These articles previously appeared in the Cambridge Independent.
Abbey United and Cambridge Town supporters could always find plenty to disagree about even before the two clubs changed their names to Cambridge United and Cambridge City respectively in 1951. But the gloves came off in the 1960s.
And if there was one topic that was guaranteed to enliven public bar discussions from the Dog & Pheasant (Chesterton) to the Dog & Pheasant (Newmarket Road), it was the oft-mooted amalgamation of the two clubs.
Cambridge had already been divided for centuries by the gulf between town and gown before football gave rise to a new rift among its citizens. The rivalry’s fuse was lit in the 1950s and, after United and City joined the Southern League in 1958, it burned fiercely.
Although some U’s supporters ventured along to Milton Road when their team were playing away, and a few City fans sometimes crossed the Cam to watch United, there really was no middle ground. You bled either amber and black or white and black.
Yet, as the late Andrew Bennett showed in Risen from the Dust, the second volume of his Celery & Coconuts history of Abbey/Cambridge United, published in 2017, there were those who were convinced the city could only support one professional football club – especially if it wanted to be represented in the Football League.
The arguments for and against a United-City merger raged throughout the 60s and beyond, and they raged on several fronts: what would a new club be called? What colours should its players wear? Should it be based at Milton Road, at the Abbey Stadium or somewhere else? Whom would it benefit? What kind of crowds would support it? Would amalgamation prove popular with the League clubs that met every year to vote on who should be admitted to the 92?
The biggest controversy, of course, centred on the nub of the matter: should United and City get together at all?
It’s fair to say that, on the whole, more City supporters than United fans tended to be in favour of amalgamation. But Andrew quotes a neutral – was there really such a thing? – to set the context for the debate as early as the mid-1950s. 'Why cannot these two get together in an all-out effort to bring the class of football this city deserves instead of numerous fans having either to go to Luton or London or stop in Cambridge and put up with very mediocre football?’ he asked.
A few years later, a U’s fan hit back with the claim that amalgamation was being promoted by those who wanted to see United out of the way.
‘City took the step to professionalism some 20 years too late and then rather reluctantly, and now, it seems, to make up lost ground it is being suggested that United give up everything they have fought for, to help them jump the queue for League football,’ he said.
Another wondered what was so important about attaining Football League status. ‘The standard of Southern League football has improved considerably over the past two years, whereas League football in the lower leagues is deteriorating,’ he maintained.
Risen from the Dust examines the amalgamation question in detail. Costing £19.99 (CFU members get a £1 discount), it can be ordered from the CFU store or at the CFU caravan on match days.
* Volume three of Celery & Coconuts will be published in the autumn.
While City and United fans readily discussed the merits and drawbacks of amalgamation, those in charge of the two clubs were seldom drawn into public debate.
Andrew Bennett’s Risen from the Dust reveals that, while few people will ever know what was really said about the matter in the Milton Road and Abbey Stadium boardrooms, the bosses did occasionally lift their heads above the parapet.
In early 1962, as the Football League was laying out a proposal that would see the competition expanded to five divisions of 20 clubs each, rumours of a merger were rife in the city.
At first, neither club was willing to comment. United football director Geoff Proctor would only say ‘there is nothing to say’, and City chairman Harold Ridgeon declined to confirm or deny the rumours.
But Proctor warned against ‘scampering into a merger’, adding: ‘I’m not sure this would be to the ultimate good of football in Cambridge …’
A subsequent poll of the city’s football-supporting public found that nearly two-thirds favoured amalgamation, with more ‘ayes’ coming from north of the river than from the south and east.
Proctor responded by insisting his efforts were directed at establishing Newmarket Road as the centre of Cantabrigian football, while Ridgeon stated: ‘I still say if you want the best in football in Cambridge, there is still only one answer.’
The debate rumbled on … and on.