An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United match day programme for the game against Mansfield Town on Saturday, 22 September 2018.
Not many people associated with United have been appointed OBE. It’s interesting that the two most prominent examples used to line up alongside each other in the U’s defence.
Coconuts has written much over the years about Brendon Batson, and quite rightly too: great player, great man. On the other hand, you have to ferret around on the internet to find proper tributes to another bloke who has done as much as anyone for the game.
Put your natural modesty aside and step forward, Vic Akers.
Loud were the lamentations (and, it must be said, celebrations in some quarters) when Arsène Wenger ended his hundred-year Arsenal reign in May. Hardly anyone noticed Vic’s simultaneous departure from the Emirates.
Yet this is a man who, as kit manager, intimate confidant and bench buddy, was Wenger’s most trusted and influential lieutenant over the decades. This is a man who formed, moulded and managed his beloved Arsenal Ladies team to the surely unbeatable total of 32 major trophies.
This is a man who was Dennis Bergkamp’s best pal during the Dutch maestro’s time at Highbury. This is a man who knows how football works.
Here at Coconuts, we’re naturally most interested in what Vic contributed to the United cause. And that’s a considerable amount.
He was 24 when, in July 1971, Bill Leivers signed the left back from Bexley United for £500 (not the £5K quoted elsewhere). He made his bow – and scored – in a 1-1 Division Four draw at Chester on August 14 of that year, and his last game in amber, before departing for Watford, was in another 1-1 draw, at home to Newport on 15 November 1974.
He had clocked up 129 appearances and, playing mostly in defence but sometimes in an attacking role, had knocked in five goals.
Wholehearted, energetic and possessed of no little talent, he had found friends among the Abbey faithful. The relationship had got off to a good start in that debut at Chester when Vic, playing in midfield, profited from a collision between Terry Eades and the home keeper by lobbing the ball calmly over a packed penalty area and into the empty net.
Not everyone always appreciated his efforts. We can laugh about it now, but few found it funny on Boxing Day 1971 when the Abbey PA announcer, departing from the official script, made uncomplimentary remarks about Vic’s and keeper Trevor Roberts’ performance against Grimsby. The numbskull quickly found his services no longer required and United won a thrilling game 3-1.
It’s telling that both photographs on this page show Vic in attacking mode. When Leivers played him as a striker in that Plymouth match, he obliged with two goals and explained: ‘I sometimes play up front in practice sessions, but no one ever takes me seriously.’
The end came when Ron Atkinson took over the managerial duties, and Vic was granted a free transfer in recognition of his loyal service. But his career was just beginning.
We’ve had own goal stars in amber, of course. Top of the og scorers’ table is Steve Fallon, who notched five during his Abbey career, claimed three in 1984/85 and even managed two in one match that season, at York.
Fal played a total of 446 games for the U’s, so his average actually isn’t as bad as it looks at first glance.
We have to get a bit more up to date to find the fastest own goal ever scored by a U. It came when Exeter visited for a Division Three game on 12 April 2003 and the guilty party was Izzy Iriekpen, who glanced a header deftly past Shaun Marshall from James Coppinger’s cross a mere 22 seconds into proceedings.
There were few recriminations afterwards: John Turner’s last-minute goal gave the U’s a 2-1 win.
But Izzy’s praiseworthy effort looks insignificant when you compare it to Torquay defender Pat Kruse’s amazing feat on 3 January 1977.
The quickest own goal in Football League history came when, from the kick-off, United’s Dave Stringer lofted a high ball into the Gulls’ penalty area and Kruse headed it past his keeper, Terry Lee. It had taken him just six seconds to claim his place in the record books.
The story behind Kruse’s cock-up is almost as funny as the accomplishment.
The Plainmoor pitch that day, with ice in one goalmouth and a mud lake in the other, was tricky. United keeper Malcolm Webster, not knowing which end he would be defending first, took the field wearing one boot suitable for mud and one for a harder surface, donning a second studded boot when he found himself at the muddy end.
Trainer John Simpson (pictured, bobble-hatted, on an earlier occasion with Ron Atkinson and Ray Freeman) scurried off to the dressing room with the rejected footwear.
Lee should have followed Webby’s example. He had chosen the wrong boots for the ice-bound end and, when Kruse thoughtfully tried to give him an early touch, he skidded away, out of control, while the ball trundled gently past.
Shortly afterwards, Simpson emerged from the dressing room. Unaware that the U’s were ahead, he assumed the hosts were kicking the game off when in fact they were restarting it.
He remained in that state of ignorance until after the final whistle. Thinking his brave boys had lost, he was unconvinced when the players claimed they had gained a point with a 2-2 draw.
And they had done so without scoring: United’s second goal came from a Phil Sandercock og in the 44th minute.
Graham came into his own as a goalscoring inside forward during 1964/65, embarking on a fine scoring run that included two hat-tricks and attracting the attention of Oxford manager Turner, who stated his intention of recalling the player under a new contract. ‘I am very happy here,’ said Atkinson, ‘and feel that I am playing better since I joined Cambridge United. Naturally, I must listen to Arthur Turner’s offer before deciding, but it will have to be an attractive one to make me leave Cambridge.’
The lure of the Football League and the prospect of being reunited with his brother proved decisive. Graham’s last Cambridge game was a 3-1 win at Bedford Town on December 5. United’s season then took a dip that was partly attributed to the absence of Atkinson, who finished the season as top league scorer with 13 goals.
He returned to Cambridge United colours for John Gregson’s testimonial in January 1972, and the U’s provided the opposition for his testimonial at Kettering Town in April 1976, by which time his brother was managing the hosts. He had joined the Poppies in 1974.
Graham and wife Jenni lived in Oxfordshire for most of their lives but moved to Pembrokeshire in 2004.
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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