vision of what you require and to be prepared for the odd curveball. Expect the unexpected!
Our aim going into the month was to tidy up the squad, trim the numbers, increase the quality and come out of January stronger than we went into it. Shaun and I were in constant contact, along with our coaching staff and recruitment team, to ensure that we could achieve these aims. We are never satisfied, and in League Two the loan window will open again on Monday. But we are happy with our work in January and the ongoing process of developing the football department and first team squad.
We've been busy. We sold Rory Gaffney, for a deal that was too good for the club to turn down, especially considering the player would be a free agent in six months and was determined to leave. Timing, which is a factor that often dictates what can and can't be done in the transfer market, was crucial. Once we agreed a transfer fee with Gillingham for Ben Williamson, we gave Bristol Rovers the green light. Throughout January we were aware of the probability that Barry Corr would need surgery to repair an issue with his knee, hence his time on the pitch being managed by Shaun. It is difficult for the manager when you cannot explain the real reasons behind a team selection, especially when the team doesn't win, but in pursuing a potential replacement for Barry, we didn't want the extent of his injury to become public knowledge. Once we'd secured the signing of Jimmy Spencer, following the cancellation of his contract at Notts County, we were able to clarify the situation. It was a dream start for Jimmy, a player hugely admired by Shaun, at Leyton Orient and the next three/(hopefully four) months are a great opportunity for Jimmy to find out more about the club and vice versa.
James Dunne signed a contract until the end of the season in similar circumstances, having cancelled his contract with Portsmouth. James has already shown the game intelligence, bite and experience that he can bring to our very youthful midfield. At the same time, Keith Keane has gone out on loan to Stevenage so that he can hopefully improve his fitness, play in a run of games and return ready to challenge for a place in the team. Jeff Hughes will spend the remainder of the season at another club, so that he can play regularly closer to home before we resolve his future in the summer. Hopefully he can help a proud club and ex U's manager into the play-offs.
Shaun's contacts to procure the signing of talented young players on loan from Premier League and Championship clubs has been extremely important in changing the characteristics of the team. They've brought pace, energy and exuberance, as well as the technical qualities that you'd expect from players at clubs such as Everton, West Ham and QPR. We are delighted to confirm that all three players - Ryan Ledson, Lewis Page and Darnell Furlong - will be with us for at least a further month.
Another important addition to the team has been a precocious young talent of our own, Will Norris. It was a saga to get him back but worth every minute. To see his calmness, confidence and composure at places like Kenilworth Road and Brisbane Road, in front of 6000+ crowds, was great to see and hugely encouraging for the future. I loved his reaction to our first goal against Leyton Orient, when after contributing to Ben's goal with a typical exocet clearance, he celebrated in front of the 1237 jubilant U's fans. To develop our own young goalkeeper, as well as seeing two home grown players - Josh Coulson and Luke Berry - in the spine of the team, with the latter wearing the armband, is fantastic and sums up what the club is all about.
Finally, as the close of the window approached, we have tried to be fair to all the players not in contention for a starting place in the team. In the case of Jordan Slew the best outcome for all concerned was that we came to a mutually agreeable financial arrangement to cancel his contract.
Our penultimate deal to complete involved Liam Hughes, who evokes more emotional attachment with many of the staff than a "normal" player due to his time at the club, his development from a young scholar to an established first team player and the amount of time, effort and support invested in him over eight years. It was the right decision and the right time, but we will continue to keep in touch with him and try to help Liam make the right decisions for his future. When someone grows up at your club, they never truly leave. We will always look out for him, even as far north as Inverness!
Aaron Mason was right in his article this week to highlight Liam's contribution to the club. However, Liam was also correct to highlight the role the club, and many current and ex-members of staff, has played in his development. I am not talking about on the pitch. That's our job. I'm talking about how Liam has developed as a person since joining us at 15 years old. We believe that's also our job. We are proud that Liam is a fine young man, supporting a young family, and the role in which the club has played in this process of maturing over eight years. It's why the parents of our best young players want their sons to remain at Cambridge United, even when there is interest from the big boys. Liam is a great advert for our academy, our scholarship programme and our club. He had his moments, he had more lives than the proverbial cat, he provided enough material for more than one after dinner speech but you can't help smile when you say his name! His interview, when his hopeless attempt at growing a moustache for Movember was in full flight, we'd just been booed off after a 1-1 draw against bottom of the table Bath City but he had scored the goal from 25 yards, was hilarious. Liam Hughes will always be welcome at the Abbey Stadium.
Finally, on Monday, when I had told Aaron that he could go home, dispense with his gold tie and stand Michael Vaughton down from the Main Stand car park, we made a late signing. It was a real left field moment when Shaun phoned me at 6pm about a potential signing of a young American defender with an Irish passport from a club in Cyprus who had been on loan in Belgium! To add to the international flavour, the legal representatives of Apollon Limassol, his parent club, were signing the paperwork in Israel! Once Shaun had flagged up the opportunity, we quickly watched some of his games and key actions on WyScout, a platform that allows us to access games from any league in the world. We then spoke to contacts in America who knew Shane from his 52 appearances for Colorado Rapids and agreed a financial deal that suited us with his agent.
It became a no brainer and whilst it's rare for a loan signing to come out of the blue quite so unexpectedly, there are always occasions when you deviate from the usual process. It needs everything to stack up and the risk/reward ratio to be favourable to the club. In this case it was, so we welcome Shane O'Neill to the club and thank him for making Monday evening busier than anticipated! As it was an international transfer, it meant that Andy Beattie was completing even more forms than usual and uploading his information onto TMS, which is FIFA's transfer matching system, in order to beat the deadline when he'd anticipated watching EastEnders!
So that's it, until Monday at least!
Finally, two things. Please give our Under 15/16's a fantastic welcome at half time today, worthy of their achievement in a prestigious indoor tournament in Germany two weeks ago, when they came third against all the Bundesliga giants.
And please come to watch them on Monday 15th February against Liverpool (7pm kick off). They have already played Tottenham in the October Half Term and we have plans for a prestigious game to mark the tenth anniversary of the re-born youth scheme in May. They are a really talented group, who have also recently played Arsenal & Everton, and I really encourage you to watch them. It would be great to attract a four figure crowd, which their talents deserve.