An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Mansfield on 19 December 2015.
It’s amazing what you find when you’re not really looking. A routine trawl by Coconuts volunteers through some of the Abbey’s gloomier hidey-holes three years ago uncovered this rather battered and unburnished trophy.
We were puzzled at first, but as the Coconuts elves set to work with the Goddard’s Long Term Silver Polish (it’s got hallmarks and everything), we were delighted to discover it played a small but important role in the history of Cambridge United.
Behold the National Playing Fields Association Challenge Cup in all its dented glory. If you could read the inscription you would see it was presented by Lt Col JCW Francis MBE.
Ring any bells? John Clement Wolstan Francis, who died in 1978, was a nephew of the Henry Clement Francis who in 1931 gave Abbey United the land that would become the Abbey Stadium, and a cousin of Walter Maclaren Francis, one of the club’s first directors when a limited company was formed in 1950.
The shields pinned to the base reveal that the cup was won by Arsenal in 1963/64 and an unnamed club the following season. What was that club, we wondered. We needed to start digging deep into U’s history, and that meant asking historian extraordinaire and Coconuts committee man Andrew Bennett.
Turns out that when manager Bill Leivers arrived at the Abbey in 1967, his first official fixture in charge was on March 15, at home to a young Arsenal XI that included Charlie George, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and future U Dave Simmons. The teams were competing for the Playing Fields Association Cup, which went to United thanks to two Derek Finch goals.
Arsenal, who were the mystery 1965 winners having beaten Cambridge City 2-1 at Milton Road (it wasn’t contested in 1966), had left the cup at Highbury, so local rugby legend Dickie Jeeps, who was at the Abbey to present the cup, was left twiddling his thumbs and shaking a few hands.
But Leivers had won a trophy in his first game and United eventually got their hands on a piece of silverware that was to remain theirs for ever and a day: 1967 was the last time this game was played.
We wanted to know more, and that meant talking to official City historian Neil Harvey, for Andrew’s research had shown that our crosstown rivals were prime movers in the Playing Fields Association Cup games.
Neil found that before 1967, City had always hosted and played in the ‘final-only’ competition, which raised funds for the Cambs and Hunts Playing Fields Association: in 1965 Waterbeach got £300 towards the cost of a new pavilion, for example.
The Milton Road crew had played Cambs FA in 1949/50, Ely City in 57/58 and 60/61, Wisbech Town in 61/62 and Arsenal ‘A’ in 63/64 and 64/65. The trophy had indeed been given by Lt Col Francis, the local association’s president, Neil reported.
Questions remain: why did United and not City play the Gunners in 1967? Why did the contest cease to exist? Why does the trophy’s inscription mention the National Playing Fields Association rather than the Cambridgeshire branch? If you know the answers, please drop us a line at email@example.com.
The NPFA, nowadays known as Fields in Trust, retains its original purpose, and that is ‘to safeguard recreational spaces and campaign for better statutory protection for all kinds of outdoor sites’. It’s a worthwhile cause.