Cambridge United is celebrating 50 years since the club was elected to the Football League, in May 1970. Sadly this does not equate to a celebration of 50 years of League football in the city (the club spent nine seasons in the National League following a messy relegation in 2005) but, nevertheless, the club has, I think, done the 31 Football League chairmen who voted for Cambridge United proud.
The vagaries of election to the Football League that preceded automatic promotion are well documented and Cambridge’s experience was no different. The successful vote was at the eighth time of asking for the U’s.
In 1970 United’s main rival in wooing the Football League were Wigan Athletic. As if to test their respective merits, the two clubs (then Northern League runners-up and reigning Southern League champions) met home and away pre-season 1969-70, each winning 2-0 at the other’s ground. United’s trump card, however, was its financial stability, the bedrock of which was a well oiled fund raising lottery. It was the envy of many League clubs - by 1969 the lottery was selling 45,000 tickets a week right across the east of England, generating £1,000 a week for the football club. United invited the chairmen of northern Football League clubs playing at Ipswich and Norwich to stop by and inspect the Abbey Stadium’s facilities, and many did.
As the 1969-70 season drew to a close United, managed by ex-Manchester City defender Bill Leivers, homed in on a second successive Southern League championship title, but fixture congestion in the final week of the season threatened to scupper their ambitions. United faced three games in three days (well, two and half games, to be honest). They had to win their final two Southern League fixtures, against Worcester City on the Thursday and Margate on the Saturday, to pip Yeovil Town. In between, however, on the Friday night there was the no small matter a friendly against FA Cup winners Chelsea, arranged as part of the deal that took United striker Ian Hutchinson to Stamford Bridge. United duly beat Worcester 3-0, then a record Abbey Stadium crowd of 14,000 turned out to see a pretty much full strength Chelsea take on the U’s. After Chelsea had paraded the FA Cup the United first team played the first half of the friendly, but then gave way to Chelsea reserves in order to be in half decent shape for the title decider a matter of hours later. United dusted themselves down to beat Margate 2-0 and take the Southern League championship; the perfect scene-setter for the upcoming Football League vote.
During their time in the Football League a good number of United’s youngsters have gone on to light up the higher echelons of the League. Seven of the small squad that helped Cambridge United to unlikely success under John Beck went on to play in the Premier League at other clubs: Dion Dublin, Alan Kimble, Liam Daish, Phil Chapple, Lee Philpott, Gary Rowett and Steve Claridge. Clearly there were quality players, not just controversial tactics, at Cambridge in those days. Likewise over the years ex-United youngsters Andy Sinton, Keith Branagan, Peter Butler, Trevor Benjamin, John Filan, Micah Hyde, Ian Ashbee, Danny Granville (a UEFA Cup Winners Cup winner with Chelsea), Jody Craddock, Jon Sheffield, Dave Kitson, and John Ruddy have all also played in the Premier League. Andy Sinton and Dion Dublin went on to win full England caps.
Of the 41 seasons Cambridge United have (at the time of writing) spent in the Football League since their election, eight of those (20%) were in the second tier, nine (22%) in the third tier and 24 (58%) in the fourth. Not bad, and better than a fair number of the League clubs that voted at the AGM in 1970.
Arriving at the AGM, held at London’s Café Royal, the Football League chairmen were greeted by a PR machine turned up to 11, talking the form of three young lasses in amber mini-skirts waving placards “Please vote for Cambridge United”! United were duly elected, at the expense of Bradford Park Avenue (who had finished in last place in Division Four in three successive seasons). Some BPA fans, apparently, still hold a grudge against United for this act of treachery. I’m at a loss to understand why – Wigan, in fact, received more votes than BPA that day.
So, have Cambridge United been worthwhile members of the Football League since that vote? Well, United were promoted to Division Three in 1972-73, albeit for just a single season. Under Ron Atkinson they were promoted as fourth division Champions in 1976-77, and then again the following season to reach the Second Division in only their eighth season of League football. Would-be Rod Stewart, Alan Biley, and Northern Ireland international Tom Finney scored the goals while Steve Fallon and Steve Spriggs were the engine room of that odds-busting team. After BFR moved to WBA John Docherty assumed command and, remarkably, United managed to stay put in the second tier for six seasons.
The League rules were changed ahead of the 1983-84 season to allow clubs playing at home to keep all gate revenue – previously the away club took 30%. This, the first sign of the greed of the football elite that we now, sadly, take for granted, had a devastating effect on United and they plunged back to the fourth division in successive seasons, notching up a (then) League record of 31 consecutive winless games along the way. The club even had to apply for re-election in 1986.
They were not down for long, though. Ex-player Chris Turner was appointed manager and started to recruit the players that John Beck would lead to back-to-back promotions and a return to the Second Division in 1990-91 and to two successive FA Cup quarter finals. Beck’s tactics, to get the ball forward and wide as quickly as possible, were as effective as they were unpopular (even with some U’s fans) but his game plan was based on careful statistical analysis - pretty much unheard of at the time but now the norm. Beck’s refusal to adapt his playing style eventually allowed opponents to work United out, however, and the charge towards the inaugural Premier League foundered at Filbert Street in a 5-0 play-off semi-final defeat to Leicester City.
These heights of success have eluded Cambridge United ever since. Three seasons in the third tier under Roy McFarland at the end of the millennium have been the best United could manage to date. I should mention that the U’s were relegated in 1994-95 despite finishing FIFTH from bottom of the third tier thanks to some unfortunately timed League re-structuring.
The biggest disappointment since election, I think it’s fair to say, has been the support of the people of Cambridge for the club. The average attendance at the Abbey has, despite all that success, only once topped 7,000 (in 1991-92). Bill Leivers said when he arrived as manager in 1967 that it would take ten years to turn Cambridge into a football town, but he later corrected that, saying it would probably take a hundred. Roger that.
Cambridge United FC now has a new focus – its community – and this is starting to reap rewards. Wandering around the city you now see as many kids wearing U’s shirts as you do Spurs, Arsenal or Barcelona. The club’s Community Trust came to the fore wonderfully during the pandemic, offering support, guidance and direct help to the local people and groups that needed it. In an article in The Daily Telegraph Jeremy Wilson suggested that Cambridge United had become the first mental health friendly football club. Mental health is now a key component at every level of the club. All coaches are training in mental health awareness, players visit schools to talk about resilience and mental strength and the Abbey Stadium acts as a drop-in centre for local people who want to talk about mental health issues.
The finances of Cambridge United and most other small clubs will be severely tested over the coming months (and years) as football comes to terms with the impact of the pandemic. The notion of putting the local community at the heart of Cambridge United FC could not, therefore, have been better timed and will hopefully help see the club continue to survive, and occasionally thrive, in the Football League.
Nigel Pearce (August 2020)