INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BARRY
Nigel Pearce is an old friend of United’s owner Paul Barry. Back in January 2020, pre-covid, he spoke to Paul about his memories of growing up in Cambridge, watching the Us and his move to the USA.
I’m meeting Paul on the 0930 from Euston to Morecambe, via Lancaster. He’s very welcoming (we haven’t seen each other for a good few years) but there is a little fog in his eyes – jetlag. He had flown into Heathrow from Seattle the previous day, so it was the middle of the night his time, before cabbing it to the station. I suspected it wasn’t jet lag alone, though. There’s no way the U’s recent awful run of form, and the future of head Coach Colin Calderwood, were not on his mind.
Paul had agreed for me to interview him about his backstory, up to the point he joined the United board in 2000. That suited me just fine, I’m more than happy to leave the more serious stuff – his plans and ambitions for Cambridge United etc – to those with actual journalistic qualifications.
I used to travel to United games with Paul in the early 80s, when we both lived in London. We were part of the depressingly small “Inter City Trickle”, or ICT, that followed John Docherty’s United around the country in the old second division. They were successful years, but away from home, it has to be said, United stank. We could usually bank on no more than a couple of away wins a season, if we were lucky. We were, however, regularly travelling to wonderful grounds like St James Park, Elland Road, Filbert Street, the Baseball Ground, Burnden Park, Ewood Park and Roker Park. These grounds, and the big crowds that usually packed them, made these few years pretty memorable.
Hopefully what follows will give you a better understanding of Paul Barry the youngster, the student, the entrepreneur and business man, but, most of all, the Cambridge United supporter.
NP: So, where did you grow up, Paul?
PB: In Hauxton, my dad worked at Fisons. We moved to Cambridge, to Perne Road, in 1971, where my mother still lives.
NP: When did you start watching United?
PB: I must have been around 10 years old when I started going regularly, once we had moved into Cambridge. My dad was a Us fan so there was never any suggestion that any of us – me or my two brothers – were going to support anyone but United, and certainly not the team in white from north of the river. I did have a soft spot for Manchester United as a kid (most kids did, Man Utd, Liverpool or Leeds back then) but I didn’t allow myself to be distracted. We stood in the Habbin, but when I was big (or brave) enough I moved to the Corona End (the NRE). Most lads, I think, eventually made that switch. It was great fun. I was thrown out of the NRE once, by the notorious ToJo - aka Inspector George Jones! Not for anything I should be ashamed of, just high spirits. Luckily I knew a chap on the Habbin turnstiles, so I walked round the ground and he let me back in for free after I assured him I had already paid!
NP: The first game you remember?
PB: The friendly against Chelsea in May 1970, just after they had won the FA Cup and just before we won the Southern League and were voted into the Football League. Somehow we managed to pack 14,000 into the Abbey that night. I remember standing right behind Ian Hutchinson when he launched one of his famous long throws. I also remember that historic Sunday game against Oldham in the 3rd round of the FA Cup in 1974. It was during the three day week when the use of floodlights was banned. Because ours was a morning kick-off it was the first professional game in the UK ever to be played on a Sunday. Terry Eades scored a late equaliser that day, he was my first real United hero. We drew 2-2.
NP: Your first away game?
PB: I’d be lying if I told you I remember where or when it was, that sort of detail just didn’t stick. Ron Atkinson was in charge, I can tell you that much. His United team was great to watch. I used to travel on the, ahem, “unofficial” coach, run by a guy who would go on to become somewhat notorious around the Abbey – many older Us fans will know who I am talking about!! I was only 15 years old and did not get involved in any shenanigans, I’ll hasten to add. I remember great FA Cup trips to Leatherhead and Chesham. When I was 17 I got my first motorbike – a blue Honda CD175 – and that took me to many away games, followed up by a bigger Honda 400/4. One of my memorable trips was to Watford with my brother. The bike broke down on the A1 on the way back, the chain snapped. It was chucking it down, I still can’t believe my dad drove all the way out there with a replacement chain.
NP: Where did you go to school?
PB: I went to the Cambridge High School for Boys. I was in one of the last years there before Cambridgeshire went comprehensive and it turned into Hills Road Sixth Form College. It was a great school, with some great teachers.
NP: Then you went to university?
PB: Yes, although I did take a year off first. I went to Imperial College in South Kensington, London, to study chemical engineering.
NP: And you joined up with the Inter City Trickle?
PB: By this time John Docherty had succeeded Ron Atkinson and United were, remarkably, in the old second division. Living in London made it much easier to get to the long distance away games, and the ICT (if we had sufficient numbers) allowed us to get discounted group rail tickets. Otherwise I’d use my student railcard, or my bike would be called into action. As well as yourself the ICT usually included Radio Cambridgeshire’s Mark Johnson and his brother Paul, Dave Filce, Nick Prior, Steve Jillings, Steve Eckersley, Simon Turner and Mark Chaplin. Sorry to those I’ve forgotten. Living in college halls for a year made it very difficult to organise travel – this pre-dates mobile phones, of course. You or Dave would leave messages with whoever answered the pay phone in the stairwell – eg “be at Kings Cross for 0830”.
NP: What was it like as an away fan in the 80s?
PB: A challenge. Most of the time there was no segregation for small groups of away fans, like us, at the big grounds. At Sunderland once (2-0 win) we were shielded by a ring of coppers. We were taken back to the station by the police in a police van – that happened a few times! Most away games involved a battle of wits to avoid an overnight stay in hospital. After United’s first ever trip to Elland Road in 1982 I rescued Dave Filce from a gang of Leeds lads on the back of my motorbike.
NP: Yes, thanks, the rest of us had to run the gauntlet back to Leeds station! One particular game stands out in my memory for a variety of reasons, Carlisle away in May 1983. We didn’t know it at the time but it was a major watershed moment, for both you and for United.
PB: It was a Tuesday night, a 2-2 draw. After the game you and me were chased down the high street by a dozen locals and ducked into a pub. They didn’t come in after us, though, and eventually disappeared. We caught the 1-30am milk train back to Euston.
NP: That year we ended safely in mid table but the following season we finished bottom. The rot had set in that would quickly see the Us back in the old 4th Division.
PB: That was an early sign of the greed in football that we see at the top level today. The Football League decided to stop away teams taking a share of the home gate, that cost United thousands of pounds and all of a sudden the team just wasn’t competitive.
NP: The other reason I remember that trip, though, is that you told us, and I can pretty much quote you: “This is the last time you will see me for a while. I’m going to the USA to get married, to get my Green Card and to make my fortune”.
PB: Ha, that was my plan. In fact I got my Green Card first, before I got married. Despite not having done a great deal of academic work for three years I got my degree and immediately moved to the States. I had a three month work visa and got a job working for British Rail in their New York City office. The visa ran out but there was no way I was coming home. I then got a job with a travel agency. The owner was Iranian, a great chap. He pointed me towards a lawyer who, he said, would get me a Green Card (which would allow me to stay in the USA and work legally). And he did! He convinced the Immigration Service that my first hand knowledge of Europe was essential and unique to this specialised travel agency. It’s not as straightforward as that nowadays.
Above Terry Eades
NP: How did you end up 3,000 miles away, in Seattle?
PB: I eventually set up my own travel business, and it grew and grew. I needed to relocate to new premises but NYC was so expensive. After a lot of research I decided to move the business lock, stock and barrel to Seattle where office space was much cheaper (again, not the case any longer). My business was one of the very first to use search engines and to allow online travel booking. I still live in Seattle, although my main business is now based down the coast in Portland.
NP: How did you keep up with events at the Abbey back then?
PB: With difficulty. Clubcall [a dial-up premium telephone service] was useful when it arrived in the mid-80s. Moosenet, though, was the big breakthrough for me (and other ex-pat Us fans). I did come back to the UK fairly often, to see my family and to watch the Us. In the early 90s (when United were flying under John Beck) every now and again I would fly back to the UK just for the weekend.
NP: You’re a big England fan too, you’ve followed them all over the world.
PB: I went to Italia 90, partly because it was a business opportunity - hotels that I regularly worked with were empty due to FIFA bungling their room blocks. I stayed for free in Rome and Florence for two weeks. I went to all the England games, up to the quarter final against Cameroon. Getting match tickets was pretty easy, any game you could just turn up. The next World Cup was at home in the US, of course, but sadly without England. Thanks, Graham Taylor. I went to the final in the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, Italy v Brazil. Rome 97 was eventful, the final World Cup qualifier for France 98 - I was caught up in the tear-gassing of England fans, with you and Godric Smith. I was then lucky enough to get to the WC tournaments in France, Japan / Korea 02 and Germany 06. It’s rarely a joy watching England at World Cups, though, and my patience ran out in South Africa in 2010 – I was actually in the air, flying home, when we were losing 4-1 to Germany in Bloemfontein. I passed on Brazil 2014 (even though my wife grew up in Brazil) and Russia. I’m now officially retired from England duty!
NP: Do you watch your local football team, Seattle Sounders?
PB: They are my second team. I’m a season ticket holder and minor owner. I’ve been a friend of Adrian Hanaur, the Sounders’ owner, for many years. Adrian has also been a major shareholder at Cambridge United. I help the Sounders out with travel arrangements, if asked*. I’ve watched the Sounders all over the USA, usually as part of a business trip, and also across Central America in the CONCACAF Champions League. Honduras is probably the scariest place I’ve ever watched football, every Sounders fan had their own personal armed bodyguard!
*To emphasise this point, during the journey home Paul had to book an agent and his player wanting urgent flights from Rio to Seattle!
NP: How did you get involved with United at board level?
PB: By the late 90s my business was doing well and I was in the great position to have the funds to invest in the club. I wrote to Reg Smart, offering money to help market the club. Reg had recently had his fingers burnt publicly by a bogus potential investor, so he was very suspicious of me – an unknown guy from the States claiming to be a long term Us fan. To test my bona fides he quizzed me about United when we met eg; “who was our right back in the early 80s”? “Dave Donaldson”, I told him. “Or Chris Turner if he was injured”. I convinced him I was genuine and, just as importantly, that the club needed to be marketed properly. One of my first jobs was to ask Andrea Thrussell to design and run the club’s first official website, which she did in 1999 (she had previously set up the unofficial United website). What a great job she did. I joined the Board of Directors in April 2000, a very proud moment.
Paul was Chairman of Cambridge United between 2009 and 2013. He became the majority shareholder in 2018 before, in September 2019, he bought 100% control of the football club. In September 2020 Paul subsequently sold a 20% shareholding to two new minority US investors.
It was a fascinating trip, not least spending time with Paul at such a difficult time for the club. After the game, and following discussions with Graham Daniels and the other directors who were at Morecambe, Paul agreed that the team’s second half performance, and recovery from a goal down, showed sufficient fighting spirit to suggest Colin could still turn the season around. It was clear, however, that any further lapse over the next few games would spell the end for the Head Coach, and this came to pass the following Tuesday against Salford.
Click below to watch the 1970 Chelsea film
Click on the Carlisle Programme to see a report and photos of the match in May 1983
Happy Harry's blog
I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.