100 Years of Coconuts is delighted to be contributing a regular column to the Cambridge Independent. The first column appeared in the newspaper's 12-18 April 2017 issue.
Modern sports science stresses the importance of post-performance rest and recovery – and they will both be in fairly short supply for Cambridge United players over the coming Easter weekend. The U’s face a Good Friday trek to Grimsby, before returning to Newmarket Road for the Easter Monday fixture against Exeter.
Players of earlier times might have looked on the bus journey home from Humberside as their rest-and-recovery period, knowing they would have to pull on their boots again the following day. The Easter weekend, crammed to bursting with crucial games, often went a long way towards deciding which clubs would be champs and which would be chumps.
That was certainly true of Easter 1970, when United were aiming to clinch their second successive Southern League title and strengthen their case for election to the Football League. In the space of four days they were to face Hereford United at the Abbey Stadium and Chelmsford City home and away.
Hereford arrived at the Abbey on Saturday, 28 March 1970 with legendary player-boss John Charles in defence, but United showed championship mettle in smashing them 4-0 with striker Bill Cassidy, at his impish best, scoring twice. The result saw the U’s climb the table to fourth, five points behind pacesetters Yeovil Town but with five games in hand.
The Chelmsford double-header was scheduled for Easter Monday and the following day. U’s manager Bill Leivers had experimented with a sweeper system in away games, with Robin Hardy in the key position, and at New Writtle Street the tactic proved its worth.
With the hosts playing the second half with ten men – Glen Andrews had suffered a broken leg after sub Tony Butcher had been used – ex-Reading goal machine George Harris notched the game’s only score on the hour. It was his fourth strike in three games and he was on his way to an incredible season’s tally of 35, despite only signing for United in October.
On the Tuesday United beat the Clarets at the Abbey to make it a six-point Easter. The goals in the 2-0 win were claimed by Malcolm Lindsay, but the chief architect was flying right winger Peter Leggett who, at his teasing, tormenting best, ripped his former teammates’ defence apart. The first U’s goal came when he nutmegged his full back by the corner flag, sped along the byline and pulled the ball back for Harris to strike the bar; Lindsay dived to net the rebound with a header. Leivers insisted after the game that he couldn’t work out why Leggett wasn’t playing in the First Division.
United were now second in the league, three points behind Yeovil but with nine games left to play, against the Glovers’ five. 'My team are playing wonderfully well and on our Easter showing it will take a very good side to beat us,’ said Leivers. ‘Make no mistake, Cambridge United and Bill Leivers are on the way up.’
He was spot on. That Easter marathon gave the U’s the impetus they needed to overhaul Yeovil and clinch the title with a 2-0 victory over Margate on the final day. Now it was up to League clubs to decide if United’s achievements merited a place among the 92.
Chelmsford City’s championship-winning side of 1967/68 contained many good players, but four of them – striking double act Tony Butcher and Bill Cassidy, centre half Terry Eades and scintillating winger Peter Leggett – were outstanding. So, in one of the most astute managerial moves in United’s history, Leivers persuaded them to fight for the amber and black cause.
The U’s looked like a good side before the arrival of the Chelmsford Four. After it, they had the look of title winners.
First Claret to join the Leivers revolution, in October 1968, was Scottish hitman Cassidy who, having notched 29 goals in Chelmsford’s league-winning season, had spent the summer in the States with the Detroit Cougars. Driving to his Essex home, Leivers persuaded King Cass to jump in his car and follow him back to Cambridge.
Next to arrive, just two days later, was Butcher, Chelmsford’s record goalscorer, for a fee of less than £500. ‘This should solve our failure to score goals,’ observed Leivers.
The others were a little slower to follow. Leggett, hailed as the non-League George Best, signed in March 1969 for an undisclosed fee and a couple of days later Eades followed him to Newmarket Road, the U’s handing over a cheque for £2,500 in return.
‘This finishes my shopping at Chelmsford,’ said Leivers. His spree had laid the foundations for the next stage in United’s rapid evolution, from Cambridgeshire League minnows in the 1940s to Football League members in 1970.