Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fens Football Focus - 5 Cambridge United

I always think of Cambridge United as a league club, which they were from 1970 to 2005, however they came from humble beginnings and their existence has been aided by a number of personalities who have been involved with the club over the years.

The first club to be known as Cambridge United were formed in 1908 and in 1912 a club that would later be known as Cambridge United, Abbey United was formed. However, World War 1 interfered with footballing business and both of these clubs were disbanded during the conflict. Abbey United were re-formed in 1919 and this has been taken as the official date of the foundation of Cambridge United.

Up until World War 2 Cambridge United, or Abbey United, as they were known until 1951 were a minor force in local football and were firmly in the shadows of Cambridge Town, who saw Ipswich as their rivals rather than United. That was all to change though when in 1949 United signed their first professional player and set on their journey that would take them from the Eastern Counties League to the Southern League to a place in the Football League. Another audacious move by the club, which underlined the extent of their ambitions came in 1956 when they signed Wilf Mannion.

Mannion had been a hero at Middlesbrough in the top division of English football for many years, in fact he was such a hero that there is a statue of him outside the Riverside Stadium to this very day. He also served bravely in World War 2 and was capped 26 times by England. In the first England game after the War Mannion scored a hat-trick against Northern Ireland. However, in 1956 Mannion was a Hull City player and after making allegations of illegal payments in football, allegations that he couldn't prove he was banned by the Football League. It underlined Cambridge's braveness and ambition that they were able to get him to sign for them in the Eastern Counties League.

By the 1960's Mannion had left the club, but United underlined their ambition to get in to the League. At the end of the decade they won the Southern League twice in a row and in 1970 Bradford Park Avenue were refused re-entry to the league, so United were given their place.

After a rocky start Cambridge United got promotion to division 3 in 1972. However, they only managed to stay their one season before dropping back into the basement. In 1974 Ron Atkinson arrived and Cambridge United reverted back to their traditional black and amber stripes after several experiments with their kits. If it were the kits or Ron's magic at work we will never know, but either way it did the trick. By 1978 Cambridge United had reached the second division after successive promotions, which was a pretty impressive climb in just 8 years of league football. They managed to stay in division 2 for 5 season before plumetting all the way back to division 4.

In 1986 United had to apply for re-election to the league, but help was around the corner in the shape of the controversial manager Jeff Beck. Beck has come in for a lot of stick due to his dreadful long ball style and mistreatment of players from visiting clubs. Maybe he had an axe to grind, as he had been a bit player in the successful and super entertainment packed QPR team of the 70s, so he might just have been getting his own back. Anyway, his underhand tactics worked and at the start of the 90s, in 1990 and 1991 United were again promoted consecutively from Division 4 to Division 2. In 1993 they reached the play-off and were on the verge of gaining a place in the top tier of English football. However instead they embarked on a downward spiral and in 2005 were relegated into the Conference with debts of a million pounds.

Last season they reached the play-off final before losing at Wembley to Exeter City. This year they will be hoping to go one better.

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