Cambridge United Former Players’ Association lost its oldest member on Wednesday, August 9 with the death of Herbert ‘Tickle’ Sanderson at the age of 97. The sad event severs Cambridge United’s last-known link with the pre-World War II Abbey United.
Tickle, whose unusual nickname arose from his youthful inability to pronounce his middle name, Cecil, played for the Abbey between 1939 and 1943. A speedy right winger during his time at United (although he could play in other positions), he made 69 appearances and scored 23 goals in a career disrupted by the war.
Having played for the Cambridge Instrument Company – where he worked for more than 50 years – he made his Abbey debut on 8 October 1938 in a 5-1 FA Amateur Cup defeat to Histon Institute. He first played in the Cambridgeshire League in November of that year, scoring the game’s only goal at home to Linton Granta in his second appearance.
At the end of that season, with Tickle forming a strong forward line alongside Freddie Mansfield, Herbie ‘Curly’ Smart, Jim Langford and Ernie Caston, United were left needing to win their last two home games – both played on the same day – to have a chance of becoming champions. In matches played at 3.30pm and 6.45pm, United beat Soham Town 4-0 and Haddenham 8-1, with Tickle scoring twice in the latter game. He later remembered that the only liquid he drank between the two games was a soft drink of the Corona or Tizer type.
United’s efforts were in vain, and the title went to Linton. But Tickle picked up a winner’s medal five days later after the final of the Creake Charity Shield against Histon at Cambridge Town’s Milton Road ground.
He was an ever-present in the hastily-arranged Cambs Emergency League of 1940/41, in which United came fifth out of eight in Section A. They played only friendlies during the following two seasons, but after a year’s absence Tickle returned to play in the East Anglian League of 1942/43, making his last appearance in a 3-0 home defeat by Town.
He subsequently played for Town and Histon before resuming his career as an avid United fan – he had walked or cycled to Newmarket Road from Chesterton to watch games following the 1932 opening of the ground. He told 100 Years of Coconuts in 2016 that his favourite players from his years of watching the club were Dave Stringer and Brendon Batson.
Tickle was born in Chesterton in 1920 and grew up with two brothers and two sisters. His father was a farm labourer who collected food orders from his horse and cart, and also made a little on the side as a bookie’s runner. He went to St Andrew’s school in Chesterton, and then to the Brunswick School, where the teacher Roy Burrell played an influential role in Tickle’s careers in football, boxing and athletics.
Burrell tried to get Tickle into the team at Town – at that time the biggest club in Cambridge – but opportunities for the young man were limited due to the fact that the club captain occupied the right-wing slot.
Leaving school at the age of 14, Tickle went to work at the Instrument Company, starting in nickel-, silver- and gold-plating at twopence-halfpenny an hour. By the time he had worked his way up to making galvanometers, he was playing for the Abbey.
Staying with the Instrument Company for the rest of his working life, he continued to live north of the Cam until his death, which occurred in a Cottenham care home.
He married Joyce in 1942 and their son, Trevor, grew up to be an equally fervent U’s supporter. Living close to the ground, Trevor is a director of Cambridge United Supporters’ Club Ltd.
Cambridge Fans United, 100 Years of Coconuts and Cambridge United Former Players’ Association extend their condolences to the Sanderson family.
Radio Coconuts (100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk/radio-coconuts.html) features a 2016 interview with Tickle.
That's not strictly true … not every single one of Cambridge United Former Players' Association's 133 members was in the Supporters' Club last night, but the occasion was all about quality, not quantity.
And what quality! First-time attendee Alan Biley was in sparkling form, recalling some of the many goals he cracked in at the nearby Corona End. A good number of them were supplied by midfield craftsman Graham 'Willie' Watson. 'He's the man who made me, as he never tires of telling me!' cried Alan gleefully as Willie embarked on another scandalous reminiscence.
It was also good to see CUFPA get-together debutant Brian Grant, stalwart left back of the Bill Leivers era. 'I was Brian Clough's first ever signing,' he recalled of his Hartlepool days. He delighted in swapping memories with the likes of CUFPA chairman Rodney Slack, 1950s goalkeeper Derek Haylock and Tony Willson of roughly the same era.
For Alan and Brian, the evening presented a first chance to sign the visitors' book at The Story of the U's, Coconuts' mini-museum recounting the history of Abbey/Cambridge United. The exhibits provoked another round of reminiscing and storytelling, as they're designed to do.
Coconuts' thanks and respect go to the children of Year 5 at Abbey Meadows Community Primary School, just round the corner from the Abbey Stadium, with whom we've just completed a four-week project called You & the U's.
Week one saw the children visiting the Abbey and The Story of the U's, Coconuts' mini-museum in the Supporters' Club. The following week, an elite group of Coconutters visited the school with handling boxes full of photographs, old bits of football kit, newspapers and so on, provoking lively discussions.
In week three we took Year 5 on a walking tour of the the east Barnwell area, visiting places with connections to the U's: players' houses, Coldhams Common, pubs, the site of the World War I military hospital, Geoffrey Proctor's post office and so on. And in the final week we had a look at what the children had produced as a result of the project: artworks, poems, songs, raps, reports, drawings, computer presentations, even a Lego-built main stand. We hope you can get a flavour of their ingenuity, imagination and creativity in the slideshows here – amazing stuff.
This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme on 5 March 2016.
Look into the eyes of the striking, wavy-haired chap gazing fixedly at the camera in many photographs of Cambridge United from the early- to mid-1950s. Those eyes have seen a lot, you might muse.
Spot on. The eyes are those of a man who spent many wartime hours in the unenvied position of rear gunner in Bomber Command aircraft as they flew night after night to their targets in Germany. Many Tail-End Charlies never recovered from the appalling stress of sitting terrified in their cramped, isolated, vulnerable Perspex bubbles.
Among that number you can count Bill Whittaker: he turned grey prematurely, appeared older than he really was and sweated profusely. A 60-a-day smoker, he was only 54 when he died of lung cancer in 1977.
Yet Whittaker showed immense strength when he took on the role of United’s first full-time professional manager, combined it with playing and set about laying the groundwork for the club’s election to the Football League in 1970. He moulded the team in his own image and, when he quit the U’s in mysterious circumstances, left behind a club very different from the one he had joined.
Charlton-born Whittaker signed for his local club in 1938. He debuted in 1946, helped the Addicks win the FA Cup the following year, was transferred to Huddersfield in 1948 and returned south, to Crystal Palace, two years later.
In 1951, ambitious Cambridge United had just switched from the United Counties League to the stronger Eastern Counties League. Before 28-year-old player-manager Whittaker arrived, a player-coach trained the players and a committee chose the team. Whittaker insisted on taking on a number of professionals at £2 a week, as well as on a purist passing approach that he called ‘football all the time’. ‘I don’t mind if we lose 20-0 so long as we play the game properly,’ he explained.
He encouraged the development of young players and instilled a disciplined attitude in the club: his rugged tackling in training did not always endear him to his players.
On the field he was a commanding presence, cajoling and inspiring his teammates to believe in themselves. Allied to tough, accurate tackling he offered excellent passing and reliable finishing.
United finished fourth in Whittaker’s first two seasons, and in 1953/54 reached the second round proper of the FA Cup for the first time after beating Newport County after a first round replay.
In March 1955, Whittaker introduced an audacious tactic in a 4-2 win over March Town, knocking a penalty sideways for Peter Dobson to run on to and crash into the net. It was his last league game in charge.
Whittaker’s resignation was announced on March 22, but his explanation was less than revealing: ‘There is nothing between me and the club … it is just one of those things. I intend to concentrate on playing football and not as a player-manager – because, after all, I am only 31.’ The statement was rendered puzzling by his next appointment: the player-managership of Newmarket Town.
The truth behind the resignation may never be known, although perhaps it was significant that the board had refused to allow him to enhance his income with an outside job.
Whittaker soon moved back to his roots in Blackheath and, enigmatic to the last, worked as a porter in Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market.
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