It's always a pleasure to welcome members of the U's extended family to the Abbey, even if it's out of season and we can't show them The Story of the U's mini-museum because it's been blocked off by mountains of A-ha-related gear.
Sunday's visitors, all the way from Auchterarder in Perthshire, were Andrew Welsh – son of tough-tackling 1960s wing half Billy – and his partner Pauline Silverman. Their visit coincided with Andrew's 50th birthday and the Abbey concert featuring OMD, his favourite band.
Billy – who died in a hill-climbing accident 20 years ago – was never one to brag about his professional football career, and Andrew has long wanted to speak to people who saw his dad play, or played with him.
Coconuts was able to fix this by relaying memories and good wishes from supporters and members of Cambridge United Former Players' Association, and taking Andrew and Pauline to chat to CUFPA's chairman Rodney Slack, who played three seasons with Billy, and wife Josie.
As fans of 80s music gathered over the road, Rodney and Josie reminisced about Andrew's dad and mother Avril, a Cambridge girl who still lives in Scotland.
United manager Alan Moore signed Billy from Airdrieonians in the summer of 1960. Forming a famous half-back line with Fred Howell and Roy Kirk, he played in 262 games in all competitions, scoring 18 goals, in his five years at the Abbey.
He was 24 when he joined the U’s, arriving with the reputation of being tough but talented – and also noted for his sartorial elegance and his refusal to join in with the 'industrial' language of the dressing room. His first game for United came on 20 August 1960, a 2-2 home draw with Hinckley Athletic in the Southern League Premier Division.
The following season he played in an FA Cup match at Romford that was noted for the eccentric performance of referee W Johnston-Wilson. Romford had already levelled for 1-1 with an indirect free kick that went straight into the goal when a cross bounced awkwardly in the penalty area and hit Billy on the arm. The press reported that even Romford fans looked puzzled as the ref gave the winning penalty.
The following season, in which United finished second in the Southern League, another smartly dressed Scot arrived, on Billy’s recommendation. ‘Gentleman’ Jim Sharkey was a skilful 27-year-old inside forward who had played with Billy at Glencairn before joining Celtic.
Billy suffered his fair share of injuries but gave as good as he got. He was dismissed in a match at Gravesend in April 1963 and in February 1964, at home against Yeovil Town, he spent much of the match hobbling after a strong tackle. It emerged afterwards that he had cracked an ankle bone and his season was over.
He didn’t complete the 1964/65 season either. At the beginning of April he underwent a cartilage operation in the Evelyn Nursing Home and saw no more action in an amber shirt. That summer he asked for a transfer – he wanted to concentrate on his job as a draughtsman, and left United for part-time football at Bath.
But he was seen at the Abbey again in November 1966, when he played as part of a team of current and former United players in Rodney Slack’s benefit match.
Supporters and teammates alike are generous in their praise of Billy’s playing ability. Colleague Peter Hobbs named him at left half in his dream team of players he played with at the Abbey. Eddie Higgins says his strongest memory of his early days supporting the U’s is of that formidable half-back line. ‘They all looked like giants to me,’ he says.
‘I can see Billy with his short, reddish hair brushed back, wearing that wonderful kit with the black V on the amber shirt, amber piping on the black shorts and vertical stripes on the socks.
‘I recall Billy in that kit in an FA Cup game at Bury that I hitchhiked to in September 1962. Billy, straight-backed and barrel-chested, had the look of a military man or a prison officer, a man not to be messed with.’
Supporter Colin Proctor, later United fans' elected director, says Billy was a very attacking half back with whom strikers never tangled. ‘He was part of one of the best half-back lines we’ve ever had,’ he added.
Some of the inaugural members of the Cambridge United Former Players' Association at the launch event in the Supporters' Club on Monday, July 4. From left: Tom Finney, Graham Daniels, Vic Phillips, Rodney Slack, Peter Bowstead, Peter Hobbs, Tom Youngs, Dan Gleeson, Steve Fallon, Peter Phillips, Jim White.
The first three inductees of the newly inaugurated Cambridge United Hall of Fame were honoured tonight by 100 Years of Coconuts.
At an award ceremony in the Supporters’ Club, presided over by United chairman Dave Doggett and fans’ elected director Dave Matthew-Jones, Russell Crane, Lil Harrison and Rodney Slack were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The ceremony was watched by members of the Cambridge United Former Players’ Association, also launched tonight by Coconuts.
The Former Players’ Association has been set up with the aim of bringing the extended U’s family closer together, while the Hall of Fame recognises outstanding contributions to the development and history of the football club. Like Coconuts’ recently opened mini-museum, The Story of the U’s, the two initiatives have been made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Hall of Fame inductees were chosen by Coconuts and CFU trust board members. In future, Coconuts will look to involve the entire U’s supporter base in the voting process.
At first the Hall of Fame will take the form of a website, but Coconuts and Cambridge United are looking at the possibility of a physical display within the Abbey Stadium.
‘We were very clear when we set out to launch the Hall of Fame that we didn’t just want to honour players,’ said Coconuts chair Pat Morgan.
‘Fans are just as important to any football club as players, directors, financial supporters and staff, and the first three inductees are a good indication of that.
‘Russell Crane was just as much a U’s supporter as he was a player. Lil Harrison was involved with the club before the first world war and was still going to games in the 1990s. Rodney Slack has the U’s in his blood despite being born near the other place [Peterborough].
‘As Russell told us, the club is a family affair, and you couldn’t find three more committed family members than these first inductees.’
Russell Crane (1926-2016) grew up in a U’s-mad household in Ditton Walk, opposite the United ground. He broke many club records during an 18-year career with Abbey and Cambridge United, and was still attending games as a guest of Coconuts as recently as last year.
Rodney Slack was born in 1940. Voted player of the year three times in his first five years as a U’s player, he was idolised by the fans and continues to live within a stone’s throw of the Abbey. He is a 100 Years of Coconuts committee member and chairman of the Former Players’ Association.
Lil Harrison (1904-1996) first saw Abbey United play at the age of ten. She went on to become a stalwart of the Supporters’ Club committee, raised countless thousands of pounds as the club rose through the leagues and came to exemplify the family spirit of the club.
The inaugural membership of the Cambridge United Former Players’ Association is around 100 – a number that is expected to grow fast in the coming months.
They range from ‘Tickle’ Sanderson, who first played for Abbey United in 1939, to more recent players like Liam Hughes and Coconuts patron Luke Chadwick.
CUFPA, chaired by Rodney Slack, is setting up a website and will keep members in touch with a quarterly newsletter. Occasional small-scale social events will be arranged and members are encouraged to contact each other via a password-protected members’ area on the website.
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