After Cambridge’s gutsy performance against Man Utd in Friday’s FA Cup 4th round – a look at what makes Cambridge the club they are
Many a football club reflects its surroundings. Working-class towns often produce teams where crowds demand players put in a shift. Quality is welcome, but commitment is essential. Some sides from middle-class places can be dismissed as being too nice.
But sometimes there is an exception.
Cambridge is a genteel place, home of one of the world’s most famous universities, a place intrinsically associated with English prime ministers, actors, authors and Nobel laureates, and, increasingly, the centre of Britain’s hi-tech economy, even if “Silicon Fen” is not quite Silicon Valley.
A quarter of a century ago, however, it was the home of one of the most uncompromisingly direct and infamously ruthless teams in the history of English football. They were so nearly one of its great success stories, too.
Under their infamous manager, John Beck, they went from 14th in the old Division Four to top of Division 2 in under two years in 1990 and 1991. Had they stayed there for a further five months, they would have become founder members of the Premier League. They were FA Cup quarter-finalists twice, too. They were the glory years of a small club.
Long before the ice-bucket challenge was invented, Cambridge’s players were subjected to a shower jet of freezing cold water and then had ice tipped over their head. Some of Beck’s methods owed more to the armed forces than football.
His players were drilled, sergeant-major style. They were so regimented they were forbidden to pass the ball backwards. The striker Steve Claridge was unceremoniously substituted for finding a teammate infield rather than booting the ball towards the corner flag. Bizarrely, Beck once had his players hypnotised.
Opponents discovered their dressing room felt like a sauna and their tea was loaded with sugar to try and slow them down. Even the balls they were given for the pre-match warm-up were not properly inflated.
The grass was left six inches longer near the corner flags to slow down the ball and help Cambridge win the throws and corners that were fundamental to their set-piece, long-ball game plan.
“We made Wimbledon look sophisticated,” said Claridge in his autobiography, Tales From The Boot Camps.
It is a different sort of Cambridge literature and it is fair to say Beck has never recovered from it. As he accepted in a 2009 interview, his reputation precedes him.
“‘John Beck? Oh yes, long ball, cold showers and dirty tricks’,” Beck said, summarising the charges in sentence. While he denies most of the charges of gamesmanship, the charges have stuck. An overachieving manager acquired the nickname “Dracula” and an image as a mad dictator whose refusal to adapt his methods held back Cambridge.
“But for one man’s inflexibility, Cambridge really could have made history,” Claridge wrote. “I firmly believe this team would have made the Premier League if only Beck had compromised a little. It was just so talented. Beck will always say that the club got so far because of him and his methods; I maintain it was in spite of them.”
Opponents wised up to Cambridge’s tactics, realised their players were not given freedom to play, and customised their own approach. Top of the second tier in December 1991, Cambridge were back in the bottom division by 1995 and dropped out of the Football League altogether in 2005, returning only last year.
Beck was sacked by Cambridge later in 1992 and never enjoyed managerial success again although, to the horror of some who remember his style of play, he is employed by the English Football Association in coach education. Occasionally, however, there are hints at a reappraisal of Beck’s record.
His reliance on statistics, and football’s notorious Position of Maximum Opportunity, was used to justify a long-ball game. Long before the word “moneyball” was invented, Beck practised it.
He, and Cambridge, unearthed and polished gems. Claridge and defenders Gary Rowett, Liam Daish and Alan Kimble went on to play top-flight football. Dion Dublin, a centre-back released by Norwich, was converted into a striker who scored 111 Premier League goals. He was sold by Cambridge in 1992 for £1 million, then a sizeable fee.
The buyers? Friday’s opponents, Manchester United.
Cambridge United 0-0 Manchester United
Friday 23rd January
FA Cup 4th Round
(Replay at Old Trafford)
- Cambridge 76 league places below Man Utd
- Cambridge starting line-up cost nothing, Man Utd’s £180m