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Ian Darler

“Joining CUFC was a dream job for a teenager who really wanted to be a footballer” Ian Darler, head groundsman, Cambridge United FC

Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 2
Ian Darler, head groundsman, Cambridge United FC
Ian Darler, head groundsman, Cambridge United FC

The full glare of the media spotlight shone on Cambridge United Football Club (CUFC) earlier this year, when the League Two strugglers were drawn to play giants Manchester United in the FA Cup. The prospect of some of the world’s most expensive footballers making an appearance at the humble R.Costings Abbey Stadium was the stuff of dreams for CUFC, for whom it meant a stern test of sporting ability and a healthy revenue generator.

On the day, plucky CUFC secured an unlikely 0-0 draw but, within hours, some of the glory had been eroded by comments made by an irate Louis van Gaal – the much-revered manager of Man Utd.

“Every aspect of the match was against us – especially the pitch,” he said, listing excuses for the failure to dispatch a team that, until last year, wasn’t even in the Football League.

While the dutchman’s remarks were greeted with a mixture of dismay and anger by CUFC fans, the one man who had more reason than any to take Van Gaal’s comments personally, didn’t do so.

“I’ve heard it all before,” says CUFC head groundsman Ian Darler, who’s spent the past 36 years at the club. He says that Van Gaal’s comments were similar to those made in 1980 by Aston Villa manager Ron Saunders, whose European Cup winning team could only muster a 1-1 draw against Cambridge. Two complaints in 35 years – not the worst track record.

The fact that Darler didn’t react to Van Gaal’s criticism is another example of why he is considered among the best in his business. He joined the club when he was 19 years old and, becoming the youngest head groundsman in the country. “Joining CUFC was dream job for a kid who really wanted to be a footballer,” Darler says.

While his dreams of making it onto the pitch as a player might have never materialised, he soon made an impression on the pitch in another way. The surfaces he produced at Cambridge became acknowledged as the best in the lower leagues and opposition team managers began paying tributes to Darler and his work – with Coventry City’s manager Gordon Milne even remarking that the Cambridge pitch was “better than Wembley”. Darler was also recognised by his peers, winning five FA national Groundsman of the Year Awards and three commendations.

Far be it from him to allow himself to be put on a pedestal, however. He’d much rather advocate recognition for groundsmen and the groundsmanship industry as a whole. “Observers who don’t understand groundsmanship don’t appreciate the hard work and achievement of groundsmen who are always the first into a stadium and the last out whenever there’s a game.”


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