This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Barnet on 26 December 2015.
There was wailing and gnashing of teeth at Coconuts Acres when the news of the departure from the Abbey of that nice young man Gearóid Morrissey broke [in December 2015]. He’d looked the business on several occasions, had impressed hard-to-please fans with his pre-season displays and had promised a great deal. To the disappointment of all parties, however, it just didn’t work out in England for the lad. He returned to the place of his birth and re-signed for Cork City on December 10.
Gearóid’s sorry tale brought back a few memories for Coconutters of a certain age. At least G played a few games and even made an impact at Old Trafford, but wasn’t there, back in the 90s, another young Irish player who signed from the Leesiders only to return across the Irish Sea without troubling the teamsheet typists? And, hold on, what about the guy who came from Cobh Ramblers, Cork City’s neighbours, and never played a game? Wasn’t he related to someone famous?
Indeed he was, but let’s start by talking about the first Corkman hinted at above.
Fergus O’Donoghue was 21 when he landed at the Abbey in December 1990, arriving to the sound of his new manager praising him to the skies. ‘He is a very good passer of the ball, quick and tenacious in the tackle and I feel he is a very good addition as far as competition for full-back and centre-back places is concerned,’ John Beck told the Cambridge Evening News. ‘He has two very good feet and the most important ingredient: he is quick.’
Beck also rhapsodised about Fergus’s performance against England’s Lee Sharpe for Ireland Under-21s a month or before: ‘He did ever so well, and even matched him for speed.’
Fergus cost United £36,000, which was to have been supplemented by payments of £5,000 after 15 and 30 U’s appearances and ‘B’ and full international caps. ‘We can’t really afford it,’ said chairman Reg Smart, ‘but we’re looking to the future.’ As it turned out, Reg needn’t have lost any sleep over any additional payments due under the three-year contract.
Having adjusted to full-time training and Beck’s rigorous regime, Fergus made his U’s debut for a shadow side on 8 January 1991, in a 3-1 Hunts Premier Cup win at Ely City. There followed an annoying series of injuries before he got a run-out for the reserves on March 20 in a 4-1 win over Wokingham. Later that month he played again for Ireland’s Under-21s against England at Brentford.
He was still some way from a first-team call-up but was retained for 1991/92 and scored in a 4-3 friendly win at Bar Hill in August, only to go down with a groin strain. Ominously, United paid a club record £150,000 for Shrewsbury centre back Mick Heathcote in September, and on the same day the hapless Fergus suffered another setback when he broke his nose in training.
In October he appeared in the European Under-21 Championship in Poland, and hit the bar with a 25-yard free kick. Later that month the U’s loaned out some fringe players, but an arrangement for Fergus fell through. ‘[He] went down to Maidstone,’ explained Beck, ‘but they were umming and aahing, so we knocked that one on the head.’
He played a few times for the reserves and came on as a sub in the Cambs Professional Cup Final in March 1992, when United beat the Canadian Olympic XI 4-0. In the second week of April, however, the club admitted defeat and cancelled his contract, after 16 months and not a single League game. ‘He is a good footballer, but never managed to adapt to our style,’ commented Beck.
Fergus tried his luck in America with New York Fever and New York Imperials, then returned to Cork City. There he won two League Cups, the League of Ireland Premier Division championship in 1993 and the FAI Cup in 1998 on the way to compiling 149 appearances, before hanging up his boots in 2001. Talk to him now and he will cite Champions League games against Galatasaray and Slavia Prague as stand-out memories in a career that was rewarded by his induction into the Cork City Hall of Fame in 2011.
He also enjoyed his time in Cambridge, where he made plenty of friends while living in Ditton Fields and sampling the delights of one or two Newmarket Road pubs. ‘Cambridge was a lovely place,’ he recalls, ‘but I had no time for John Beck, or for his style. I’d come from a team that played the ball to feet. I learned pretty quick, but it wasn’t for me.’
What could have been for Fergus, eh? And also for Pat Keane, brother of Roy and another of the U’s County Cork contingent.
In March 1993, the U’s paid £12,500 to Cobh Ramblers for the 19-year-old midfielder, in the face of stiff competition. ‘Pat could be one helluva signing for this club,’ enthused manager Ian Atkins. ‘He’s one for the future. Once it became known he was interested in playing over here, at least half a dozen Premier clubs, including Manchester United, were chasing him, plus Newcastle and West Ham. We’ve managed to get him because I looked after the lad when he had a short training spell with Birmingham last year.’
Pat himself was similarly enthusiastic. ‘I could have gone to one of the really big clubs,’ he said, ‘but I think I’ll get a better start at Cambridge. You can disappear at the big places. Fergus O’Donoghue told me they were a good bunch of players at Cambridge, but he didn’t get on with John Beck.’
Three weeks after signing, Pat had not been sighted in black and amber, and a rueful Atkins admitted that training might have aggravated an ankle injury spotted during his medical. He made his debut for the reserves in a 4-0 win at Reading in April, but never made it into the first team.
At the end of the season, with Atkins gone, he was released on a free transfer by new gaffer Gary Johnson; the club’s worst suspicions about the ankle trouble had been confirmed. ‘The lad broke down three times in training and we were told he wouldn’t be up to full-time training and League football,’ revealed Reg. ‘Fortunately, we were able to annul the deal with Cobh Ramblers and didn’t pay the £12,500 fee initially agreed.’ That was OK, then.
It was back to Cobh for Pat. In February 2015, after many years’ dedication to the Ramblers, he turned out for an ‘old boys’ side in a charity match. Sitting in the dugout and barking out instructions was his more famous brother.
The first instance of a University student playing for United’s first team came in 1965/66, when Alva Anderson, a Jamaican who also gained a boxing Blue, played three games in midfield. The only ex-Light Blue to have played in the Football League for United is Peter Phillips. who joined from Luton in 1971 and played until 1974. Steve Palmer, a captain of CUAFC in the late 80s, played for United’s reserves; although he did not make the first team he went on to a successful professional career at Ipswich and Watford. He now works for the Premier League.
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.
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