This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Bristol Rovers on 30 October 2015.
It’s as frustrating as trying to find Port Vale in an atlas and as mysterious as Donald Trump’s hairdo: when, how and why did Abbey United come into being?
Andrew Bennett’s masterly history of the club’s early years, which you can read in Newmarket Road Roughs (buy it here), the first volume of his Celery & Coconuts series, is probably as close to the truth as it’s possible to be at present, but there are still nagging questions that require definitive answers.
We all know that United was founded in 1912, don’t we? Do we?
There are those who swear that the club that emerged in 1919 and took its place in the Cambridgeshire League two years later had no connection with the pre-war Abbey United that played friendlies against the likes of the Sons of Temperance and Blossom Rovers.
Just two pieces of documentary evidence that connect the two and point to a foundation date of 1912 – some headed notepaper from 1926 and a report of the club’s annual dinner in the Cambridge Daily News of 28 May 1925 – have so far been unearthed. Apart from that, it’s all hearsay and anecdote.
It’s certain that Abbey United played MJ Drew’s XI on Midsummer Common on Saturday, 21 November 1913, isn’t it? The CDN had announced the fixture in its columns the previous day, after all – it appears to be the first mention of the club in the local press.
But here’s the thing: when the paper reported on the match the following Monday, the 7-0 losers were named as Abbey Juniors.
(By the way, MJ Drew was a local footballer who also played for Cam and Crescent, with no connection to the character portrayed by Joan Crawford in the 1942 screwball comedy They All Kissed The Bride; let’s not get carried away.)
There’s more. A trawl through the archives in pursuit of references to Abbey Juniors yields intriguing results.
First of all, no mention of a team with that name can be found after the MJ Drew game. But go back before 21 November 1913 and the mystery deepens – Abbey Juniors were reported to have lost 3-0 to University Press Juniors ten days before the Drew game.
Go even further back: there is no mention of an Abbey team in the 1912/13 or 1911/12 seasons, but on 19 November 1910, Abbey Juniors were reported to have beaten Press Juniors 2-1.
In the preceding season, the Abbey Crusaders club were reported to have played two friendly matches. A team of that name became Abbey United’s first ever Cambs League opponents in 1921, so they couldn’t be connected to the club we love, could they?
Perhaps you want the waters muddier still? Try this: a cricket team by the name of Abbey Crusaders was active in Cambridge as early as 1906.
Who were the Abbey Juniors of 1910? Did the crowd of that time – if there was one – chant: ‘Are you United in disguise?’ Is it possible that the Juniors became United and that our club dates from at least two years further back than we thought? Where, if anywhere, did Abbey Crusaders fit in?
At the moment, your guess is as good as ours. Coconutters continue to tunnel through the records, such as they are, and when we find an answer you’ll be the first to know. Meanwhile, as Andrew puts it, we’re left with an enigma wrapped up inside in a riddle.
Arthur played 110 first team games for United between 1947 and 1955. His greatest moment came on 26 November 1953, when his stupendous performance in goal allowed the U’s to beat Newport County 2-1 away in an FA Cup first round replay.
He was chaired from the pitch that afternoon by fans including brother Jack, who had hotfooted it to Newport from Wembley: Hungary’s Magical Magyars had humiliated England by six goals to three the previous night.
But Arthur’s biggest thrills in football came from beating United’s closest rivals in the pulsating derbies of the 1950s. ‘With so many locals involved, the beer always seemed to taste better after we had defeated the City,’ he recalled.
Arthur is best remembered by Cambridge people, however, for his 40-plus years as the devoted custodian of Parker’s Piece, which ended with his retirement in the late 1980s. He died in 2012.
It’s rare nowadays to find a player with such a good rapport with fans as the one Danny enjoyed with the Abbey faithful. Remember the banter with the Corona End and the Habbin, the humorous asides, the mind games with officials (the slow, slow walk back from retrieving the ball to take a dying-minutes goal kick; the stealing of yards when the ref’s back was turned)?
He was known, too, for getting opposition supporters on his side, and that was no accident. ‘I always try to get on with the other team’s fans in the first five minutes and then they stay off your back,’ he says.
At a time when many people bemoan the lack of ‘characters’ in the game, it’s refreshing to have someone like Danny around. But of course, he was a hell of a player too. His 138 games for the U’s between 2007 and 2010 are remembered for the reflex saves, the command of the area and communication with his defenders and the decisive, accurate distribution. No wonder he was selected for the England C team in 2008.
His career also covered the dramatic art – in 2002, he played himself in Sky TV's late, largely unlamented Dream Team series. He survived, unlike the many Harchester United characters who were bumped off in the declining years of the run.
Born in Ipswich in 1979, Danny started his football life at Stamford Bridge, playing in the same youth team as our own Rob Wolleaston, but the dream didn’t come true and he was released when he was 18. ‘When I started out at Chelsea I thought I’d made it,’ he observes, ‘but the easiest thing in the world is getting into a football club – the hardest thing is staying there.’
It wasn’t too hard leaving Weymouth, where he found himself after spells at Colchester, Exeter and Chelmsford. In 2003 the Terras couldn’t guarantee to pay him every week, so it was an easy decision to move to Canvey Island. He memorably bantered with U’s fans when we drew there in 2005.
Danny was on the move again in 2006, this time to Stevenage, but he was so eager to join Jimmy Quinn’s United in May 2007 that he stumped up the transfer fee himself – and he was an instant success in a mean defence.
After the disappointment of the 2008 play-off defeat, new boss Gary Brabin pooh-poohed a £15,000 Rushden bid for Danny, saying he would only consider bids over £75K. He was unchallenged as first-choice keeper during 2008/09 but his season again ended anti-climactically when injury forced him to miss the play-off final against Torquay. He had kept 17 clean league sheets that season, just as he had in 2007/08.
A shoulder injury in February 2010 kept Danny out for the rest of the season, and Martin Ling released him that summer. He moved on to Torquay and Newport before winding down his career with Staines, Leiston and Eastbourne Borough.
Now back in Suffolk, he’s always guaranteed a warm welcome from his friends and admirers at the Abbey when he makes the journey along the A14.
He made his Southern League debut on August 31 in a 5-3 home defeat by Wellington, but on September 23 became the first United player to score a hat-trick against Cambridge City, two days after scoring another hat-trick in a 5-1 league win over Merthyr Tydfil. The Cambridge Evening News enthused: ‘Here is an exiled newcomer, gifted with all the ball control one finds more readily on the hard continental surfaces and possessing all the speed, flexibility and anticipation of a Jimmy Greaves.’
Johnny netted four goals in the space of 20 minutes in a 6-2 win at Rugby, and in a 6-2 defeat at Bath City he scored what the local press called the best goal they had ever seen: an overhead kick with his back to goal from a Matt McVittie cross. He notched another hat-trick in September 1964, in a 3-0 win over Stevenage, but injuries and new manager Roy Kirk’s tinkering with the line-up saw him fail to recapture his true goalscoring form consistently.
He joined Corby Town at the end of the 1964/65, then after ten months returned north to play for Scarborough until 1967. Thereafter he earned his living in tyre-fitting, which he had learned during a summer job at United chairman Jack Woolley’s Abbey Tyre Company in Newmarket Road.
Back in Doncaster, he talked of his life to a Coconuts TV crew in 2014. The interview can be found here.
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