100 Years of Coconuts and CFU were saddened to hear of the death at the age of 90, on 10 March 2016, of Abbey/Cambridge United legend Russell Crane.
Russell was the only man to play for the club in five different leagues: the wartime East Anglian, the Cambridgeshire, United Counties, Eastern Counties and Southern. It was an indication of the respect that all involved with the club held for Russell, a U’s man through and through, when he was made honorary life president of Coconuts in November last year.
Born on 26 January 1926, Russell grew up in Ditton Walk, a stone’s throw from the Abbey United ground, in a United-focused household. His father Herbie was a jack-of-all-trades helper behind the scenes, a role he filled into the 1950s. He would take the team’s shirts home for his wife Sylvia to wash, and count and bank the gate money from home games.
Russell left school at 15 and it was at that age that he made his U’s debut on 13 September 1941, in a 4-2 defeat of an RAF XI. A diminutive, stocky, speedy left winger with tricky skills and a powerful shot, he made an immediate impact and by 1943 was earning rave reviews from the local press.
By now 17, he was called up for the Royal Navy. He took part in an ill-fated exercise designed to prepare Allied forces for the Normandy landings, and later served all over the world, but returned to play for United whenever he was on leave. Upon demob in 1946 he established himself as a regular in the side and adjusted easily when Abbey joined the semi-professional United Counties League a year later.
Russell blossomed fully during the 1948/49 season, when he was the league’s top scorer with 42 goals in 37 games, a club record. In a 4-1 win at Eynesbury he scored a stunning goal when he picked up the ball in his own half and dribbled past man after man before hitting the net. At Kettering, ‘his marksmanship and working of the ball bore the hallmark of class and the opposing defence never knew what he was going to do next,’ said the press report. He scored four goals in a game on three occasions that season, with two hat-tricks thrown in for good measure.
He played at centre forward and inside left as well as on the left wing as United established themselves in the UCL. When they beat relative giants Wisbech in the East Anglian Cup in 1950, the local paper reported: ‘If Abbey United are fortunate enough to win the East Anglian Cup this season, the name of Russell Crane should be engraved upon it in gilt letters. For it was the fighting spirit of this human dynamo of an inside forward when Abbey were a goal down after two minutes which largely inspired his team to a one-goal victory. Revealing all the menace of an angry wasp, Crane buzzed and harassed his way among the visiting defenders in a tireless pattern which did much to put a top-gear United on the winning trail by half-time.’
At the end of 1950/51 Peterborough United of the Midland League offered Russell a significant pay rise, but he declined to move out of loyalty to his hometown club. He told Coconuts TV in 2014: ‘As far as I was concerned it was a family affair, you know? My father worked up there, my mother did what she could do at home, my sisters [Edna, Ivy and Freda] all supported them and used to go up to the games …’
The renamed Cambridge United moved across to the Eastern Counties League in 1951. That season United unexpectedly defeated the mighty Cambridge City 2-0 in the Cambs Invitation Cup final before a crowd of 9,814 at Milton Road, Crane scoring both goals in a five-minute first-half spell. At the final whistle United’s ecstatic fans stormed the pitch and chaired Crane off to a rousing chorus of I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.
For the 1953/54 season Russell was converted into an attacking left back, a role he took to with comfort. He was awarded a benefit match in April 1956 to mark 15 years’ service to the club and around that time he turned down the offer of a trial with Ipswich Town. He filled a variety of positions as United progressed to the Southern League in 1958, and he scored the club’s first goal in that competition, in a 3-1 defeat of Guildford City. That season was his swansong at United and after 18 years’ service, 502 games and 186 goals he remained in local football at Soham and Sawston.
A part-time professional player to the end of his U’s career, Russell’s off-pitch working life encompassed spells at a cable company in Regent Street, the Pye group companies Unicam and Telecom and an electrical wholesaler. He continued to live in the Ditton Walk area until the end of his life. He leaves a daughter, Jane, two sons, Russell and Stephen, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
From top: Russell Crane heads for goal against Cambridge City in 1957/58; with daughter Jane Lyon in the Abbey Stadium main stand; a Cambridge Daily News profile; with memento of his installation as honorary life-president of 100 Years of Coconuts; with centenary shirt; and on the Abbey pitch with John Taylor for the centenary match, 2012.
If there's anyone who embodies the spirit of Cambridge United, it's Russell Crane. Supporter, player and worker, Russell still lives close to the ground and is a U through and through. He and daughter Jane Lyon were the guests of 100 Years of Coconuts and the club on Saturday, for the Northampton game. Here are some pictures from the day and an edited version of an article that appeared in the matchday programme.
Russell Crane has as valid a claim as anyone to the title of Mr United. Growing up in an Abbey United-centred family a coconut’s throw from the ground, he was still a boy when he first pulled on the amber and black. He bowed out 18 years later having played 502 games, scored 186 goals despite playing many of those games at left back, and left his mark on five different leagues.
Now in his late 80s, Russell is today making use of the CFU audio description service through which volunteers provide visually impaired fans with a live account of the action. He hasn’t had to travel far to be with us today, for he lives very close to where he grew up in Ditton Walk. The Cranes were Abbey United through and through – mother washing the team kit, father counting the gate money and taking it to the National Provincial Bank in Trinity Street; like so many U’s people they gave their time freely to the club they loved – so it was natural that Russell should play for his local club. A tricky left winger with a cannonball shot who had represented Cambridge Schoolboys, he left school at 15 and was soon playing alongside fellow legends Harvey Cornwell and Wally Wilson in a 4-2 defeat of an RAF XI. The date was 13 September 1941.
The following season saw Russell playing in the wartime East Anglian League – the Cambridgeshire, United Counties, Eastern Counties and Southern Leagues were also to feature on his CV – and garnering enthusiastic reviews from the press. But there was a war on, and he was called up at the age of 17. His Royal Navy service took him to the ends of the Earth, but it didn’t stop him playing for Abbey when leave gave him the opportunity.
Russell adapted easily to the semi-pro United Counties League after the war, and his star rose to its zenith in the 1948/49 season, when he blasted 42 goals in a mere 37 games – a club record – and notched four goals in a game three times. ‘His marksmanship and working of the ball bore the hallmark of class and the opposing defence never knew what he was going to do next,’ purred the press. Two years later the paper insisted: ‘If Abbey United are fortunate enough to win the East Anglian Cup this season, the name of Russell Crane should be engraved upon it in gilt letters.’
Peterborough United of the Midland League came calling in 1951 as United prepared for life in the Eastern Counties League, but Russell was having none of it. ‘As far as I was concerned it was a family affair,’ he told Coconuts TV last year. ‘My father worked up there, my mother did what she could do at home, my sisters all supported them and used to go up to the games.’
His loyalty was rewarded when the U’s (by now Cambridge United) beat the giants of Cambridge City 2-0 in the final of the Cambs Invitation Cup, in front of a crowd of 9,814, at Milton Road on 1 May 1952. Russell scored both goals in a five-minute first-half spell, and at the final whistle United’s ecstatic supporters chaired him off the pitch, singing I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts as they went. As Andrew Bennett observes, the balance of power in the city was starting to shift.
Russell, converted to an attacking left back role by player-manager Bill Whittaker in 1953/54, continued to endear himself to the fans. In 1956 he was awarded a benefit match to mark 15 years of service, and fought off the attentions of Division Three (South) Ipswich Town.
It was entirely appropriate that he should score United’s first home Southern League goal on 30 August 1958, in a 3-1 defeat of Guildford City. But that season was his last for his beloved U’s and he played out the rest of his career at Sawston and Soham.
It’s unlikely we will see Russell Crane's like again, but the flame lit by him and other legendary players and supporters, united in endeavour, will never be extinguished.
Russell Crane and daughter Jane Lyon settle into their seats at the Abbey Stadium on Saturday, 17 October 2015. All photos: Alan Burge.
On the pitch at half-time, Russell presents the Tommy McLafferty Cup to Corinthians, this year's winners of the Cambridge South Rotary Club homeless football tournament.
Russell presents the Player of Tournament trophy to Clare Jolly of the Cambridge Police team.
Russell, with Lorraine Cullum, acknowledges the plaudits of the crowd.