From the days before the Great War, when the club she loved played the likes of the Sons of Temperance and the University Press Third XI, until her death in 1996, Lil Harrison’s support for Abbey United and Cambridge United was unsurpassed.
Lil displayed in those 82 years a depth of devotion to the Cambridge United cause that non-football people find hard to understand. She was an almost constant presence at the ground, cheering the team on while finding the time to serve half-time teas, raising countless thousands of pounds for innumerable projects, serving on the Supporters’ Club management committee for around 30 years; always organising, urging, cajoling. An almost reverent silence fell when Lil boarded the coach taking supporters to away games as United prepared for League football in the 1960s.
Lil watched, worked tirelessly and rejoiced as United rose from the Cambridgeshire League and survived another world war to move towards full professionalism in the United Counties and Eastern Counties Leagues. The club’s rise gathered pace in the Southern League days, and Lil’s efforts redoubled likewise. In 1970 her work gained its just reward when the U’s were elected to the Football League.
She told the Cambridge Evening News eight years later: ‘We rode round on a lorry with a slogan, “We have risen from the dust”. City had told us they were going to drive us into the dust.
‘We were sodden with champagne and I saw men crying.’
That was a long way from the day in 1914 when ten-year-old Lily Harrison first saw Abbey United play. After the war, she was a rare female presence on the touchline as the club moved from Stourbridge Common to the Celery Trenches and then, in 1932, the present ground. Her fundraising work moved into top gear after the second war. She furnished the clubhouse almost single-handedly, paying for a hundred tables and chairs out of husband Charlie’s bank account – without his knowledge – and held raffles each week to pay it back. It’s possible he never knew.
Not that he would have minded. The couple had met when Charlie was on the Abbey United committee and they married in 1928. He was equally devoted to the U’s.
Lil was the driving force behind the Ladies’ Committee that raised money for the Habbin and Corona stands, the floodlights and even players’ kits. Her Christmas raffles were extraordinary, legendary affairs.
The only dream of Lil’s that didn’t come true was her vision of seeing United play in the top division, but John Beck’s team almost did it for her. Her visits to the Abbey tailed off in the early 1990s, but her spirit is evoked every time someone sells a draw ticket or yells their support from the stands.