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Strange goings-on at the Abbey - Carl Marston's Travels with Town

PUBLISHED: 18:42 25 July 2019 | UPDATED: 18:42 25 July 2019

The view from the terraces inside the Abbey Stadium, the home of Cambridge United. Picture: PA

The view from the terraces inside the Abbey Stadium, the home of Cambridge United. Picture: PA

PA Wire

Football writer Carl Marston has visited 120 Football League grounds over the last 30 years, many of them reporting on Ipswich. Here he recalls the 1991-92 rivalry with Cambridge United

The Abbey Stadium, home of Cambridge United since 1932, although the club were known as Abbey United until 1951. Picture: IAN BURTThe Abbey Stadium, home of Cambridge United since 1932, although the club were known as Abbey United until 1951. Picture: IAN BURT

I had the good fortune to witness a good portion of the John Beck era at Cambridge United, during the early 1990s.

Not that the brand of football was particularly pleasing to the eye, with Beck being an exponent of the merits of the long-ball, but because, a bit like Roy Keane's ill-fated time at Ipswich Town, there was always something going on behind the scenes.

Unlike the Keane era, which brought little more than misery and certainly little in the way of footballing success to Portman Road - with the exception of a League Cup run all the way to the semi-finals, and a two-legged tussle with Arsenal - the Beck days at the Abbey are regarded as the most successful chapter of Cambridge United's history.

Successive promotions from the fourth tier to the second tier was followed by a remarkable season in the old Second Division which almost culminated in promotion to the new Premier League.

John Lyall, receiving the manager of the season award in London in May, 1992, after guiding Ipswich to the Second Division title, and so into the new Premier League.John Lyall, receiving the manager of the season award in London in May, 1992, after guiding Ipswich to the Second Division title, and so into the new Premier League.

- Snagged sweater and a rotten record at Layer Road - Carl Marston's Travels with Town

Town and Cambridge were fierce rivals in that 1991-92 campaign, with the former going up as champions to reach the new promised land, while Beck's brave troops were beaten in the play-off semi-finals by Leicester City, who at the time were still plying their trade at Filbert Street.

John Beck, a successful manager of Cambridge United during the early 1990s.John Beck, a successful manager of Cambridge United during the early 1990s.

There are many legendary tales surrounding these colourful years under Beck's stewardship, the Golden Era of Cambridge United.

As a former regular visitor to the Abbey Stadium press box, perched to the rear of the main stand, I was aware of many of Beck's pranks/tactics unfolding on the pitch; but keeping my ear to the ground, I was also aware of a few more goings-on inside the Abbey Stadium dressing rooms.

The obvious included leaving the grass long near the corner flags, to halt the ball and so facilitate Cambridge's direct, long-ball approach. Humping the ball up long and high gave wingers of the calibre of Lee Philpott and Michael Cheetham something to chase.

The not-quite-so-obvious, but much-discussed, was the lack of hot water in the away dressing room, plus the heaters being turned up full blast to leave the visitors a little jaded.

Simon Milton, who scored for Ipswich in their 1-1 draw at Cambridge in March, 1992.Simon Milton, who scored for Ipswich in their 1-1 draw at Cambridge in March, 1992.

- Penalties and a long night at Anfield - Carl Marston's Travels with Town

As for the home players, their senses were sharpened by buckets of cold water chucked over them, before kick-off, and were constantly being instructed not to take more than one touch of the ball, and to favour the long pass over the short pass.

Of course this all contrasted acutely with the footballing prowess of Town's own boss at the time, the much-respected John Lyall.

A disciple of West Ham's famed passing style of football - Lyall was the boss at Upton Park for 15 years before his arrival in Suffolk - it was chalk-and-cheese, Lyall and Beck, the 'beautiful game' versus the pragmatic game.

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Great characters, both of them, and in their own ways a success at what they did best.

The low-down

Ground: Abbey Stadium

Club: Cambridge United

Town's first visit: 1-0 defeat on October 28, 1986 (League Cup)

Town's last visit: 2-0 win on October 5, 1993 (League Cup)

Town's overall record at the Abbey: P3 W1 D1 L1

Quirky fact: Abbey United, who were renamed Cambridge United in 1951, were playing their football at Parker's Piece, a green common near the centre of Cambridge, before moving to the Abbey Stadium in 1932.

Carl's visit

March 21, 1992: So much rested on Town's trip to the Abbey Stadium, for this first and so far only league outing, with both teams in the promotion mix.

The result was a 1-1 draw, which suited Town far more than it did Cambridge. Simon Milton drilled Town into a 53rd minute lead, only for the hosts to net a controversial equaliser just three minutes later - defender Mick Heathcote appeared to foul Town keeper Craig Forrest before back-heeling the loose ball into the net.

Carl's experience

Lyall's free-flowing Town, with pacy striker Chris Kiwomya bagging 19 goals during the season, and the likes of Steve Whitton and Jason Dozzell pulling the strings, were deserved champions.

Beck, though, was always good value, especially for journalists, with his strange decisions and inflammatory quotes.

He substituted striker Steve Claridge after just 22 minutes of the Town clash - Claridge walked straight to the dressing room, with head bowed.

And referring to Heathcote's controversial goal, a mischievous Beck said: "I thought Mick's contribution was marvellous."

Priceless.

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