An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Yeovil Town on 17 October 2017.
On the rare occasions when there’s not much happening at Coconuts Towers and the only alternative would be watching Strictly – not a prospect to set the average Coconutter’s heart racing – we often amuse ourselves with a little parlour game.
As the fire blazes merrily and the Cinzano bottle does the rounds, we fall to composing make-believe XIs – for example, dreaming up a team of past and present United players with the same initials for forename and family name. Brendon Batson and Dave Donaldson are guaranteed starters, and Efon Elad often sneaks in.
A side of craftsmen might feature Les Cartwright, Stephen Smith and Tony Fletcher, while the Body Parts XI would include Brian Hart, Chris Foote and Peter Leggett. Or how about a Clergy XI?
The history of the U’s (described by Andrew Bennett in Celery & Coconuts, whose second volume, Risen from the Dust, is published this month; order online at the CFU store or at the caravan on a match day) throws up two reverend gentlemen who graced the Abbey pitch.
Winger Alan Comfort was at the Abbey between 1984 and 1986 and has been chaplain at Leyton Orient for many years, following a lengthy and popular playing career at Brisbane Road. He studied for the Anglican priesthood at Ridley Hall, the theological college in Sidgwick Avenue, and is now rector of three churches clustered around the A10 near Puckeridge, Herts. Son Henry continues the U's connection – he's the club's chief operating officer.
The Rev A Keenan was described as ‘a grand centre half’ on his Abbey United debut in 1945, but was happy to deputise between the sticks when United were needed. There was a war on and keepers, like oranges, were in short supply. He turned out 11 times for the U's in all.
But what of those players whose names qualify them for a place in the Clergy XI? We were obliged to rule as ineligible, because of their tenuous ecclesiastical connections, the likes of Phil Chapple, Christian Smith and Les Serman and Alan Lord.
But local lad Nick Pope, a very welcome addition to the United ranks on loan from Charlton in 2013, is a shoo-in for the goalkeeper’s jersey, leaving Rev Keenan free to fill a centre-back spot. Nick is now doing very well for himself in the Premier League at Burnley.
Left back is David Deacon, who was signed by manager Alan Moore in the summer of 1960. A six-footer who had played around 70 games over eight seasons at Ipswich, he went on to make 31 appearances for the U’s.
Lining up at right back we have the ever-dependable Bob Bishop, a man who became Abbey’s first professional player when, in 1947, he signed for the ambitious little club embarking on its first season in the United Counties League. He eventually played 202 games in two spells before spending three years as trainer. His last manager, Bert Johnson, described him as ‘a never-say-die player; a real fighter’.
Another of the Bishop clan, skilful left winger Jack, is also an automatic choice. He joined United from Bury Town for the start of the 1951-52 season and, like his brother, amply demonstrated his dedication to the cause. An ambulance was called during a game against Tottenham Hotspur ‘A’ after Jack suffered suspected concussion, but he insisted on leaving the ground the same way he had arrived: wheeling his bike.
Striker Dean Neal didn’t pull up any trees during his 1986/87 stint at the Abbey, but he makes the Clergy XI by default. We’re short of a defender, a couple of midfielders and a forward; write to email@example.com with your suggestions.
Back in England, he resumed his sporting career with Bury Town, from whom he joined United, with Bob, for the club’s first ECL season. The older brother earned £4 a week while Jack made do with a pound less.
He went on to establish himself as first-choice left winger for most of the season, with Joe Gallego playing inside him at inside left, and demonstrated his commitment during a 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur ‘A’ in October. He insisted on continuing after receiving treatment for a head injury in the first half, but after the match an ambulance was called as concussion was suspected. Jack refused it and left the ground the way he had arrived: wheeling his bicycle.
United finished fourth in their first ECL season, but then Gallego was switched to the left wing and Jack’s first-team outings were scarce until he rejoined Bury Town in March 1953. He later played for March Town United and continued to show his talents as a cricketer.
Jack was married to Audrey, who survives him, They lived in Bury St Edmunds, where Jack worked as an engineer. He died on January 18.
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