If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, the saying goes. Bill Leivers, the manager who took Cambridge United into the Football League, adapted the adage to ‘if you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em’ as he assembled the side that won back-to-back Southern League titles in 1969 and 1970.
Chelmsford City’s championship-winning side of 1967/68 contained many good players, but four of them – striking double act Tony Butcher and Bill Cassidy, centre half Terry Eades and scintillating winger Peter Leggett – were outstanding. So, in one of the most astute managerial moves in United’s history, Leivers persuaded them to fight for the amber and black cause.
The U’s looked like a good side before the arrival of the Chelmsford Four. After it, they had the look of title winners.
First Claret to join the Leivers revolution, in October 1968, was Scottish hitman Cassidy who, having notched 29 goals in Chelmsford’s league-winning season, had spent the summer in the States with the Detroit Cougars. Driving to his Essex home, Leivers persuaded King Cass to jump in his car and follow him back to Cambridge.
Next to arrive, just two days later, was Butcher, Chelmsford’s record goalscorer, for a fee of less than £500. ‘This should solve our failure to score goals,’ observed Leivers.
The others were a little slower to follow. Leggett, hailed as the non-League George Best, signed in March 1969 for an undisclosed fee and a couple of days later Eades followed him to Newmarket Road, the U’s handing over a cheque for £2,500 in return.
‘This finishes my shopping at Chelmsford,’ said Leivers. His spree had laid the foundations for the next stage in United’s rapid evolution, from Cambridgeshire League minnows in the 1940s to Football League members in 1970.
Coconuts was saddened to hear of the death on November 2, at the age of 72, of Peter Leggett, who starred for the U’s before and at the start of the club’s Football League adventure.
Peter was a hugely talented but mercurial winger who, with his flowing locks, was sometimes compared to the Beatles and in his Southern League days was nicknamed the George Best of non-League. Between 1969 and 1971 he played 69 times for United and scored seven goals. The number of goals he created is probably incalculable.
He is recalled fondly by supporters of both United and Chelmsford City, both of whom he helped to Southern League titles, and it is accepted that he could have played at a much higher level.
Peter was born in Newton-le-Willows on 16 December 1943 and started his career at Weymouth. Swindon paid £1,000 for him in 1962 and he started 15 League games for the Robins before transferring to Brighton in 1965. He made only three League appearances for the Seagulls before joining Chelmsford.
He was an integral part of the Essex side’s team as they won the Southern League championship in 1967/68. The following season, United manager Bill Leivers devastated the champions by signing four of their players: Tony Butcher, Bill Cassidy, Terry Eades and, in March 1969, Peter, for an undisclosed fee. He made his debut, on the right wing, in a 3-1 loss at Hillingdon on March 1. He played just once more in the Southern League that season, but United won the title and he was retained for the following term.
In September Leivers placed Leggett, Cassidy and John Saunders on the transfer list with a warning that they should buck their ideas up. Cassidy quickly re-established himself but Peter was in and out of the team, and in December he left for Lincoln City on a month’s trial. Lincoln wanted to keep him for a second month, but he preferred to return to the Abbey to fight for his place.
He returned to first-team action in February with a tremendous display in a Floodlit League match against King’s Lynn, tormenting the visitors’ defence and creating four goals in a 5-1 win. The following month he was outstanding in a 2-0 defeat of Chelmsford at the Abbey, tearing the opposing defence apart at his teasing, tormenting best. His performance was summed up by the first goal in which he nutmegged his full back by the corner flag, sped along the byline and pulled it back for George Harris, who struck the bar for Malcolm Lindsay to net with a diving header.
Leivers was moved to comment: ‘It was hard to reason why he was not playing for a First Division side. This boy has everything – pace, ball skill and an eye for the opening, but most of all in the last year he has become disciplined, with a wholly professional outlook.’
Leggett missed the last five games of the season with injury, but he had played his part as United became Southern League champions for the second time and were elected to the Football League.
United’s first League win, a 3-1 defeat of Oldham, was inspired by Peter’s twinkling toes; on 49 he jinked past three defenders as if they were not there and rolled the ball past the keeper to put his side level, and five minutes later he won a 30-yard dash for the ball and crossed for Harris to score with a diving header. Cassidy then made it 3-1 from another Leggett assist.
Gifted but still sometimes frustrating, Peter lost his place to Roly Horrey in November and was transfer-listed at his own request. No offers were received. He was also hit by a recurring muscle injury, and after United finished the season in an underwhelming 20th place, he was one of six players declared surplus to requirements. Talks with Cambridge City broke down when he suffered a recurrence of a groin injury, and his professional career was over.
In 2013 Leivers revealed that, after one game in which Peter had run his full back ragged, he told the player that, if he continued to play like that, he could command a transfer fee of £50,000. ‘Don’t talk daft,’ replied the winger.
Peter later worked as a manager for the Britvic soft drinks company in Chelmsford, the city where he remained for the rest of his life. He left a widow, Margaret, and three children.
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