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.