If ever a man embodied the spirit of Cambridge United, that man was Russell Crane. Raised in an amber and black household within a goal kick of the ground, Russell was a supporter throughout his long life, a player – and what a player! – over 18 seasons, a proud holder of club records and an equally proud honorary life president of 100 Years of Coconuts.
When we lost Russell in March 2016, we lost a role model, a hero, a true U through and through.
Born in 1926, he grew up in Ditton Walk, in a United-mad household. Father Herbie helped however he could behind the scenes; mother Alice washed the players’ kits; sisters Edna, Ivy and Freda were fervent supporters. So it was not much of a surprise when Russell turned out for Abbey United in September 1941. He was just 15 years old.
He went on to represent the club in five different leagues – the East Anglian during the war, the Cambridgeshire, the United Counties, the Eastern Counties and the Southern – and totted up 502 games and 186 goals.
He started off as a speedy outside left with baffling sleight of foot and a deadly shot, but adapted to many other roles during a career with innumerable high points. One of those came in 1948/49, when he was the United Counties League’s top scorer with 42 goals in 37 games.
Reporting on a victory over local giants Wisbech in 1951, the Cambridge Daily News purred: ‘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 on the winning trail by half-time.’
In 1951, Russell scored both goals when United beat the mighty Cambridge City 2-0 before a crowd of 9,814 at Milton Road. At the final whistle United’s ecstatic fans swarmed on to the pitch and chaired him off, lustily singing I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts as they went.
Big clubs including Peterborough and Ipswich came calling, but Russell’s love of the U’s weighed more heavily than the plump pay packets they were waving. It was a family affair, he told Coconuts TV in 2014.
It was fitting that Russell should score United’s first goal in the Southern League, but that 1958/59 season was his last for the club he loved. It was far from the last time he was seen at the Abbey, though. He lived in the Ditton Walk area for the rest of his life, and pulled on the black and amber for the last time for the club’s centenary match in 2012. It was a proud moment for him, and a poignant one for supporters who had seen him in his pomp half a century earlier.