Paul Barry has spent much of the past two years striving to help preserve the two industries which have not merely shaped but enlightened and enriched his life.
Recent, pandemic-stricken months have been challenging for the majority owner of assorted US-based travel companies and League One Cambridge United, yet 2022 has opened on a doubly optimistic note.
While Barry is confident tourism has begun a sustained, if still cautious, revival, Cambridge are also going places. On Saturday Mark Bonner’s team visit a sold-out St James’ Park for a third-round FA Cup tie against Newcastle with 5,000 away fans due.
Geography dictates that Barry watches most Cambridge games on a live stream early in the morning at home in Seattle. “I can’t sit still; I’m jumping up and down in front of the television,” he says. “When we lose, my wife takes the dog out for a walk.” The best match days arrive when he flies to England to watch the team about six times a season, often sitting alongside his 85-year-old season-ticket-holding mother.
Although she has opted to follow live radio commentary from her home in Cambridgeshire on Saturday, Barry will be in the directors’ box and is looking forward to meeting Amanda Staveley. Given that Newcastle’s co-owner recently revealed her own, considerable, struggles to stay seated when watching Eddie Howe’s side play, the pair should swiftly strike up a rapport.
“Newcastle have reached out and offered us a great welcome,” says Barry, who has poured millions of pounds into Cambridge since joining the board in 2005 when a club now mid-table in League One fell into the Conference, beginning a nine-year Football League exile. “I know it’s going to be a brilliant occasion and a great experience.”
He and Staveley probably have more in common than might initially be apparent. The recent takeover the latter spearheaded alongside her majority shareholding Saudi Arabian partners may remain controversial but it has undeniably reinforced the ties binding Newcastle to their north-east community.
With supporters disillusioned and disenfranchised under the former, unloved owner Mike Ashley’s regime now re-engaged, Saturday’s mood should be celebratory and Barry understands precisely why. “The value of football clubs to their local communities has really been clarified during the pandemic,” he says. “They’ve proved they’re huge community assets – and also offer great entertainment. During lockdown, I watched a game a day – it helped me stop spending all my time worrying about stabilising Cambridge and the businesses.”
Albeit remotely, Barry also helped co-ordinate the Cambridge United Community Trust’s much-lauded Careline initiatives throughout England’s lockdowns. Club staff and players helped older and vulnerable local residents with shopping and prescription collections, delivered free meals to families normally dependent on food banks, organised online activities for children missing school and made countless phone calls, offering friendly chats to anyone who might be isolated or lonely.
“The Trust did a lot of community outreach work,” he says. “It shows clubs are about far more than just football, they unify people of all types, shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Football creates incredible bonds and those bonds were kind of strengthened during the pandemic. For me, the community work is one of the reasons to be involved in a club.”
During the long months when fans were locked out of the Abbey Stadium last season Cambridge won promotion from League Two, enjoying one of the most memorable seasons for Barry since the days when, as a schoolboy in the 1970s, he travelled to matches on the bus with his father from their home village of Hauxton, five miles south-west of the city. “I always loved the feeling of being at games,” he says. “It becomes part of who you are – and there’s nothing like the great sense of camaraderie it produces.”
This sense of belonging is similarly important to Bonner. Very much at the vanguard of football’s “new school” coaching cadre, Cambridge’s inspirational 36-year-old manager never kicked a ball professionally but, having started out running the Abbey Stadium’s under-eights, has risen through the ranks to become one of the club’s most successful recent managers.
Barry’s own career trajectory has also proved slightly left field. After graduating in chemical engineering from Imperial College London in 1983 his wanderlust transported him to New York and a role as a reservations agent with British Rail.
He soon joined a travel agency and, having eventually become its manager, branched out independently, establishing his own companies. After selling the Europe Express Group to First Choice Holidays in 2005 he found himself in a position to help keep Cambridge afloat.
“Travel’s recovering this year,” he says. “It’s going to be stepping back up to 50% of 2019 levels, although you won’t see a full return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.”
Newcastle, too, remain in the early stages of recovery from long years of under investment under Ashley and despite Kieran Trippier’s arrival from Atlético Madrid this week, a team who have won only one game all season could, arguably, be vulnerable to a giant-killing.
“If you’re rational, we don’t have a chance,” says Barry. “But football isn’t played on paper and I’m optimistic we won’t be overwhelmed. I just hope we all really enjoy being at a full St James’ Park and that it turns into a celebration of where we’ve come from and the journey we’ve made over the past 20 years.”