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.
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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