100 Years of Coconuts and CFU were saddened to hear of the death, on 10 March 2016, of Abbey/Cambridge United legend Russell Crane.
Russell was the only man to play for the club in five different leagues: the wartime East Anglian, the Cambridgeshire, United Counties, Eastern Counties and Southern. It was an indication of the respect that all involved with the club held for Russell, a U’s man through and through, when he was made honorary life president of Coconuts in November last year.
Born on 26 January 1926, Russell grew up in Ditton Walk, a stone’s throw from the Abbey United ground, in a United-focused household. His father Herbie was a jack-of-all-trades helper behind the scenes, a role he filled into the 1950s. He would take the team’s shirts home for his wife Sylvia to wash, and count and bank the gate money from home games.
Russell left school at 15 and it was at that age that he made his U’s debut on 13 September 1941, in a 4-2 defeat of an RAF XI. A diminutive, stocky, speedy left winger with tricky skills and a powerful shot, he made an immediate impact and by 1943 was earning rave reviews from the local press.
By now 17, he was called up for the Royal Navy. He took part in an ill-fated exercise designed to prepare Allied forces for the Normandy landings, and later served all over the world, but returned to play for United whenever he was on leave and able to get to Cambridge. Upon demob in 1946 he established himself as a regular in the side and adjusted easily when Abbey joined the semi-professional United Counties League a year later.
Russell blossomed fully during the 1948/49 season, when he was the league’s top scorer with 42 goals in 37 games, a club record. In a 4-1 win at Eynesbury he scored a stunning goal when he picked up the ball in his own half and dribbled past man after man before hitting the net. At Kettering, ‘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,’ said the press report. He scored four goals in a game on three occasions that season, with two hat-tricks thrown in for good measure.
He played at centre forward and inside left as well as on the left wing as United established themselves in the UCL. When they beat relative giants Wisbech in the East Anglian Cup in 1950, the local paper reported: ‘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. For it was the fighting spirit of this human dynamo of an inside forward when Abbey were a goal down after two minutes which largely inspired his team to a one-goal victory. Revealing all the menace of an angry wasp, Crane buzzed and harassed his way among the visiting defenders in a tireless pattern which did much to put a top-gear United on the winning trail by half-time.’
At the end of 1950/51 Peterborough United of the Midland League tried to sign Russell and offered a significant pay rise, but he declined to move out of loyalty to his hometown club. He told Coconuts TV in 2014: ‘As far as I was concerned it was a family affair, you know? My father worked up there, my mother did what she could do at home, my sisters [Edna, Ivy and Freda] all supported them and used to go up to the games …’
The renamed Cambridge United moved across to the Eastern Counties League in 1951. That season United unexpectedly defeated the mighty Cambridge City 2-0 in the Cambs Invitation Cup final before a crowd of 9,814 at Milton Road, Crane scoring both goals in a five-minute first-half spell. At the final whistle United’s ecstatic fans stormed the pitch and chaired Crane off to a rousing chorus of I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.
For the 1953/54 season Russell was converted into an attacking left back, a role he took to with comfort. He was awarded a benefit match in April 1956 to mark 15 years’ service to the club and around that time he turned down the offer of a trial with Ipswich Town.
He filled a variety of positions as United progressed to the Southern League in 1958, and he scored the club’s first goal in that competition, in a 3-1 defeat of Guildford City. That season was his swansong at United and after 18 years’ service, 502 games and 186 goals he remained in local football at Soham and Sawston.
A part-time professional player to the end of his U’s career, Russell’s off-pitch working life encompassed spells at a cable company in Regent Street, the Pye group companies Unicam and Telecom and an electrical wholesaler. He continued to live in the Ditton Walk area until the end of his life.He leaves a daughter, Jane, two sons, Russell and Stephen, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.