In 2005, Cambridge United were relegated from the Football League. As well as their League status, the Club lost all of the funding for their successful youth scheme, and so it had to shut down. Following this, Cambridge United Community Trust was setup as a fundraising body to support Cambridge United youth schemes. Over the past decade, a number of players have progressed through the ranks into the first-team, including Luke Berry, Josh Coulson and Liam Hughes. However, at various points the Trust was in dire financial straits, and would have collapsed were it not for the single-mindedness of Jez George. Jez, now CEO of the Club, has completed a number of extraordinary fundraising missions over the years to make sure the youth scheme was able to continue.
In 2009, Cambridge United reached the Conference Play-off Final against Torquay United. Torquay emerged victorious and gained promotion to League Two, and with it £180,000 annual funding for their youth system. To highlight the injustice that sees youth funding tied to Football League status, Jez George and then Centre of Excellence manager Matt Walker (now Head of Sport Science) walked the 260 miles from Torquay to Cambridge, raising £40,000 towards the Cambridge United youth scheme’s running costs.
Jez and Matt followed this up in 2010 with an even longer walk, covering 410 miles in 18 days and raising £60,000. The pair started at Wrexham FC, and visited 5 further former league clubs who had also suffered a lack of youth funding after dropping into the Conference, before emerging at Wembley on FA Trophy final day. Jez said at the time: "The clubs are trying to keep these schemes alive without any help from the authorities and we just felt that we wanted to highlight the cause nationwide."
With funds again running low in 2013, Jez set his sights on an even more demanding challenge: walking the 100 miles between Cambridge and Lincoln between the end of Cambridge’s home match against Luton on March 30th and the start of the away match at Sincil Bank on April 1st. The 42-hour trek left Jez struggling to stay awake on the bench at Lincoln City, but once again secured the continuation of the Trust. By this time the Trust had expanded its remit, now positively affecting the lives of children across Cambridgeshire, regardless of their involvement with the youth scheme.
The 2013/2014 season was massively successful on the pitch, winning the 2014 FA Trophy Final at Wembley in March, and it was clear throughout the campaign that United had a chance of promotion come May. However, having just missed out on a return to the Football League and youth funding twice since relegation in 2005, Jez was determined that nothing would be taken for granted. With this in mind, he came up with Mission 676; the plan to visit all English Premier League grounds on foot, with the route totalling 676 miles, the equivalent of a marathon a day for 26 days. Jez began at Newcastle United the day after Cambridge United’s play-off spot had been secured against Gateshead. As Director of Football, and with two massively important semi-final legs against Halifax Town to prepare for, Jez continued to work while he walked, conducting phone calls as he trekked across the North Yorkshire Moors.
At the Cambs Glass Stadium, Cambridge turned around a first leg defeat to secure passage to the play-off final, and Jez continued walking. By the time of the play-off final at Wembley, Jez had covered Newcastle to Southampton, with only the London clubs and Norwich left to visit. Even on the morning of the game, he squeezed in 10 miles between Crystal Palace and Fulham. Youth scheme products Berry, Coulson and Hughes all started the match, Hughes scoring the opener in a 2-1 victory over Gateshead. Without the Trust and Jez’s efforts over the previous 9 years, these players (and others) would not have come through the ranks at Cambridge United, and who knows where the Club would be. The promotion guaranteed Cambridge’s eligibility for youth funding from the Football League (though there are still stringent criteria to meet), but Jez marched on, setting off from Fulham the very next morning. Many of the players joined Jez on the final day of Mission 676, ending at Norwich’s Carrow Road, before driving back to Cambridge for a celebratory fundraising dinner, which brought the total raised to over £125,000. This huge sum was achieved due to the generosity of corporate sponsors, and individuals alike, all of whom believe in the aims of the Trust.
Since this time the Trust had continued to positively impact the lives of disadvantaged people in Cambridgeshire, all the time looking to expand its reach and the variety of initiatives and projects it supported. One of the main assets of the Trust as a charity is its access to a group of professional footballers, who are models of aspiration for many young people across the city and county.
The combined success of the Club on the pitch and the Trust’s fundraising off it, means that the Trust has been able to employ a dedicated Manager, giving it greater capability than ever to deliver on its aims of social inclusion, education, and health and well-being. The Trust now supports weekly disability football sessions, women’s and girls’ football, walking football and have expanded sports provision to children, now operating in 70 local primary schools. Moving forward, with the help of corporate partners, the Trust wants to engage all sections of society, regardless of age, ethnicity, ability or any other characteristic, to promote its aims through the power of football.
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