Great Football League Teams 4: Cambridge United 1991-2
For a series purporting to cover great teams, our second East Anglian choice of recent weeks perhaps takes liberties with the brief. For just as Alf Ramsey, for all Ray Crawford’s goals, is synonymous with the success of Ipswich Town; so Cambridge United are personified by John Beck. Indeed, as one Abbeyite contributor to When Saturday Comes put it, he’s “our loony”.
For Beck represented the militant paramilitary wing of the Charles Hughes brief. While Wimbledon under Dave Bassett and Watford under Graham Taylor had their realism softened by media friendly managers who were popular with the players, Beck made no such concessions. The tactics are now famous — those ice cold baths, the failure to mow the pitch in the corners so it would hold up after being pumped down the channels, the strategic positioning of the away dug out, and numerical targets for getting the ball into the penalty area (irrespective of goals) — what would latter day chalkboard illustrators Zonal Marking have made of all this?
But a debate could rage as to whether Cambridge’s first place in Division Two this very day in 1991 was achieved because or in spite of Beck. First, the case for the defence: the Londoner brought about immediate success on arriving at the Abbey Stadium in 1990, with a fourth division play-off win followed by the third division Championship and back to back quarter final appearances in the FA Cup. That they then topped a league including a Blackburn trailing the early benefits of the Walker millions, a cultured Swindon Town stewarded by Glenn Hoddle, plus giants of the sport Newcastle, Sunderland and Wolves was astounding: after all United had only been a league club for three decades. The Fenlanders have never had it better.
But if a legendary strike force comprising Dion Dublin and John “Shaggy” Taylor, a granite centre half pairing of Liam Daish and Danny O’Shea, commando-like midfielders Mick Cheetham and Chris Leadbitter and the muscular Lee Philpott dealing with the ball pummellings on the left flank suited Beck’s martial methods; full backs Gary Rowett and Alan Kimble, both later to play for the best part of a decade in the soon to be formed Premier League and benchwarmer (but regular goalscorer) Steve Claridge indicated that this was a team with talent that might sometimes have been put to better uses.
A fifth place play-off berth nonetheless constituted unheard of celebrating on the banks of the Cam at Grantchester (well, not really), but after a 1-1 draw in a tense first leg against Leicester, Philpott and Claridge’s future employers tore the sorry U’s apart five to nothing in the return: a cruel and startling end to a period of uninterrupted success that must have seemed to Beck like his own personal Borodino. The retreat was prolonged: defender cum midfielder Colin Bailie, already well used to brutalism from his days at Ian Branfoot’s Reading, had seen enough, leaving for the less disciplined ranks of the police force, Dublin headed for Old Trafford (and the design of musical instruments) and Beck himself was allegedly caught circulating his CV to managerless clubs. A sorry return to Anglia a decade later detonated his reputation and Cambridge now languish outside the seventy two.