Saturday 15th August 1970: Cambridge United 1 Lincoln City 1 (Football League Division Four)
Lincoln City became part of Cambridge United’s history when they provided the opposition for their first ever Football League match in August 1970, writes Malcolm Johnson.
During the 1950s and 60s local rivals Cambridge City had claims to be considered the premier club in the area, drawing much bigger crowds to their 20,000-capacity ground at Milton Road nearer the town centre than United’s Abbey Stadium. However, after winning the Southern League championship in 1963 City entered a lean period ending in relegation to the lower division where their two seasons at that level saw Cambridge United decidedly overtake them in status by winning the league title in both 1969 and 1970.
Many years before the creation of what is now known as the National League the Southern League prior to the formation of the Northern Premier League two years earlier was considered the foremost non-league competition in the country. Cambridge United had applied for election to the Football League three times in the 1960s winning just a handful of votes each time until their first Southern League championship win in 1969. That year they achieved 16 votes, less than a dozen short of Newport County who were re-elected. Winning the championship again a year later strengthened their claim to league status and this time they equalled the total of 31 won by Newport making their second application in a row, and were well ahead of Bradford (Park Avenue) whose 17 votes were actually one fewer than Northern Premier League runners-up Wigan Athletic.
Bradford thus found themselves voted out of the league in favour of Cambridge who had employed a firm of publicity agents to canvass for votes in contrast to the Yorkshire club who, despite it being their fourth application in a row were perhaps the victims of a complacent trust in ‘the old pals’ act’. This usually saw clubs finishing in the bottom four places re-elected almost as a matter of routine with no club voted out since Gateshead were replaced by Peterborough United ten years before (Oxford United’s election in 1962 had been due to the demise of Accrington Stanley).
There had been increasing disappointment that Lincoln City had not managed to sustain a promotion challenge in either of the last two seasons and following changes in the boardroom manager Ron Gray had been dismissed despite having over a year left on his contract. It emerged later that former Manchester United star David Herd had been in the frame for the manager’s job but he had decided to prolong his playing career in Ireland. Instead, City’s trainer, the 36-year-old Bert Loxley was promoted to manager and now combined the two jobs. There had been a possibility that Graham Taylor, now with coaching qualifications could have been appointed as his assistant but Loxley preferred that the full back concentrate on a playing role.
In charge of Cambridge was 38-year-old former Manchester City full back Bill Leivers who had previously managed Doncaster Rovers and Workington before joining Cambridge in December 1967. A third place finish that season had been followed by the two Southern League championships culminating in their Football League place.
The teams were:
- John Kennedy
- Graham Taylor
- George Peden
- Phil Hubbard
- Ray Harford
- Jim Grummett
- Gordon Hughes
- Derek Trevis
- Percy Freeman
- Billy Taylor
- Rod Fletcher
- Dave Smith
- Trevor Roberts
- Jimmy Thompson
- Colin Meldrum
- Rodney Slack
- Terry Eades
- Robin Hardy
- Peter Leggett
- Bill Cassidy
- Malcolm Lindsay
- John McKinven
- George Harris
- Brian Grant
Lincoln’s goalkeeper and three quarters of the back four had been together for most of the last three seasons, the exception being right back Graham Taylor who had been signed from Grimsby Town for a fee of £4,000 in the summer of 1968. In goal, 30-year-old Northern Irishman John Kennedy had joined from Celtic in the summer of 1967 at the same time as former Exeter City centre half Ray Harford. Also in the centre of defence was the popular Jim Grummett, son of a former City player of the same name. He was City’s longest serving player at the age of 25, having made his debut in 1964 and was one of very few players remaining from before Ron Gray’s time as manager. Supporters had recently been disconcerted by the news that he wished to leave the club although not having formally asked for a transfer, and in fact former Luton Town captain Terry Branston had been targeted to be his replacement in the side.
In midfield was the local-born Phil Hubbard, along with Grummett one of the few players to have survived Ron Gray’s rebuilding of the side in 1967. A player who could fill several roles with equal effectiveness it appeared that he had now found his best position as a goalscoring midfielder and he would go on to finish as top scorer for the season. Alongside Hubbard was the cultured Billy Taylor, now 31, who had joined in the summer of 1969 from Nottingham Forest where he had spent several years as a fringe first team player. Like Ray Harford and his namesake Graham, Billy Taylor was to go on to a notable career in coaching before it was cut short by his early death.
On the right wing was veteran Gordon Hughes, now aged 34 who had been one of City’s most effective players since joining from Derby County in 1968 after much experience in the top two divisions for the Rams and Newcastle United.
One of just two new players signed during the close season was to become a Sincil Bank legend with 25-year-old former lorry driver Percy Freeman arriving on a free transfer from West Bromwich Albion. Although Newark-born the centre forward had played for a variety of local clubs in the West Midlands area before joining the First Division outfit, making just three appearances for them. The other newcomer was 27-year-old Derek Trevis, something of a utility player who had cost £6,000 from Third Division side Walsall and who had previously made around 200 appearances for Colchester United.
With Trevis deployed as a striker alongside Freeman it meant Rod Fletcher the previous season’s focal point of the attack and top scorer with 17 goals found himself pushed out onto the left wing. Fletcher, like goalkeeper Kennedy, a part-time professional and a schoolteacher, was another player brought to the club by Ron Gray in the summer of 1967, and while his pace was an asset to the left wing position his inability to cross the ball with his left foot was not and he was to quickly find himself mainly featuring as a substitute, swapping a place in the starting line-up with the no. 12 for this game Dave Smith. Like Freeman also to become a City legend, ‘Smithy’ was starting his third season with City after joining from Middlesbrough’s reserve side.
In goal for Cambridge was the experienced Trevor Roberts who had been signed during the summer from Southend United after making over 170 appearances for the Essex club.
At right back was former Grimsby Town man Jimmy Thompson who had joined Cambridge after a spell playing in South Africa and had been a part of United’s two Southern League championship seasons. Partnering him was former Reading captain Colin Meldrum who had joined the club just under a year previously after making around 300 appearances for the Third Division side. In the middle of the defence Robin Hardy had made a total of around 70 appearances for Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham before spending two years running a pub in Worksop. He had then returned to football, joining Cambridge in October 1967. Alongside Hardy was Terry Eades who had started his career with Chelmsford City, winning the Southern League championship with them before repeating the feat twice with Cambridge. He was to go on to make almost 250 appearances for the U’s in the Football League.
In midfield for Cambridge were Mel Slack and Bill Cassidy. The hard-tackling Slack was another player to feature in United’s two championship winning seasons after arriving from Southend for whom he had played over 100 times. Scotsman Cassidy, also had over 100 league appearances behind him, in his case for Brighton, before, like Terry Eades, winning successive Southern League championships with Chelmsford and then Cambridge.
Experienced left-sided player John McKinven was another to join from Southend United, playing around 300 games for them before arriving at the Abbey Stadium the previous December. On the right was George Harris, another experienced player with well over 300 games and 100 goals for Newport, Watford and Reading from whom he had joined Cambridge the previous February.
Striker Malcolm Lindsay had been a prolific scorer for King’s Lynn before joining Cambridge midway through the previous season. He was partnered by Peter Leggett who had made a small number of appearances for Swindon and Brighton before joining Chelmsford and becoming another player to win the Southern League championship three years in a row. Known for his mercurial talent – and long hair – he had come to be known as the George Best of non-league football. Leggett had spent a month on trial with the Imps in the previous December turning out for the reserve team, and although Lincoln had wanted to keep him for a second month he returned to Cambridge.
Substitute was full back Brian Grant who had started his career with Nottingham Forest, playing a small number of games for them before becoming Brian Clough’s first signing for Hartlepools United. After a season with the north east club, he joined Cambridge in the summer of 1967 to become one of the longest-serving of their current players.
The attendance of 6,843 was to be Cambridge’s third-highest of the season, beaten only by the local derby with Peterborough United and the late season visit of promotion-chasing Notts County. The average for their first season in league football ended up as a very respectable 5,045.
I couldn’t miss this game, although it meant a three-hour journey from Nottingham on the summer coach service to Clacton-on-Sea. Arrived at Cambridge, and with prominent floodlight pylons visible not far from the town centre I made my way to the ground only to find it was the home of Cambridge City. Luckily, there was still time to find out the location of the Abbey Stadium in time for kick-off.
The match programme proudly proclaimed the inclusion of the insert magazine the ‘Football League Review’ and also boasted that it was a ‘Special Issue’. It turned out the only thing special about it was being double the usual price as Cambridge cashed in on the occasion.
With not only the home supporters but neutrals as well wanting Cambridge to do well in their first league game the Imps were rather up against a wave of sentiment. However, the City team refused to be fazed by the occasion and turned in an efficient performance taking the lead after just eight minutes with a goal on his debut by skipper Derek Trevis. A typically well-placed through ball from Billy Taylor sent Rod Fletcher away down the left, leaving Cambridge full back Thompson trailing in his wake. Fletcher then put a precise ball into the centre for Trevis to hit the ball wide of goalkeeper Trevor Roberts.
Cambridge then struggled to remain in the game with a couple of goal-line clearances as the Imps were unable to force a second goal. They rather paid for this failure twelve minutes from time when Cambridge’s own captain, Colin Meldrum headed in a corner from John McKinven.
My player ratings at the time perhaps reflected a disappointment at not having won the match as I gave only Phil Hubbard a mark above average. Manager Bert Loxley also considered that City would have had the game well won by half time had they taken their chances.
After an immediate exit from the League Cup Cambridge lost their first away Football League game by 2-1 at Northampton, but followed this up with two home wins in a row. After rising as high as seventh place they were on equal points with the Imps in mid-table by the time of the stormy return match at Sincil Bank in mid-October which they won 1-0 despite finishing the game with nine men. A run of seven defeats in nine games then put them well into the lower half of the league table before Bill Leivers began to re-shape the side with several of the former Southern League players being gradually discarded. An end-of-season run of only one defeat in their last seven games was enough to see them finish one place above what would have meant an embarrassing plea for re-election.
As for the Imps, some good early season form saw them knock Second Division Sunderland out of the League Cup before reaching sixth place at the beginning of October. Unfortunately, they then began to be increasingly hit by injuries not least to Percy Freeman who had eight goals to his name by November. Injuries and inconsistent results saw them just outside the bottom four by the end of February and the replacement of Bert Loxley by David Herd as manager. But there was no let up to the injury troubles and in contrast to Cambridge’s end of season run, only one win and too many draws in their last twelve games meant a 21st-place finish and a fifth application for re-election in nine seasons.