Cambridge United 1991

Today Cambridge United would need a mad tycoon to get into the Premiership, but John Morgan remembers when a tactical eccentric almost managed the impossible

First Division tables from the 1970s and 80s now look like relics from a bygone era. They are filled with unfamiliar and unexpected names: Bristol City, Brighton, Notts County, Swansea, Carlisle and Wim­bledon. Clubs who had chanced upon the talent of an exceptional manager or group of players were able to suddenly spring to the top from the depths of mediocrity. Even the most desperately unsuccessful lower-division teams could take solace in the dream that one day they might reach the same heights.

Throughout the 1991-92 season, the last before the arrival of the Premiership, there seemed a genuine possibility that Cambridge United might become the first team to progress from the Fourth Division to the First in successive seasons. Their manager, the sour-faced John Beck, had moulded a well organised team that played extremely direct football with astonishing results: as well as two promotions, the two previous seasons had seen FA Cup quarter-finals against Crystal Palace and Arsenal. However, Beck’s tactics and his reputation for gamesmanship made his team deeply unpopular among the media and rival managers (notably Glenn Hoddle, then in charge of Swindon). Strange stories circulated about Beck’s demands that the grass at the Abbey be grown high in the corners in order to hold up the numerous long balls; about him turning up the heating in the away changing rooms to unbearable levels and jamming it on; and, less plausibly, about him laying on over-sweetened tea to diminish the opposition’s performance.

But such matters were unimportant to Cambridge supporters, who were surprised and delighted to find their team second in Division Two in November 1991. Five thousand of them travelled to Ipswich to see a match that would prove the pinnacle of their club’s achievements. There was a sharp contrast between the two participants in this East Anglia derby. Ipswich, where Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson had established dynastic reigns, had won the UEFA Cup and been runners-up in the First Division ten years earlier; they maintained their reputation for attractive football under then-manager John Lyall. More modestly, Cambridge had set a League record seven years earlier by going 31 games without a win.

A crowd of 21,000 filled Portman Road for the match. Oddly, it was broadcast live across Scandinavia, which meant that the hoardings around the pitch advertised such mysteries as “Grønlands TORG” and “ELKJØP”. From the start of the game, Ipswich quickly justified their superior stature. One neat move ended with Simon Milton smashing a volley against a post and Jason Dozzell side-footing the rebound against the other post. But Cambridge recovered and the home defence were soon struggling to cope with the power of Dion Dublin and the craft of Steve Claridge.

Beck’s tactics demanded that the team work the ball down the wings in order to gain the corners and throw-ins that were the centrepieces of his plan. After 35 minutes, Claridge chased a ball down the right to win a corner. The well rehearsed set-piece drill came into operation. Lee Philpott was a ponderously slow left-winger, but took perfect corners that curved in at pace in a beautiful high arc. Here he produced one of his best efforts; Claridge blocked off the goalkeeper, Dublin flicked on at the near post and Gary Rowett prodded the ball home from two yards. Though the goal was a long way from being aesthetically pleasing, it did demonstrate Beck’s system at its most effective. The United fans crammed into the corner of the North Stand celebrated noisily, while the silent Ipswich supporters, raised on more sophisticated football, looked taken aback by such vulgarity.

The second half saw Ipswich reassert their auth­ority and they equalised through Mick Stockwell. But though not playing well, Cambridge managed to return to their highly nuanced philosophy of putting the ball in the box as quickly as possible. With ten minutes remaining, the tactic produced a series of ricochets and miscues in the Ipswich box; Philpott turned the ball across the face of goal and Claridge headed in off a defender’s back. Claridge then went on a lengthy run of celebration that took him all over the Ipswich half, a look of joy and utter disbelief on his face. The mood was shared among the euphoric visiting supporters. The Scandinavians watching on television nearly choked on their elkjøp.

Cambridge were top of the Second Division for the first time in their history; it appeared that the new Premiership might include an entirely unexpected founder member. They were still top at Christmas, but when the return fixtures came, teams were familiar with Beck’s system and able to counteract it. Beck responded by enforcing his tactics even more rigidly and acting increasingly oddly. In the home game against Ipswich he substituted Claridge after 20 minutes for daring to cut inside and beat a man instead of sticking to the flanks. At half-time, Claridge punched Beck and sparked a brawl between players and coaching staff. It was hardly a surprise when Cambridge slipped from the automatic promotion places and were beaten heavily by Leicester in the play-offs.

Within three years of being contenders for a place in the inaugural Premiership, Cambridge were back where they started, in the basement division, sacking Beck just five months after the play-off defeat. The memory of the heights they had reached so recently only served to sharpen the sense of disappointment.

Given the changes in the way in which television money is distributed within the game, it is now impossible for any club so small to seriously hope to attain such an elevated position without the backing of a multimillionaire. For Cambridge, the win at Ipswich marked an achievement that can never be repeated.

From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month