For lower-league supporters the FA Cup third-round draw is often more exciting than many of your actual games. I naturally yearn for the 80s simplicity of a velvet bag, Graham Kelly, Ted Croker and Bert Millichip broadcasting from a broom cupboard in total silence. But even on the One Show, with fans awkwardly moved on and off set in some sort of Weekend At Bernie’s zombie tribute it still offers hopes and dreams you just can’t get from Gillingham away.
This season it was a scaled-down affair in a Wembley corporate box with Seema Jaswal in charge of the FA Cup winners Faye White and the perennially overjoyed David Seaman. The Yorkshireman is encouraged to empty the velvet bag into the bowl and give it a “good old shake”. He is, after all, a safe pair of hands – hands which in a few moments could get you a dream tie against one the Premier League top six, or more likely away to a mid-range Championship team with no romance and no chance of winning.
Faye dips her fingers into the pot. “Number 45.” Seema: “Yeovil Town.” Me: No thanks. David: “Number one.” Seema: “Will play Bournemouth.” Me: Good.
Faye: “Number 38.” Seema: “Stoke City.” Please no. David: “Number 52.” Seema: “Will play Leyton Orient.” Thank God for that.
A few balls later. Thirteen. Chelsea. Absolutely yes. Sixty-one. Chesterfield. Dammit. Twenty-three. Liverpool. Go on go on go on. Sixty. Shrewsbury Town – you lucky bastards.
By the time Faye picks out Newcastle United, there aren’t many good ones left. We’ll take it. They’re big. We’ll make money. They’re not good. We could win – and they might have signed Ousmane Dembélé by then. Come on David Seaman – you were lucky to get past us in the quarter-final in 91; the least you owe us is this. “They will play number … 53.” Cambridge United. Delighted.
Just over 30 years ago – on 6 November 1991, Cambridge United went to St James’ Park as favourites in the old second division. Always 4-4-2. Dion Dublin and John Taylor up front. Steve Claridge shunted out to right wing, Lee Philpott down the left. Andy Fensome, Liam Daish, Danny O’Shea, Alan Kimble. What a back four. And John Vaughan in goal. Give or take a couple of players, it was the same team that had gone from Division Four to Division Three to the top of Division Two with two FA Cup quarter-finals along the way. It was a frankly ridiculous time to be a U’s fan – especially if you were 11 years old.
The downside of being 11 was a Wednesday evening trip to Newcastle wasn’t happening on a school night. I probably listened to the commentary on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, Edwin Overland delivering the news of Claridge opening the scoring on the hour – before Andy Hunt equalised in the last minute in front of just over 13,000 supporters.
Over the years I’ve convinced myself that Hunt’s goal cost us promotion to the inaugural Premier League and saved Newcastle from dropping to the third tier. The truth isn’t quite so dramatic. The U’s went top after winning at Portman Road three days later, but dropped away in the second half of the season and finished six points off the automatic spots, going on to get hammered by Leicester in the play-offs. Newcastle stayed up by four points.
The following year I recall Andy Cole tearing us apart as the Magpies ran away with the title and Cambridge were relegated – we haven’t been back since.
Our most famous clash is recounted by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch in a chapter entitled Coconuts. Cambridge play I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts when we win – the legacy of the PA man choosing it in the 50s. Our current local BBC commentator Mark Johnson announces, “You can fire up Coconuts” with glee at the end of every victory.
In April 1984 Cambridge United had set a record of 31 games without a win. Newcastle arrived with Waddle, Beardsley and Keegan. The U’s scored early and that’s how it stayed.
“In the last five minutes, with Cambridge thumping the ball as far into the allotments as possible, you would have thought they were about to win the European Cup,” writes Hornby. “At the final whistle the players (most of whom, bought or pulled out of the reserves to stop the rot, had never played in a winning team) embraced each other and waved happily to the ecstatic home fans; and for the first time since October the club DJ was able to play ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’. It didn’t mean a thing in the long run, and the next season they got relegated again, but after that long, bleak winter it was a memorable couple of hours.”
The 80s and 90s feel like a long time ago – because they were a long time ago. A lot changes in 30 years.
On Saturday about 5,000 U’s fans will travel to a sold-out St James’ Park. We have a brilliant young manager in Mark Bonner – a Cambridge fan who has worked his way up from coaching the under-eights to getting promotion from League Two last season. Wes Hoolahan is almost 40 and only plays Saturdays. Yet he is the first midfielder I can remember who actually wants the ball from our central defenders – taking it in tight spaces, wriggling out of them and dictating play. It’s not overstating things to suggest he’ll be the most naturally gifted player on the pitch. Joe Ironside has stepped up to lead the line on his own after our record-breaking goalscorer Paul Mullin was wooed by Ryan Reynolds and went down two divisions to play for Wrexham.
And this weekend we represent good against evil. OK perhaps not that simple – but the Newcastle takeover is another depressing chapter in the bleak world that elite football has become, and one, as we suspected, that has largely been forgotten as the talk turns to Trippier, Ramsey, Aubameyang and the rest.
We’re small. We’re not a vital part of the city in the way Newcastle United are. So perhaps it’s fatuous to compare the two current structures. All the money in the world versus picking up bargains and relying on our academy. Dreaming of titles or aiming for mid-table in League One. Fan representation on the board or the Saudi Public Investment Fund. I know which I’d prefer.