This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Bristol Rovers on 30 October 2015.
It was good to see Steve Fallon back at the Abbey in March, when he took his place among those shortlisted for a place in the Cambridge United Hall of Fame.
We were nodding our heads as his old teammate Alan Biley said that of all the men he played with at United, Steve was the most suited to grace the top of the game.
He never played at English football's highest level. It's that division's loss: it is the poorer for never seeing Steve show just how good a footballer he was.
He's been associated with Cambridge so long, it’s easy to forget that he grew up near the other place.
Yes, he’s a native of Whittlesey and as an impressionable youngster professed a fondness for Tottenham Hotspur and Posh.
Those youthful indiscretions have long been forgiven, for Steve matured into one of the greatest footballers and servants of the game our city has ever had.
Count ’em: 446 appearances (and the little matter of 30 goals) in all competitions for United, in a career that spanned 13 seasons.
Then he goes and makes a good fist of a job in the club’s commercial department while limbering up for a management career that took in Cambridge City, Histon, Soham Town Rangers and Histon again.
The years he spent in his first spell at Bridge Road, taking the team from the Eastern Counties League to the Conference play-off semi-finals, may have coloured some younger fans’ views of the man, but who will forget his appearance at the head of the United supporters’ solidarity march ahead of our last Football League game of 2005?
Ken Shellito didn’t say much worth listening to during his brief tenure as gaffer in 1985, but it was nail-on-head stuff when he explained why he made Steve his captain: ‘I thought [he] should have the job because he is Cambridge United … In the time I have been at Cambridge I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him as a player or as a person.’
It was a much more successful manager, Ron Atkinson, who had brought Steve from Kettering to Newmarket Road in March 1975.
We think of him as a centre back of skill, strength and intelligence, but it was as a left back and in midfield that he established himself, before teaming up with the likes of Brendon Batson and Dave Stringer as his central defensive career flourished.
Those illustrious names would later be joined as defensive partners by such black-and-amber legends as Lindsay ‘Wolfie’ Smith, David Moyes, Andy Beattie, Keith Osgood and Chris Turner.
He knew where the goal was, too, as an unforgettable, 40-yard volleyed screamer at Gillingham in January 1978 showed.
He was at it again, from closer range this time, as United overcame Exeter 2-1 later that season to climb into the Second Division.
Top clubs like Tottenham and Derby offered sums up to £200,000 for his services, but his United career was far from finished.
Steve was a tower of strength throughout United’s amazing six-year spell in the second tier and beyond, as the club’s fortunes plummeted in the mid-80s.
By now the number of knee operations was beginning to mount and, finally, he was forced to call it a day in November 1986, at the early age of 30.
It was time to start forging that second career, and time for us to thank our lucky stars that we had the chance to admire the skills and commitment that made Steve an Abbey legend.
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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