WORDS: MATTHEW GOODING
Cambridge United are celebrating their centenary year this season and, as they prepare to get their eighth-successive non-league campaign underway, memories still burn bright of the days when a meteoric rise brought the club to within touching distance of a place in the inaugural Premier League
Last Monday night Cambridge United fans got a glimpse of the club’s, er, glorious past as the U’s hosted a Legends match to mark the start of their centenary season.
Ron Atkinson, Andy Sinton, and Alan Biley, still sporting the beautiful blonde mullet he modelled with distinction in his 1980s heyday, were among 50 ex-players and managers present for the occasion, while Russell Crane, who made his Cambridge debut in 1942, got the match underway.
But for most of the 1,200-strong crowd, the main attractions were the stars of a more recent era – the early 1990s. Strikers John Taylor and Steve Claridge linked up in attack, with Lee Philpott on the wing and Phil Chapple taking a turn at centre-back. Perhaps the biggest legend of all, striker Dion Dublin, was playing for the opposition as part of an all-star team he had assembled for the match.
With the U’s about to embark on an eighth successive year in non-league football, it’s hard to imagine that 20 years ago Dublin, Taylor, Claridge and Co were one game away from taking their place in the inaugural Premier League. That they got so close to the promised land – and ultimately didn’t make it – was largely down to their eccentric manager John Beck.
Beck arrived in Cambridge as a player before becoming assistant to Chris Turner and then taking over as boss in January 1990, when Turner moved into a directorial role. He inherited a side that had already hit rock bottom – the U’s had to apply for re-election in 1986 – and was ready to bounce back.
As a player, Beck was a stylish midfielder noted for his ball-playing ability, and grew up under the tutelage of Dave Sexton at QPR. Ironically the style of play he chose to employ as a manager could not have been further removed from the fluent passing game of Sexton’s Rangers side of the 1970s. Beck’s teams were – and still are – all about getting the ball into what Charles Hughes’ infamous coaching manuel describes as Positions Of Maximum Opportunity (POMO). This meant a lot of long balls played into the corners for wingers Philpott and Michael Cheetham, who would either attempt to win a set-piece or aim a cross at towering forward pair Taylor, who had been plucked from non-league football in Suffolk, and Dublin, a converted centre-half released by Norwich City.
If his football was positively pre-historic, in other ways Beck was way ahead of his time. He employed a statistician in the days when OptaJoe was a mere pixel in his daddy’s eye, and introduced conditioning techniques like ice-baths, which are now common-place in the game but which, 25 years ago, seemed completely alien.
It was a curious mix, but it worked. Mid-table when Beck took charge, United stormed up Division Four in the second half of the season, eventually squeezing into the Play-Offs thanks to a sixth place-finish, then winning through to the final where they beat Chesterfield 1-0. Fitter, stronger, and faster than most opponents, they fared even better in the Third Division, clinching the title 12 months later thanks to a 2-0 final day win over Swansea City at the Abbey.
Both promotions were all the more remarkable given that they were achieved alongside runs to the FA Cup quarter-finals. Though United were eventually vanquished by top-flight opposition – Crystal Palace and Arsenal respectively – on both occasions, they achieved some notable scalps, thrashing First Division Sheffield Wednesday 4-0 and dispatching Bristol City 5-1, a game that included a stupendous 20-yard volley from Philpott.
No one outside of Cambridgeshire expected the team to be able to make the step up to challenge for promotion again, but Beck had assembled a talented squad: pocket-sized goalkeeper John Vaughan was dubbed The Legend by supporters for his prowess between the sticks, defenders Liam Daish and Alan Kimble would go on to enjoy long careers in the Premier League, and midfielder Richard Wilkins might have joined them if injury hadn’t intervened.
Up front, Taylor and Dublin had competition from a young Claridge, signed from Aldershot. The free-spirited Claridge was never going to be an easy convert to Beck’s methods and the pair clashed from day one. Writing in his autobiography, Tales from the Boot Camps, Claridge recalls turning up for his debut with dirty boots, as was his habit. Beck promptly dropped him from the team. The pair would later come to blows at half-time during a league game after Claridge committed the cardinal sin of dribbling inside when he should have laid the ball off to a team-mate.
Faced with the prospect of superior opposition, Beck’s tactics got more extreme and the manager cranked gamesmanship up to the max. The team trained on the playing surface at the Abbey Stadium to try and make passing football as difficult as possible, while the grass in the corners of the pitch was grown extra long to help hold the ball up. Opposition complained of boiling hot dressing rooms, deflated practice balls and tea topped up with a whole bag of sugar.
Image: OliverN5 (via Flickr)
But as long as the results continued those supporters didn’t care what opposition managers thought. The U’s started the season in unbeatable form and went top of Division Two in November, thanks to a 2-1 win over Ipswich at Portman Road.
At this point the Premier League founders must have started sweating. Little Cambridge and their ugly, anti-football weren’t part of their grand plan for a footballing superleague – having the U’s in there alongside Liverpool and Manchester United would have been like the cast of TOWIE gate-crashing a party at the Bullingdon Club.
They needn’t have worried.
Having been embarrassed by United once, teams found a way of countering their tactics in the second half of the season and, though Beck’s side rallied to finish fifth, Leicester City, a team the U’s had dispatched 5-1 earlier in the year, romped to a 6-1 aggregate victory in the Play-Offs.
Taylor had already been sold, sent to Bristol Rovers along with £100,000, as part of a baffling swap deal which saw the U’s receive the hopeless Devon White in return. That summer, Dublin joined Manchester United for a club record £1million, Claridge went off to Luton, while Beck lasted three months into the 1992/93 campaign before getting the boot. United were relegated at the end of that season and have arguably never recovered.
Claridge is sure that, had Beck been a little more flexible, the team would have reached the top flight.
“Beck will always say we got so far because of him and his methods,” he said. “I maintain it was in spite of them. I believe he stopped us being what we really could have become.”
He may have a point, but this would seem to me a harsh assessment of a manager who turned a squad of unknowns into one of the most feared sides in the lower divisions.
Beck, who is about to embark on his first season in charge of Evo-Stik (Southern) Premier Division side, Kettering Town, will never be everyone’s cup of tea, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that his favourite quote comes from American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be great is to be misunderstood”.
But, whether you consider him a misunderstood genius or a bit of a lunatic, few would argue that his time in the Cambridge hot-seat was the most exciting period of the club’s first 100 years.