It's always a pleasure to welcome members of the U's extended family to the Abbey, even if it's out of season and we can't show them The Story of the U's mini-museum because it's been blocked off by mountains of A-ha-related gear.
Sunday's visitors, all the way from Auchterarder in Perthshire, were Andrew Welsh – son of tough-tackling 1960s wing half Billy – and his partner Pauline Silverman. Their visit coincided with Andrew's 50th birthday and the Abbey concert featuring OMD, his favourite band.
Billy – who died in a hill-climbing accident 20 years ago – was never one to brag about his professional football career, and Andrew has long wanted to speak to people who saw his dad play, or played with him.
Coconuts was able to fix this by relaying memories and good wishes from supporters and members of Cambridge United Former Players' Association, and taking Andrew and Pauline to chat to CUFPA's chairman Rodney Slack, who played three seasons with Billy, and wife Josie.
As fans of 80s music gathered over the road, Rodney and Josie reminisced about Andrew's dad and mother Avril, a Cambridge girl who still lives in Scotland.
United manager Alan Moore signed Billy from Airdrieonians in the summer of 1960. Forming a famous half-back line with Fred Howell and Roy Kirk, he played in 262 games in all competitions, scoring 18 goals, in his five years at the Abbey.
He was 24 when he joined the U’s, arriving with the reputation of being tough but talented – and also noted for his sartorial elegance and his refusal to join in with the 'industrial' language of the dressing room. His first game for United came on 20 August 1960, a 2-2 home draw with Hinckley Athletic in the Southern League Premier Division.
The following season he played in an FA Cup match at Romford that was noted for the eccentric performance of referee W Johnston-Wilson. Romford had already levelled for 1-1 with an indirect free kick that went straight into the goal when a cross bounced awkwardly in the penalty area and hit Billy on the arm. The press reported that even Romford fans looked puzzled as the ref gave the winning penalty.
The following season, in which United finished second in the Southern League, another smartly dressed Scot arrived, on Billy’s recommendation. ‘Gentleman’ Jim Sharkey was a skilful 27-year-old inside forward who had played with Billy at Glencairn before joining Celtic.
Above, Rodney does the autograph honours. Below, 100 Years of Coconuts presentation to Andrew.
Above from left, Rodney Slack, Pauline Silverman and Andrew Welsh get together to talk about Andrew's father's time at the U's. Below, Billy Welsh: elegant.
Billy suffered his fair share of injuries but gave as good as he got. He was dismissed in a match at Gravesend in April 1963 and in February 1964, at home against Yeovil Town, he spent much of the match hobbling after a strong tackle. It emerged afterwards that he had cracked an ankle bone and his season was over.
He didn’t complete the 1964/65 season either. At the beginning of April he underwent a cartilage operation in the Evelyn Nursing Home and saw no more action in an amber shirt. That summer he asked for a transfer – he wanted to concentrate on his job as a draughtsman, and left United for part-time football at Bath.
But he was seen at the Abbey again in November 1966, when he played as part of a team of current and former United players in Rodney Slack’s benefit match.
Supporters and teammates alike are generous in their praise of Billy’s playing ability. Colleague Peter Hobbs named him at left half in his dream team of players he played with at the Abbey. Eddie Higgins says his strongest memory of his early days supporting the U’s is of that formidable half-back line. ‘They all looked like giants to me,’ he says.
‘I can see Billy with his short, reddish hair brushed back, wearing that wonderful kit with the black V on the amber shirt, amber piping on the black shorts and vertical stripes on the socks.
‘I recall Billy in that kit in an FA Cup game at Bury that I hitchhiked to in September 1962. Billy, straight-backed and barrel-chested, had the look of a military man or a prison officer, a man not to be messed with.’
Supporter Colin Proctor, later United fans' elected director, says Billy was a very attacking half back with whom strikers never tangled. ‘He was part of one of the best half-back lines we’ve ever had,’ he added.