An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Bury on 24 November 2018.
There are times when, if you’re a United supporter and especially if you inhabit the Habbin, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But we’re lucky in that we’ve always had people who have helped to make the decision easy. Some players take it as read that their job is to entertain as well as to win matches.
Larger-than-life characters have always stalked the Abbey’s corridors, and there was none larger than player-turned-manager Chris Turner. As far as Turns was concerned every day was April Fool’s Day, but we’re leaving the reporting of his exploits to Ian Darler: the butt of more than one Turner prank, Ian is publishing his memoirs next autumn.
But for more tales of mirthful merrymaking, you need only turn to Celery & Coconuts, Andrew Bennett’s peerless history of our club. Volume two, Risen from the Dust, examines the case of ‘Gentleman’ Jim Sharkey in some detail.
Frank Dersley, who tended to injured players with his magic sponge in the 60s and 70s, remembered the time when Sharkey went down in the far corner of an Abbey pitch that had been saturated by days of torrential rain.
It was still pelting down, Frank recalled. ‘I ran across and was covered in mud and soaked to the skin by the time I arrived at Sharkey, and as I got there he looked up at me, winked and said: “Give us a kiss.” He had only feigned injury to get me soaked.’
One of Sharkey’s successors as clown prince was signed by Bill Leivers in 1974. Going by the name of Kevin ‘Call me Twinkletoes’ Tully, he was a gifted left winger and a dedicated japester who just didn’t know when to stop.
Some of Tully’s antics are recorded in Champagne & Corona, volume three of Celery & Coconuts, which is on sale via the CFU online store and at the caravan on match days..
He had once sat on the Blackpool bench fully clothed under his tracksuit, praying he wouldn’t be needed. A habitual thumb-sucker, he probably wasn’t too surprised when the players hung a huge baby’s dummy on his peg.
During a 4-1 win at Exeter at the end of 1974/75, Tully enjoyed top billing as United showed off a bit. At one point he knelt on the ball, daring the Grecians to try to take it off him, and later celebrated a goal by prancing around with his shorts at half-mast around his knees.
Ron Atkinson, Leivers’ successor as manager, eventually tired of the Tully capers. In his autobiography he noted that fines made not the slightest impression on the errant entertainer’s behaviour.
‘One day I’d had enough,’ recalled Big Ron. ‘I called him into the dressing room, locked all the doors, and clocked him.’
But Atkinson was fond of a joke too: ‘Even though I was always having to discipline him, some of his antics were so funny that there were occasions when I laughed at him instead of frowning.’