This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme on 23 January 2016.
The mid-80s: a grim time to be a U. As the club’s fortunes plummeted, one man seemed to be working tirelessly to make things even worse … ladies and gentlemen, please welcome John Ryan.
Randall Butt, at the time the Cambridge Evening News reporter charged with putting news and views from the U’s in the public eye, had a handy insight into Ryan’s managerial deeds. We have pleasure in reproducing some of Randall’s memories, in edited form, here.
He recalls ‘an era when a dark shape loomed over the Abbey. Godzilla? Mr Blobby? No, it’s Rhino. That’s what John Ryan liked to be known as. When someone, unprompted, tells you their nickname it’s not quite right somehow.
‘And Rhino’s reign was indeed not quite right. It started with a 5-2 defeat at Charlton and went downhill from there for 44 more ghastly games, including just five victories.
'But he does have one claim to fame: Rhino was the only United gaffer to leave the ground before the end of a home match, and – this is the really special bit – it was a match in which he was playing.
‘It’s 10 November 1984. United go into a 2-1 lead against Burnley. Only 27 minutes to go. Could this be a rare win?
'No. Rhino, the boots back on in a bid to save his job, handles the ball totally unnecessarily, having already been booked. Off he goes, and the ten men crumble to a 3-2 defeat.
‘It’s going to be a while before he comes out of the changing room, we hacks think. And indeed there was neither sign nor sight of him. Eventually I knocked on the door to be told: “He’s not here. He wasn’t here when we came in. Somebody said he’s gone home.”
‘A dozen games (nine defeats) later he was gone for good. An egotistical, but also unfortunate man in the wrong place at the wrong time, ill equipped for a difficult job, and chosen badly by a board who thought they were getting another Ron Atkinson.
‘Rhino didn’t manage to get much right in his mercifully brief reign, not even when it came to the faltering manager’s last resort: the press ban. Weirdly, he banned himself.
‘The U’s were ploughing, like a blind man behind a lame horse, through that League record 32-match stagger without a win. For some reason Rhino, whose hide was nowhere near as thick as his nickname, became even more outraged than usual by my completely unjustified (of course) critical reports.
‘Instead of banning me from the press box, he let it be known that he would no longer speak to me before matches. The line-up for the next defeat (sorry, match) would be read out by his secretary, a delightful lady called Mandy. The News would thus struggle for any kind of preview, which would knock us bolshie journos into shape.
‘I rang Mandy for the team news, and then asked her all the questions I would have asked the manager. Me: “It’s Leeds tomorrow. Do you think you’ll be man-marking Peter Barnes?” Mandy (giggling): “What do you mean?”
‘We published the lot, along with a picture of Mandy holding the teamsheet. We only needed two such previews. Mandy’s boyfriend had a word with Ryan and normal service was resumed. We sent Mandy a huge bunch of flowers …’
You can read more of Randall’s memories here.