The following is a revised version of an article that appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Leeds United on 9 January 2017.
Before a recent match the Coconuts team were selling copies of Andrew Bennett’s Newmarket Road Roughs and, while they were at it, handing out Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football stickers and badges. The chat turned to a BBC documentary, broadcast in November 2016, about West Bromwich legend Len Cantello’s 1979 testimonial match, Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation.
You couldn’t imagine a game pitting a team of black players against an all-white XI taking place today. But back in 1979 black footballers were still a rarity in England, and the few there were often had to listen to horrifying, lengthy racist broadsides from the terraces. Thank God more enlightened attitudes have prevailed … at least in most places.
What a glorious contribution black players have made to the Cambridge United cause – and it started way back in the 1960s.
Ask any U’s fan of a certain age about the identity of the first black player to pull on an amber shirt and they’ll probably say it was Dennis Walker in 1968. We posed the same question to the late Andrew Bennett, and he put us right: the first black U was Attu Mensah.
The 20-year-old Ghana international came to England in 1964 and did the rounds of trials at Charlton, Norwich, St Neots, Newmarket and Cambridge City before landing at the Abbey.
His only U’s appearance was in the almost legendary Mithras Cup, in which United had drawn Hornchurch. In the second leg at the Abbey on October 5, Mensah scored his team’s second goal in a 4-1 win, dictating the midfield play and supplying pinpoint passes. ‘The crowd loved the Ghanaian, who responded to the praise of the fans,’ said the Cambridge Daily News.
Sadly, that was the last those fans were to see of Mensah. He moved on to Ely City, St Neots and Port Vale, and represented his country in the 1968 Olympic Games before moving to the USA to study, play and coach football.
The next black player to happen along Newmarket Road was Alva Anderson, who became the first Jamaican to represent United. He was studying for an economics and marketing degree at Fitzwilliam College, had earned a boxing Blue and had already played for Jamaica in a World Cup match.
His first appearance was at wing half in a 3-1 home friendly defeat of Luton in October 1965, and he made three Midland Floodlit League appearances before moving back to Jamaica. There he represented his country at both football and hockey and has since followed a distinguished career in sports administration and business.
It was three years before former Busby Babe Dennis Walker arrived. The 23-year-old had already become the first black player to play for Manchester United, and had appeared more than 150 times in four years for York City before joining the U’s.
Appointed team captain, he drove United on to the Southern League championship and the Southern League Cup in his first season. It was Walker’s free kick that Tony Butcher converted to open the scoring in the 3-0 title clincher against Kettering on 3 May 1969.
He maintained his place at the heart of the side in 1969/70 and, once in the Football League from 1970 on, showed his versatility by filling in at centre half and up front when needed. He was granted a free transfer and moved on to Poole Town in 1972.
Sadly, the trailblazing Walker died in 2003.His United record was 23 goals in 202 appearances, and he left many magical memories.
Whatever their size, the Hancocks feet possessed astounding qualities, not least the ability to kick a football very hard. Sheila was sure she'd heard that one of her uncle's shots had broken the net, and Moore was in no doubt about his signing's shooting power.
'He was a little, round fellow,' he would recall in later years, 'about five foot nothing in height, going on 12 stone and with the tiniest feet I've ever seen … but could he hit a ball! Anything 35 to 40 yards out from a set piece would scream into the net.’
It’s said that, while most footballers would use two pairs of boots over the course of a season, Hancocks hit the ball so hard that he would get through five pairs.
It was the 'round' part of Moore's description that was worrying United fans in 1960, but it had not always been a cause for concern.
Hancocks was just 15 when he first appeared for Oakengates Town in the Birmingham League. Walsall, then playing in the Football League's Third Division South, signed him up in 1938 and he played a full season at Fellows Park before World War II intervened.
Still only 20, he joined up in 1940 and found his niche as a physical training instructor while turning out in representative games for the army and guesting for Wrexham and Shrewsbury.
The war carved a large chunk out of Hancocks's football career, but Wolves thought highly enough of him to fork out £4,000 for his signature in the summer of 1946.
He had joined one of English football's fastest up-and-coming clubs and, over the next 11 years, achieved stardom at Molineux, helping them to an FA Cup win in 1949, their first Football League title in 1954 and pioneer status with a series of floodlit friendlies against international opposition.
No wonder he was a favourite in the Black Country: his 378 games in the old gold yielded no fewer than 168 goals, no mean achievement for a wide player. The fourth highest goalscorer in the club’s history, he was the leading marksman for two consecutive seasons in the mid-50s.
He first played for England against Switzerland in 1948, scoring twice, but, as we’ve seen, his appearances were limited by the prodigious performances of Matthews and Finney. Niece Sheila Del-Manso believes other factors – a hatred of travel and his mother’s housekeeping eccentricities – also limited his impact on the big stage.
‘He could not travel,’ she explained to the Shropshire Star’s Toby Neal. ‘This held him back terribly. On the bus he would be sick.’
‘Stan Cullis, the [Wolves] manager, wanted to come. My mum got the parlour sorted out and beautiful. After they had gone, granny whipped all the carpets out and put them under the bed.’
‘My grandmother was very clean but such a funny lady. You must never put anything on the floor on show. You must hide it. That broke Johnny's heart. He could never bring anybody home.’
Was Cullis so offended that he cut Hancocks’s Wolves career short? Probably not, but we do know that, after the gaffer signed West Ham forward Harry Hooper in 1956, the winger’s days were numbered. After seeing out a season in the reserves, he left to take up the role of player-manager at Wellington Town.
He had resigned that post and spent five weeks neither playing nor training when he agreed to ply his trade in Cambridge. It’s possible those weeks of inactivity exacted a drastic toll on his physique.
Hancocks made his U’s bow on 13 January 1960, at home to Norwich CEYMS in an East Anglian Cup first round tie, and won the game with a trademark blaster from distance in the 50th minute. The CDN was impressed by the goal, the new man’s ‘keen footballing brain’ and his ability to split defences with precise passes.
The following Saturday, he scored from the penalty spot in the course of a 3-1 Southern League Division One win at home to Sittingbourne.
By now, a few Abbey regulars were passing jocular remarks about Hancocks’s generous girth and unimpressive fitness level, but a CDN journalist, writing the day before a trip to Guildford City, reported: ‘… Alan Moore assures me that he is at present only three pounds overweight as compared with his Wolverhampton days.’
That visit to Guildford ended in a 4-1 defeat, and Moore must have been thinking about eating his words. The Surrey club’s supporters at Joseph's Road were royally entertained (United fans and management less so) when Hancocks, having failed to get to his feet following a tumble, had to roll over on to all fours in order to rise to the vertical.
When Sudbury Town visited the Abbey in the second round of the East Anglian Cup, Hancocks was in prime form, whacking home two free kicks and a penalty as the U’s won 6-1. But he was dropped when the team travelled to Trowbridge on February 13, and Barnwell tongues were wagging again.
Moore told the CDN that the star signing would address his problems by moving into lodgings in Cambridge and making strenuous efforts to get match-fit. But an announcement on 3 March 1960 made it clear that Hancocks was no longer a Cambridge United employee.
In seven weeks at the club, he had played six times and scored five goals.
Few supporters fell for the official line: that the player had been unable to shake off the effects of an ankle injury and felt it was in everyone’s interests if his contract was cancelled.
Moore was able to reveal later that his decision to end Hancocks’s association with the club had had its roots in the January incident that had amused so many at Guildford. Faced with a player who was loath to lose a fairly lucrative wage, however, he had had to think hard about how to achieve the desired outcome.
‘Suddenly it came to me,’ said Moore. ‘I rang Hancocks in Wolverhampton where he lived, and told him that he would have to come to training twice a week. He didn’t fancy having to travel to Cambridge an extra two times a week and he hadn’t trained for years and wasn’t intending to.
‘I told him that he was suspended for two weeks without pay, unless he agreed to train.’
Hancocks wasn’t a happy bunny but realised he might go without pay for the rest of the season unless he agreed to terminate his contract. Reluctantly, that’s what he did.
He wasn’t quite finished with football, playing the following season for Oswestry Town and GKN Sankey in the Cheshire County League. He was 42 when he called it a day in 1961, seeing out his working life at the Maddock iron foundry in his home town and retiring in 1979.
Still a Molineux legend and a fondly remembered bit-part player at Newmarket Road, he died at Oakengates in 1994.
It was time to start forging that second career, and time for us to thank our lucky stars that we had the chance to admire the skills and commitment that made Steve an Abbey legend.
I give it a tick for its homage to the Cambridge coat of arms (the bridge castellations), but the rest of it … where’s the club’s motto, even? It’s a toilet seat if ever there was one.
Time for a new badge. I’m not naïve enough in this minimalist age (see Arsenal, Spurs, Fulham, Juventus, Swansea, Cheltenham) to think we could see the return of the old one, although Manchester City’s latest creation shows I can carry on dreaming.
Look at Swindon’s and Barnsley’s return to their badge roots. And Brentford – the bee has returned in its full glory; what a sting that was.
Could we not use, though, some of the features of the old badge: the Abbey setting, the ball and the United In Endeavour scroll, and introduce those into a modern design? With a bit more black and amber colouring, maybe?
Check out the new ‘old’ flag in the Abbey Arms. I wonder how many people know the history behind it. And there are plenty of nods to the past in the CFU caravan: embroidered patches, car stickers, mugs, coasters, caps, beanie hats, they’re all there.
Meanwhile, the keeper of the castle prison, just up the hill, was lining his pockets by pulling planks out of the bridge and extorting ferry fees from travellers wanting to cross the Cam. For centuries, other townsfolk helped themselves to building materials in similar fashion.
The bridge was rebuilt in 1483, and by 1494 a house had been built on it. In the 16th century, women said to have too much to say for themselves – judged 'scolds' by the town's elite, all of whom were men – were plunged into the filthy river on a 'ducking stool' that hung from the centre of the bridge.
At last, in 1754, along came James Essex, builder and architect of this parish, to design and erect the stone bridge that preceded today's iron construction, at the enormous cost of £1,609.
One last thing: Essex was married to Elizabeth Thurlbourne, daughter of a Cambridge bookseller. Is it stretching credulity to wonder if she was an ancestor of Ron Thulbourn, licensee of the Rose & Crown in Teversham and a director of Cambridge United Football Club between 1950 and 1960?
This blog was corrected and updated on 6 July 2018.
United fans approved when the gentlemanly Roy’s first home game saw their lads beat Orient 2-0, with goals from Jamie Barnwell and Michael Kyd.
Making his football philosophy plain by posting ‘The worst crime in football is to give the ball to the opposition’ in the dressing room, he set about signing the likes of Ian Ashbee, David Preece and Abbey legend John Taylor, and bringing out Paul Wanless’s qualities, but United dropped out of promotion contention in his first season. The U’s were, Roy Mac opined, ‘a club in limbo’.
As financial imperatives forced the sales of Danny Granville, Jody Craddock and Micah Hyde, he was battling the bank as much as the opposition. But he managed his slim resources well and, after a disappointing 16th place in 1997/98, brought glory back to Newmarket Road the following season.
With emerging talent in the widely differing forms of Trevor Benjamin and Tom Youngs and brought-in strength in the likes of Alex Russell and Martin Butler, Roy took the U’s on an exhilarating League Cup run that ended in penalties at Nottingham Forest, and then promotion to the third tier as runners-up.
‘Now the aim is to continue to make progress, while always remembering that the bottom line is the survival of the football club,’ Roy told the press.
Sadly, progress proved beyond the club’s reach and United finished 19th in 2000. To make matters worse, there were simmering tensions between boss and board, and they boiled over when chairman Reg Smart sold Benjamin to Leicester while Roy was on holiday.
‘Feeling betrayed, I told [the board] exactly what I thought of all of them to a man – not the wisest thing to do,’ he observes in his autobiography.
The unrest seemed to spread to the dressing room, and on 27 February 2001 Roy and United parted company. He left praising the fans but ruing the directors’ attitude.
‘There was a lot of mistrust between myself and the board,’ he recalled later. ‘That’s the way football is and sometimes if you look back, we’d both regret it.
‘I had four and a quarter years there and I loved them because it’s a wonderful part of the world and I worked with some great people.’ We think you’re great too, Roy.
Golf courses, greyhound tracks, shooting ranges, bare-knuckle boxing, barrow racing – Barnwell’s had them all, as well as a football and cricket ground or two.
Who knows? Perhaps one day Coconuts will be able to link up with his tours, which offer revelations about our city’s many sporting stories and achievements.
While enjoying a pleasant walk, you get to see the wonderful new sculpture on Parker’s Piece that celebrates Cambridge’s position as the birthplace of the laws of modern-day football; hear about Henry VIII’s football boots (although you can't try them on); discover the story of the USA bobsleigh champion who was killed in World War II; find out where the only Olympic medal winner to win a Nobel Prize was a student; learn where the town’s bullring was situated; and a lot more besides.
If you hurry, you can book yourself on to a tour majoring on the history of Cambridge football and local and World Cup stories and personalities. Nigel also has a rowing experience and a cricket tour up his sleeve.
To book or find out more, go here: https://www.cambridgesportstours.co.uk.
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.
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I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.