King of the Abbey … Captain Fantastic … Mr Cambridge United … epithets bestowed with affection, respect and gratitude on a man who typifies the never-say-die attitude all football fans love. Paul Wanless gave his all for Cambridge United and he enters the Hall of Fame in the same manner as he graced the pitch – with head held high.
No player has given more to the United cause if you measure contributions in the amount of blood, sweat and tears bejewelling shirts at the end of a career. That is precisely one way supporters do measure contributions and that’s why they voted him their player of the year more than once. As one of his bosses, Roy McFarland, memorably put it, Paul ‘is the example. Whenever he put the shirt on you knew what you were going to get from him.’
But there was much more to Paul’s play – whether it was in midfield, in defence or even, on occasion, in goal – than work rate, immense bravery and cussedness. Despite his modest insistence that his job was merely to win the ball and give it to more gifted performers so they could weave their creative magic, he was quick-witted and ingenious, could conjure a defence-splitting pass and, in more than 300 United appearances over eight years, almost surpassed the 50-goal mark. To see Paul burst into the penalty area and hurl himself at the ball through a crush of players, in his determination to get on the end of a move, was to recognise that he cared deeply about his game, about his teammates and about his club.
He arrived at the Abbey, via Oxford United and Lincoln City, in March 1996, and soon made his presence felt. After keeping a clean sheet stepping in for injured keeper Scott Barrett in the fourth minute of one game, he observed: ‘I like being in the thick of things.’ Nobody was much surprised that ‘being in the thick of things’ that day included having an eyebrow stitched.
There was no argument when Roy McFarland named him club captain with the words: ‘Paul leads by example, like Dave Mackay did. He’ll go in anywhere and give everything for the team … and he’s Cambridge United through and through.’
Supporters had a good look at the man behind the player when his daughter Emily was born ten weeks prematurely and Paul set about thanking staff at Hinchingbrooke Hospital by raising funds for the special baby care unit. Another glimpse at the real Paul was afforded by the publication of a ‘kit-off’ calendar featuring him and teammates in varying states of nakedness. We told you he was courageous.