An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the home game against Grimsby Town on 3 November 2018.
Volume three of Celery & Coconuts – Andrew Bennett’s masterly history of Cambridge United, dropping through your letterbox soon – had several working titles before Coconuts plumped for Champagne & Corona.
If certain people had had their way, it would have been entitled Big Ron, The Doc and the Vegetable Marrow. Another possibility was When I See a Marrow Fly. It was almost called Vegetables Incoming.
Those of you who were around in the 1970s – the decade with which this brilliant book concerns itself – might have an inkling of the reason for this apparent obsession with a member of the squash family.
The rest of you will have to buy a copy, turn to page 280 and read referee Jeff Sewell’s account of goings-on at the Abbey on 29 September 1979.
As Champagne & Corona illustrates in Andrew’s usual entertaining style, the 1979-80 season was one in which our club established itself as a Division Two fixture – an achievement that had not even been contemplated just 32 years before, when United were still competing in the Cambridgeshire League.
There was an echo of one of that season’s fixtures recently when the U’s were drawn to play Guiseley AFC away in the first round proper of the FA Cup.
In 1979-80, United were still getting their heads round the idea that they wouldn’t compete in the Cup until the third round, because of their elevated status in Division Two. It had come as something of a shock the previous season, when they exited the competition at the first opportunity by going down to a 3-1 loss at Shrewsbury.
At a ground the Cambridge Evening News described as a ‘rustic cockpit’, the players trotted out on to the kind of surface that was all too familiar in those far-off days: a sea of mud. You could have counted the blades of grass on the fingers of one hand.
Those of the all-ticket crowd of 5,000 who were standing at the appropriately named Cow Meadow end greeted home goalkeeper Billy Barber with a grateful round of applause – two days before he had still been in Australia, where he had been visiting his fiancée.
As expected, the mud pit proved tricky. Pacy U’s striker Alan Biley found himself bogged down and goalkeeper Malcolm Webster struggled with his goal kicks. United fans, dreading a humiliating giant-killing, puffed with relief when home captain John Watt slammed an early 30-yard shot against the bar, leaving a muddy brown stain to remind us of a narrow squeak.
Roger Gibbins to the rescue: he blasted United into the lead after half an hour. Then, after brilliantly saving a Chris Turner header, the jet-lagged Barber was beaten by a George Reilly nod ten minutes from the end.
United had battled through the mire to a glamorous fourth round tie at home to Aston Villa. But that’s another story.
Order your copy of Champagne & Corona by visiting CFU’s online store or dropping in at the caravan on a match day.