There we were, minding our own business and showing supporters round The Story of the U's, Coconuts' mini-museum in the Supporters' Club.
The next minute, the tiny space was jam-packed with fashionable beards and tracksuits.
We were delighted to welcome the entire Cambridge United first-team squad to our display during the club's open day at the Abbey Stadium yesterday.
Gary 'Deegs' Deegan was particularly taken with the 1950s-vintage shinpads, and keepers Dimitar 'Dimi' Mitov and David 'Fordey' Forde could only marvel at their predecessor Rodney Slack's gloves, hand-crocheted in the 1960s.
The gloves were hand-crocheted, not Rodney.
Meanwhile, over by the Abbey Arms, Marvin 'Marv' the Moose was 'avin' a go at the coconuts, and many a child went home wondering what to do with their prize, the whiskery fruit of the Cocos nucifera.
Thanks to the Abbey Lounge/Cambridge United Supporters' Club and to Cambridge United and its community trust for their continued support for 100 Years of Coconuts.
See you all again next year. Meanwhile, if you'd like to visit The Story of the U's and learn more about the story of your club – or if you don't know what to do with the kids during the school holidays – contact us here or drop a line to email@example.com.
We don’t know exactly when the Barnwell-born lad departed for the Smoke; nor do we know how Chelsea came to find out about young Alsop’s talent. He was after all playing his home games on Stourbridge Common, in the depths of Cambridgeshire League Division Three, when he came to their notice.
Nigel Browne’s research into Barnwell families of the early 20th century – part of a Coconuts team’s scrutiny of the everyday lives of people in east Cambridge during World War I – shows that our George Alsop was probably born in 1902 and was living with his parents at 481 Newmarket Road in 1911.
It’s possible that his dad sold his East Road wheelwright’s business to Donald Mackay, whose family still runs the engineering and hardware emporium. It’s also possible that his mum was one of the Ivett family who helped to found the Ivett & Reed stonemasonry company on Newmarket Road.
We are going to find out about other aspects of Alsop’s life. One thing we do know is that he was some player.
The late Andrew Bennett’s book Newmarket Road Roughs (available for purchase through the CFU online store) reveals that he marshalled the Abbey United defence in 1921/22, the club’s first season of competitive football. Then he was off to Chelsea.
You’ll search in vain for internet mentions of George Alsop in a Chelsea FC connection. We’re making enquiries of the club historian, but it seems that, having made the enormous leap from the Cambs League to Football League Division One, Alsop got no further than Blues’ reserves.
Restored to the Abbey team as centre half and captain by 1924, he made an immediate impact in the season’s opening Cambs League Division One match at St Ives, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win.
Two weeks later, after a 6-2 defeat of Cottenham in which he again scored twice, the Cambridge Daily News raved: ‘He was originally a forward, and it was in that capacity that he was signed by Chelsea about two years ago. He was then a good shot, but he has not only benefited by his sojourn with the professionals in that direction, but in all-round football ability.’
Alsop was prominent in Abbey’s progress over the next few seasons; he’s pictured below in the middle of the front row of the all-conquering 1924/25 team.
But by the early 30s his influence was declining and, having appeared 160 times and scored 62 goals, he played his last Wasps game in 1932.
We have much to discover about this fascinating personality, and perhaps you can help. If you have any information about George Alsop or his family, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘What! The oldest League club in the world against a home side boasting hot-shot £300,000 property Alan Biley, in whom Spurs are trying vainly to suppress an interest?’ It was a spectatorial must, said Davies.
‘Cambridge United is still a small club in resources and outlook, and on a day like Saturday it seems to get smaller. A Fenland wind, rotten with damped-off celery stalks, came bowling straight down the ground from the Allotments End, where there is no stand – just a shallow open terrace, caged off for visiting supporters (on this occasion no more than a couple of hundred or so).
‘Every so often, an insulting spit of rain put a fine wet edge on one’s discomfort. “The club shop is open,” barked the tannoy, “for the sale of mugs, rattles, scarves, badges … “ “… And players,” remarked a police sergeant authoritatively.’
Biley had failed a fitness test behind the main stand, Davies learned, and Tom Finney and Derrick Christie were going to play up front. As it turned out, they were joined for a time in attack by Mick Leach.
He continued: ‘It proved, actually, to be a game rich in dwindling veterans. Cambridge had the ex-Norwich defender Dave Stringer, who looks less mothballed than most, and the far from wieldy Bill Garner as substitute, while Notts County trotted out the most aptly named of all centre backs, Jeff Blockley, and relied heavily in midfield on Arthur Mann, ex-Manchester City, and on one of the most widely deplored of the World Cup Scots, Don Masson.’
Davies remembered being astonished by Masson’s distribution when he was at QPR, ‘when for a brief time that unfulfilled team seemed almost potty with talent. Here he was player-coach, and possibly too much the latter; but on such a kick-and-rush day, anyone hitting the ball with less than full power tended to look fussy.
'It was plain almost at once that Cambridge was a side used to getting good results from traditional crosses curled away from the keeper but that nobody this time was going to get much joy from these.
‘Someone in midfield was heartless enough to knock the stuffing out of Cambridge’s tiny Steve Spriggs, the only player in any Division, I believe, over whom Brian Flynn of Leeds towers majestically. It had been a hasty, raw, red-eared half, not much appreciated by 5,157 shivering souls.
“‘Tell you wot,’ volunteered one bloodshot observer of the play, ‘I wish I had some o’ this to put on moi garden.’” But even though the pop-song chosen to enliven half-time was Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army (refrain: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here too-day …”), there was as yet no real sign that this was going to be a really classic misery day for home supporters.
‘It all started about five minutes after the interval, when a header by Finney beat the keeper and was handled by a back on its way, so it seemed, over the line. The referee first signalled a goal, then consulted a linesman, then commuted the sentence to a penalty; and we all watched, not very thunderstruck as Finney muffed, scuffed, bumbled and trundled the kick vaguely towards the left-hand post.
‘Goalkeeper McManus could not have flopped on it more gratefully if he’d been his namesake Mick, applying the deciding shoulder-press to the Wild Man of Borneo.’
The misery continued, wrote Davies, with Christie being stretchered off and Stringer being booked ‘for the most innocuous trip since the Owl and the Pussycat went to sea.'
Ninety minutes passed without a goal. But in injury time, a wind-assisted clearance from McManus put Mann through and he ‘torpedoed’ Malcolm Webster with ease.
United had been unlucky on the day, Davies reported, and had had ill fortune all season, injury to newly signed striker Gordon Sweetzer being a typical misfortune.
As they pass the cemetery he’s streets ahead of Ellis, who looks beaten. Warren … Warren … Warren all the way. He flies through the finishing line at Abbey Street … and look at his time: he’s smashed the course record by two minutes!
The Boxing Day costers’ barrow ‘marathon’ of 1913 was dominated by Ben Warren from gun to tape, and his one hour, 26 minutes was indeed a record for the annual event.
It was a remarkable performance in heavy going – Newmarket Road was not the free-flowing highway we know today – and he picked up £2 5s 0d for his efforts.
Along the 12-mile route the 14 competitors pushed their costermongers’ barrows past builder William Sindall’s joinery works. If the race had been run in 1932, the contenders might have encountered Abbey United supporters on their way to prepare their pitch behind the works for the following day’s friendly against Bottisham.
The 1913 race attracted a large crowd – it was by then established as one of Cambridge’s festive season highlights, having started around 1890 – and volunteer collectors gathered a goodly sum for Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
Another volunteer, the Newmarket Road shoemaker Thomas Thickpenny Cash, acted as timekeeper. His father Isaac Thickpenny Cash was active in the organisation of the race, and several other Cashes were involved.
Coconuts is very interested in the Cash families of early 20th century Barnwell. In fact, a small group of researchers has been delving into the archives in search of two family members who played for Abbey United in 1913, and may have been among the crowd cheering the barrow racers on.
The work was part of a research project run in partnership with Wolfson College and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. The aim was to throw some light on the everyday lives of working-class east Cambridge during World War I, and knowing what happened to the lads who played for the pre-Great War Abbey was part of that.
We know that two young men called Cash, one with the initial H, turned out for the club in a 3-2 defeat to Watts & Sons on Midsummer Common on 29 November 1913. It seems likely that 16-year-old Harry Cash was the ‘H’ in question; in 1911 he was living at 147 Newmarket Road with aunt and uncle Catherine and William Bruce.
Young Harry was killed in France in 1917, while fighting with the Cambridgeshire Regiment, but his older brother William, who was also living with the Bruces in 1911, survived the war.
Were these Cash brothers Abbey United pioneers? We need to know, and if you have any information that could help, please get in touch at email@example.com.
Meanwhile, the outcomes of the Coconuts research are nearing fulfilment: a booklet will be published in the coming months, and there will also be a display at the Museum of Cambridge.
Before I go, I should tell you who finished third in that 1913 costers’ race: a certain J Doggett.
Whatever their size, the Hancocks feet possessed astounding qualities, not least the ability to kick a football very hard. Sheila was sure she'd heard that one of her uncle's shots had broken the net, and Moore was in no doubt about his signing's shooting power.
'He was a little, round fellow,' he would recall in later years, 'about five foot nothing in height, going on 12 stone and with the tiniest feet I've ever seen … but could he hit a ball! Anything 35 to 40 yards out from a set piece would scream into the net.’
It’s said that, while most footballers would use two pairs of boots over the course of a season, Hancocks hit the ball so hard that he would get through five pairs.
It was the 'round' part of Moore's description that was worrying United fans in 1960, but it had not always been a cause for concern.
Hancocks was just 15 when he first appeared for Oakengates Town in the Birmingham League. Walsall, then playing in the Football League's Third Division South, signed him up in 1938 and he played a full season at Fellows Park before World War II intervened.
Still only 20, he joined up in 1940 and found his niche as a physical training instructor while turning out in representative games for the army and guesting for Wrexham and Shrewsbury.
The war carved a large chunk out of Hancocks's football career, but Wolves thought highly enough of him to fork out £4,000 for his signature in the summer of 1946.
He had joined one of English football's fastest up-and-coming clubs and, over the next 11 years, achieved stardom at Molineux, helping them to an FA Cup win in 1949, their first Football League title in 1954 and pioneer status with a series of floodlit friendlies against international opposition.
No wonder he was a favourite in the Black Country: his 378 games in the old gold yielded no fewer than 168 goals, no mean achievement for a wide player. The fourth highest goalscorer in the club’s history, he was the leading marksman for two consecutive seasons in the mid-50s.
He first played for England against Switzerland in 1948, scoring twice, but, as we’ve seen, his appearances were limited by the prodigious performances of Matthews and Finney. Niece Sheila Del-Manso believes other factors – a hatred of travel and his mother’s housekeeping eccentricities – also limited his impact on the big stage.
‘He could not travel,’ she explained to the Shropshire Star’s Toby Neal. ‘This held him back terribly. On the bus he would be sick.’
‘Stan Cullis, the [Wolves] manager, wanted to come. My mum got the parlour sorted out and beautiful. After they had gone, granny whipped all the carpets out and put them under the bed.’
‘My grandmother was very clean but such a funny lady. You must never put anything on the floor on show. You must hide it. That broke Johnny's heart. He could never bring anybody home.’
Was Cullis so offended that he cut Hancocks’s Wolves career short? Probably not, but we do know that, after the gaffer signed West Ham forward Harry Hooper in 1956, the winger’s days were numbered. After seeing out a season in the reserves, he left to take up the role of player-manager at Wellington Town.
He had resigned that post and spent five weeks neither playing nor training when he agreed to ply his trade in Cambridge. It’s possible those weeks of inactivity exacted a drastic toll on his physique.
Hancocks made his U’s bow on 13 January 1960, at home to Norwich CEYMS in an East Anglian Cup first round tie, and won the game with a trademark blaster from distance in the 50th minute. The CDN was impressed by the goal, the new man’s ‘keen footballing brain’ and his ability to split defences with precise passes.
The following Saturday, he scored from the penalty spot in the course of a 3-1 Southern League Division One win at home to Sittingbourne.
By now, a few Abbey regulars were passing jocular remarks about Hancocks’s generous girth and unimpressive fitness level, but a CDN journalist, writing the day before a trip to Guildford City, reported: ‘… Alan Moore assures me that he is at present only three pounds overweight as compared with his Wolverhampton days.’
That visit to Guildford ended in a 4-1 defeat, and Moore must have been thinking about eating his words. The Surrey club’s supporters at Joseph's Road were royally entertained (United fans and management less so) when Hancocks, having failed to get to his feet following a tumble, had to roll over on to all fours in order to rise to the vertical.
When Sudbury Town visited the Abbey in the second round of the East Anglian Cup, Hancocks was in prime form, whacking home two free kicks and a penalty as the U’s won 6-1. But he was dropped when the team travelled to Trowbridge on February 13, and Barnwell tongues were wagging again.
Moore told the CDN that the star signing would address his problems by moving into lodgings in Cambridge and making strenuous efforts to get match-fit. But an announcement on 3 March 1960 made it clear that Hancocks was no longer a Cambridge United employee.
In seven weeks at the club, he had played six times and scored five goals.
Few supporters fell for the official line: that the player had been unable to shake off the effects of an ankle injury and felt it was in everyone’s interests if his contract was cancelled.
Moore was able to reveal later that his decision to end Hancocks’s association with the club had had its roots in the January incident that had amused so many at Guildford. Faced with a player who was loath to lose a fairly lucrative wage, however, he had had to think hard about how to achieve the desired outcome.
‘Suddenly it came to me,’ said Moore. ‘I rang Hancocks in Wolverhampton where he lived, and told him that he would have to come to training twice a week. He didn’t fancy having to travel to Cambridge an extra two times a week and he hadn’t trained for years and wasn’t intending to.
‘I told him that he was suspended for two weeks without pay, unless he agreed to train.’
Hancocks wasn’t a happy bunny but realised he might go without pay for the rest of the season unless he agreed to terminate his contract. Reluctantly, that’s what he did.
He wasn’t quite finished with football, playing the following season for Oswestry Town and GKN Sankey in the Cheshire County League. He was 42 when he called it a day in 1961, seeing out his working life at the Maddock iron foundry in his home town and retiring in 1979.
Still a Molineux legend and a fondly remembered bit-part player at Newmarket Road, he died at Oakengates in 1994.
It was time to start forging that second career, and time for us to thank our lucky stars that we had the chance to admire the skills and commitment that made Steve an Abbey legend.
I give it a tick for its homage to the Cambridge coat of arms (the bridge castellations), but the rest of it … where’s the club’s motto, even? It’s a toilet seat if ever there was one.
Time for a new badge. I’m not naïve enough in this minimalist age (see Arsenal, Spurs, Fulham, Juventus, Swansea, Cheltenham) to think we could see the return of the old one, although Manchester City’s latest creation shows I can carry on dreaming.
Look at Swindon’s and Barnsley’s return to their badge roots. And Brentford – the bee has returned in its full glory; what a sting that was.
Could we not use, though, some of the features of the old badge: the Abbey setting, the ball and the United In Endeavour scroll, and introduce those into a modern design? With a bit more black and amber colouring, maybe?
Check out the new ‘old’ flag in the Abbey Arms. I wonder how many people know the history behind it. And there are plenty of nods to the past in the CFU caravan: embroidered patches, car stickers, mugs, coasters, caps, beanie hats, they’re all there.
Meanwhile, the keeper of the castle prison, just up the hill, was lining his pockets by pulling planks out of the bridge and extorting ferry fees from travellers wanting to cross the Cam. For centuries, other townsfolk helped themselves to building materials in similar fashion.
The bridge was rebuilt in 1483, and by 1494 a house had been built on it. In the 16th century, women said to have too much to say for themselves – judged 'scolds' by the town's elite, all of whom were men – were plunged into the filthy river on a 'ducking stool' that hung from the centre of the bridge.
At last, in 1754, along came James Essex, builder and architect of this parish, to design and erect the stone bridge that preceded today's iron construction, at the enormous cost of £1,609.
One last thing: Essex was married to Elizabeth Thurlbourne, daughter of a Cambridge bookseller. Is it stretching credulity to wonder if she was an ancestor of Ron Thulbourn, licensee of the Rose & Crown in Teversham and a director of Cambridge United Football Club between 1950 and 1960?
This blog was corrected and updated on 6 July 2018.
United fans approved when the gentlemanly Roy’s first home game saw their lads beat Orient 2-0, with goals from Jamie Barnwell and Michael Kyd.
Making his football philosophy plain by posting ‘The worst crime in football is to give the ball to the opposition’ in the dressing room, he set about signing the likes of Ian Ashbee, David Preece and Abbey legend John Taylor, and bringing out Paul Wanless’s qualities, but United dropped out of promotion contention in his first season. The U’s were, Roy Mac opined, ‘a club in limbo’.
As financial imperatives forced the sales of Danny Granville, Jody Craddock and Micah Hyde, he was battling the bank as much as the opposition. But he managed his slim resources well and, after a disappointing 16th place in 1997/98, brought glory back to Newmarket Road the following season.
With emerging talent in the widely differing forms of Trevor Benjamin and Tom Youngs and brought-in strength in the likes of Alex Russell and Martin Butler, Roy took the U’s on an exhilarating League Cup run that ended in penalties at Nottingham Forest, and then promotion to the third tier as runners-up.
‘Now the aim is to continue to make progress, while always remembering that the bottom line is the survival of the football club,’ Roy told the press.
Sadly, progress proved beyond the club’s reach and United finished 19th in 2000. To make matters worse, there were simmering tensions between boss and board, and they boiled over when chairman Reg Smart sold Benjamin to Leicester while Roy was on holiday.
‘Feeling betrayed, I told [the board] exactly what I thought of all of them to a man – not the wisest thing to do,’ he observes in his autobiography.
The unrest seemed to spread to the dressing room, and on 27 February 2001 Roy and United parted company. He left praising the fans but ruing the directors’ attitude.
‘There was a lot of mistrust between myself and the board,’ he recalled later. ‘That’s the way football is and sometimes if you look back, we’d both regret it.
‘I had four and a quarter years there and I loved them because it’s a wonderful part of the world and I worked with some great people.’ We think you’re great too, Roy.
Happy Harry's blog
I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.