The news of the death of former Cambridge United player, coach and caretaker manager Ray Freeman on January 27, at the age of 74, has saddened the football community.
Ray, a combative and creative wing half who came up through the U’s youth ranks, returned to the Abbey Stadium in 1973, as first-team coach under manager Bill Leivers, and took charge of the team before the appointment of Ron Atkinson.
Having qualified as a coach at an extraordinarily young age, he achieved significant success in that capacity in Norway, blazing a trail for English coaches working abroad.
A native of Sawston, Ray showed huge promise in United youth teams from 1960 onwards and had a trial with Tottenham Hotspur, of whom he was a loyal supporter.
He was one of a cohort of players who joined Stevenage Town in the summer of 1963 as the club turned semi-professional and recruited former Brighton manager George Curtis.
At Broadhall Way Ray was described as ‘a player in the Nobby Stiles mould; he never gives up and dislikes being beaten.’ In his first season he broke an ankle and his nose but was an ever-present thereafter.
He stayed with Stevenage for four years, helping them to win promotion to the Southern League Premier Division in 1966/67, until the club’s demise in 1968.
He joined Bedford Town, but in May 1968, after seven appearances, he signed for the San Diego Toros of the North American Soccer League, who were managed by Curtis.
After the Toros finished as NASL runners-up, Leivers tried to sign Ray for the U’s in January 1969, but international clearance failed to come through in time for a game at Margate and the deal fell through.
There followed another spell with San Diego and, back in England in 1971, he captained Romford to promotion to the Southern League Premier Division. A career-ending leg break then led to his career changing direction in dramatic fashion.
Ray had possibly been the youngest footballer to achieve the full FA coaching badge when, at the age of 21, he was assessed by future Ipswich and England manager Bobby Robson. It was typical of a man who constantly looked at ways to maximise his potential, for example through training and improved diet, many years before those practices became accepted.
In 1972, still only 27 years old, he moved to Bergen in Norway to coach SK Brann having been recommended by Curtis, who was by then in charge of the Norwegian national team.
Ray's subtle, innovative tactics found a perfect fit with the rugged yet canny approach of the Norwegians. He transformed them rapidly into a winning side and took them to their first Norwegian Cup win in 47 years with a 1-0 victory over Rosenborg in the final.
He then guided the club to the second round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, demolishing Maltese side Gzira 9-0 on aggregate before falling 2-4 to Glentoran.
News of his success reached the media back in England, and football magazine Goal announced in December 1973: ‘An unknown Briton has conquered Norway’. Ray explained his managerial ethos: ‘… on the field I had to get it into their heads that they could do nothing without hard work and discipline. In fact I’m known as the Madman of Bergen because of my antics on the trainer’s bench during a game.’
The delight of the people of Bergen was evident when Ray was made an honorary citizen of the city.
He was playing a hugely important role as a pioneer for British coaches in Europe, but he returned to Cambridge United in November 1973 as Leivers’ first-team coach.
Brendon Batson, who signed for United in January 1974, said Ray was one of the main reasons he joined: ‘My confidence was low having just left Arsenal but he boosted my self-belief and made me realise I could progress my football career at Cambridge United. I’ll be forever grateful for his positive advice.’
When Leivers was sacked 11 months later, Ray took over management duties for eight games – six drawn, one lost and one won – until Atkinson was appointed in November 1974.
Atkinson, a hands-on manager, assigned matchday scouting duties to Ray, and it was no surprise when he left the Abbey for the management of Romford at the end of the 1974. ‘Ron wants to make all the decisions and to dictate everything throughout the club,’ he said. ‘I do not blame him and I would probably do the same. But it did not leave a lot of leeway to me.’
He found Romford with huge debts and on a downward spiral that resulted in relegation to Southern League Division One in 1975 and eventual extinction three years later.
In 1975 he moved back to Norway, to manage second-division Frigg Oslo, and he remained there for two years, shuttling back and forth over the North Sea until, in 1977, his daughter Maria’s health issues necessitated a return to Cambridge. Sadly, Maria died in 2007.
Ray became an expert in fine wine and was the Pieroth company’s south-east manager until 1997. He then launched Duxford-based Reprotraders, specialising in ornate and reproduction interiors, and was still working for the business when he died.
He continued his involvement with football by coaching the Cambridge University team for a number of years.
Ray leaves wife Liz, a native of Cherry Hinton, children Lisa, Alex, Sophie and Francesca, and grandchildren Louie, Scarlett, Sam, Oliver, Jackson, Milo and Rhea.
The funeral will be held at Teversham Church at 12 noon on Monday, February 18, and afterwards at Lodge Farm, Babraham Road, Fulbourn CB21 5HR.