FIRST PUBLISHED ON THE COCONUTS BLOG 6th June 1918
An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Mansfield on 19 December 2015.
It’s amazing what you find when you’re not really looking. A routine trawl by Coconuts volunteers through some of the Abbey’s gloomier hidey-holes three years ago uncovered this rather battered and unburnished trophy.
We were puzzled at first, but as the Coconuts elves set to work with the Goddard’s Long Term Silver Polish (it’s got hallmarks and everything), we were delighted to discover it played a small but important role in the history of Cambridge United.
Behold the National Playing Fields Association Challenge Cup in all its dented glory. If you could read the inscription you would see it was presented by Lt Col JCW Francis MBE.
Ring any bells? John Clement Wolstan Francis, who died in 1978, was a nephew of the Henry Clement Francis who in 1931 gave Abbey United the land that would become the Abbey Stadium, and a cousin of Walter Maclaren Francis, one of the club’s first directors when a limited company was formed in 1950.
The shields pinned to the base reveal that the cup was won by Arsenal in 1963/64 and an unnamed club the following season. What was that club, we wondered. We needed to start digging deep into U’s history, and that meant asking historian extraordinaire and Coconuts committee man Andrew Bennett.
Turns out that when manager Bill Leivers arrived at the Abbey in 1967, his first official fixture in charge was on March 15, at home to a young Arsenal XI that included Charlie George, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and future U Dave Simmons. The teams were competing for the Playing Fields Association Cup, which went to United thanks to two Derek Finch goals.
Arsenal, who were the mystery 1965 winners having beaten Cambridge City 2-1 at Milton Road (it wasn’t contested in 1966), had left the cup at Highbury, so local rugby legend Dickie Jeeps, who was at the Abbey to present the cup, was left twiddling his thumbs and shaking a few hands.
But Leivers had won a trophy in his first game and United eventually got their hands on a piece of silverware that was to remain theirs for ever and a day: 1967 was the last time this game was played.
We wanted to know more, and that meant talking to official City historian Neil Harvey, for Andrew’s research had shown that our crosstown rivals were prime movers in the Playing Fields Association Cup games.
Neil found that before 1967, City had always hosted and played in the ‘final-only’ competition, which raised funds for the Cambs and Hunts Playing Fields Association: in 1965 Waterbeach got £300 towards the cost of a new pavilion, for example.
The Milton Road crew had played Cambs FA in 1949/50, Ely City in 57/58 and 60/61, Wisbech Town in 61/62 and Arsenal ‘A’ in 63/64 and 64/65. The trophy had indeed been given by Lt Col Francis, the local association’s president, Neil reported.
Questions remain: why did United and not City play the Gunners in 1967? Why did the contest cease to exist? Why does the trophy’s inscription mention the National Playing Fields Association rather than the Cambridgeshire branch? If you know the answers, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NPFA, nowadays known as Fields in Trust, retains its original purpose, and that is ‘to safeguard recreational spaces and campaign for better statutory protection for all kinds of outdoor sites’. It’s a worthwhile cause.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United match day programme for the game against Mansfield Town on Saturday, 22 September 2018.
Not many people associated with United have been appointed OBE. It’s interesting that the two most prominent examples used to line up alongside each other in the U’s defence.
Coconuts has written much over the years about Brendon Batson, and quite rightly too: great player, great man. On the other hand, you have to ferret around on the internet to find proper tributes to another bloke who has done as much as anyone for the game.
Put your natural modesty aside and step forward, Vic Akers.
Loud were the lamentations (and, it must be said, celebrations in some quarters) when Arsène Wenger ended his hundred-year Arsenal reign in May. Hardly anyone noticed Vic’s simultaneous departure from the Emirates.
Yet this is a man who, as kit manager, intimate confidant and bench buddy, was Wenger’s most trusted and influential lieutenant over the decades. This is a man who formed, moulded and managed his beloved Arsenal Ladies team to the surely unbeatable total of 32 major trophies.
This is a man who was Dennis Bergkamp’s best pal during the Dutch maestro’s time at Highbury. This is a man who knows how football works.
Here at Coconuts, we’re naturally most interested in what Vic contributed to the United cause. And that’s a considerable amount.
He was 24 when, in July 1971, Bill Leivers signed the left back from Bexley United for £500 (not the £5K quoted elsewhere). He made his bow – and scored – in a 1-1 Division Four draw at Chester on August 14 of that year, and his last game in amber, before departing for Watford, was in another 1-1 draw, at home to Newport on 15 November 1974.
He had clocked up 129 appearances and, playing mostly in defence but sometimes in an attacking role, had knocked in five goals.
Wholehearted, energetic and possessed of no little talent, he had found friends among the Abbey faithful. The relationship had got off to a good start in that debut at Chester when Vic, playing in midfield, profited from a collision between Terry Eades and the home keeper by lobbing the ball calmly over a packed penalty area and into the empty net.
Not everyone always appreciated his efforts. We can laugh about it now, but few found it funny on Boxing Day 1971 when the Abbey PA announcer, departing from the official script, made uncomplimentary remarks about Vic’s and keeper Trevor Roberts’ performance against Grimsby. The numbskull quickly found his services no longer required and United won a thrilling game 3-1.
It’s telling that both photographs on this page show Vic in attacking mode. When Leivers played him as a striker in that Plymouth match, he obliged with two goals and explained: ‘I sometimes play up front in practice sessions, but no one ever takes me seriously.’
The end came when Ron Atkinson took over the managerial duties, and Vic was granted a free transfer in recognition of his loyal service. But his career was just beginning.
But by the 1960s, a few pre-season friendlies were the norm.
The Summer of Love was in full swing as Bill Leivers set about assembling his squad for a tilt at the 1967/68 Southern League championship. Ignoring calls to stick flowers in his short back and sides and leave for San Francisco, he got to work on a reshuffle of his resources.
Leivers could never be accused of lack of ambition. He told the late, lamented East Anglian football magazine Shoot!: ‘We want to win everything, the Southern League Championship, the FA Cup, the European Cup. We don’t say we shall win these things but to succeed we must be ambitious.’
He brought in defender Pat Quartermain from Oxford, winger Billy Wall from Cambridge City and full back Keith Lindsey from Doncaster. But his biggest summer signing was that of Harry ‘Bud’ Houghton.
Bud was a 31-year-old, India-born centre forward who had scored heavily for Chelmsford for several seasons after a good League career with Bradford Park Avenue, Birmingham, Southend, Oxford and Lincoln. He was imposing in the air, had a cracking shot and knew where the goal was.
As a glamorous-looking home friendly against Norwich approached, United got used to wearing new black shorts with their plain amber shirts and took in the changes that had taken place at the Abbey Stadium: the main stand was almost complete, reaching just past the halfway line; there was a new car park at the Newmarket Road entrance; and the Habbin terrace's roof had been extended.
Playing 4-2-4 against the Canaries, the U’s looked to have gained a draw through a Dai Ward goal, but Hugh Curran scored his team’s second two minutes from time to snatch the win.
Leivers was more interested in giving his side stiff tests away to clubs at their own level, so other friendlies were arranged at Corby, where United lost 4-3 to a last-minute goal, and at Cheshire County League champions Altrincham, where they slumped to an embarrassing 7-1 drubbing.
The scores had been level at half-time, but sub keeper Keith Barker conceded half a dozen after the break as his team tired after a six-hour coach journey.
There had been talk of tough pre-season training sessions with hours of running, but the squad had only left Coldhams Common twice: once for a run and once for a spot of golf at Newmarket.
‘Skill comes before brawn, and we have been training to play football, not to become long distance runners,’ observed Leivers. ‘After all, if you want to practise the piano you don’t start by running round and round it.’ Wise words, Bill.
He was even more surprised to hear that the young starlet, finding life at the top was not to his liking, wanted to come home.
‘We were living in a hotel and, as a reserve player, I was earning less than I had been at the Abbey Stadium,’ Hutchinson recalled later.
'So I approached Bill Leivers and asked if he would take me back. He said there would always be a place for me at the Abbey Stadium.’
But his big break in Chelsea’s first team wasn’t far away and, despite an awful succession of injuries that ended his career far too early, he became one of the Shed’s favourite adopted sons.
United and Chelsea fans alike mourned his premature death, at the age of 54, in 2002.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, the saying goes. Bill Leivers, the manager who took Cambridge United into the Football League, adapted the adage to ‘if you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em’ as he assembled the side that won back-to-back Southern League titles in 1969 and 1970.
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.
Coconuts was saddened to hear of the death on November 2, at the age of 72, of Peter Leggett, who starred for the U’s before and at the start of the club’s Football League adventure.
Peter was a hugely talented but mercurial winger who, with his flowing locks, was sometimes compared to the Beatles and in his Southern League days was nicknamed the George Best of non-League. Between 1969 and 1971 he played 69 times for United and scored seven goals. The number of goals he created is probably incalculable.
He is recalled fondly by supporters of both United and Chelmsford City, both of whom he helped to Southern League titles, and it is accepted that he could have played at a much higher level.
Peter was born in Newton-le-Willows on 16 December 1943 and started his career at Weymouth. Swindon paid £1,000 for him in 1962 and he started 15 League games for the Robins before transferring to Brighton in 1965. He made only three League appearances for the Seagulls before joining Chelmsford.
He was an integral part of the Essex side’s team as they won the Southern League championship in 1967/68. The following season, United manager Bill Leivers devastated the champions by signing four of their players: Tony Butcher, Bill Cassidy, Terry Eades and, in March 1969, Peter, for an undisclosed fee. He made his debut, on the right wing, in a 3-1 loss at Hillingdon on March 1. He played just once more in the Southern League that season, but United won the title and he was retained for the following term.
In September Leivers placed Leggett, Cassidy and John Saunders on the transfer list with a warning that they should buck their ideas up. Cassidy quickly re-established himself but Peter was in and out of the team, and in December he left for Lincoln City on a month’s trial. Lincoln wanted to keep him for a second month, but he preferred to return to the Abbey to fight for his place.
He returned to first-team action in February with a tremendous display in a Floodlit League match against King’s Lynn, tormenting the visitors’ defence and creating four goals in a 5-1 win. The following month he was outstanding in a 2-0 defeat of Chelmsford at the Abbey, tearing the opposing defence apart at his teasing, tormenting best. His performance was summed up by the first goal in which he nutmegged his full back by the corner flag, sped along the byline and pulled it back for George Harris, who struck the bar for Malcolm Lindsay to net with a diving header.
Leivers was moved to comment: ‘It was hard to reason why he was not playing for a First Division side. This boy has everything – pace, ball skill and an eye for the opening, but most of all in the last year he has become disciplined, with a wholly professional outlook.’
Leggett missed the last five games of the season with injury, but he had played his part as United became Southern League champions for the second time and were elected to the Football League.
United’s first League win, a 3-1 defeat of Oldham, was inspired by Peter’s twinkling toes; on 49 he jinked past three defenders as if they were not there and rolled the ball past the keeper to put his side level, and five minutes later he won a 30-yard dash for the ball and crossed for Harris to score with a diving header. Cassidy then made it 3-1 from another Leggett assist.
Gifted but still sometimes frustrating, Peter lost his place to Roly Horrey in November and was transfer-listed at his own request. No offers were received. He was also hit by a recurring muscle injury, and after United finished the season in an underwhelming 20th place, he was one of six players declared surplus to requirements. Talks with Cambridge City broke down when he suffered a recurrence of a groin injury, and his professional career was over.
In 2013 Leivers revealed that, after one game in which Peter had run his full back ragged, he told the player that, if he continued to play like that, he could command a transfer fee of £50,000. ‘Don’t talk daft,’ replied the winger.
Peter later worked as a manager for the Britvic soft drinks company in Chelmsford, the city where he remained for the rest of his life. He left a widow, Margaret, and three children.
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