An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Carlisle United on 16 April 2016.
Two characters who went on to play big roles in the Cambridge United story clashed when England played Northern Ireland at Wembley on 15 May 1974.
Roy McFarland, the home side’s assured, cultured 25-year-old centre half, was up against rather less cultured opposition in the shape of a certain Samuel John Morgan.
It didn’t go well for Roy: he was forced off with an Achilles injury after just 36 minutes, having come off worse in a challenge with our Sammy. He was neither the first nor the last to suffer that fate.
It took him a year to recover, but he eventually played on, continuing his distinguished career with Derby County and earning 28 caps for his country before moving into player-managership with Bradford City.
Further spells in the gaffer’s chair followed at Derby and Bolton and, when Tommy Taylor left the Abbey Stadium, amid acrimony, for Leyton Orient, Roy applied for, and on 13 November 1996 secured, the manager’s job at Division Three United.
Making his football philosophy plain by posting ‘The worst crime in football is to give the ball to the opposition’ in the dressing room, he set about signing the likes of Ian Ashbee, David Preece and Abbey legend John Taylor, and bringing out Paul Wanless’s qualities, but United dropped out of promotion contention in his first season. The U’s were, Roy Mac opined, ‘a club in limbo’.
As financial imperatives forced the sales of Danny Granville, Jody Craddock and Micah Hyde, he was battling the bank as much as the opposition. But he managed his slim resources well and, after a disappointing 16th place in 1997/98, brought glory back to Newmarket Road the following season.
With emerging talent in the widely differing forms of Trevor Benjamin and Tom Youngs and brought-in strength in the likes of Alex Russell and Martin Butler, Roy took the U’s on an exhilarating League Cup run that ended in penalties at Nottingham Forest, and then promotion to the third tier as runners-up.
‘Now the aim is to continue to make progress, while always remembering that the bottom line is the survival of the football club,’ Roy told the press.
Sadly, progress proved beyond the club’s reach and United finished 19th in 2000. To make matters worse, there were simmering tensions between boss and board, and they boiled over when chairman Reg Smart sold Benjamin to Leicester while Roy was on holiday.
‘Feeling betrayed, I told [the board] exactly what I thought of all of them to a man – not the wisest thing to do,’ he observes in his autobiography.
The unrest seemed to spread to the dressing room, and on 27 February 2001 Roy and United parted company. He left praising the fans but ruing the directors’ attitude.
‘There was a lot of mistrust between myself and the board,’ he recalled later. ‘That’s the way football is and sometimes if you look back, we’d both regret it.
‘I had four and a quarter years there and I loved them because it’s a wonderful part of the world and I worked with some great people.’ We think you’re great too, Roy.