In 1979, the political and cultural magazine the New Statesman published an article by journalist and broadcaster Russell Davies, a 1967 graduate of Cambridge, in which he exposed the U’s to the searching glare of the media spotlight. The article gives those who were never lucky enough to visit the Abbey Stadium in the late 1970s an accurate impression of the experience to be expected on a wet and windy March Saturday.
Davies was reporting on the match that took place at the Abbey on Saturday, 10 March 1979. United lost the Second Division fixture 0-1 to Notts County in front of 5,157 spectators. The game’s lure had been irresistible, said the writer.
‘Cambridge United is still a small club in resources and outlook, and on a day like Saturday it seems to get smaller. A Fenland wind, rotten with damped-off celery stalks, came bowling straight down the ground from the Allotments End, where there is no stand – just a shallow open terrace, caged off for visiting supporters (on this occasion no more than a couple of hundred or so).
‘Every so often, an insulting spit of rain put a fine wet edge on one’s discomfort. “The club shop is open,” barked the tannoy, “for the sale of mugs, rattles, scarves, badges … “ “… And players,” remarked a police sergeant authoritatively.’
Biley had failed a fitness test behind the main stand, Davies learned, and Tom Finney and Derrick Christie were going to play up front. As it turned out, they were joined for a time in attack by Mick Leach.
He continued: ‘It proved, actually, to be a game rich in dwindling veterans. Cambridge had the ex-Norwich defender Dave Stringer, who looks less mothballed than most, and the far from wieldy Bill Garner as substitute, while Notts County trotted out the most aptly named of all centre backs, Jeff Blockley, and relied heavily in midfield on Arthur Mann, ex-Manchester City, and on one of the most widely deplored of the World Cup Scots, Don Masson.’
Davies remembered being astonished by Masson’s distribution when he was at QPR, ‘when for a brief time that unfulfilled team seemed almost potty with talent. Here he was player-coach, and possibly too much the latter; but on such a kick-and-rush day, anyone hitting the ball with less than full power tended to look fussy.
'It was plain almost at once that Cambridge was a side used to getting good results from traditional crosses curled away from the keeper but that nobody this time was going to get much joy from these.
‘Someone in midfield was heartless enough to knock the stuffing out of Cambridge’s tiny Steve Spriggs, the only player in any Division, I believe, over whom Brian Flynn of Leeds towers majestically. It had been a hasty, raw, red-eared half, not much appreciated by 5,157 shivering souls.
“‘Tell you wot,’ volunteered one bloodshot observer of the play, ‘I wish I had some o’ this to put on moi garden.’” But even though the pop-song chosen to enliven half-time was Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army (refrain: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here too-day …”), there was as yet no real sign that this was going to be a really classic misery day for home supporters.
‘It all started about five minutes after the interval, when a header by Finney beat the keeper and was handled by a back on its way, so it seemed, over the line. The referee first signalled a goal, then consulted a linesman, then commuted the sentence to a penalty; and we all watched, not very thunderstruck as Finney muffed, scuffed, bumbled and trundled the kick vaguely towards the left-hand post.
‘Goalkeeper McManus could not have flopped on it more gratefully if he’d been his namesake Mick, applying the deciding shoulder-press to the Wild Man of Borneo.’
The misery continued, wrote Davies, with Christie being stretchered off and Stringer being booked ‘for the most innocuous trip since the Owl and the Pussycat went to sea.'
Ninety minutes passed without a goal. But in injury time, a wind-assisted clearance from McManus put Mann through and he ‘torpedoed’ Malcolm Webster with ease.
United had been unlucky on the day, Davies reported, and had had ill fortune all season, injury to newly signed striker Gordon Sweetzer being a typical misfortune.
‘But then I wonder, thinking of this small, abashed crowd in its rudimentary ground (only one half-pitch-length grandstand and precious little covered terracing) whether Cambridge are not simply embarrassed by the possibility of good fortune.
‘A run of results such as they have sometimes had this season – away wins, for goodness sake, by 2-0 at Brighton, 3-1 at Stoke and 2-0 at Sunderland – would have put them up where those clubs are. But I don’t believe that the Abbey Stadium (more abbey than stadium) can handle the idea of success.
‘What would they do with it, in a town where it is notoriously difficult to drag the public out of range of their five-bar Belling Glowmaster simulated hearths?
‘Perhaps the lesson of the medieval cathedral is appropriate here; the people need to be shown success – buildings, acreage, splendour – before they can be relied upon to come and worship.
'So Cambridge must soon take the risk, and build. Alan Biley may find, next time he emerges from behind the grandstands, that he’s been cashed in to buy another vale of tiers.'