This article appeared in the Cambridge United official programme for the game against Newport County on 8 August 2015.
The 2015 Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge was played on the Abbey turf in March as a result of a maturing partnership between the two CUs, United and University – but it wasn’t the first time.
Four Varsity matches have taken place on the sacred sward, the first of them in 1990. What’s more, back in the day – a historical era in which Coconuts specialises – the U’s used to help their scholarly chums prepare for the fixture with a practice match, sometimes at the Abbey and sometimes at Fenner’s. Yes, Fenner’s. Wonder what Cyril Coote made of that.
Something else about the Varsity match that young U’s might not know: between 1953 and 1988 it was played at Wembley. And it was at the national stadium that the only Cambridge graduate ever to play for United’s first team made his three Varsity match appearances, scoring each time to help the Light Blues to a triplet of victories.
Peter Phillips was at Fitzwilliam College between 1966 and 1969, studying for the history degree that he hoped would lead to a teaching career. The football gods had other ideas. His attributes – grass-scorching speed, bravery, skill aplenty and an eye for a goal or two – had been noted by professional clubs. Having earned two England amateur caps while playing at Bishop’s Stortford, in 1969 he signed pro terms with Luton.
Back in Cambridge, by March 1971 Bill Leivers was struggling to manage an injury crisis that had left him with just ten fit players. A sympathetic Football League waived the transfer deadline rules to allow him to borrow Phillips and Robin Wainwright – and Phillips impressed on his debut against Scunthorpe by making a goal for Jim White. But the League’s generosity wavered when three United men’s injuries healed, and it was back to Kenilworth Road for Phillips.
In the summer Leivers plundered Luton for Phillips, Alan Guild and Jack Bannister, and 1971/72 saw the young forward claim a regular starting spot at United,
even if it was in a wider position than his usual central striking role. But in January 1972 came a calamity that would eventually end his career.
At home against Southport, he suffered appalling injuries: fractured jaw, displaced cheekbone, swollen eye and three 15-inch gashes on a thigh. Assault or accident? Opinion was divided. Four years later the long-term effect of the injuries became clear when Phillips suffered an illness that necessitated a six-week hospital stay: the cheekbone had pierced a sinus and, over time, his body had been poisoned from within.
By 1976 he was in any case pursuing a career that would see him become a partner in the national accountancy firm MacIntyre Hudson and playing – as a sweeper of all things – for Old Wellingburians, his old school club. He retired in 2003 and now lives in the same Northamptonshire village in which he was born in 1946.
United’s Light Blue played 51 times between 1971 and 1974, scored 15 goals and set up quite a few more. Will we ever see a Cambridge graduate in the amber and black again?