This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Bristol Rovers on 30 October 2015.
It’s as frustrating as trying to find Port Vale in an atlas and as mysterious as Donald Trump’s hairdo: when, how and why did Abbey United come into being?
Andrew Bennett’s masterly history of the club’s early years, which you can read in Newmarket Road Roughs (buy it here), the first volume of his Celery & Coconuts series, is probably as close to the truth as it’s possible to be at present, but there are still nagging questions that require definitive answers.
We all know that United was founded in 1912, don’t we? Do we?
There are those who swear that the club that emerged in 1919 and took its place in the Cambridgeshire League two years later had no connection with the pre-war Abbey United that played friendlies against the likes of the Sons of Temperance and Blossom Rovers.
Just two pieces of documentary evidence that connect the two and point to a foundation date of 1912 – some headed notepaper from 1926 and a report of the club’s annual dinner in the Cambridge Daily News of 28 May 1925 – have so far been unearthed. Apart from that, it’s all hearsay and anecdote.
It’s certain that Abbey United played MJ Drew’s XI on Midsummer Common on Saturday, 21 November 1913, isn’t it? The CDN had announced the fixture in its columns the previous day, after all – it appears to be the first mention of the club in the local press.
But here’s the thing: when the paper reported on the match the following Monday, the 7-0 losers were named as Abbey Juniors.
(By the way, MJ Drew was a local footballer who also played for Cam and Crescent, with no connection to the character portrayed by Joan Crawford in the 1942 screwball comedy They All Kissed The Bride; let’s not get carried away.)
Stourbridge Common in 1912: were Abbey United, or Abbey Juniors, playing nearby? Photo: Cambridgeshire Collection at Cambridge Central Library
There’s more. A trawl through the archives in pursuit of references to Abbey Juniors yields intriguing results.
First of all, no mention of a team with that name can be found after the MJ Drew game. But go back before 21 November 1913 and the mystery deepens – Abbey Juniors were reported to have lost 3-0 to University Press Juniors ten days before the Drew game.
Go even further back: there is no mention of an Abbey team in the 1912/13 or 1911/12 seasons, but on 19 November 1910, Abbey Juniors were reported to have beaten Press Juniors 2-1.
In the preceding season, the Abbey Crusaders club were reported to have played two friendly matches. A team of that name became Abbey United’s first ever Cambs League opponents in 1921, so they couldn’t be connected to the club we love, could they?
Perhaps you want the waters muddier still? Try this: a cricket team by the name of Abbey Crusaders was active in Cambridge as early as 1906.
Who were the Abbey Juniors of 1910? Did the crowd of that time – if there was one – chant: ‘Are you United in disguise?’ Is it possible that the Juniors became United and that our club dates from at least two years further back than we thought? Where, if anywhere, did Abbey Crusaders fit in?
At the moment, your guess is as good as ours. Coconutters continue to tunnel through the records, such as they are, and when we find an answer you’ll be the first to know. Meanwhile, as Andrew puts it, we’re left with an enigma wrapped up inside in a riddle.