That's not strictly true … not every single one of Cambridge United Former Players' Association's 133 members was in the Supporters' Club last night, but the occasion was all about quality, not quantity.
And what quality! First-time attendee Alan Biley was in sparkling form, recalling some of the many goals he cracked in at the nearby Corona End. A good number of them were supplied by midfield craftsman Graham 'Willie' Watson. 'He's the man who made me, as he never tires of telling me!' cried Alan gleefully as Willie embarked on another scandalous reminiscence.
It was also good to see CUFPA get-together debutant Brian Grant, stalwart left back of the Bill Leivers era. 'I was Brian Clough's first ever signing,' he recalled of his Hartlepool days. He delighted in swapping memories with the likes of CUFPA chairman Rodney Slack, 1950s goalkeeper Derek Haylock and Tony Willson of roughly the same era.
For Alan and Brian, the evening presented a first chance to sign the visitors' book at The Story of the U's, Coconuts' mini-museum recounting the history of Abbey/Cambridge United. The exhibits provoked another round of reminiscing and storytelling, as they're designed to do.
Coconuts' thanks and respect go to the children of Year 5 at Abbey Meadows Community Primary School, just round the corner from the Abbey Stadium, with whom we've just completed a four-week project called You & the U's.
Week one saw the children visiting the Abbey and The Story of the U's, Coconuts' mini-museum in the Supporters' Club. The following week, an elite group of Coconutters visited the school with handling boxes full of photographs, old bits of football kit, newspapers and so on, provoking lively discussions.
In week three we took Year 5 on a walking tour of the the east Barnwell area, visiting places with connections to the U's: players' houses, Coldhams Common, pubs, the site of the World War I military hospital, Geoffrey Proctor's post office and so on. And in the final week we had a look at what the children had produced as a result of the project: artworks, poems, songs, raps, reports, drawings, computer presentations, even a Lego-built main stand. We hope you can get a flavour of their ingenuity, imagination and creativity in the slideshows here – amazing stuff.
This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme on 5 March 2016.
Look into the eyes of the striking, wavy-haired chap gazing fixedly at the camera in many photographs of Cambridge United from the early- to mid-1950s. Those eyes have seen a lot, you might muse.
Spot on. The eyes are those of a man who spent many wartime hours in the unenvied position of rear gunner in Bomber Command aircraft as they flew night after night to their targets in Germany. Many Tail-End Charlies never recovered from the appalling stress of sitting terrified in their cramped, isolated, vulnerable Perspex bubbles.
Among that number you can count Bill Whittaker: he turned grey prematurely, appeared older than he really was and sweated profusely. A 60-a-day smoker, he was only 54 when he died of lung cancer in 1977.
Yet Whittaker showed immense strength when he took on the role of United’s first full-time professional manager, combined it with playing and set about laying the groundwork for the club’s election to the Football League in 1970. He moulded the team in his own image and, when he quit the U’s in mysterious circumstances, left behind a club very different from the one he had joined.
Charlton-born Whittaker signed for his local club in 1938. He debuted in 1946, helped the Addicks win the FA Cup the following year, was transferred to Huddersfield in 1948 and returned south, to Crystal Palace, two years later.
In 1951, ambitious Cambridge United had just switched from the United Counties League to the stronger Eastern Counties League. Before 28-year-old player-manager Whittaker arrived, a player-coach trained the players and a committee chose the team. Whittaker insisted on taking on a number of professionals at £2 a week, as well as on a purist passing approach that he called ‘football all the time’. ‘I don’t mind if we lose 20-0 so long as we play the game properly,’ he explained.
He encouraged the development of young players and instilled a disciplined attitude in the club: his rugged tackling in training did not always endear him to his players.
On the field he was a commanding presence, cajoling and inspiring his teammates to believe in themselves. Allied to tough, accurate tackling he offered excellent passing and reliable finishing.
United finished fourth in Whittaker’s first two seasons, and in 1953/54 reached the second round proper of the FA Cup for the first time after beating Newport County after a first round replay.
In March 1955, Whittaker introduced an audacious tactic in a 4-2 win over March Town, knocking a penalty sideways for Peter Dobson to run on to and crash into the net. It was his last league game in charge.
Whittaker’s resignation was announced on March 22, but his explanation was less than revealing: ‘There is nothing between me and the club … it is just one of those things. I intend to concentrate on playing football and not as a player-manager – because, after all, I am only 31.’ The statement was rendered puzzling by his next appointment: the player-managership of Newmarket Town.
The truth behind the resignation may never be known, although perhaps it was significant that the board had refused to allow him to enhance his income with an outside job.
Whittaker soon moved back to his roots in Blackheath and, enigmatic to the last, worked as a porter in Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market.
While the United players were toiling in the Cypriot sun in 1973, the supporters back home were celebrating promotion to Division Three and paying tribute to their player of the year: Brian Greenhalgh.
The 26-year-old striker had finished top of United’s 1972/73 goalscoring charts, notching 18 times in 47 games, but his tally of 19 the previous season had already established him as an Abbey favourite. The fans were certainly glad he had overcome his initial misgivings about dropping from the First Division to the Fourth when Bill Leivers came calling in August 1971.
Greenhalgh made his reputation with Preston North End and Aston Villa, but the goals dried up when he moved to Leicester and then, in 1969, to Huddersfield. Leivers was certain of his potential, but there were some grumbles on the terraces when he failed to score in his first six U’s games.
The moaners were silenced when his first goal came at Bury in September. Greenhalgh then married Annette the following Monday and, five days later, netted four times in a 6-0 drubbing of Darlington.
He drew a blank in his first eight games in 1972/73, but his class was plain to see and the goals soon began to flow again. The winner in a 1-0 win at Workington was a Greenhalgh classic: he allowed a Vic Akers cross to run through his legs at the near post, then flicked it in off a dumbfounded defender.
Eleven more goals followed in 1973/74, but his happy relationship with United fans came to an end in February when Leivers, declaring ‘every player has his price’, sold him to Bournemouth for £40,000.
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