Cambridge United lost a link with its Southern League Cup-winning side of 1965 with the death, at the age of 81 on January 21, of Billy Day.
The speedy outside right, born on 27 December 1936, enjoyed a stellar career with his hometown club of Middlesbrough before moving to Newcastle and Peterborough and then becoming a favourite of the Abbey Stadium crowd for two seasons.
After signing for Boro from local club South Bank at the age of 18, he was dubbed the ‘flying winger’ for two reasons: his blistering pace and his habit, while on national service in Germany, of flying home every weekend to play. His son Colin told the Teesside Gazette: ‘He’d get home about 7am on a Saturday, have an hour’s sleep, and then be straight to play a game.’
His national service stint also saw Day become the forces champion in the 100 yards.
Day laid on countless goals for Ayresome Park legends Brian Clough and Alan Peacock, and scored 21 himself, during his 131 Middlesbrough games.
Signing for United in the summer of 1964, for an undisclosed fee from Peterborough, he made an immediate impression in a 2-1 pre-season friendly win over Colchester, and started the Southern League season on the right wing.
Despite coming in for rough treatment from defenders – notably those of Cambridge City and Folkestone – he was outstanding as the season wore on and United progressed towards a Southern League Cup final against Weymouth. He set up three goals in a 4-2 third round win at Nuneaton, and scored in the two-leg final as the U’s triumphed 3-1 on aggregate.
By the time the 1964/65 season had ended, Day had played in 70 matches, but his second season at the Abbey was fraught with difficulties.
Having vied with Wes Maughan for the right-wing spot, he was transfer-listed at his own request before Christmas 1965. Injured in a Boxing Day loss at Bedford, he did not attract any offers and later came off the list.
A debilitating attack of pleurisy affected the second half of his season and he was released at the end of the term, having scored 11 goals in 100 appearances in amber and black.
Day then launched a new career in bookmaking. He started as manager of a betting shop and set up on his own as an on-course bookie in 1970, becoming a familiar figure for decades at horse and greyhound courses in his native North-east.
He died in hospital after a battle with dementia, leaving sons Richard and Colin, daughter-in-law Sue and grandchildren Sophia and Richard. Day’s wife of 61 years, Irene, predeceased him in December. The funeral will take place at 2.30pm on Monday, February 5 at Middlesbrough Crematorium.
He was a regular starter the following season, helping to anchor the midfield as United challenged for the title again. He missed the last away game, a 4-1 loss at Yeovil, with tonsillitis, but got out of his sickbed to play in a 3-0 defeat of Worcester five days later. The following evening he started in front of the Abbey Stadium’s record crowd of 14,000 in a friendly against Chelsea, but like the rest of the first team sat out the second half in anticipation of the title-deciding game against Margate the following afternoon. United won 2-0 and were champions again.
Following the club’s election to Football League Division Four, Mel remained a regular first-team choice, although his 1970/71 season was ended three games early by an ankle injury. United finished 20th in their first League season and, as Leivers revamped his squad, Mel signed for City.
He returned to the Abbey in November 1971 to play in the first leg of the Cambs Professional Cup final. Cautioned for bringing down Peter Phillips, he reacted by throwing a punch when the U’s striker returned the compliment, earning an instant dismissal.
He had explained why he was no stranger to the physical side of the game the previous season. ‘I was brought up in a hard school at Sunderland, where we were always instructed to put our opponents out of the game before starting to play the football. Great play was made of mental attitude as we prepared before each game to do battle, and I have always played hard, whether in training or a match.’
Nonetheless, Mel’s skill on the ball was considerable and, while he was not known for scoring – he netted just three times for United – he will long be remembered for one moment of brilliance. With the score at 1-1 with five minutes to go in the first away game of 1969/70, he dribbled through Gloucester’s attempted offside trap to score an outstanding winner.
He believed his best asset lay in another area, however: ‘I feel I am at my best when the boss says before the game that so and so have a particular danger man and I am given the job of playing him out of the game.’
Remaining in the Cambridge area after his retirement, Mel became widely known as the landlord of the Rose & Crown in Teversham and later lived in Fulbourn. He leaves widow Joan, daughter Keely and two granddaughters.
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