But by the 1960s, a few pre-season friendlies were the norm.
The Summer of Love was in full swing as Bill Leivers set about assembling his squad for a tilt at the 1967/68 Southern League championship. Ignoring calls to stick flowers in his short back and sides and leave for San Francisco, he got to work on a reshuffle of his resources.
Leivers could never be accused of lack of ambition. He told the late, lamented East Anglian football magazine Shoot!: ‘We want to win everything, the Southern League Championship, the FA Cup, the European Cup. We don’t say we shall win these things but to succeed we must be ambitious.’
He brought in defender Pat Quartermain from Oxford, winger Billy Wall from Cambridge City and full back Keith Lindsey from Doncaster. But his biggest summer signing was that of Harry ‘Bud’ Houghton.
Bud was a 31-year-old, India-born centre forward who had scored heavily for Chelmsford for several seasons after a good League career with Bradford Park Avenue, Birmingham, Southend, Oxford and Lincoln. He was imposing in the air, had a cracking shot and knew where the goal was.
As a glamorous-looking home friendly against Norwich approached, United got used to wearing new black shorts with their plain amber shirts and took in the changes that had taken place at the Abbey Stadium: the main stand was almost complete, reaching just past the halfway line; there was a new car park at the Newmarket Road entrance; and the Habbin terrace's roof had been extended.
Playing 4-2-4 against the Canaries, the U’s looked to have gained a draw through a Dai Ward goal, but Hugh Curran scored his team’s second two minutes from time to snatch the win.
Leivers was more interested in giving his side stiff tests away to clubs at their own level, so other friendlies were arranged at Corby, where United lost 4-3 to a last-minute goal, and at Cheshire County League champions Altrincham, where they slumped to an embarrassing 7-1 drubbing.
The scores had been level at half-time, but sub keeper Keith Barker conceded half a dozen after the break as his team tired after a six-hour coach journey.
There had been talk of tough pre-season training sessions with hours of running, but the squad had only left Coldhams Common twice: once for a run and once for a spot of golf at Newmarket.
‘Skill comes before brawn, and we have been training to play football, not to become long distance runners,’ observed Leivers. ‘After all, if you want to practise the piano you don’t start by running round and round it.’ Wise words, Bill.
He was a regular starter the following season, helping to anchor the midfield as United challenged for the title again. He missed the last away game, a 4-1 loss at Yeovil, with tonsillitis, but got out of his sickbed to play in a 3-0 defeat of Worcester five days later. The following evening he started in front of the Abbey Stadium’s record crowd of 14,000 in a friendly against Chelsea, but like the rest of the first team sat out the second half in anticipation of the title-deciding game against Margate the following afternoon. United won 2-0 and were champions again.
Following the club’s election to Football League Division Four, Mel remained a regular first-team choice, although his 1970/71 season was ended three games early by an ankle injury. United finished 20th in their first League season and, as Leivers revamped his squad, Mel signed for City.
He returned to the Abbey in November 1971 to play in the first leg of the Cambs Professional Cup final. Cautioned for bringing down Peter Phillips, he reacted by throwing a punch when the U’s striker returned the compliment, earning an instant dismissal.
He had explained why he was no stranger to the physical side of the game the previous season. ‘I was brought up in a hard school at Sunderland, where we were always instructed to put our opponents out of the game before starting to play the football. Great play was made of mental attitude as we prepared before each game to do battle, and I have always played hard, whether in training or a match.’
Nonetheless, Mel’s skill on the ball was considerable and, while he was not known for scoring – he netted just three times for United – he will long be remembered for one moment of brilliance. With the score at 1-1 with five minutes to go in the first away game of 1969/70, he dribbled through Gloucester’s attempted offside trap to score an outstanding winner.
He believed his best asset lay in another area, however: ‘I feel I am at my best when the boss says before the game that so and so have a particular danger man and I am given the job of playing him out of the game.’
Remaining in the Cambridge area after his retirement, Mel became widely known as the landlord of the Rose & Crown in Teversham and later lived in Fulbourn. He leaves widow Joan, daughter Keely and two granddaughters.
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