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SITTING on the open deck of a River Thames clipper, Richard Money looks a picture of health; the training ground tan already bronzing his features, however brief the spring sunshine we are enjoying.
It’s Wednesday lunchtime, the morning after the night before having concluded an hour earlier. We’re on the Football Association-organised media day ahead of Cambridge United’s FA Trophy final with Gosport Borough, but just a few hours earlier Money’s old club Luton, the U’s bitter rivals at the top of the Skrill Premier, had struck a last-minute equaliser to nick a 1-1 draw at the Abbey.
We wondered what kind of mood the 58-year-old – who this term has confessed to being a “grumpy old sod” and “cantankerous old fool at times” – would be in.
Thanks to the pride he took in his team’s “brave” performance, more than matching the 15-point clear leaders for a third draw this season (the fourth game was a third round replay won on their march to the arch), Money is on good form.
And so he should be. His coaching methods have helped a young, rebuilt squad fight with his trademark efficiency on three fronts for 45 games of what he hopes, having already conceded the title, will be a 61-match season.
I remind him of when I saw him, almost two years ago to the day, on a League Managers’ Association tour of the unfinished National Football Centre at St George’s Park. A year after being sacked by the Hatters, Money cut a frustrated figure – in stark contrast to today.
“It’s the only time in my career where I’ve spent that amount of time without a job, for which I am grateful,” says Money who, before he became U’s head coach in October 2012, had been in exile for a year-and-a-half after his 17-month stint in charge of Luton ended in March 2011.
I mention Money’s health specifically, because there were times when the stress of life at Kenilworth Road looked to have taken its toll on a body that was already suffering.
“Three months before I took the Luton job, I’m laying on an operating table in Newcastle having stents in my heart, and looking at the pictures thinking I’m going to have to have a bypass,” says the ex- Magpies’ academy director.
“My family pleaded with me not to take the job, but it was too important to me to not take it. You look upon life as having a second chance, and it might not come along again. But I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that I left because of ill health, because that’s not the case.
“I suppose there is a feeling inside me that the Luton support had given me a lot of criticism, and I guess being in charge of the team that’s trying to stop them this year has increased that venom.
“But when I look back and think I didn’t take them down, I left a tremendous job at Newcastle, I put my health and family at risk to take the job and really I think I was treated pretty poorly, if I’m honest.
“You can say that I brought some of that on myself, and maybe that is true. But I took the job thinking that people needed to know what was going on; that this wasn’t a case of just taking the job, winning games and getting back up; that they were no different to Oxford, or Cambridge or anybody else; that it was going to be a long road.
“But of course, people don’t want to hear that and it probably didn’t make me very popular.”
In his current job, where he has turned Cambridge from potential relegation fodder into serious promotion contenders, Money certainly is popular – even if voicing some of his opinions on the scheduling of the Trophy has made him unpopular amongst traditionalists.
“It’s very easy to toe the media line and say what you think people want to hear, but how much good that does me or anyone else, I’m not sure,” says Money. “I just try and be honest, and sometimes it doesn’t come across in the right way, but this is a man’s world.
“If I think people have let us down and it hasn’t been right, then I say it. Our supporters have been fantastic and probably at their best when we haven’t been doing particularly well. I think they’ve seen that the FA Cup and Trophy have hindered our progress, and they’ve really stuck with us.”
For all his complaints about the Trophy, don’t be lulled into thinking Money does not appreciate having the chance to lead his team out at Wembley.
“It will fill me with pride, and the fact that all my family will be there…hopefully we can get the chance to take the grandchildren on the pitch. It is a day to remember.”
But only if they beat opponents who are struggling 43 places below them in the Skrill South relegation zone.
“Look at Wigan last Sunday at Manchester City, and at Wembley last year,” he adds. “The history books are full of games like this where the underdog wins. So for me, and the players, it’s a game that has still got to be won. That will be the message.”
Money’s message might often muddy the waters, but not this one if the good ship Cambridge is to sail on to success.
*This article first appeared in The NLP on Sunday, March 16