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.
Some of the inaugural members of the Cambridge United Former Players' Association at the launch event in the Supporters' Club on Monday, July 4. From left: Tom Finney, Graham Daniels, Vic Phillips, Rodney Slack, Peter Bowstead, Peter Hobbs, Tom Youngs, Dan Gleeson, Steve Fallon, Peter Phillips, Jim White.
The first three inductees of the newly inaugurated Cambridge United Hall of Fame were honoured tonight by 100 Years of Coconuts.
At an award ceremony in the Supporters’ Club, presided over by United chairman Dave Doggett and fans’ elected director Dave Matthew-Jones, Russell Crane, Lil Harrison and Rodney Slack were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The ceremony was watched by members of the Cambridge United Former Players’ Association, also launched tonight by Coconuts.
The Former Players’ Association has been set up with the aim of bringing the extended U’s family closer together, while the Hall of Fame recognises outstanding contributions to the development and history of the football club. Like Coconuts’ recently opened mini-museum, The Story of the U’s, the two initiatives have been made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Hall of Fame inductees were chosen by Coconuts and CFU trust board members. In future, Coconuts will look to involve the entire U’s supporter base in the voting process.
At first the Hall of Fame will take the form of a website, but Coconuts and Cambridge United are looking at the possibility of a physical display within the Abbey Stadium.
‘We were very clear when we set out to launch the Hall of Fame that we didn’t just want to honour players,’ said Coconuts chair Pat Morgan.
‘Fans are just as important to any football club as players, directors, financial supporters and staff, and the first three inductees are a good indication of that.
‘Russell Crane was just as much a U’s supporter as he was a player. Lil Harrison was involved with the club before the first world war and was still going to games in the 1990s. Rodney Slack has the U’s in his blood despite being born near the other place [Peterborough].
‘As Russell told us, the club is a family affair, and you couldn’t find three more committed family members than these first inductees.’
Russell Crane (1926-2016) grew up in a U’s-mad household in Ditton Walk, opposite the United ground. He broke many club records during an 18-year career with Abbey and Cambridge United, and was still attending games as a guest of Coconuts as recently as last year.
Rodney Slack was born in 1940. Voted player of the year three times in his first five years as a U’s player, he was idolised by the fans and continues to live within a stone’s throw of the Abbey. He is a 100 Years of Coconuts committee member and chairman of the Former Players’ Association.
Lil Harrison (1904-1996) first saw Abbey United play at the age of ten. She went on to become a stalwart of the Supporters’ Club committee, raised countless thousands of pounds as the club rose through the leagues and came to exemplify the family spirit of the club.
The inaugural membership of the Cambridge United Former Players’ Association is around 100 – a number that is expected to grow fast in the coming months.
They range from ‘Tickle’ Sanderson, who first played for Abbey United in 1939, to more recent players like Liam Hughes and Coconuts patron Luke Chadwick.
CUFPA, chaired by Rodney Slack, is setting up a website and will keep members in touch with a quarterly newsletter. Occasional small-scale social events will be arranged and members are encouraged to contact each other via a password-protected members’ area on the website.
Gerry proved just as popular in amber and black as he had been at King’s Lynn. The imposing, no-nonsense defender went on to make 259 full appearances and score 16 goals for the U’s, and teammate Tony Butcher was in no doubt of his importance to the team, especially in the Southern League and Cup Double year of 1968/69.
‘The fellow who really won United the Southern League was big centre back Gerry Baker,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘In the last ten games or so he was fantastic. He propped us up match after match and never put a foot wrong. We were struggling to win those matches, but the big fellow saw us through and I think they should have struck a special medal just for him!’
Born in South Hendley, West Yorkshire on 22 April 1939, Gerry began his football career on the Sheffield Wednesday ground staff, moving to Bradford Park Avenue in 1955 and turning professional two years later. He played in 16 Football League games before joining King’s Lynn in 1961, where he was made captain. He made the move from full back to centre half at the start of the 1964/65 season.
Roy Kirk was the United manager who provoked such puzzlement in King’s Lynn. Gerry was immediately appointed captain at the Abbey and formed a formidable centre-half combination with Jackie Scurr as Kirk experimented with a 4-2-4 formation. In the 1966/67 season, now under Bill Leivers’ management, he played in a club record 73 matches in the Southern League, the Eastern Professional Floodlit League and various cups.
Leivers felt his team should have won the league in 1967/68 (they finished third) but praised the progress of his players, especially ‘the transformation in the play of Gerry Baker’. The supporters agreed and made him their player of the year.
New signing Terry Eades began to ease Gerry out of the side and in October 1969 he was sold to Cambridge City. He captained the Lilywhites to promotion to the Southern League Premier in 1970 and the runners-up position the following season, before moving to Stevenage. Thereafter he took up the managerial reins at Great Shelford – where he still lives – and was instrumental in the club’s Cambs Invitation Cup win in 1980/81 and its 70s-to-90s domination of the Cambs League.
It's good to have you back, Gerry.
Happy Harry's blog
I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.