This season marks the 50th anniversary of Cambridge United’s last season in the Southern League which concluded in being elected into the Football League. Week by week we will look back on events of that memorable season and also 30 years ago, a season which saw the U’s win the first ever play off final at Wembley.
1969/70 With three league matches left the Southern League Championship had become a two horse race between United and Yeovil Town. So when United travelled to the Glovers on 25th April the result would be looked upon as a possible decider for the championship trophy. After a long run of injuries the only absentee from the regular United line-up was Mel Slack who was suffering from tonsillitis. The match resulted in a heavy 4-1 defeat. Yeovil took the lead mid way through the first half and it remained 1-0 until the final 15 minutes when the home side scored three more and George Harris scored United’s consolation goal two minutes from time. This now left United having to win their remaining two matches to be sure to win the Championship. Both matches were at home. For the first on the Thursday against mid table Worcester City Rodney Slack was recalled in goal, Mel Slack got up from his sick bed and Roly Horrey was preferred in place of John Gregson. Tension was high among the amber and black faithful but nerves were soon clamed when Harris gave United the lead after 75 seconds and were further clamed in the 36th minute when Colin Meldrum doubled the lead. Harris completed the scoring in the second half to give the U’s a 3-0 victory and put them back on top of the table, one point ahead of Yeovil with one match to go. A win two days later at home to Margate would give United their second successive Southern League Championship.
There was an extra complication in the way of United’s preparation for the title decider. As part of the Ian Hutchinson transfer deal to Chelsea in 1968 the first division club had agreed to play a friendly match at the Abbey and the date set for the match Friday 1st May fell a day after and a day before the last two league matches. The match certainly captured the imagination of the Cambridge public. Chelsea, who had two days before defeated Leeds United in the FA Cup Final replay, paraded the cup around the ground in a lap of honour before kick-off in front of 14,000 spectators.
Chelsea fielded nine of their cup winning team, including Hutchinson. United started the game with a full first team. Chelsea took the lead in first half through an Alan Birchenall goal. At half time United’s first team were replaced by Chelsea’s reserves and the match became more of an exhibition with the team in Amber and Black running out 4-3 winners.
The following day Cambridge United’s destiny was in their own hands. A win against Margate and the Southern League Championship would be theirs and they would have a great chance of gaining election into the Football League. They were already the bookmakers favourites to gain enough votes at the end of season meeting of League clubs, Bradford Park Avenue the most likely to drop out.
1989/90 With two matches left United still had three places and two points to make up if they were to make a play-off place. The penultimate league match was at home against Gillingham on Tuesday 1st May. A Dion Dublin goal on 18 minutes give the U’s the lead which they hang onto until the 67th minute when Gillingham’s Lovell equalises. Manager John Beck throws caution to the wind and gambles everything on playing with five forwards and leaving just three at the back. It pays off and Phil Chapple heads home Chris Leadbitter’s corner with 10 minutes left to give United the points and move them up to seventh. Three teams can still catch United, Peterborugh, Chesterfield and Lincoln all have home fixtures while United travel to Aldershot.
Off the field the club had made some changes with John Beck being given a one year rolling contract and David Ruston stepping down as Chairman to be replace by Reg Smart. Ruston’s dedication was rewarded when he became only the club’s second ever President.
Over 2,000 fans made the trip to Aldershot where Michael Cook gives the United the lead in 36th minute and Michael Cheetham penalty confirms the win early in the second half. The U’s fans party in the Hampshire sunshine is slightly dampened by Liam Daish’s red card for a reckless tackle late on in the game.
United are paired with Maidstone United in the Play-Off semi final. The first leg at home on Sunday 13th May ends in a 1-1 draw after another Cheetham penalty gave United the lead early in the second half Mark Gall scores what is described by some as a deserved equaliser in the last minute. Still all to play for in the second leg.