An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Cheltenham Town on Saturday, 25 August 2018.
In February of this year, 100 Years of Coconuts lost its greatest asset: a one-man information storehouse and author extraordinaire in the person of Andrew Bennett.
It was a tragically heavy blow for Andrew’s family and for his legions of friends and admirers. And for a while, Coconuts people wondered how they could carry on researching and communicating the story of our club.
Moves are afoot to ensure his name and achievements endure: stand by for the unveiling of a memorial plaque in the Habbin, for news of the Andrew Bennett Award and for the autumn publication of the third volume of his peerless Celery & Coconuts history of the club.
But how could we hope to carry on Andrew’s work – his tireless ferreting out of information in libraries and archives, his compilation of stats, facts and info in dozens of databases, his cheerful and speedy answering of queries from football fans far and wide – in short, his work as Cambridge United’s club historian?
The short answer is that we couldn’t. But what we can do is have a bash at providing a second-best service – a sort of Andrew Bennett Lite, if you like.
Luckily for us and you, Andrew bequeathed to Coconuts his entire, vast archive of U’s-related stuff.
When I say ‘vast’, I mean ‘flipping ginormous’. If you chopped down all the forests in Scandinavia to provide enough paper, printed everything out and laid the sheets end to end, the result would stretch seven times around the world and then on as far as Godalming.
The size of the task of bringing order to the archive, and coming close to understanding it, is gut-grippingly terrifying. Merely opening a folder at random, to reveal thousands upon thousands of sub-folders and individual files, would be enough to induce panic in the most placid of Zen practitioners.
I was browsing idly the other day, clicking on files here and there, when I came across the photograph on this page.
Although not in the best of nick – Andrew downloaded it from a microfiche reader (always a hit-and-miss procedure) during one of his countless visits to the Cambridgeshire Collection – it does provide a priceless snapshot of a precious moment in the early days of Abbey United. And I hadn’t seen it before.
Can you make out the object in George Alsop’s hands? It’s the Cambridgeshire Challenge Cup, and the Abbey team that Alsop captained had just won it.
The date is 18 April 1925, the venue is Cambridge Town’s Milton Road ground and the day’s events – Abbey’s trouncing of Girton United by six goals to one – are being reported by the long-gone Cambridge Chronicle.
The bearded gent to Alsop’s right is Major Oliver Papworth, who presented the cup, and to his left is Cambs FA secretary Charles Dennant.
The Wasps had lined up: R ‘Percy’ Wilson; Joe Livermore, Bill Walker; Jim Self, Alsop, Bill ‘Pim’ Stearn; Fred Stevens, Frank Luff, Harvey Cornwell, Tom Langford, William ‘Fanny’ Freeman (kids: teams played in the 2-3-5 formation in those days). Cornwell had scored a hat-trick and the other goals had come from Walker, Langford and Freeman.
The Challenge Cup was just one of three trophies claimed by Abbey United that season – and they shared a fourth. Read Andrew's Newmarket Road Roughs for the full detail.
It was revived, as a competition for semi-professional clubs, between 1976 and 1986, and again in 1992, this time involving teams from Division One in England and Italy’s Serie B.
The words ‘dead horse’ and ‘flogging’, or ‘cavallo morto’ and ‘fustigare’, spring to mind.
For the first round, the English clubs competed in eight groups of three; the group winners would go on to play four matches against Italian teams.
United were drawn with Sunderland and Birmingham and, as Euro-frenzy stalked the streets of Fowlmere, prepared to play the former at the Abbey on September 1.
In the end, the match attracted a mere 2,199 punters, but it was memorable for two reasons.
First, supporters were flabbergasted to see U’s players making the kind of runs that were usually strictly forbidden under manager John Beck’s rigid system. Second, they witnessed Lee Philpott scoring with his right foot.
After a 1-1 draw, the players left the field to a standing ovation and Beck revealed that he had bowed to their request that the straitjacket of his method be loosened a little.
Defender Phil Chapple explained to the press: ‘We still got the ball forward quickly, but varied it in the final third. Everybody thought it went well.’
Birmingham then won at Roker Park, so United approached their game at St Andrew’s on September 29 knowing they had to win if they were to progress.
And when they went ahead after 19 seconds – Devon White crossing for Philpott to nod in – they started to look forward to sampling Italian hospitality.
Brum soon equalised but Paul Raynor restored the lead before half-time and White knocked in his first goal in amber after an hour. John Frain pulled one back with a long-ranger, but the U’s looked bound for la dolce vita until two minutes from time.
Enter Mark Sale. The striker rammed home a rebound with his first touch, four minutes after coming on as a sub, to make it 3-3 and end United’s first foray into international competition.
Sale, who had been far from gruntled during a brief spell at the Abbey the previous season, graciously commented: ‘I was glad the goal put Cambridge out, because I didn’t particularly enjoy the five weeks training I did with them.’
What he didn’t mention was that United exited the competition despite not losing. All together now: ‘We’ve never lost in Europe.’
Mention the name of Dave Stringer to any football fan who was around between the 1960s and the 1990s and they’ll say: ‘Oh yeah, he used to play for Norwich.’
It’s true the Great Yarmouth native had a glorious playing career with the Canaries, chalking up 499 senior games, and it’s true he’s also a managerial legend up there, having taken the club to two FA Cup semi-finals and fourth place in the old First Division.
But by now he was picking up more injuries than he had been used to, and when Norwich offered him the job of youth team coach he moved back to Carrow Road.
‘It was a fairy story,’ he recalled of his time at the Abbey. ‘It was great to be a part of it, and I get a lot of satisfaction from looking back at what we achieved.’ And so say all of us.
It was hardly surprising that United's record home attendance of 14,000 – a record that will probably never be beaten – was set that day. Every square inch of the ground was occupied as Chelsea paraded the Cup before kick-off.
Luckily, someone took a cine camera along to record the proceedings for posterity. We're immensely grateful to David Smith for providing the resultant film in video format. Click the button above to relive history.
Details of the events can be found in Risen from the Dust, the second volume of Andrew Bennett's Celery & Coconuts history of our club. Buy your copy at the CFU online shop or from the caravan on a match day.
Suffice it to say that, as the U's had a rather important fixture the following day – the home game against Margate that would bring them their second successive Southern League title – they wanted to take it easy, and a Chelsea reserve side took their place for the second half.
Moments from that Margate match are also preserved in David Smith's wonderful film. A George Harris penalty and a Bill Cassidy clincher effectively took United into the Football League.
Footage of the celebrations and of the Southern League championship shield being borne aloft in a sea of bodies brings it all back … precious memories of an amazing two days in Cambridge United history.
But sometimes canine hero turned to villain. There are disappointingly few reports of match officials being mauled, but no one who has seen the footage will forget the goalkeeper-sheepdog collision during a 1970 Colchester v Brentford game that ended Chic Brodie’s days as a pro.
We have precious little information about the dog’s subsequent life, but I don’t suppose the incident did much for his career, either.
Dogs are by no means the animal kingdom’s only pitch invaders, of course. The Anfield cat is a descendant of the mog that inspired the Kop to adapt its ‘Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!’ chant to ‘A cat! A cat! A cat, a cat, a cat!’ Or so legend has it.
The Parkhead fox family has a long, proud history; squirrels have made their mark on pitches from London to Latin America; eagle owls, chickens and even a marabou stork have disrupted games. A pine marten won fame when it bit a player in Switzerland, but the Millwall giraffe is a figment of my imagination.
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