An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Stevenage on 5 January 2019.
Last Saturday’s sight of young Liam O’Neil lying motionless with his face in the Abbey turf brought back memories for some of us U's supporters of a certain vintage.
Was it really more than 50 years ago – was it 10 December 1966 to be exact – that we saw a near namesake of Liam’s knocked similarly unconscious on the field of play?
But it wasn’t a low-flying Imp that poleaxed the great U’s playmaker and net-bulger Alan O’Neill … the damage in the latter’s case was done when his bonce got in the way of a thunderously struck free kick.
Down he dropped and down he stayed, until judicious application of the magic sponge and a waft of the smelling salts brought him shakily to his feet. Sports medicine was a relatively primitive science in those days.
Substitution crept gradually into the game, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the first subs in the English professional game stripped off. Before then, if a player couldn’t continue, you were either down to ten men or you soldiered on with ten and a quarter.
So it was essential to United manager Alan Moore that the eleven men he chose to play at Hereford in November 1962 were fighting fit. This fact seems to have been lost on wing half Mike Bottoms, who had been signed from QPR not long before.
We haven’t got a photograph of Bottoms, so the picture on this page depicts a recent Coconuts committee meeting discussing possible inductions to the Cambridge United Hall of Fame.
An old injury had recurred the previous week but Bottoms told anyone who would listen that he was raring to go, 110 per cent on top of his game, couldn’t wait.
The Hereford game was only a couple of minutes old when, as you have doubtless guessed, he broke down and thereafter had as much effect on the game as would Long John Silver without his crutch. His fellow U’s fought bravely but came away 2-1 losers.
Moore, not a big man but one capable of instilling fear in a fighting-drunk honey badger, was amused neither by Bottoms’ name nor by his deception.
‘I would have suspended him for a month but for the fact he has a nice family and I can’t see them go without any wages,’ he raged. ‘As it is, I have told him that he will never kick another ball for my first team.’
It transpired that U’s trainer Roy Kirk had passed on players’ fears that Bottoms might not last the 90 minutes, so Moore had called him in.
'I prodded all round the injury and there was not a peep out of the player,’ fumed the manager, ‘but within three minutes of the kick-off this old injury recurred and the team was let down.’
Bottoms’ United career was over after just 11 appearances – some of them quite short – and his contract was cancelled soon after.
Former Celtic forward Jim, who arrived at the Abbey in 1962, was a ball player and joker par excellence. Seldom to be seen without his bowler hat and rolled-up umbrella – sometimes even on the pitch – he enjoyed a good wind-up as much as the next man.
Frank Dersley, who tended to injured players with his magic sponge in the 60s and 70s, remembered the time when Sharkey went down in the far corner of an Abbey pitch that had been saturated by days of torrential rain.
It was still pelting down, Frank recalled. ‘I ran across and was covered in mud and soaked to the skin by the time I arrived at Sharkey, and as I got there he looked up at me, winked and said: “Give us a kiss.” He had only feigned injury to get me soaked.’
One of Sharkey’s successors as clown prince was signed by Bill Leivers in 1974. Going by the name of Kevin ‘Call me Twinkletoes’ Tully, he was a gifted left winger and a dedicated japester who just didn’t know when to stop.
Some of Tully’s antics are recorded in Champagne & Corona, volume three of Celery & Coconuts, which is on sale via the CFU online store and at the caravan on match days..
He had once sat on the Blackpool bench fully clothed under his tracksuit, praying he wouldn’t be needed. A habitual thumb-sucker, he probably wasn’t too surprised when the players hung a huge baby’s dummy on his peg.
During a 4-1 win at Exeter at the end of 1974/75, Tully enjoyed top billing as United showed off a bit. At one point he knelt on the ball, daring the Grecians to try to take it off him, and later celebrated a goal by prancing around with his shorts at half-mast around his knees.
Ron Atkinson, Leivers’ successor as manager, eventually tired of the Tully capers. In his autobiography he noted that fines made not the slightest impression on the errant entertainer’s behaviour.
‘One day I’d had enough,’ recalled Big Ron. ‘I called him into the dressing room, locked all the doors, and clocked him.’
But Atkinson was fond of a joke too: ‘Even though I was always having to discipline him, some of his antics were so funny that there were occasions when I laughed at him instead of frowning.’
Our email enquiry to the PFA about the current status of the award met with a response from no less a personage than the union’s chief executive. ‘Yes,’ wrote Golden Gordon, ‘the award still exists, with prize money of £15,000 for community work and players and management.’
Established in 1988, it was of course named after a man who exemplified the spirit of fair play and was also one of the game’s greatest practitioners. Bobby Moore was, according to Franz Beckenbauer, ‘the best defender in the history of the game’, and Jock Stein observed: ‘There should be a law against him. He knows what's happening 20 minutes before everyone else.’
United’s connections with Moore don’t end with the capture of the 1997/98 trophy. As Andrew Bennett revealed in Risen from the Dust, the U’s provided the opposition to an all-star XI in Chelmsford manager Peter Harburn’s testimonial on 10 May 1966, and Moore and Geoff Hurst were among the guest players.
Hurst nabbed three goals in a 4-3 win for the stars. I wonder when his next hat-trick was.
Bedford again (won 4-1 with a Peter Hobbs hat-trick) or Barnet (lost 2-1 again) in 1964? Or maybe it was at City's ground in 1966 ( (lost 1-0) … no, that looks nothing like Milton Road as we recall it.
How about Lowestoft in October 1967 (drew 2-2 before a humiliating 2-1 reverse in the replay)? Could it be as late as September 1968, when the U's lost 1-0 at Kettering Town? Or even November 1969, when we went to Chelmsford City's New Writtle Street ground and lost 3-2?
Please, if you remember the 1960s, click on the image to enlarge and study it carefully. Then email your thoughts to email@example.com.
Now they were faced with the prospect of a trip to a club of a similar standing to our friends in Guiseley: the Isthmian League’s Chesham United. The U’s were cast in the unfamiliar role of giants.
At a ground the Cambridge Evening News described as a ‘rustic cockpit’, the players trotted out on to the kind of surface that was all too familiar in those far-off days: a sea of mud. You could have counted the blades of grass on the fingers of one hand.
Those of the all-ticket crowd of 5,000 who were standing at the appropriately named Cow Meadow end greeted home goalkeeper Billy Barber with a grateful round of applause – two days before he had still been in Australia, where he had been visiting his fiancée.
As expected, the mud pit proved tricky. Pacy U’s striker Alan Biley found himself bogged down and goalkeeper Malcolm Webster struggled with his goal kicks. United fans, dreading a humiliating giant-killing, puffed with relief when home captain John Watt slammed an early 30-yard shot against the bar, leaving a muddy brown stain to remind us of a narrow squeak.
Roger Gibbins to the rescue: he blasted United into the lead after half an hour. Then, after brilliantly saving a Chris Turner header, the jet-lagged Barber was beaten by a George Reilly nod ten minutes from the end.
United had battled through the mire to a glamorous fourth round tie at home to Aston Villa. But that’s another story.
Order your copy of Champagne & Corona by visiting CFU’s online store or dropping in at the caravan on a match day.
Sadly, that proved not to be the case. United, who were working under severe financial constraints, won more games under Shellito than they had under Ryan, but his record of six wins and five draws from 35 League games is the second worst of any U's manager.
He resigned on 6 December 1985, saying he had become disillusioned with football. ‘I’ve been in soccer as a player and manager for 30 years, but now I’m turning my back on it,’ he added. ‘I have no plans at the moment, but it will be a different way of life. There is a big cloud over football. There is no bubble and bounce any more.’
Happily, his subsequent career in Malaysia restored Shellito’s enjoyment of the game. He coached at Kuala Lumpur, Perak and Sabah, served as Selangor's coaching director and also worked as a match analyst for the Asian Football Confederation.
He died on 31 October 2018 following hospital treatment for a lung infection and kidney complications. He leaves wife Jeany and two daughters.
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