Look into the eyes of the striking, wavy-haired chap gazing fixedly at the camera in many photographs of Cambridge United from the early- to mid-1950s. Those eyes have seen a lot, you might muse.
Spot on. The eyes are those of a man who spent many wartime hours in the unenvied position of rear gunner in Bomber Command aircraft as they flew night after night to their targets in Germany. Many Tail-End Charlies never recovered from the appalling stress of sitting terrified in their cramped, isolated, vulnerable Perspex bubbles.
Among that number you can count Bill Whittaker: he turned grey prematurely, appeared older than he really was and sweated profusely. A 60-a-day smoker, he was only 54 when he died of lung cancer in 1977.
Yet Whittaker showed immense strength when he took on the role of United’s first full-time professional manager, combined it with playing and set about laying the groundwork for the club’s election to the Football League in 1970. He moulded the team in his own image and, when he quit the U’s in mysterious circumstances, left behind a club very different from the one he had joined.
Charlton-born Whittaker signed for his local club in 1938. He debuted in 1946, helped the Addicks win the FA Cup the following year, was transferred to Huddersfield in 1948 and returned south, to Crystal Palace, two years later.
In 1951, ambitious Cambridge United had just switched from the United Counties League to the stronger Eastern Counties League. Before 28-year-old player-manager Whittaker arrived, a player-coach trained the players and a committee chose the team. Whittaker insisted on taking on a number of professionals at £2 a week, as well as on a purist passing approach that he called ‘football all the time’. ‘I don’t mind if we lose 20-0 so long as we play the game properly,’ he explained.
He encouraged the development of young players and instilled a disciplined attitude in the club: his rugged tackling in training did not always endear him to his players.
On the field he was a commanding presence, cajoling and inspiring his teammates to believe in themselves. Allied to tough, accurate tackling he offered excellent passing and reliable finishing.
United finished fourth in Whittaker’s first two seasons, and in 1953/54 reached the second round proper of the FA Cup for the first time after beating Newport County after a first round replay.
In March 1955, Whittaker introduced an audacious tactic in a 4-2 win over March Town, knocking a penalty sideways for Peter Dobson to run on to and crash into the net. It was his last league game in charge.
Whittaker’s resignation was announced on March 22, but his explanation was less than revealing: ‘There is nothing between me and the club … it is just one of those things. I intend to concentrate on playing football and not as a player-manager – because, after all, I am only 31.’ The statement was rendered puzzling by his next appointment: the player-managership of Newmarket Town.
The truth behind the resignation may never be known, although perhaps it was significant that the board had refused to allow him to enhance his income with an outside job.
Whittaker soon moved back to his roots in Blackheath and, enigmatic to the last, worked as a porter in Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market.