Football Blue John Little, now president of Cambridge University Association Football Club – the oldest club in the world – traces the history of collaboration between town and gown.
Earlier this year the Cambridge University Association Football Club, along with a number of legendary players, attended a glittering occasion at the National Football Museum in Manchester, to receive an award recognising CUAFC as the oldest club in the world.
The Hall of Fame recognition, decided by the historical panel of the museum, had already been accorded to the club by the Football Association with the award of an illuminated plaque in 2006 – the 150th year from the date of the only surviving, and first, written rules: the Rules of the Cambridge University Football Club.
One copy of these 1856 rules survives in the archives at Shrewsbury School where, we presume, an undergraduate took them in his vacation in order to explain them to his contemporaries. Seven years later those rules were adopted by the newly formed Football Association in London; and so Cambridge gave the rules of football to the world.
The 1872/73 season saw the first FA Cup competition and the University embraced the competition enthusiastically, beating South Norwood 1-0 in their first game on 25 October 1873. In 1876/87 they reached the semi-final and played the winners of the first cup final (the Wanderers), losing 1-0. In a set of fixtures during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, CUAFC played such teams as Blackburn, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Corinthians, and East Anglian schools like King Edward VII High School in King’s Lynn.
Cambridge United was not founded, as Abbey United, until 1912, and played in local leagues for many years, and there appears to have been no early contact between the two clubs. The club turned professional in 1949 and changed its name to Cambridge United in 1951, and the earliest link between the two U’s came in 1954 when United player-manager Bill Whittaker brought in University boxing coach/trainer Len Brooker to work on his players’ fitness.
The two teams did not meet until 25 November 1963, in a game used as a warm-up for the Cambridge-Oxford Varsity match. CUAFC were coached by Terry Neill of Arsenal and a crowd of 500 witnessed a 3-3 draw. United’s team consisted of a mix of reserves and youngsters, as would be the case in future meetings.
United/CUAFC fixtures resumed in October 1973, and I was fortunate to play in those games, and those when the Abbey hosted fixtures between the University and an FA XI between 1976 and 1978. From 1972 to 1980, Fenner’s cricket ground, where the University played its Michaelmas term matches, also hosted Cambridge United, who would bring a team to play the final warm-up game before December’s Varsity match. U’s manager Ron Atkinson still loved to kick a ball around and always played a part in these games. My memories are of a series of tackles that you hoped missed their target and would have certainly warranted a straight red in the modern era.
The 70s heralded the start of a growing collaboration between both U’s, and the new United manager, John Docherty, managed the team from 1978 until 1979, with player-coach Peter Graham first helping with goalkeeping training and then managing the team until about 1981. The 1980s saw a succession of regional FA coaches manage the team but by the 1990s the FA was no longer supplying coaches and John Beck was concentrating on United..
There was some informal contact between myself and the United management in the early 2000s and the Abbey played host to the Varsity Match again in 2010, but little more was agreed between us.
In 2013 we began a much closer collaboration when Jez George, following his spell as interim first team manager and then his move into the position of director of football, saw value for United in a link with the University. He found time to watch the Light Blues first team at Fenner’s and began to help in a coaching role when his United position allowed. His input to the team was excellent and the team visibly improved immediately.
CUAFC were invited to an Elite University football tournament in Beijing in August of this year. Jez was able to attend and we used the time to discuss ways in which we could cement our relationship to benefit both CUAFC and United. This has led to a financial agreement whereby CUAFC will play and train at United’s Clare College training ground, with the agreement of the college’s governing body, and will be able to utilise the expertise of some of the younger United coaches. We have also discussed the possibility of running summer schools for overseas students using United’s football expertise, the CUAFC players and the facilities and accommodation offered by colleges.
From my position as president of CUAFC, I feel this could be a very positive collaborative project with advantages for both clubs. I think we have the basis for a very fruitful relationship, backed by the United management, which could continue for many years to come.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Christmas issue of CFU's fanzine, Amber News.