John Beck's return to Cambridge has delighted some but disgusted others. Simon Knott explains why there is such a difference in opinion
And so, he’s back. The man who gave us our proudest moments as Cambridge United fans returns under a cloud, albeit someone else’s. John Beck’s reappearance in the Cambridge hot seat has been greeted with a few gasps of horror and revulsion. These have mainly come from younger fans, brought up on Roy McFarland’s gentle arm-round-the-shoulders dressing room diplomacy, as well as the horror stories of their parents; there are mums on Ditton Fields who still threaten their naughty children with what Beck might do to them.
Beck’s name recalls images of extreme gamesmanship and the breathtaking purity of his long ball tactics. But it was not these that made Cambridge United such a special place under his management in that surprisingly brief period of 1990 to 1992. What Beck gave us in buckets was spirit. For the first time, we believed in ourselves completely, and in the 1990-91 season we could have taken on anyone. The greatest moment for many United fans will still be that afternoon at Arsenal in March 1992, the FA Cup quarter-final. We gave that year’s champions a run for their money in front of their biggest crowd of the season. Twelve thousand fans made the trip, at a time when our home capacity was barely 8,000. A rampant Tony Adams nudged them 2-1 into the semis, but it was a close thing.
“Isn’t he a loony?” someone observed on the fans’ message board when his appointment was announced. But us old lags remember the excitement of those days, and it seems a long time since there’s been anything like it. When Beck was sacked, it was largely because of his habit of circulating his CV to other clubs in search of a manager. By then, his tactics on the pitch had been found out, of course, but we would probably have survived in the First Division with them. Instead, we entered the downward spiral of well-meaning idealism, which so rarely works in professional football, don’t you find? Beck’s successors (Ian Atkins, Gary Johnson and Tommy Taylor) oversaw our freefall and all went on to lesser things (Northampton, Latvia and Leyton Orient).
And then there was Roy, the kind of manager we weren’t used to. His softly spoken confidence seduced us slightly, and it made a change to be top five for most of the 1998-99 season; we were used to coming from behind in the last fortnight.
But before the Bristol Rovers game on February 24 we had seen only three wins in 23 games, and it became clear that this was McFarland’s last stand. Would the team go out and play the game of their life for him? Well, they certainly lay down and died, which isn’t quite the same thing. A director had already spoken to me of the lack of respect for McFarland in the dressing room, and it was no surprise when chairman Reg Smart called an emergency meeting for Monday evening.
With redevelopment of the ground looming, Cambridge simply cannot afford to be relegated. Reg Smart protested, rather too much, that he had received several applications. (Really? For a job that wasn’t even vacant?) But John Beck walked out of the meeting the new manager of Cambridge United. After exciting, successful and, again, surprisingly brief periods at Preston and Lincoln, Beck had taken to spending his Saturday afternoons at the Abbey. Networking is the modern phrase, I believe. Without noticing it, we’d accepted him as part of the furniture again. He bided his time, and his time has come.
Reg has given him a route back into football that he can never have expected. Perhaps, as a wily friend observed, he’s been offered a pat on the head, half Roy’s salary and a crate of whisky if we avoid relegation or put five past Peterborough – he’d do it for that, I think. I’ve no idea what will happen over the next few weeks. But I wouldn’t bet against him getting us out of relegation. Yes, he’s a loony – but he’s our loony.
From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month