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.
The first instance of a University student playing for United’s first team came in 1965/66, when Alva Anderson, a Jamaican who also gained a boxing Blue, played three games in midfield. The only ex-Light Blue to have played in the Football League for United is Peter Phillips. who joined from Luton in 1971 and played until 1974. Steve Palmer, a captain of CUAFC in the late 80s, played for United’s reserves; although he did not make the first team he went on to a successful professional career at Ipswich and Watford. He now works for the Premier League.
United/CUAFC fixtures resumed in October 1973, and I was fortunate to play in those games, and those when the Abbey hosted fixtures between the University and an FA XI between 1976 and 1978. From 1972 to 1980, Fenner’s cricket ground, where the University played its Michaelmas term matches, also hosted Cambridge United, who would bring a team to play the final warm-up game before December’s Varsity match. U’s manager Ron Atkinson still loved to kick a ball around and always played a part in these games. My memories are of a series of tackles that you hoped missed their target and would have certainly warranted a straight red in the modern era.
The 70s heralded the start of a growing collaboration between both U’s, and the new United manager, John Docherty, managed the team from 1978 until 1979, with player-coach Peter Graham first helping with goalkeeping training and then managing the team until about 1981. The 1980s saw a succession of regional FA coaches manage the team but by the 1990s the FA was no longer supplying coaches and John Beck was concentrating on United..
There was some informal contact between myself and the United management in the early 2000s and the Abbey played host to the Varsity Match again in 2010, but little more was agreed between us.
In 2013 we began a much closer collaboration when Jez George, following his spell as interim first team manager and then his move into the position of director of football, saw value for United in a link with the University. He found time to watch the Light Blues first team at Fenner’s and began to help in a coaching role when his United position allowed. His input to the team was excellent and the team visibly improved immediately.
CUAFC were invited to an Elite University football tournament in Beijing in August of this year. Jez was able to attend and we used the time to discuss ways in which we could cement our relationship to benefit both CUAFC and United. This has led to a financial agreement whereby CUAFC will play and train at United’s Clare College training ground, with the agreement of the college’s governing body, and will be able to utilise the expertise of some of the younger United coaches. We have also discussed the possibility of running summer schools for overseas students using United’s football expertise, the CUAFC players and the facilities and accommodation offered by colleges.
From my position as president of CUAFC, I feel this could be a very positive collaborative project with advantages for both clubs. I think we have the basis for a very fruitful relationship, backed by the United management, which could continue for many years to come.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Christmas issue of CFU's fanzine, Amber News.
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