This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the Leyton Orient match on Saturday, 8 April 2017.
The United youth teams of the early- to mid-1960s produced a bountiful crop of players who made their mark at the Abbey and beyond. With the likes of manager Peter Reeve and trainer Wally Warren working hard behind the scenes, players such as Alan Payne, Bert Haggis and Peter Robinson made sure the first teamers knew there were youngsters ready and able to take their places.
Several of these young men went on to play in the Football League well before United made it into the Fourth Division: Graham Felton starred on the wing for many years at Northampton and elsewhere; Peter Bowstead’s promising career at Oxford was cut short by injury; Richard Habbin and John Harley became favourites at Reading.
Another player in and around the senior team at the time was Brian Whitmore, whom we welcome, with wife Maureen and friends Sandra and Fred Marshall, to today’s game. We’re hoping a look at the ground, a visit to his old teammate Rodney Slack, a chat with his old youth team manager Peter Reeve and a butcher’s at The Story of the U’s in the Supporters’ Club will stir some memories of happy times over half a century ago.
Brian was a promising striker who made his first-team debut against Histon in the East Anglian Cup on 7 October 1963 (the U’s won 3-0). Two more appearances followed that season, in the teams that beat Soham Town Rangers to win the Lakenheath British Legion Cup and claimed the Wymondham Charity Cup by overcoming Wymondham Town.
In the run-up to the 1964/65 season Brian scored in a 2-1 friendly defeat of Colchester United. During the season proper he played four times (netting one goal) in the Midland Floodlit League, four times in the late, lamented Mithras Cup, once in the East Anglian Cup and in the teams that retained the Lakenheath British Legion and Wymondham Charity cups. The following term he played twice in the East Anglian Cup – scoring twice in the first ten minutes of a 5-2 defeat of Dagenham – and his last first-team game came on 28 October 1965 in a 3-3 Midland Floodlit League draw with Wellington Town. Having scored three times in 15 games for the U’s, he left the Abbey and went on to play for Soham and Histon.
Brian’s short-term memory has been affected by Alzheimer’s, that most cruel of diseases. Some memories of his playing days remain with him, and Maureen, Fred and Sandra hope today’s visit to his old stamping ground will stir some reminiscences. It so happens that this ties in with a project for which 100 Years of Coconuts is seeking funding. We want to use the Coconuts collection and The Story of the U’s to help older people living with dementia and/or coping with depression and loneliness.
We’ve seen at first hand the amazing effect exposure to memorabilia, photographs, documents and other objects can have on people with dementia. We want to further the work of the Sporting Memories Foundation by sharing memories and helping people to connect with others and with their past. We know how well this can reawaken positive thoughts and feelings that might otherwise stay hidden.
From top: Maureen Whitmore, Fred Marshall, Brian Whitmore and Sandra Marshall at The Story of the U's; Brian talks over old times with Coconuts committee member and volunteer Rodney Slack; Brian outside the building that housed the dressing rooms in the 1960s, with his former United youth team manager Peter Reeve; Fred and Brian in earnest football discussion in The Story of the U's.
The following article appeared in the Cambridge United programme for the game against Basingstoke Town on Saturday, 7 November 2015.
Every one of us has regrets. Near the end of a life, and especially if that end is premature, those regrets sometimes start to weigh heavily.
At the end of July, Coconuts received an email from Australia, in which Kathryn Ayers wrote of her concern for her father Jim. ‘He has been told he only has weeks to live,’ she said.
‘He played in your reserve team when he was approximately 15 years old. His major regret is not continuing after he was ruled out for a year due to an eye injury sustained while playing. It is one of the few times he has been brought to tears.
‘I purchased a team shirt with his name on it and the lady in the store mentioned your site when I asked if it was likely that there would be any records of his time there.’
Part of Coconuts’ brief is an attempt to bring the extended U’s family closer together. We wrote to New South Wales, promising to find out as much as we could. Kathryn’s reply gave us an insight into her dad’s life.
Jim was born on 3 February 1948 in Gillingham, where his Royal Navy submariner father was based. The family’s move to Barton Mills put Jim reasonably close to the Abbey and, leaving school at the age of 15, he began to make a name for himself. Then came the eye injury.
‘After being told he needed a year off due to the eye injury he began working for an auto electrician,’ recalled Kathryn. ‘He came to Australia on a ship when he was 21, not long after stopping football, and met my mother, Shirley, on the ship. He then went to work in the mines in the Kimberleys [north-west Australia] before becoming an auto electrician here.’
Coconuts historian Andrew Bennett dug out a U’s Youth team programme from 26 November 1963, which showed Jim playing at centre half against Posh. We pointed Kathryn to parts of 100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk that her dad might enjoy, and we put her in touch with the man who had welcomed him into the United fold: Peter Reeve.
‘Dad has really enjoyed browsing your website and was absolutely gobsmacked when he saw the [programme] you sent,’ wrote Kathryn on August 6. ‘He couldn't believe anyone would’ve kept this.’
Jim Ayers: every manager's dream.
Team line-ups, Cambridge United Youth v Peterborough Youth, FA Youth Cup first round replay, 26 Nov 1963.
On September 22: ‘I received an email from Peter today. It was lovely and Dad and Mum were both brought to tears, it meant that much to him. Dad is doing reasonably well – he is fighting on and continuing to surprise doctors! Keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle.’
Peter remembers Jim as a quiet, respectful and honest young man, always giving of his best. ‘He was very reliable and popular with all the lads. He enjoyed his football and was proud to be playing at the club: every manager’s dream … ‘Hopefully there are some of his teammates still around whose own memories will be triggered if they get to read the article in the programme.’
Kathryn wrote on November 1: ‘I wanted to let you know that Dad passed away on the morning of October 29. Thank you again for all your help and support.’
We feel as if we got to know Jim over the last three months of his life. He, Kathryn and Shirley are family.