My Greatest Match - By Steve Broomfield
I guess that 50 years of following the U’s – or any team - would leave anyone with a problem: what is my greatest match – the match that I would live again if I could. The match that I go back to, time and again, as the one that is stored in the memory banks for all time?
Well, first I have to admit that memory isn’t perfect. I can’t remember everything about the game; how I got there, how I got home. Did I have tea and a pie? How much was the ticket? Sometimes I even find I have mis-remembered who was playing or who scored.
No … but memory isn’t about facts and figures and having all the information: it’s about a feeling. It’s about what you remember, not about what actually happened. A place and time.
So here we go – my greatest match.
There are quite a few contenders: Mansfield, 1973, the first League promotion (followed a year later by the first League relegation, of course); away at Donny, Xmas 74 (1-0 and Big Ron on a roll); ‘Boro, Xmas 77 (1-0, Biley sprinting to the dugout to celebrate); Exeter 78; Sunderland 1980 (3-3, back from the dead); away at Maidstone for the Play Off 1980 (had to work on Finals Day); Gateshead 2014; and probably 20 more contenders.
But for me, the stand out is a completely insignificant draw in 1979. Late in the season, no chance of promotion. No fear of relegation. 10th April 1979: Crystal Palace 1, Cambridge United 1. Scorers Swindelhurst and Spriggs. That’s it. No massive drama. No red cards. No fights (on or off the pitch). No real reason to remember.
Well, as you know, United had won promotion the previous season, and at the time of the Palace game were sitting nicely in mid-table in the old Second Division (Championship in new money). Palace were pressing hard for promotion – managed by Terry Venables, they were a really good side with a core of experienced players backed up by real talent. A few England players (past or future) too. It was in the days that they wore all white, with a red and blue sash – a beautiful strip.
I was living in London at the time, sleeping on a mate’s spare room floor in Victoria (long story). It was a Tuesday and I rather think I’d broken up with my girlfriend, so when I saw the match was on, I decided to take a train from Victoria to Selhurst Station and enjoy myself.
For reasons I can’t explain, I ended up in the Main Stand. The crowd was 21,795 and I was surrounded by Palace fans. I wasn’t even aware of any U’s fans there. Here, I consult The Bible (Cambridge United, the League Era, by Kevin Palmer) to give the line-ups:
Palace: Burridge, Hinshelwood, Sansom, Kember, Cannon, Gilbert, Nicholas, Murphy, Swindelhurst, Hilaire, Walsh, sub: Smillie
United: Webster, Graham, L Smith, Stringer, Fallon, Buckley, Christie, Spriggs, Murray, Finney, Biley, sub: Streete. (Incidentally, that squad contains 9 of the starting players in my All-Time U’s XI – and Dave Stringer only misses out by a whisker)
So, there I sat, in amongst the Palace fans, trying to be unobtrusive in my black and amber scarf. A couple of blokes in front were discussing United, and commented that ‘Beeley’ was supposed to be pretty good. Generally, the atmosphere was OK. I leant forward and corrected his pronunciation and we had quite a natter.
Anyway, the match kicked off and Palace looked like Real Madrid on Speed. Within minutes, a foul in the United area. And this is where memory goes. I always think of it as a penalty. It was, in fact, an indirect free kick (weirdly). Swindelhurst buried it. The ground erupted. I just sat there – it was one of those moments where you look at your watch and wonder if it isn’t still a bit early to sneak off.
But … but … the U’s just got better and better. Finney was doing what only Finney could do; winning everything and … errr … ‘imposing’ himself in midfield. Biley was chasing all over the pitch, and Christie and Murray were running riot on the wings. At the back, Fallon and Stringer just stopped everything.
And then, ten minutes from half-time, Murray slung a cross over from the left. Biley went up for it with Burridge. Burridge flapped at it. Spriggs – as ever – on the edge of the box. Buried it. 1-1. I leapt to my feet YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Arms in the air, fists clenched. I looked round: 21,794 Crystal Palace fans were staring at me. I sat down.
Half time. The two blokes in front were extremely complimentary about MY team; they were impressed (they should be – apparently ten other teams failed to score at Selhurst Park that season; only 11 home goals conceded).
The second half was a slogging match: Streete replaced Christie and shored up midfield while Neil Smillie replaced Peter Nicholas. It was engrossing and United gave as good as they got.
And right near the death, a breakaway. The ball came out to Jamie Murray on the left wing. He saw Burridge off his line. Lobbed him. For a second it looked on … but grazed the top of the bar and out. And that was it.
At the final whistle the chap in front turned and thrust his arm forward. I thought he was going to thump me, but no, he shook my hand. ‘Good little team you’ve got there, son’ (not at all patronising, but well meant).
Journey home was interesting. All Palace’s close rivals had won so there were some long faces. I sat on the train with my collar pulled up so my scarf didn’t show too obviously (there was still the chance of a rumble in those days) but got back to Victoria OK. Got into the flat and interrupted my host entertaining his girlfriend. Did I care?
But what makes this my greatest-ever game? Promotion or relegation weren’t in it. We didn’t even win. No … for me, it was the first time I ever really felt proud of the U’s. We’d come up from the 4th Division in rapid stages and no-one really believed we’d hold on, but here we were giving the eventual Champions more than a run for their money. A couple of coats of paint less and we could have won it.
Players like John Burridge, Vince Hilaire, Kenny Sansom, Jim Cannon were quite a team and El Tel was probably the best manager in town. Yet a team of unfancied lower-league players held them.
Yes, I was proud; I don’t mind admitting it. So that’s why Selhurst Park, 10th April, 1979 will always be My Greatest Match.
By Steve Broomfield
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