Ian Darler Hits 40 Years: From eating a Sunday roast with Barry Fry in the centre-circle at London Road, to sing-along fishing trips with John Beck and rubbing shoulders with Herve Renard, it would be difficult to find anyone that has experienced the highs and lows of Cambridge United more than Ian Darler.
Having arrived at the Abbey as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 1979, Darler is now celebrating his 40th anniversary with the club, which has coincided with the release of his book: Life’s A Pitch.
After admitted scepticism – it took a while for him to be convinced that the book deal wasn’t a wind-up – the long-serving stadium manager and head groundsman talked to CambridgeshireLive about his memories, good and bad, of his time at the Abbey Stadium and why he decided now was the right time to put it all down on paper.
While he said the book has made him feel proud of what he’s achieved, and unearth old memories, it has been important for him in another way, as it has helped to heal the physical and psychological scars which plagued him after a serious accident at work in 2013. He has come out the other side now, but the accident left him needing seven surgeries, and started a battle with depression and PTSD which lasted for several years.
“Being able to focus on something totally fresh and go back over your history brought some good times back for me and it was almost like the final part of the therapy,” he said.
“It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I had been as a youngster, what I had achieved from being an apprentice groundsman and the trials and tribulations of a groundsman.
“Within the book, it’s given me the opportunity to go through the whole aspect of it again, even to the point of being able to tell some of the things that have gone on here, the good times and the bad times, it’s been refreshing.”
The Abbey is, of course, on the same site as it was back in 1979, but Darler said the current pitch is a world away from the one he inherited, which he likened to an “African safari”, with dust patches and divots littering it.
In 2019 you’re more likely to see Christmas trees and hearts cut into it, depending on the time of the year, examples of Darler’s ingenuity which makes him so popular with the fans and managers alike.
Yet despite earning national headlines for his on-field creations, he credited the volunteers and local businesses who provide help for his successes.
“We’ve had three people who have had coronaries in this ground, and all three are alive today,” he added.
“It’s not a fluke, it’s dedication. But it’s not the dedication from me, it’s the dedication of the staff, the stewards and the volunteers.
“I know this year there’s been comments about the stadium being old and untidy, but I think over the last 18 months we’ve raised the Titanic because the whole place has had a refurb and it’s through the volunteers, and all the companies that have chipped in.
“One of the reasons I didn’t go to Coventry when I had the offer in the 80s was because I would have missed the begging, stealing and borrowing. I love blagging.”
Former U’s manager Roy McFarland wrote the forward to the book, with Darler adding he was among the “highest calibre” of manager he has worked with, also believing that, despite criticism towards the end, John Beck was “ahead of the game”. Yet of the 28 managers and head coaches he worked alongside, it was his first, John Docherty, that he remembers most fondly for taking him under his wing when he was the youngest head groundsman in the Football League, creating a pitch for players that would go on to become club legends.
“I’ve described it in the book, but Roy was the best pedigree of manager you could work with in terms of every aspect of the job,” he said.
“Equally, Joe [Dunne] was like that with me, he just didn’t get the break on the park. Colin, in modern day managers, is identical to Roy.
“He has spoken to every single person, whether it be the cleaner, the groundsman, whoever, and made them feel part of the team. That is a unique person, and that’s how Roy was.”
Darler is set to retire in five years time, but admits that it would be hard to give up the job and has every intention of staying on in a part-time capacity and hit the 50-year mark in a job he called his “boyhood dream”.
“I’m already starting to feel disappointed [at the thought of retiring] because that patch of grass out there has been my baby for 40 years,” he added.
“I’ve spent more time with that than my family.
“The whole place has been a lifetime, but it’s the characters as well. It’s just been amazing.”
Life’s A Pitch – published by G2 Entertainment – is out now.
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