While players, Managers and Owners dominate most of the headlines, Football Clubs are indebted to their staff across a range of areas, whose efforts can often go unnoticed.
During his 43 years at Cambridge United, Ian Darler has seen it all. Thirty-one managers, five promotions, six relegations, two Play-Off Final defeats, one FA Trophy triumph and a spell in administration.
Throughout the highs and lows, Darler has been a constant, having joined the Club in 1979 as the youngest-ever Head Groundsman in the EFL at the age of 19, before taking on additional roles as Stadium Manager and Safety Officer.
In that time, the U’s stalwart has shouldered the task of complying with ever-changing laws and procedures while developing the facilities at Abbey Stadium, including the introduction of all-seater stands, electronic scoreboards and ticketing machines, divided terraces and a new drainage system.
“The job is relentless, you either love it or you hate it,” he says. “On a Saturday, I’ll be in at half 7 in the morning and be done by 8pm if we are lucky. For a midweek match, I’ll be in at half 7 and won’t leave until midnight.
“Years ago, the matchday experience was people just turning up, watching the football and going home. Now, it’s about entertainment from two or three hours before kick-off and making sure everything is available to any supporter.
“Nowadays, pitches are in a better state, hospitality is massively improved and the stadium also provides income on non- matchdays, with lounge areas being extended so that we can have corporate events during the day. When I first started, there was nothing other than football going on here.”
It’s not just matchdays where the Stadium Manager is required.
Whether it’s inspecting and repairing facilities, organising stewards, sourcing materials and equipment or communicating with the local authority, Darler is never short of something to do.
“I don’t have a day where I come in and there aren’t things we can improve or reinstate,” he says. “Every part of a job is then documented on my maintenance list, which has been running now for about 20 years.
“Even something as trivial as replacing five seats goes on the sheet, so if anything did ever go wrong at this Football Club, we can show that we have a running maintenance programme.
“Before the clocks went back, the yellow edges weren’t as bright as I would like, so we re-painted every set of stairs in the stadium, because the extra visibility is so essential when light drops.”
Darler experienced the industry repercussions of tragedies at Valley Parade and Hillsborough in the 1980s, which drastically transformed the demands of stadium management.
“They were life-changing events,” he continues. “Prior to the Bradford fire, I would be the only person with a key to unlock the gates 10 minutes before the final whistle. Nearly all the gates were locked during a match to prevent access into the stadiums, due to the threat of hooliganism.
“Before Hillsborough, there used to be barbed wire fences all around the ground to stop fans getting on the pitch. The focus was on controlling supporters, rather than safety. That all changed after those two events.”
COVID-19 provided the latest challenge to contend with, although the 62-year-old was suitably prepared to combat the restrictions.
“Cambridge were the first Club to have a League game in front of a crowd after the COVID outbreak,” Darler adds. “We had a contingency plan in place for a major incident, if somebody had been taken ill or something had happened structurally to the ground, so we were prepared to be a pilot Club.
“We put in one-way systems all around the stadium. It took me two-and-a-half weeks, bending over with stencils to put red arrows two metres apart everywhere. When people from the Government came to oversee it, they said it was such a simple process and they were happy with its effectiveness.
“I did a small video to help out other Clubs. Before and after events, we were spraying every part of the stadium. Even during the game, we had staff that ensured handrails were being cleaned regularly.
“Staff were so conscientious about protecting their own and other people’s welfare and we didn’t have an issue. We took on board all the information that was available to us and we can hold our hands up and say we never turned a blind eye to anything.”
The developments made by Darler over the years have meant that fans are not just kept safe and entertained during a matchday. In extreme cases, Cambridge staff have saved lives.
He recalls: “Over the course of 12 years, we’ve had three people that clinically died in the stadium due to heart attacks, but because of the extensive training and resources we have here, all three are alive to tell the tale.
“Within a minute and a half, they’d received CPR and were on a defibrillator. Every single steward on our books went through that training. Subsequently, I’ve personally saved two people’s lives outside of football by being able to give CPR.
“I pulled a woman out of a burning house and she wasn’t breathing, then the other one was my father, who had a heart attack at my son’s wedding. One of our stewards has also saved a chap’s life. If you follow the guidance from football and the EFL, it’s surprising what you can provide to people inside and outside the stadium.”
Over the course of his four decades of service, Darler has received many honours for his skills as a groundsman, while he was recognised for his longevity in the game with an EFL Long Service Award in October.
However, it is his charity work that fills him with the most pride, which resulted in the Cambridge Hall of Famer being rewarded with a BEM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2020.
“It’s an addiction,” he admits. “At my testimonial game 17 years ago, I made a pledge that I would give East Anglian Children Hospice a chunk of the gate receipts. That was the start of ‘Cambridge Charity Fundraisers’ and it’s rolled on and on.
“There are so many good things that come out of football; it has enabled me to raise money for so many causes over the years. I was also involved with the Heads Together campaign, coordinated by the Duke of Cambridge. Football is so powerful.
“Pre-COVID, we’d raise between £10,000 and £15,000 each year for national and local charities. Most recently, I signed up to do one million steps in three months, with all the money going to Shout.
“Last Christmas, we went out and bought enough food to feed 10 families from a deprived area across from the stadium, with a full Christmas dinner, pudding and every kid got a gift. Being able to do that is better than any award.”
With retirement age approaching, the fire keeps burning for Darler, who has no intentions of slowing down. And he has not forgotten about all the volunteers who have helped him along the way.
“In my 40th year here, the Club were kind enough to give me a dinner, and I invited around 150 people who had all contributed over my time here, whether it’s the supply of materials, donations, labour, and so on,” says Darler.
“It gave me the opportunity to walk around the room and thank every one of these people. I can genuinely show that we’ve had in excess of £1 million of freebies in 40 years.
“I’m already the longest serving member of staff Cambridge United has had, but I’m dreading counting down the years I’ve got left to go. My aim is to get to the magical 50 years and I’ve just signed a contract that could potentially keep me here until I’m 70.
“It is hard work and it is challenging, but I’ve loved every minute of it, even more so now I’m involved with charity work and helping people with mental health. I just don’t want to stop.”
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.