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.
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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