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Ambitious mergers are the talk of the day in Europe. So it should come as no surprise that the possible amalgamation of two local institutions should be a source of much interest in the thriving university city of Cambridge.

Only these are not two high-tech start-ups of the kind often associated with the city but the community’s two struggling – and decidedly low-tech – soccer clubs.

The saga that may draw them together reveals more about football’s tribalism than its business acumen and reflects the troubles facing football backwaters worldwide. Like the game itself, it features eye-catching twists and turns, including a plea for cash to Microsoft founder Bill Gates from supporters.

Gates has sponsored a $210m scholarship scheme at Cambridge University for the past six years. The appeal to Gates came from fans of Cambridge City, the smaller of the two clubs, who recently sold their ground for £2.2m. The move clears their debts but leaves them homeless at the end of the season.

City’s board of directors are chewing over an unappetising prospect to their supporters – to scrap their first team and carry on as a reserve side at their larger, local rivals, Cambridge United.

Not that United are exactly flush. They are more than £1m in the red, and despite swingeing cuts, are losing £250,000 a year, partly as a result of having to pay £200,000 annually to lease back the stadium they sold for £1.9m in 2004. Matters are little better on the field. Last season they were relegated from the Football League, the three professional divisions below the elite Premier League.

Economic logic suggests that a city of just 111,000 residents, one-fifth of whom are students, cannot keep two clubs going in today’s shrinking lower-league football market. Grafting City’s 500 regulars on to United’s current average gates of 2,500 appears to make financial sense to safeguard both clubs.

Football, like any other business, is results driven but sometimes strong performances on the pitch overshadow failures on the balance sheet. For supporters, loyalty also plays a part. “Merger” is one of the game’s dirty words. Attempts to link Cambridge’s clubs are being bitterly opposed.

“A lot of City fans simply won’t go to United,” warns Rab Crangle, of the newly formed Cambridge City Action Group. “We will fight as hard as possible to prevent City from disappearing and will start up our own club if necessary.”

Dave Matthews Jones, chairman of Cambridge Fans United, a supporters trust that has been heavily involved in fundraising and running parts of cash-strapped United, backs Crangle’s call. “It won’t be easy but we will urge City fans to fight as hard as they can.”

Ironically, on the pitch, City are doing rather well, standing fifth in the Nationwide Conference South division. If they win promotion and survive as a club they could play their local rivals next season.

That would echo happier times. Local derbies between the Cambridge clubs attracted 10,000 or more in the 1960s. “City were the bigger club back then,” says Phil Vasili, a former player for both teams and now a social historian. “They finished higher than United eight times in 12 years.”

But by 1970 United were top dogs. While successive Southern League title wins swept them into the Football League, City spiralled into what could be terminal decline.

“We have approached local businesses but they don’t want to know,” says City chairman Arthur Eastham, a former executive at cable group NTL who took charge in 2003. Eastham insists the club was insolvent long before he arrived. “Our accountants advised me to lock the gates and walk away,” he says.

Football clubs rarely heed such warnings. Eastham’s board limped on – grimly grafting fresh layers on to the hotchpotch of deals that has kept the club going but concedes they have failed to staunch the flow of cash.

The proposed deal with United will effectively mothball the club until they can find a suitable site for a new ground.

“City will be in suspended animation,” says Nick Pomeroy, finance director at Cambridge United. “Ready to reform on their own if circumstances change. We will do whatever we can to help. But any notion that we could assist them financially is totally out of the question.”

The best long-term solution would be for United, with financial assistance, to buy back their ground, sell it, and use the proceeds to build a joint stadium with City. Pomeroy insists this would only happen if such a plan had the backing of United’s supporters.

Cambridge’s woes are reflected elsewhere in England and many leading soccer countries. Football has never been more popular or more wealthy. Yet the focus in England is primarily on the Premiership, fuelled by broadcaster BSkyB, a situation replicated around the world. Most of the money generated is sloshing around in top players’ pockets and agents’ wallets.

Soccer backwaters like Cambridge are left merely with two small clubs fighting for a diminishing local football market.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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