Settle in for a long read on the brief Cambridge United career of England winger Johnny Hancocks, and the even shorter stint of fellow wide man Bobby Langton.
The news travelled fast round the workplaces, homes and pubs of Cambridge on 11 January 1960: United had signed two more Wilfs!
It was not much more than two years since the great Wilf Mannion's last game in Cambridge United colours. Now it seemed player-coach Alan Moore had compensated for the loss of the legendary inside forward by snapping up two fellow England internationals.
Johnny Hancocks, an FA Cup winner with Wolves and the possessor of three England caps, looked destined for the outside right position at Newmarket Road, while Bobby Langton, capped 11 times while playing for Blackburn, Preston and Bolton, was a powerful left winger with a terrific shot.
Their international careers had been overshadowed by those of the peerless Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, but their reputations were safe.
Working against them was the fact that neither could claim spring-chicken status: Hancocks was 40 when he arrived at Newmarket Road (although the Cambridge Daily News generously knocked two years off that figure) and Langton was a year and a bit older.
The latter had not come far, having been released by Wisbech Town after three years' service when the seriousness of a knee injury became apparent.
Further misfortune followed when, on his way to Cambridge for his debut, Langton's car skidded off a road near Derby. It was an eerie echo of a similar accident in a nearby location two years before, when Langton was travelling with Northern Ireland winger Johnny McKenna. The Irishman never played again.
Langton also failed to make the following Saturday’s league game at home to Sittingbourne – the club agreed that he should stay in Bolton while his daughter was in hospital after breaking a leg.
Supporters were beginning to wonder if they would ever see their new outside left. A few days later, they got their answer: no, they wouldn't.
Moore informed the press after a 4-1 loss to Guildford that the Langton transfer was off. The boss, concerned by the player's knee problems, had wanted him on a month’s trial, whereas Langton had been holding out for a contract until the end of the season. 'I couldn't risk that,' said Moore.
Meanwhile, Hancocks had turned out three times for the U's, scoring twice. Supporters must have been pleased, although some were wondering if they were really watching a player who had played for his country and was sufficiently famous for his name to adorn a range of football boots.
Johnny Hancocks, born on 30 April 1919 in the Shropshire town of Oakengates (later swallowed up by the new town of Telford), was, to use the term favoured by journalists of the time, diminutive.
Just 5ft 4in tall, he had proportionately small feet, and these anatomical features have been the subject of as much debate and myth-making as his playing abilities.
Estimates of Hancocks's shoe size have ranged over the decades from a relatively substantial six-and-a-half to a truly minuscule two. For the truth of the matter, we can turn to an authoritative source: his niece Sheila, who told the Shropshire Star in 2008 that, while his mother took a size one shoe, her uncle Johnny was a size four.
'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.’
Sheila continued: ‘Johnny was held back because he could never bring the “big” people home … because of my grandma, Jane. If you put a carpet down she would take it up and hide it under the bed because it had to be kept. So there would be newspaper on the floor.
‘My grandmother was very clean
‘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.
- Read more about Johnny Hancocks, Bobby Langton and other players of their era in Risen from the Dust, the second volume of Andrew Bennett's Celery & Coconuts history of Abbey/Cambridge United, available from the CFU online store and the CFU caravan on match days.