‘Support is needed in moments of adversity’ – ‘cabbage-gate’ revisited by former Aston Villa man
Bowing out of Aston Villa in such unsavoury circumstances was never what Colin Calderwood had in mind..
Calderwood’s heated dispute with a supporter sitting close to the home dugout also highlighted how toxic the whole situation had become in B6.
Change was needed and for the Scot that opened up a new avenue.
The time was right to return to management and ditch the ‘comfortable’ tag of a second in command when he was relieved of his duties alongside Bruce and his close allies.
Cambridge United – the club Calderwood has lifted away from the League Two relegation zone with five wins in nine games – presented the perfect opportunity.
And as we speak at The U’s training ground about the new challenge of keeping his team in the Football League, it’s clear the 54-year-old is in a better place than during those final days at Villa.
“The atmosphere in the stadium on that night against Preston wasn’t nice,” he told BirminghamLive.
“Steve is an absolute class man and manager.
“These things, like that cabbage incident, happen to the wrong people.
“He carried himself with a lot of dignity through a tough time.
“We were 2-0 up and cruising until Chezzie (James Chester) got sent-off. That changed everything.
“There was a feeling in the stands that we had thrown it away before we actually had. I could feel it.
“It’s important for the fans to support the players on the pitch, especially in that situation.
“If you take that game in isolation, I think the supporters could support the players a bit more.
“That’s football across the board.
“But there’s not too many places where the atmosphere would have been like it was at Villa Park that night.”
Calderwood plays down the dugout incident that saw him confront a fan sitting close by, insisting:
“I didn’t swear at him. I just said ‘support the team’,
“This guy was giving Steve stick all game.
“When we got the penalty in stoppage time, I was sure I was going to sit next to him and say ‘we’ve won the game, let’s keep going’.
“But I turned around after we got the penalty and he had gone.
“(Glenn Whelan) missed it anyway.
“That’s my recollection of it. He’ll probably say he hadn’t left.
“But he wasn’t there when I looked and I just wanted him to support the team.
“Support is needed in moments of adversity.”
Despite the disappointing end, Calderwood looks back on his two years at Villa as an enjoyable period.
He’s retained close ties with his former employers and has already taken his Cambridge team to Bodymoor Heath for a training session en route to their last away game at Exeter.
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Jake Doyle-Hayes were also allowed to link up with Calderwood for the remainder of the season on loan – and crucially for Cambridge, Villa agreed to cover most of the cost.
“If any club competes with us for wages, we will lose out,” the boss revealed.
“But I’m hoping our principles and ambitions to play attacking, exciting football in the long-term will help us attract quality young players from the leagues above and also develop our own.”
The early signs are promising and the feel-good factor is back.
Cambridge have won as many games in Calderwood’s eight-week reign as they did in the entire season prior to his arrival.
But there’s no getting carried away with the progression towards mid-table as the sole objective remains to stay in the division.
Years of over-spending after the 2013/14 promotion from the National League and the money-spinning FA Cup double-header with Manchester United a year later have required cut-backs this term.
But what Cambridge may be lacking in funds, they certainly manage to replace with spirit, drive and determination.
“Our group of staff are small but everyone pulls together.
“There’s a real tightness about the group.
“Our sports scientist has a budget for the food which he goes and collects and brings to the bus for us after the games – and sometimes before the games if we’ve got a long journey.
“He didn’t have enough last week but he went and cooked pasta and chicken for everyone and potted it all up.
“They do extra things that people wouldn’t do elsewhere.
“Everyone here does a job-and-a-half and a lot of people are doing two jobs.”
By coincidence, Cambridge’s team bus was used by Villa in the past but the seating plan is considerably different.
“We have five or six staff on there – the goalkeeper coach, assistant, sports scientist, analyst and myself,” Calderwood added.
“On that bus at Villa there was 15 members of staff and a chef!
“That’s entirely the right way to do it, but you can get it done at this level with the right protocol and excellent levels of professionalism.
“I have to commend the staff here for their efforts.”
Calderwood is largely recognised as an experienced assistant following his years alongside Chris Hughton at Newcastle, Birmingham City, Norwich and Brighton.
But there was a time when he was hot by his own right, winning promotion as boss of Northampton and Nottingham Forest before a spell at Hibernian that he admits didn’t quite go to plan.
During his most recent spell out, the 54-year-old travelled the country watching games, studied management styles at Saracens Rugby Club and ‘walked the dog for longer than usual’.
“It gave me an opportunity to go out on a Saturday in a different way.
“At that point I was never relaxed about things.
“I missed that every day buzz and the working environment.
“But I wanted to be a manager again.”
So has there been any ‘what am I doing here’ moments for the boss since leaving behind the pristine practice pitches and state-of-the-art facilities at Villa?
“Probably last week I noticed it,” he said.
“There wasn’t an indoor facility to utilise or a gym facility (when the snow came down).
“But once you’ve gone, you’ve gone.
“I wanted to go back into management.
“Deciding to go down the assistant route in the past has stopped me being a manager at a number of clubs, yes.
“I’ve been with Chris (Hughton) at four big clubs.
“But I wouldn’t have changed it just for that.
“I’ve certainly been selfish but for me, they have been terrific opportunities.
“Newcastle, Birmingham City, Norwich, Brighton, Villa – all big clubs.
“I don’t do too well in the play-offs, mind!
“Going into this job I felt more confident than before, though.
“In some ways there’s less pressure week-to-week when you’re trying to keep a club in the division because you don’t have to win every week.
“But there’s more pressure in general because there’s no insurance policy.
“You can’t hide behind a result and say ‘we’re close to automatic or the play-offs’ because we’re not.
“Keeping us up this season is the brief – then next year I want us to be a team who people enjoy watching.”
Keeping cabbages out of the Abbey Stadium will be a sign that it’s going in the right direction.