An edited version of this article appeared in Cambridge United's matchday programme for the game against Wycombe Wanderers on 7 October 2017.
Imagine: one of United’s legions of promising youngsters, with a handful of first-team games under his belt, is snapped up by Chelsea, as so many promising youngsters seem to be. The U’s are rewarded handsomely and the promising youngster’s future looks assured. Everyone’s happy.
But a few weeks later, the promising youngster is on the phone to his old mentor at Newmarket Road, asking if he can come back. Life at the top, he has found, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Unlikely? Perhaps, but it happened in the 1960s, as Andrew Bennett reveals in Risen from the Dust, the second volume of his Celery & Coconuts history of our club (out soon; order online at the CFU store or at the CFU caravan on a match day).
The promising youngster in question was Ian Hutchinson, his mentor was Bill Leivers and the call took place a couple of months after his transfer to Stamford Bridge for an eventual £7,500 plus the proceeds of a friendly between the two clubs.
Hutch explained later that, yet to break into the Pensioners’ first team, he was living in a hotel and earning less than he had been at the Abbey. ‘So I approached Bill Leivers and asked if he would take me back. He said there would always be a place for me at the Abbey Stadium …’
Still following the engineering apprenticeship he had been engaged on when he signed for United from Burton Albion in February 1968, he was leaving home at 5am most mornings to go to work. ‘I miss much about Cambridge, especially the people,’ he said.
But Hutch’s breakthrough wasn’t far away, and he went on to form a heavy-scoring partnership with Peter Osgood that delighted the Shed. A stand-out performer in the brutal, replayed 1970 FA Cup final against Leeds – after which Chelsea visited the Abbey for the promised friendly, drawing 14,000 spectators – he remains best known for the amazing long throws with which he peppered opposition six-yard boxes.
Sadly, his career was disfigured by a cruel succession of injuries, and he was only 27 when he called it a day. Even more sadly, he died in 2002 at the distressingly young age of 54.
U’s supporters recall his time at the Abbey fondly. They had first encountered him in United’s meetings with Burton in the Southern and Midland Floodlit leagues, and had marvelled at the run-around he gave steely U's centre half Gerry Baker a few weeks before his arrival in Cambridge. Not many people did that to Gerry.
Hutch had only been at Burton a year; they had spotted him playing for International Combustion’s works team in the East Midlands Regional League, where he averaged a useful three goals a game. Tall, gangly and raw but with speed, skill on the ball and great ability in the air, he was a terrific prospect, and United beat three League clubs, as well as a couple of their Southern League rivals, to his signature.
He prospered under Leivers’ wing, scoring seven times in his 21 U’s games. One of those goals, at Wimbledon on 6 April 1968, will be remembered for ever.
Receiving a throw-in near halfway with his back to goal, Hutch turned, leaving his marker for dead, and beat three more defenders on his way to the apex of the penalty box, where he let loose a right-foot shot that was in the top corner before Dons keeper Frank Smith had seen it. He is missed greatly.