An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the FA Cup match against Sutton United on 5 November 2017.
In the memory’s eye, the image is crystal clear: a opposition right winger, believing he has got the better of United’s left back, is scampering towards the byline and scanning the penalty area for a forehead on which to plant his cross.
He should have heeded the words of the poet Burns: The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley. A booted foot, attached to a swinging left leg, appears out of nowhere and sweeps the ball out of harm’s way, into the Habbin or an Elfleda Road garden. The winger curses and furrows his brow.
The boot belonged to Brian Grant, one of the best exponents of the sliding tackle ever seen at the Abbey. His right hip must be worn smooth, so many times did he swivel on it.
‘I have a bit of a reputation for my sliding tackles and my swinging left leg,’ he once remarked, ‘and I must say this knack of turning on to the ball has got me out of trouble a few times during my career.’
As Andrew Bennett shows in Risen from the Dust (available online at the CFU store and at the caravan on match days), Brian played a big role in the late-60s Bill Leivers team that dominated the Southern League and showed the Football League what it could do.
He was the type of player managers were always looking for, said Leivers: ‘He always seems to be happy and is very big-hearted. On the field he is strong and very brave and his amazing recovery often gets us out of trouble …’
It was great to see Brian in rattling form, telling tales and cracking jokes, at a recent former players’ association get-together. He doesn’t look a day older than when he was snapped with fellow decorator Mick Coe by the Cambridge News in 1981 (right).
One of his stories related how, in 1966, he became Brian Clough’s first signing as a manager. Cloughie, newly installed at Hartlepools, paid Nottingham Forest £2,000 for the Coatbridge native’s services.
‘Tiger’ had been 15 when scouts from Forest and Manchester United spotted him. He opted for Forest and played 18 League games for Clough’s future club.
After Hartlepools he dallied briefly at Bradford City before arriving in Cambridge in the summer of 1967 and making his debut in a 3-1 Southern League Cup win over Kettering. He was to play 182 full games for the U’s, making five sub appearances and chipping in with two goals. That scoring feat cost teammate Roly Horrey £2; in contrast, the less than prolific Brian had only to fork out a penny when Roly netted.
The end of his time at the Abbey came in 1971, when he asked for a transfer after being dropped – some crunching tackles on Leivers in five-a-side had resulted in a punch-up – and he joined Kettering Town. Managerial posts at Histon, Bishop’s Stortford, Cambridge City and Saffron Walden followed, and he was in charge of the Cambs county side for three years.
Brian’s last Abbey appearance was in the company of Bobby Robson, John Bond, John Docherty, Rodney Slack and the Atkinson brothers Graham and Ron in 1977. The occasion was a game marking the queen’s silver jubilee and the result against a Showbiz XI was 7-7. Sorry, I honestly can’t remember if the famous Grant slide was on show that day.
Graham came into his own as a goalscoring inside forward during 1964/65, embarking on a fine scoring run that included two hat-tricks and attracting the attention of Oxford manager Turner, who stated his intention of recalling the player under a new contract. ‘I am very happy here,’ said Atkinson, ‘and feel that I am playing better since I joined Cambridge United. Naturally, I must listen to Arthur Turner’s offer before deciding, but it will have to be an attractive one to make me leave Cambridge.’
The lure of the Football League and the prospect of being reunited with his brother proved decisive. Graham’s last Cambridge game was a 3-1 win at Bedford Town on December 5. United’s season then took a dip that was partly attributed to the absence of Atkinson, who finished the season as top league scorer with 13 goals.
He returned to Cambridge United colours for John Gregson’s testimonial in January 1972, and the U’s provided the opposition for his testimonial at Kettering Town in April 1976, by which time his brother was managing the hosts. He had joined the Poppies in 1974.
Graham and wife Jenni lived in Oxfordshire for most of their lives but moved to Pembrokeshire in 2004.
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