In Paul Mullin, for the first time in many years, Cambridge United have a striker making a legitimate challenge for David Crown’s goalscoring record. A very appropriate time, then, to take a close look at David’s time at the Abbey Stadium and that record-breaking season.
I’m plenty old enough to remember David Crown at United so some of this is drawn from memory, but for the facts and figures I have dipped into Kevin Palmer’s book “Cambridge United: The League era a complete record” and Andrew Bennet’s “The Moose That Roared”. By a neat quirk of fate, however, I also managed to have a chat with David in his office in Leigh-on-Sea.
David Crown holds the Cambridge United record for the highest number of Football League goals scored in a season - 24 in 1985-86. Or is it 25? We’ll come back to that. He was at United for only two and a bit seasons, between 1985 and 1987. This was a twilight period for the football club, we were fighting for survival. He was signed by probably United’s worst ever manager, Ken Shellito. That’s quite a claim; there are a fair few creditable challengers for that particular title (points in the direction of John Ryan, Steve Thompson and Martin Ling). Nevertheless, by bringing David Crown to the club, Shellito at least left one positive legacy to mark his car-crash period in charge.
Crown signed for United from Reading on a free transfer, aged 27, in the summer of 1985. He was a regular starter at Reading in the old third division but had been deployed mainly as a winger, scoring 14 goals in 88 league appearances over two seasons. This was a successful period for Reading and included promotion from the fourth division in 1983-84. Crown started all but one game for Reading that season, scoring seven goals. He had previously played for Brentford, Portsmouth, and Exeter on loan, all in the third division. Considering these credentials and given that United had just suffered a second successive relegation, were skint and were predicted to struggle in the fourth division, the more I look back on the signing of David Crown, the more of a coup it appears to be.
On signing Crown, Shellito said he intended to play him as a central striker. That decision may well have been based on DC’s performance for the Royals against Shellito’s United in April the previous season when, switched from the wing to centre forward, he scored both the goals that beat the already-relegated U’s at the Abbey. In an interview for the United fanzine “The Abbey Rabbit” in 1989 Crown explained that the pitch at his first club, Walthamstow, was so boggy through the middle he was moved out wide, hence his early days were spent as a winger. Northampton wanted to sign him from Reading, he told “The Abbey Rabbit”, and offered a fee, but he didn’t fancy their manager or their ground (shared with Northamptonshire Cricket Club back then) so he chose United.
He joined a rag-tag United squad that included Alan Comfort, David Moyes and Andy Sinton (still only 19 years old) and three members of John Docherty’s great team (Tom Finney, Steve Spriggs and Steve Fallon) whose best days were behind them (Fallon’s due to injuries). It would be misleading to say it was a squad in transition as that would imply there was some kind of plan on the club’s part.
United started the 1985-86 season true to the form of the previous two and were quickly scraping along the bottom of the table. It took Crown seven games to score his first United goal, a consolation in a 4-1 loss at Colchester. Let’s count his goals as they go in.
(1) Colchester United (a)
By the time David Crown opened his account United had already sunk to 23rd. It was clearly going to be a long, hard, miserable season, the third in a row.
(2) Exeter (h) (3) Halifax (a)
I’ll confess, I stayed away from the Abbey at the start of that season. My first sighting of David Crown in a United shirt was against Mansfield on 5th October. I was prompted to go that afternoon by the genuine thought that our days in the Football League were numbered. Such was my sense of dread that I took a camera with me, to record some of the action before it was too late. In another sign of the shambles around the club at the time, a steward spotted me at the front of the NRE with my Zenith and asked why, as a member of the press, I wasn’t sitting on the perimeter? I said nothing and allowed him to open a gate for me before taking up a prime spot next to Roger Hansbury’s left hand post. True story. Three late goals, including David Crown’s fourth in five games, saw United to a fine 4-2 win. Perhaps all was not lost after all, especially if Crown could keep on scoring. He did.
(4) Mansfield (h) (5) Wrexham (a) (6) Orient (h) (7)(8) Boro (h) (9) Crewe (a)
(10) Northampton (h) (11) Tranmere (h)
By the end of 1985 David Crown had 11 league goals, not at all shabby given our form and lowly league position. Scoring a brace in a 3-1 victory over Boro really started to endear him to the Abbey faithful. When wouldn’t it?
Shellito resigned in December. He was replaced by Chris Turner, but even he wasn’t able to stop United slipping back into the re-election zone. David Crown missed a couple of games with an ankle injury late in the year, but he scored on his return against Hereford in January.
(12) Hereford (h) (13)(14) Wrexham (h) (15) Preston (a)
By the end of March, with only a month of the season remaining, Crown had scored 15 league goals. That’s a very decent return, but not record-shattering form. United were 22nd in the table and looked nailed on to have to apply for re-election. We had won only 11 of 39 games. But then David Crown caught fire.
(16) Swindon (h) (17)(18)(19) Halifax (h) (20) Burnley (a) (21) Crewe (h) (22) Northampton (a)
Crown’s 22nd league goal of the season at Northampton took him past Alan Biley’s United record, set in 1977-78. Curiously, I don’t remember any great celebrations when he broke the record, either on the terraces or in the media (ie the Cambridge Evening News, that’s all there was). I guess it was because the prevailing mood around the club was still one of despondency, following another rotten season. David Crown wasn’t finished yet, though.
(23) Colchester (h) (24) Torquay (h)
United won four and drew one of the last six games of the season, Crown scoring nine in the last seven, and lost only one of their last 11. Sadly, it didn’t manage to lift United out of the re-election zone and we finished 22nd, but it took us to 54 points, level with Exeter, Halifax and Tranmere, the latter two above the dotted line on goal difference. A few weeks later the 92 league chairmen voted for United to stay in the Football League.
There was only one guy to thank for this achievement: David Crown. By my reckoning his goals won us 19 points that season. It doesn’t bear thinking about where United would have been without him. To break your club’s goalscoring record, by three goals, is a great achievement. To do it in such a rank season, in such a rank team, is the stuff of legend. There were only three penalties amongst his goal tally (Steve Massey was the U’s penalty taker until late in the season).
To confirm, then, David Crown’s Cambridge United Football League goalscoring record is 24. I stress this as, for many years, I thought it was 25 - because that’s what it says in Kevin Palmer’s book. “The Moose That Roared” doesn’t clarify matters; it notes that Crown broke the record but doesn’t specify how many goals he scored that season. I have cross-checked each of his goals in Kevin’s and Andrew’s books and found no contradictions. I guess there was just some wayward arithmetic on Kevin’s part. I have always considered Kevin’s book my bible on United stats … and still do! I think we can allow him one error. Sorry to labour this point, but if Paul Mullin is going to get close to David Crown’s record it’s crucial we all know what the record is!
In all competitions Crown scored 27 that season, and this too is a United record. His 24 league goals were supplemented by our consolation in a horrible 2-1 FA Cup first round defeat at non-league Dagenham and by a brace against Boro (again) in the Freight Rover Trophy. This all-competitions total is confirmed in Brian Attmore and Graham Nurse’s piece on David Crown in their book “Cambridge United 100 Greats”.
The following season, 1986-87, was less prolific for David Crown, scoring 12 league goals, 16 in all competitions. That might have spelt trouble for United if Mark Cooper, just 19 years old, hadn’t stepped up to share the goalscoring burden, outscoring Crown with 13 league goals. The two struck up a great partnership. Crown told “The Abbey Rabbit” their styles complemented each other (not unlike the Mullin and Ironside pairing that we are enjoying right now).
There were clear signs of a recovery at the Abbey Stadium and, although Chris Turner’s team did not manage promotion in 1986-87, it embarked on a cracking League Cup run to the fourth round, where we were finally knocked out by a frighteningly strong Tottenham team. Along the way Crown scored the only goal of the game to beat second division Ipswich, set up by Mark Cooper. Watch the goal here (from a very weird Abbey camera angle):
This, sadly, appears to be the only available online footage of DC in black and amber.
The 1987-88 season was to be David’s last at the Abbey. He started in cracking form, netting a hat-trick against Crewe in August. According to “The Moose That Roared”, scouts from Arsenal, QPR and Newcastle watched him score the two goals that beat Halifax in late September.
In early November 1987 David Crown was sold. We were shocked on two fronts: first, the fee, a measly £30,000, and second, his destination, third division Southend. There was a third point, too: what did the sale of our record goalscorer say about the ambition of the club?
We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the £285,000 transfer bounty allowed the club to clear its debts, reset and relaunch. Under Chris Turner’s management the ground was being prepared for John Beck and a new, young, highly ambitious set of players to … well, you know the rest!
In his final season at the Abbey David Crown scored nine league goals, 12 in all competitions. I still think he was worth far more than thirty grand. He should have gone to QPR, he’d have been the new Stan Bowles.
During his time with United, Crown scored a total of 45 league goals in 106 league games, 55 in 121 games in all competitions. I have checked and cross-referenced each goal. “The Moose That Roared” has him on a total of 46 league goals, I wonder if Andrew also thought Crown scored 25 league goals in 1985-86.
Crown kept on scoring after he left United; at Southend he bagged 61 in 113 games and at Gillingham, 40 in 87 games. No wonder, as he told “The Abbey Rabbit”, his TV Teletext page was constantly paused on the leading goal scorer’s page! (Teletext? Ask your dad!).
When we spoke, David was in no doubt as to how many league goals he scored in his record-breaking reason – 24. He has his own accountancy firm now, so numbers are important to him! He pointed out that he still finished as United’s top scorer in 1987-88, even though he left after just 17 league games. He did the same the season he left Southend for Gillingham, he added! He admitted to me he didn’t know about the very poor state of the club when he joined United, but he said he was happy to leave Reading as he had been getting some stick from fans there. Unbelievable, Jeff. He said he wasn’t aware of any interest from 2nd division clubs when he left United, and that, as far as he was aware, Southend paid £50,000 for his services. Still not nearly enough.
He currently works as a match day host at Southend United (covid permitting) but he has fond memories of Cambridge and his time at the Abbey – his daughter was born in the city. He does have one gripe, though: he says he did his left knee in at United. The injury wasn’t deemed worthy of an operation by the club; there were no same-day scans to check injuries out in those days, he lamented. A nasty skiing accident has since done for his right knee. Ouch. David kindly sent me a couple of (annotated) photos from his scrapbook, reproduced here. One shows him getting the better of Richard Money!
He has been back to the Abbey, quite recently in fact, to watch the U’s beat Gillingham 2-0 in the Papa Don’t Preach Trophy. He was impressed with what he saw, particularly the player who could well break his 35-year-old goalscoring record. He saw much more in him than just a goal scorer. He liked Harvey Knibbs, too, and the team’s shape and organisation. He thinks we are a good bet to go up.
Well, there you go. David Crown. What a goal scorer. What a top fella.
You can read The Abbey Rabbit interview with David Crown (and Peter Butler) in full here The article includes one of my photos from the Mansfield game.