November 9, 1991. 16:45: Cambridge United sit top of what is now the Championship after beating Ipswich Town 2-1 at Portman Road. Goals from Gary Rowett and Steve Claridge had seen the U’s beat our fellow promotion-chasers and local rivals. Three days before Steve Claridge had secured a point against Newcastle at St James Park, in front of almost 14,000 fans.
What led to the U’s sitting top of the Second Division of English football at this point, and would lead to the U’s competing in the playoffs for the inaugural Premier League at the end of the season?
You have to go back to 1986 when the club were in a slump following the disastrous managerial tenures of John Ryan and Ken Shellito, who oversaw successive relegations from the Second to the Fourth Division. After Shellito was sacked, Chris Turner took over and slowly started to rebuild the U’s, shipping out the old players and bringing in a young, hungry team with minimal budget. One of those players was former Coventry, QPR and Fulham midfielder John Beck. A difficult few seasons saw some eventual stability in the basement Division, before the club were shocked once again by Turner’s retirement due to ill health in January 1990. His replacement was Beck, who had just been forced into early retirement due to injury. Recommended by Turner, Beck built upon the work of his predecessor, but also began reshaping the club, implementing a number of revolutionary measures that saw success on the pitch, but created a reputation amongst the wider football community that he would never shake.
Years before Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola bought their own methods to English football, Beck was quietly instigating his own revolution at the Abbey. Realising quickly that his band of players may not have been the most technically skilful, and lacking the funds to go out and purchase big names, Beck instead concentrated on getting the best from what he had, motivating his charges with a number of inspirational posters around the training ground and changing room, and impressing on them that this is their chance to make history. Beck wanted high levels of possession, and quick counter attacks. People deride him for simply being a long ball merchant, but there’s more to it that this. Out of possession two defenders were instructed to close down their opponent, limiting his options and pressuring them into making a mistake. Mistakes for Beck were inexcusable. U’s players had their instructions drilled into them during training, set pieces were practised until they became second nature.
That first season saw an FA Cup Quarter Final appearance against eventual finalists Crystal Palace. It culminated with a visit to Wembley and victory in the Fourth Division play-off finals against Chesterfield. The winning goal was scored by Dion Dublin from a Chris Leadbitter corner. The following season saw Beck tweak his methods, refining his direct brand of football as well as working on making the Abbey Stadium a difficult place to visit. Opposition dressing rooms were heated full-blast, whilst their tea was heavily sugared. Warm up balls were soaked in water, wet and heavy, whilst the hot water was turned off in the visitors showers. The away teams dugout was moved away from the prime spot on the halfway line, towards the Allotment End, a place it would stay until the late 2000’s. There was also the appearance of large yellow signs on the floodlight pylons at each corner of the pitch, simply bearing the word ‘Quality’. A reminder of what Beck’s side were, but more importantly, a recognisable marker for the players to aim their passes towards, where the grass had been deliberately left long so the ball would hold up enough for the onrushing U’s winger to put in a cross, which was usually met by Dublin or John Taylor. This second season saw United again reach the FA Cup Quarter Finals, this time narrowly losing to Arsenal at Highbury, whilst the Third Division title was won on the final day, with victory over Swansea.
United were in the Second Division for the first time since the early 80’s, this time knowing that a third Promotion would see them in the newly formed Premier League. Plenty of teams were spending big to gain promotion, but Beck didn’t have that option. Instead he worked further on his tactics and treatment of the Abbey pitch, ensuring it was left in a state to hamper the oppositions plans to play a passing game, whilst allowing United to play to their strengths. Promotion hopefuls Leicester were thrashed 5-1, and Kenny Dalglish’s big-spending Blackburn would come away from the Abbey on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline. North-Eastern powerhouses Sunderland and Newcastle would also struggle against the U’s.
That 1991-92 season, with the U’s resplendent in their smart Influence ‘Fujitsu’ shirt would be the high point of Beck’s time at the Abbey, teams figured out how to play against United, and the small squad couldn’t stay top for long, eventually finishing fifth and entering a playoff with Blackburn, Derby and Leicester. Ipswich recovered from the defeat at Portman Road to finish as Champions. The first leg of the playoff semi-final was held at the Abbey, and United came out with a credible 1-1 draw. The second leg at Filbert Street however, was a disaster, United crashing to a 5-1 defeat. The dream was over. Leicester didn’t fare much better in the final, losing to Blackburn Rovers. Both teams would go on to eventually win the Premier League, whereas United ended up, through a series of poor financial decisions, and some pretty shady behaviour by a couple of board members, spending nine years in the Conference.
Beck lasted a couple of months of the following season but the writing was on the wall. High-profile fallings out with players including Steve Claridge, plus a reputation for playing football that angered the purists meant that the U’s got off to a bad start, and things didn’t really improve from there, ending up with United being released back to the Third Division. Two seasons later they were back in the fourth and it took the appointment of Roy McFarland to get us back up. Funnily enough, after McFarland’s sacking it would be Beck who returned to the Abbey for a short, but ultimately awful spell that ended with his sacking amidst a toxic atmosphere, a sad legacy for one of our most successful managers, and a man that should be regarded as one of the most influential the game has ever seen.