Reg, Barnwell born and bred and a lifelong U's supporter, served on the board of directors between 1970 and 1980 and again between 1986 and 2002. He was Chairman from 1990 to 2002, which included Cambridge United's most successful era when John Beck's early-90s team almost smashed their way into the inaugural Premier League. His reminiscences below, written by Luke Emson, take us up to 1980, when he resigned from the board. He told Coconuts he would continue the story, giving a warts-and-all account of his second spell on the board and his time as Chairman. Sadly, Reg died before these memories could be passed on.
I was born in Cambridge in 1935. My parents and I lived in Vicarage Terrace, which runs between Sturton Street and St Matthew’s Street. My father Herbert was training to be a motor mechanic as well as taking part in some local boxing. He started to play for Abbey United Reserves in 1937 and my mother would take me to watch him play. By the time I was three my father was playing for the first team, but then the war came and he was called up.
My mother and I continued to live in Vicarage Terrace and she got a job, taking me to my grandmother so she could take care of me when she was working. One day, she took me to my grandmother’s just in time, because that evening bombs were dropped on Vicarage Terrace.
By the time my father came home from the army we had moved to Ditton Fields and I was going to Brunswick School. My father started to work for Progressive Coaches, which was owned by Paddy Harris, a director of United. We didn’t have much money in the family, so I got myself a paper round. There was not that much to do in Cambridge at that time. I used to go to the Kinema picture house in Mill Road, where we used to pay sixpence to sit in the front row. As soon as the lights went out, we would crawl under the seats to the back row.
Some Saturdays I climbed over the fence at United to watch a game. My mother sometimes helped to make tea for the team at half-time and my father watched the games and did one or two jobs around the ground. When I was 16 I started to go to home games and some away games. While I was in the army I came home most weekends to see games. I remember nipping out of barracks in midweek to watch Wilf Mannion’s benefit match. When I came out of the army I started to take more interest in the club and I was introduced to Geoff Proctor and Alan Moore. I used to spend hours talking to them and Roy Kirk about football.
I continued to support the club despite spending a lot of time on my building business, which led me to buying shares while I was working on the ground. In 1969, Bill Silk left the board of directors and I spoke to Geoff Proctor, who suggested I put myself up for election. I got myself a copy of the list of shareholders and after work I would go home, wash and change, and then go and knock on their doors, asking if they would be attending the next AGM. If they were, I asked for their support. If they weren’t, I asked them to give me their proxy vote. A lot of people said nobody had ever knocked on doors trying to become a director of a football club, but I told them I was determined and had a lot to offer.
When the AGM came along I was pulled to one side by John Woolley, who told me because I hadn’t given 21 days' notice to change the AGM agenda, I could either withdraw my proposal or stand against the two retiring directors, Sam Tanner and Charles Heffer. I decided to see what support I got, but I lost by four votes, which were cast on the night.
I was still determined to fill the vacant position on the board, so I got enough signatures from shareholders to force the club to call an extraordinary meeting. I went to see John Woolley, who said he had a board meeting that night so I should go back the next day. When I went back to see him, he told me the board had decided it was better to have me as a nuisance on the board than a nuisance outside, and they had decided to co-opt me on to the board. This did not go down too well with a lot of people because, as was said at the time, ‘how can he become a director? He came out of Ditton Fields.’ However, that was the start of many good memories and times I had working with the club.
On the board
One of my first jobs as a director was to go with Geoff Proctor to visit First Division clubs and get their support for our application to join the Football League. On the day of the Football League AGM, I met Geoff Proctor there. The last thing on the agenda was election to the League. The club we feared most was Yeovil Town. When the votes were counted, we found we had polled enough to win.
The next thing I decided to look at was the things we purchased, including the cost of away travel. I found there was no cost control on purchases, so I put a proposal to the board that nothing over a certain figure should be purchased without board approval. I also said we should go out to tender for away travel. At that point I had a director chase me around the boardroom with his walking stick (I will leave you to come to your own conclusion) but the proposal was passed.
Alan Moore was not only a good team manager, he was also a very good footballer. I remember one game against Cambridge City when he had them running about in circles. He was keen to improve the facilities at the ground, so he talked to two members of the board and got the chairman, Jack Branch, to supply the sand and gravel and Sam Tanner to supply the bags of cement. Alan also talked me and several supporters into going to the ground in our spare time to remove the railway sleepers, form the concrete terracing and reinforce the wall at the back of the Habbin Stand. For the reinforcement, I used to go to the gas company in my van and pick up the old griddles they used for grading the coke, and they were put in the concrete. At that time we had no club shop, so I got Alan to persuade the board to let us build a shop under the press box.
Alan achieved a lot, but after one game against City, when he got hold of Derek Weddle around the neck, he was told by the board to make a public apology, which he did. Not long after that he put in his resignation but was talked into staying. After that, he gave the impression he had become bigger than the club, and his second resignation was accepted. As far as I was concerned, he was a great manager.
Bill Leivers & Ron Atkinson
At one board meeting, our manager Bill asked if he could take the players to Spain for a mid-season break. We gave him permission to do so, and because I got on well with the players, I asked the chairman if it would be OK for me to go as well, provided I paid for my own flight and hotel. He did not have a problem with this. However, when Bill found out, he told the chairman he didn’t want me to go with the team, so I decided to get my own flight and book into the same hotel as the players. When they arrived at the hotel, I was there to greet them and Bill was not a happy man. I knew Bill was a man of very high principles, which I respected. He expected his players to have the same principles as he had, but on this trip he went slightly over the top in my opinion.
One evening I went for a meal and a drink with two players, Brian Greenhalgh and Bobby Ross, and we spent most of the evening talking about football. We got back to the hotel quite late and Bill was waiting for us. We spoke for about ten minutes and then I went to my room. When I went to see both players afterwards, they told me Bill was going to fine them a week’s wages each, and they told me they were going to get the first available flight home and would not kick another ball for the club. Fortunately, I persuaded them to apologise to Bill at breakfast the next morning and all was forgiven. Some time later, the atmosphere around the club changed, culminating in the board’s decision to employ a different manager.
During Bill Leivers’ time, and for some time after, we played in a floodlit league and every time we played at home there was this big figure of a man in the guest lounge wearing a leather coat. When I was introduced to Ron Atkinson I didn’t think he would be the club’s next manager.
The board decided, when Bill left, to advertise for a new manager. Because Big Ron had created such a good impression, I rang him and asked him to apply for the job. The board decided to do all the interviews in one day, starting at 10am and finishing at 11pm. The late finish was largely down to the fact that I spent two hours convincing the board that Ron Atkinson was the right man for the club. After I had finally persuaded them, it was left to the chairman and vice-chairman to contact Ron the next day to find out if there would be any problems with him becoming our manager. I received a phone call at midday the following day from the chairman to say I had got my man. He asked me several times whether I had asked Ron to apply, because Kettering felt aggrieved. I denied it.
Ron was like a breath of fresh air. He really did put smiles back on the players’ faces. They were enjoying training and even the board meetings were light-hearted. It was not long before Ron started to bring in players that became household names at the club and in Cambridge, such as Alan Biley, Steve Spriggs and Steve Fallon. For his management team he brought in Paddy Sowden and John Docherty.
Ron and I got on very well. He would sometimes come to my house to have a sauna, and one evening he said: 'I feel I’m destined one day to become manager of two of the biggest clubs in the world.' And he did –Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. I had a feeling it would not be long before other clubs started taking an interest in Big Ron, and I was proved right when West Bromwich Albion came calling. They offered £10,000 compensation for his services, as he still had time left on his contract with us, and the chairman accepted it. In my opinion it was far too low considering he was going to a top-flight club.
On the way to the ground,
I have many fond memories of Ron at United. He was a great manager, a great motivator, and he had a great personality. Maybe that’s why he managed so many clubs – in some clubs he became bigger than the chairman, and in football that is not on. One memory that stands out was when we played Watford. Three days before the game the chairman called a board meeting to say he’d had a meeting with the police, who had asked if Elton John, his personal manager and bodyguard could be picked up at Parkside police station because they didn’t want Elton’s limousine to be driven to the club. I volunteered to pick them up, so on match day I went to Parkside in my new Mercedes and picked the party up. The police gave me instructions on the route to take, and on the way Elton commented that he liked my car. His manager said: 'Don’t you remember? It’s the same model you bought your mum for Christmas.' I never said another word for the rest of the journey.
As well as bringing some very good players to the club, Ron had one of the best management teams in the Third Division, so when he left, the board decided to appoint the new manager from the existing manage-ment team. You would have thought it would be quite straightforward, but it wasn’t; the chairman for some reason wanted to appoint Paddy Sowden, who had never worked with the team, and the rest of the board wanted to appoint John Docherty, Ron’s right-hand man.
Reg Smart: Cambridge United fan, director and chairman. Below, the scene in Vicarage Terrace, Cambridge on 19 June 1940, after a German bombs the previous night had killed nine people. They are believed to have been the first British civilian casualties of World War II. Picture credits: Cambridge News and Cambridgeshire Collection.
A lifetime's dedication
Reg Smart, often known as Curly, was known throughout the area through his building firm and for his 50-year dedication to Cambridge United. He quit as Chairman in 2002, to be succeeded by Gary Harwood, and moved to Thailand, where he kept in touch with friends and followed the news from the U’s. When he died at the age of 78 in March 2014, the behind-the-scenes story of his later years in the boardroom was still unpublished – and it remains so.
Fans’ Elected Director Colin Proctor paid tribute to his lifelong friend. ‘He put over 50 years of his life and a lot of money and time into the club, he was such a dedicated guy,’ said Colin. ‘I’ve seen him day after day wearing jeans with holes and up to his neck in mud digging out foundations for the South Stand. He was absolutely devoted to the club, a true supporter with no airs and graces. He saw a hell of a lot of highs and lows, but he was a very proud man and very proud of what he did.’
Reg’s spell as Chairman started in 1990, when he took over from David Ruston. The following few years made Cambridge United a household name as the club reached two successive FA Cup quarter-finals and came within a whisker of joining the Premier League in 1992, having been promoted the two previous seasons.
The architect of that success, John Beck, said Reg was without doubt the best chairman he had worked for. ‘He was a man’s man,’ he told the Cambridge News. ‘You could talk with him face to face and you could have arguments, but he’d never hold a grudge. He’d listen and if you could show him why it was right to do something, even if it cost the club money in the short term but could earn them money in the long term, he’d back it.’
Beck, who was reappointed manager by Reg in 2001, added: ‘His heart and soul were in Cambridge United and he wanted the best for the club. He was absolutely Cambridge United through and through and there wouldn’t have been a Cambridge United had it not been for Reg Smart.’
It is thought Reg warded off major financial crises at the U’s at least three times with substantial loans. When the board was preparing to sell the Abbey Stadium to director John Howard in November 2004, saying the money was needed to avert the threat of administration, there was talk of Reg coming to the rescue again. He told the Cambridge Evening News he was upset about the proposal and would be keen to put together an alternative deal. ‘My money is all tied up, but I’m quite happy to try to get hold of some people, even my own bank in Jersey, to see if they could so something or put me on to someone who might finance that deal,’ he said.
As it turned out, the Abbey was sold to Bideawhile 445 directors Howard and Stephen Clarke for £1.923 million on 29 November 2004, but a few months later the club went into administration anyway and were relegated to the Football Conference. Proceeds from the sale, intended to provide working capital to see United through the following summer, had gone by the end of February 2005.
By then Reg had gone public with criticisms of the board. Posting on the supporters’ messageboard in January 2005, he told Gary Harwood he had been forced out of the Chairmanship in a meeting held while he was on holiday. He went on to attack decisions made after his departure that, he said, were to blame for the club’s predicament, among them the sale of Dave Kitson to Reading when there were no plans to replace him and the borrowing of £650,000 with no plan on how it would be repaid. He described the 2004 appointments of Claude Le Roy as director of football and Hervé Renard as manager as ‘a farce’, pointing out that Renard had no previous experience and Le Roy had hardly ever been to the club.
Reg also criticised the ground sale in strong terms. ‘You and your board made the biggest mistake of all, selling the ground – which was the only asset the club had to use as security for borrowing in the future – for less than half its market value. On at least three other occasions in the past we had the opportunity to sell the club to developers. You and the rest of the board spoke strongly against doing it and yet you have done so. I'd like you to tell me where a developer can go and buy five to six acres of land in Cambridge with planning permission for a hotel and possibly planning permission for residential for £1,950,000.’
Reg ended his message: ‘As a result of your different direction there is a strong possibility that the club will be playing in the Conference next season, if in fact it is playing at all. When I think of the hard work put into the club over the years by other chairmen, directors and supporters, it saddens me to see what has happened to the club under its current leadership. I think you should consider your position as chairman of the club.’
In fact, Gary Harwood did resign in February 2005, saying he had only envisaged a three-year term as Chairman when he took the job on. On the 10th anniversary of the ground sale, in November 2014, he insisted there had been no alternative. He told the Cambridge News: ‘It's not something that was in our strategic plans when we set out to stabilise the club after the  collapse of ITV Digital, it really was the vehicle of last resort.
‘We used some short-term borrowing to hopefully tide us over while we could sort it all out, but one of the conditions of the borrowing was that the lenders had first call over the ground if we failed to repay and they'd become the owners. We set out to find a buyer who might be friendly to the club and we had several parties that expressed an interest, but I think they realised when they looked at the books more closely that by taking over the land, Cambridge United would never survive and they'd have to foreclose the ground and sell it.’
He defended John Howard, saying he was the club’s saviour. ‘Some will say he was a killer and some will say he spent 18 years on the board getting in position to do it, which is extreme nonsense. The last thing he wanted to do was buy the Abbey Stadium, but he realised no-one else was going to come forward.’
The board decided to appoint them as joint managers, which I didn’t agree with, and I decided to vote against the proposal for two reasons: first, we couldn’t afford two managers, and second, many clubs had tried it and it had never worked. When JD said to me he was not going to have anybody interfering with his team selection, I knew I was right.
Not long after Ron left it was being suggested that he would be back for one of our players, and most people, including myself, thought it would be Alan Biley. It turned out we were wrong. I had a phone call one morning from the chairman to say Ron had come in for Brendon Batson. I asked what fee had been offered; when he told me ₤28,000 I asked the chairman not to let him go until I got to the ground. I went straight to the office to confront him about the small fee we were about to accept. My argument was that Brendon was one of the best full backs in the League and we were letting him go too cheaply. I asked who had recommended we let him go for such a small amount and was told it was Paddy Sowden. I went and saw JD, who gave me the impression that he hadn’t had any say in the matter. I went back to the chairman to ask him to hold out for a larger fee. He told me it was too late: the boy had already gone and the rest of the board had agreed with the fee paid. That Saturday, Brendon played in the first team at West Brom and went on to become an England B international. Paddy Sowden resigned not many months after.
JD served the club for seven years, taking us to the Second Division and bringing in some good players, Chris Turner and George Reilly to name just a couple. It was during John's time as manager that I had some problems in my business, so I thought it was in the best interests of the club that I resign.