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.
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‘What! The oldest League club in the world against a home side boasting hot-shot £300,000 property Alan Biley, in whom Spurs are trying vainly to suppress an interest?’ It was a spectatorial must, said Davies.
‘Cambridge United is still a small club in resources and outlook, and on a day like Saturday it seems to get smaller. A Fenland wind, rotten with damped-off celery stalks, came bowling straight down the ground from the Allotments End, where there is no stand – just a shallow open terrace, caged off for visiting supporters (on this occasion no more than a couple of hundred or so).
‘Every so often, an insulting spit of rain put a fine wet edge on one’s discomfort. “The club shop is open,” barked the tannoy, “for the sale of mugs, rattles, scarves, badges … “ “… And players,” remarked a police sergeant authoritatively.’
Biley had failed a fitness test behind the main stand, Davies learned, and Tom Finney and Derrick Christie were going to play up front. As it turned out, they were joined for a time in attack by Mick Leach.
He continued: ‘It proved, actually, to be a game rich in dwindling veterans. Cambridge had the ex-Norwich defender Dave Stringer, who looks less mothballed than most, and the far from wieldy Bill Garner as substitute, while Notts County trotted out the most aptly named of all centre backs, Jeff Blockley, and relied heavily in midfield on Arthur Mann, ex-Manchester City, and on one of the most widely deplored of the World Cup Scots, Don Masson.’
Davies remembered being astonished by Masson’s distribution when he was at QPR, ‘when for a brief time that unfulfilled team seemed almost potty with talent. Here he was player-coach, and possibly too much the latter; but on such a kick-and-rush day, anyone hitting the ball with less than full power tended to look fussy.
'It was plain almost at once that Cambridge was a side used to getting good results from traditional crosses curled away from the keeper but that nobody this time was going to get much joy from these.
‘Someone in midfield was heartless enough to knock the stuffing out of Cambridge’s tiny Steve Spriggs, the only player in any Division, I believe, over whom Brian Flynn of Leeds towers majestically. It had been a hasty, raw, red-eared half, not much appreciated by 5,157 shivering souls.
“‘Tell you wot,’ volunteered one bloodshot observer of the play, ‘I wish I had some o’ this to put on moi garden.’” But even though the pop-song chosen to enliven half-time was Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army (refrain: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here too-day …”), there was as yet no real sign that this was going to be a really classic misery day for home supporters.
‘It all started about five minutes after the interval, when a header by Finney beat the keeper and was handled by a back on its way, so it seemed, over the line. The referee first signalled a goal, then consulted a linesman, then commuted the sentence to a penalty; and we all watched, not very thunderstruck as Finney muffed, scuffed, bumbled and trundled the kick vaguely towards the left-hand post.
‘Goalkeeper McManus could not have flopped on it more gratefully if he’d been his namesake Mick, applying the deciding shoulder-press to the Wild Man of Borneo.’
The misery continued, wrote Davies, with Christie being stretchered off and Stringer being booked ‘for the most innocuous trip since the Owl and the Pussycat went to sea.'
Ninety minutes passed without a goal. But in injury time, a wind-assisted clearance from McManus put Mann through and he ‘torpedoed’ Malcolm Webster with ease.
United had been unlucky on the day, Davies reported, and had had ill fortune all season, injury to newly signed striker Gordon Sweetzer being a typical misfortune.
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