Now they were faced with the prospect of a trip to a club of a similar standing to our friends in Guiseley: the Isthmian League’s Chesham United. The U’s were cast in the unfamiliar role of giants.
At a ground the Cambridge Evening News described as a ‘rustic cockpit’, the players trotted out on to the kind of surface that was all too familiar in those far-off days: a sea of mud. You could have counted the blades of grass on the fingers of one hand.
Those of the all-ticket crowd of 5,000 who were standing at the appropriately named Cow Meadow end greeted home goalkeeper Billy Barber with a grateful round of applause – two days before he had still been in Australia, where he had been visiting his fiancée.
As expected, the mud pit proved tricky. Pacy U’s striker Alan Biley found himself bogged down and goalkeeper Malcolm Webster struggled with his goal kicks. United fans, dreading a humiliating giant-killing, puffed with relief when home captain John Watt slammed an early 30-yard shot against the bar, leaving a muddy brown stain to remind us of a narrow squeak.
Roger Gibbins to the rescue: he blasted United into the lead after half an hour. Then, after brilliantly saving a Chris Turner header, the jet-lagged Barber was beaten by a George Reilly nod ten minutes from the end.
United had battled through the mire to a glamorous fourth round tie at home to Aston Villa. But that’s another story.
Order your copy of Champagne & Corona by visiting CFU’s online store or dropping in at the caravan on a match day.
We played many times at Cambridge City’s lovely old Milton Road home, in its two incarnations. Other away venues included the Railway Social Club Ground (location described as ‘at the back of the cattle market’), Pye’s wonderful sports ground in Chesterton, Jesus Green, Lammas Land, Porson Road (probably the Perse preparatory school's sports field) and college grounds including Fitzwilliam House, King’s & Selwyn, Queen’s, Christ’s, Pembroke, Sidney Sussex, St Catherine’s and Clare.
United have performed on the sacred turf of Fenner’s cricket ground and, equally surprisingly, have turned out twice at the University’s rugby union headquarters in Grange Road.
The first occasion they ventured on to oval-ball territory was in December 1942, when the wartime Abbey United stuffed a local civil service team 10-2.
The next came on 20 March 1954, when the U’s took on their supposedly bigger and better rivals from over the Cam in a Cambs Invitation Cup semi-final.
The new-look cup was supposed to have featured eight clubs that season but holders Wisbech decided they had better things to do. That left United, City, Camden, Ely, Histon, March and Pegasus – a club composed of Cambridge and Oxford students – to fight it out.
Centre forward Albert George – father of former Abbey beat bobby Trevor – notched a hat-trick as the U’s thrashed March 6-1 in the first round and set up the Grange Road showdown.
United were expected to beat the City gents, who had finished a disappointing seventh in the Athenian League, and goals from inside left Jack Thomas duly made it 2-0 in front of an all-ticket crowd of 5,000.
The final, against Histon at Milton Road, started badly and quickly got worse.
Player-manager Bill Whittaker had to have painkilling injections before and during the match (partly excusing a late penalty miss, perhaps) and Thomas, victim of a leg muscle strain early on, hobbled through the game as a passenger. It finished goalless.
Chaos then ensued: no one had a clue what was supposed to happen next. Should extra time be played or not? Eventually, Cambs FA secretary Bill Ling stepped forward to decree that the match should continue.
A crowd of 5,645 watched, grumbling, as U’s and Stutes slugged it out. At the end of 120 strength- and patience-sapping minutes, it was still 0-0 as far as anyone could make out – night had descended by that stage.
The season was at an end and there was nothing else for it: a replay would have to be staged the following season.
United finished the job nearly six months later with a 3-1 win at Milton Road, Thomas (two) and Peter Dobson doing the goalscoring honours.
Initial orders are being taken through the CFU online store and at the CFU caravan on a match day. Email 100 Years of Coconuts if you have any questions.
Champagne & Corona: The Story of Cambridge United Football Club 1970-1980
Paperback; 360 pages
£18.99 if collected from the CFU outlet; £17.99 for CFU members
£21.98 for postal deliveries; £20.98 for CFU members
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 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.
Packed with the fascinating stories of the characters who saw our club, always firmly based in its community, through its formative years and on to the brink of national recognition, Newmarket Road Roughs comes with details of every game played by Abbey United in its first 40 years, plus league tables and playing records.
Those appendices alone are worth the cover price of £14.99 for this attractively designed hardback book – the first of many to come from Andrew Bennett and Lovely Bunch. To preorder your copy, go to cambridgefansunited.org/store/c4/Books.html or visit the CFU outlet on a match day. Alternatively, drop a line to email@example.com. Members of CFU enjoy a £1 discount.
We’ll let you know when your copy of Newmarket Road Roughs is available to pick up or is in the post. By choosing to collect from the CFU caravan you will avoid the postal charges of £2.99 for normal post and £5.99 for Royal Mail special delivery.
Happy reading! The past will soon be present.
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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.