CAMBRIDGE UNITED VS THE WEATHER
The recent Harrogate fog-fest made me think about the times I have watched Cambridge United over the past 50 odd years in really bad weather. Here are a few of my memories of United playing in the most extreme weather conditions.
One decidedly soggy game that stands out for me was at home to Tranmere in 1990. It had been a very wet Christmas and the pitch was barely playable. At one point the Tranmere keeper tried to roll the ball to a full back. The ball held up in a puddle but rather than clear the danger the full back tried a return pass but the ball held up again, in the same puddle. Colin Baillie stepped in and chipped the keeper right in front of the NRE. The United pitch suffered a lot that year, this was arguably its worst day – or its best if you are Colin Baillie. United won the game 3-1.
Watch the incident here:
The behind-closed-doors game against Newport County in October 2020 at the Abbey came close to be being abandoned following a half time downpour. Not for the first time Ian Darler and his team came to the rescue, clearing the pitch of the worst of the standing water and the game survived. The U’s went on to win 2-1, of course. There was one casualty that afternoon, however. The persistent heavy rain revealed United’s smart one-off 50th anniversary white shirts to be rather transparent when wet!
Players get paid to play in the rain. As fans it’s quite the contrary, we sometimes fork out for the privilege of getting drenched. Two examples spring to mind, both featuring notorious UTs – Uncovered Terraces. Bolton and Tranmere both, very kindly, used to reserve their expansive UTs for away fans. It rained non-stop at Burnden Park in October 1981. The nearest we could find to shelter was under the floodlight pylon. The utter soaking was worth it in the end, though, we won a cracker of a match 4-3, thus ending a run of 486 Division Two away games without a win. Something like that.
It was the same at Prenton Park in August 1992. The first game of the season, would you believe? Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Wet, wet, wet. My missus accompanied me to the Wirral that day, she had the right hump afterwards. She has kept her “waterproof” anorak from the day as a reminder not to believe anything it says on a label. To make matters worse we lost 2-0.
Watch the highlights here (you can see the rain dripping off the roof at one point):
Relentless rain was the reason for one of the few occasions a United game was abandoned, at Barnsley in October 1982. Our Milk Cup tie was halted after an hour due to a waterlogged pitch with the game at 1-1. We lost the re-arranged game 2-1.
It’s January 1980, United are at Chesham for a third round FA Cup tie, and it’s a mud bath. I swear there were only four blades of grass on the entire pitch. United fans were allocated a grass bank behind one of the goals, but before long it was impossible to stand on it. U’s fans spend just as much time slipping and sliding around as the players did that afternoon. I can’t remember whether it was a United or Chesham attempt on goal at our end, but the ball was heading in until it stuck in the mud and the grateful keeper collected it. United won 2-0 and drew Villa in the next round as a reward.
A gale force wind can turn a football match into the proverbial game of two halves. Such was the case when United played at Stockport in March 1987. The wind was reported to have been gusting at 80mph. One end of the ground was even closed as part of the roof was considered dangerous. Playing with the wind United were 2-0 up at half time, but it was not enough. After the break Stockport scored three times to win 3-2. My friend Steve made the trip that evening but, delayed by road closures crossing the Pennines, he only got to Edgely Park at half time. D’oh.
Scunthorpe at the Abbey in October 1989 was similarly impacted by a mighty gale force wind. United played with the wind in the first half, attacking the NRE and scored four before half time. Worryingly Scunthorpe scored an “away” goal, against the wind, to make it 4-1 at half time. That first half advantage proved sufficient, though, as United survived by conceding only two against the wind in the second half, ending up 5-3 winners.
That first half included two of the most remarkable United goals ever seen at the Abbey, both scored from inside their own half - with the help of the gale. Take a bow Gary Clayton and Chris Leadbitter. I remember the latter’s goal very clearly, viewed from the NRE: As Chris launched the ball into the stratosphere, we watched the Scunny keeper on his line peer skywards in sheer terror for what seemed like 10 minutes until the ball finally reappeared and dropped over his head and into the goal.
Watch the wind-assisted action here:
Fog is the worst of all the match-threatening elements for fans, in my opinion. The ref will deem the match on if he can see both goals from the half-way line, but that means most fans in the ground will not stand a chance of witnessing at least half of the proceedings.
This was the case in another FA Cup third round tie at Doncaster in January 1982. We feared the worst travelling on the train up to Yorkshire from London as the mist turned to fog and then, as the Midlands became the North, into a bona fide pea souper! The game was given the go-ahead, to the dismay of the Us fans stood on a steep bank behind one of the goals. We could see nothing beyond the nearest point of the centre circle. Much of the game thus remains a mystery to us, save for the result – an ignominious 2-1 defeat. The programme Doncaster produced for the tie only rubbed salt into wounds, a single typed sheet wrapped around the programme intended for an earlier, postponed game against Walsall. A candidate for the worst 40p I’ve ever spent.
Us fans won’t need reminding of the heavy fog that descended on the Abbey at the recent game against Harrogate (January 2021), and got steadily worse as the game progressed. There were no fans at the Abbey so U’s fans were watching on iFollow or listening to BBC Radio Cambs. Neither Mark Johnson or Doug Shulman had a clue who scored our equalizer! Joe Ironside, chaps. At one point Jeff Stelling on Sky Sports News was convinced the game would not be completed, and the Sky reporter at the game said that one United substitution could have involved Dion Dublin for all he could see. Luckily the fog seemed to lift a little after that goal so the game completed its course, United winning 2-1.
Try to watch the action through the gloom again here:
FROST AND ICE
Anyone who has followed the Us for any reasonable length of time will have surely been frozen to the bone at some point. A frozen pitch was the cause of the only United game I have attended to be abandoned. It was a top-of-the-table fixture versus Blackburn Rovers at the Abbey in December 1991. It was mightily cold when the game kicked off and during the first half from the main stand you could clearly see the pitch become whiter and whiter as the frost took hold. It was not a great surprise that the match was abandoned at half time. There had been no goals.
Much more controversial was United’s FA Cup match at Shrewsbury in January 1979, yet another third round tie. I was on one of six or seven United coaches to leave the Abbey that frosty morning, each of them with an eye on the weather and an ear to the radio as we travelled north – matches were being postponed left, right and centre. As it turned out Shrewsbury v Cambridge was one of only four ties that survived the freezing weather that afternoon and, probably as a result, the game was on Match of the Day. From the word go it was quite clear the game should never have started as the pitch was rock hard, frozen solid. We lost 3-1 on a skating rink not a football pitch. I’ve held a grudge against Shrewsbury ever since.
Most fans will have their own idea as to the coldest football ground in the UK. My candidates are Port Vale and Barnsley. I think my very coldest experience, though, was at Eastville, Bristol Rovers in February 1980. I bought a cup of tea at half time to warm up. I was nudged as I made my way back down the terrace. As the tea spilt, the scalding liquid initially burnt my hand but then, an instant later, I could feel it freezing. A numbing 0-0 draw didn’t help.
Snowy matches are all memorable, who doesn’t love it when the orange ball makes an appearance? As I kid in the early 70s, I made a snow-covered Subbuteo pitch out of an, ahem, “borrowed” white bed sheet. Snowy games are few and far between, sadly, and I can only recall a few watching United.
At Sheffield United in December 1978 the pitch must have had a good inch or two of lying snow. We came back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 only to be denied the win by a very late equaliser. I remember Floyd Streete hitting the bar at our end with a 25-yard thunderbolt. It sent the snow that had settled on the crossbar flying into the air in a perfect arc, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow against the floodlights. The coach trip back down the A1 in a blizzard was very hairy at times, we saw quite a few cars abandoned by the side of the road. The had snow stopped by the time we got to Boro and there was not a hint of snow in Cambridge, so the old boys supping in the Supporters Club couldn’t understand what the fuss was about when we told the tale of a very eventful away game.
The following year we played West Ham at Upton Park on the Friday before Christmas. This was a local game for me as I worked close by, but getting to the game was still a nightmare, caused by heavy snow and problems on the underground. As a result, the attendance was a paltry 11,000. At half time I remember the tannoy played Mike Oldfield’s “In Dulci Jubilo” which managed to get what seemed like the whole ground dancing to keep warm. It even prompted a streaker! It was still playing, at the crowd’s insistence, as the second half got underway. We lost 3-1.
Heavy snow on the M11 prevented me from reaching Grimsby in November 1980. We decided enough was enough when a car passed us in the fast lane facing the wrong direction before completing a 360 degree turn and sliding into a ditch! In the blizzard, halfway up the A1, the Supporters Club coach famously collected what was described as “a snow-bound yeti wearing a black and amber scarf”! It was in fact my friend Daron, hitching a lift to the game from university in Nottingham. The snow turned to rain in Grimsby so the game went ahead, although it was a mud bath by all accounts.
The club spent 16 hours clearing the Abbey of snow in February 1985 before a game against York, helped by an army of volunteer fans - and at least one of the players, Kevin Massey, I’m told. They wished they hadn’t bothered, the Us were thumped 4-0. Kevin Massey didn’t play, by the way!
This is a rare one. There is, for me, only one possible candidate for the hottest conditions I have ever watched United. It was August 2003; England was in the grips of a heat wave. The first game of the season had the Us at Huddersfield. The temperature climbed and climbed as we drove north. When we, reluctantly, got out of the air-conditioned car it was 36 big fat degrees. The game was pretty good, considering, and we got a creditable 2-2 draw thanks to goals from Dave Kitson and Dan Chillingworth. My main memory, though, was a United player (I think it was Stuart Bimson) receiving a bad cut to his head very early in the game, but playing on, bandaged up and bloody Terry Butcher style. To do that under normal conditions would have been commendable. To do so in that heat was, frankly, heroic!
These are games that went ahead, despite the weather conditions. Many more have been postponed of course, some very late in the day (hello Morecambe).
We all know that Ian Darler and his ground staff team take exceptionally good care of the Abbey pitch, so much so that I can’t remember when we last had a home league game called off - can you?
These are my memories of watching the Us in extreme weather conditions. What are yours?
Happy Harry's blog
I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.