Former Celtic forward Jim, who arrived at the Abbey in 1962, was a ball player and joker par excellence. Seldom to be seen without his bowler hat and rolled-up umbrella – sometimes even on the pitch – he enjoyed a good wind-up as much as the next man.
Frank Dersley, who tended to injured players with his magic sponge in the 60s and 70s, remembered the time when Sharkey went down in the far corner of an Abbey pitch that had been saturated by days of torrential rain.
It was still pelting down, Frank recalled. ‘I ran across and was covered in mud and soaked to the skin by the time I arrived at Sharkey, and as I got there he looked up at me, winked and said: “Give us a kiss.” He had only feigned injury to get me soaked.’
One of Sharkey’s successors as clown prince was signed by Bill Leivers in 1974. Going by the name of Kevin ‘Call me Twinkletoes’ Tully, he was a gifted left winger and a dedicated japester who just didn’t know when to stop.
Some of Tully’s antics are recorded in Champagne & Corona, volume three of Celery & Coconuts, which is on sale via the CFU online store and at the caravan on match days..
He had once sat on the Blackpool bench fully clothed under his tracksuit, praying he wouldn’t be needed. A habitual thumb-sucker, he probably wasn’t too surprised when the players hung a huge baby’s dummy on his peg.
During a 4-1 win at Exeter at the end of 1974/75, Tully enjoyed top billing as United showed off a bit. At one point he knelt on the ball, daring the Grecians to try to take it off him, and later celebrated a goal by prancing around with his shorts at half-mast around his knees.
Ron Atkinson, Leivers’ successor as manager, eventually tired of the Tully capers. In his autobiography he noted that fines made not the slightest impression on the errant entertainer’s behaviour.
‘One day I’d had enough,’ recalled Big Ron. ‘I called him into the dressing room, locked all the doors, and clocked him.’
But Atkinson was fond of a joke too: ‘Even though I was always having to discipline him, some of his antics were so funny that there were occasions when I laughed at him instead of frowning.’
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.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United match day programme for the game against Forest Green Rovers on 2 October 2018.
When you glug a Corona nowadays, you’re drinking a disappointingly thin lager brewed in Mexico. There may be a chunk of lemon or lime wedged in the neck of the bottle, presumably to make it taste of something.
But to those of us who grew up before the drinks industry went daft, Corona means something very different.
Corona was the pop that came in bottles delivered by the Corona man in his big yellow lorry: lemonade, limeade, cherryade and loads of other flavours including my favourite, dandelion and burdock.
There were Corona depots all over the country and one of them was in front of the Abbey, on the site now occupied by the car hire people. That’s why all right-thinking people call that end of the ground the Corona End.
And that’s also why the next volume of the late, great Andrew Bennett’s history of our club, Celery & Coconuts, is called Champagne & Corona.
If you want to know where the ‘Champagne’ bit comes from, you’ll just have to buy a copy of the book, and I can help you out with that.
The Coconuts mob are taking pre-orders for the book, which will be out in plenty of time for Christmas. To reserve your copy, head, with credit card handy, to the CFU online store at cambridgefansunited.org/store, or to CFU's Caravan of Love in the front car park on a match day .
I’ve been allowed a glimpse and, I tell you what, Champagne & Corona is up to Andrew’s usual brilliant standard. It tells the story of the 1970s: an amazing decade that saw the U’s embark on their Football League adventure and climb all the way up to what is today called the Championship – the old Second Division.
They were (mostly) fantastic days, when we could feast on the skills of blokes like Brendon Batson, Steve Spriggs, Tom Finney, Dave Stringer, Willy Watson, Steve Fallon, Alan Biley and Brian Greenhalgh.
Brian and his striking pal Dave Lill feature on the front cover of Champagne & Corona. Dave is watching Brian tussle with the Rochdale defence at Spotland, during a 2-0 win for the U’s. You can understand and forgive the Dale player's pained expression, although not his hairstyle.
As you can tell from the sparsely populated terrace visible in the background, Dave was one of very few people who witnessed that event.
The Third Division fixture, on 5 February 1974, attracted the grand total of 588 spectators – a record low League attendance for both clubs. Champagne & Corona reveals the main reason for the tiny crowd: the Three-Day Week.
History lesson for those who weren’t around: in early 1974, beset by industrial action, a global oil crisis, cripplingly high inflation and general discontent, the Tory government introduced measures to conserve electricity consumption. One of these was the Three-Day Week, which limited businesses’ use of electricity to three consecutive days in every seven.
Rochdale weren’t allowed to use their floodlights, and United travelled to Lancashire on a Tuesday morning in order to play in the afternoon.
So it was that fewer than 600 people were able to turn up and watch. ‘The atmosphere was absolutely shocking,’ observed United manager Bill Leivers.
Andrew’s typically entertaining account of United’s place in the history of industrial relations is just one of many delights to be found within the covers of Champagne & Corona. Please order your copy now so that Coconuts can afford to pay the printer's bill.
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