Midweek Muse: How Cambridge United just missed out on the first season of the Premier League

Inspired by telling Tranmere’s tale in John King’s “deadly submarine” last week, Tom Simmonds looks back at another team from the same era who punched above their weight. How did Cambridge United so nearly gate-crash the Premier League’s first season?

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If the Tranmere side at the turn of the 1990s were a deadly submarine, then they were in the same waters as a rowdy pirate ship enjoying a giant-killing spree. The trajectory of the Cambridge United side who came within three games of joining the inaugural Premier League mirrored that of King’s Tranmere.

Over the course of a three year period, the U’s tore through the lower divisions in rapid order. This began with them beating Chesterfield 1-0 in the 1990 Fourth Division play-off final, courtesy of a goal from a 21-year-old Dion Dublin, before winning the Third Division title and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals the following season – a run which included a 4-0 fifth-round thrashing of a Sheffield Wednesday side who won the League Cup that season.

But it was the season after, riding an enormous wave of momentum, that they made their assault on the top flight. At the helm was John Beck, a man who was utterly unrepentant about Cambridge’s robust playing style. This was a hyper-direct long-ball game, aided and abetted by modifications such as Beck ordering the grass to be grown longer in the corners of the pitch to slow the ball down in those areas.

But, while even today Beck’s name is seen as shorthand for a type of unreconstructed, discredited football, it is important to remember that he was a product of his time, and that English football’s tastes had not changed sufficiently at that point to render his style anachronistic.

In the early 90s the FA continued to employ the long-ball devotee Charles Hughes as director of coaching, and route-one rough-and-tumble was still proving successful at the highest level of the English game at this time. Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup win and subsequent years of earning wins against the big names using this style of football is the most famous example of this.

It was a template which Beck was also making work for him in the Fens.

This Cambridge side also proved a footballing cliché true – success is primarily down to having good players. This team was not a Neanderthal one. In the shape of Dublin, Steve Claridge, hard man centre-back Liam Daish, Gary Rowett and Alan Kimble, their 1991-92 team boasted five players who went on to enjoy good top-flight careers.

They were complimented by skillful winger Lee Philpott and solid pros like ex-Army man turned midfield enforcer Michael Cheetham. While their style might have been rustic, this was a team who could have played any style of football asked of them.

Had the season ended in mid-April 1992, Cambridge would have automatically earned the right to join the best. They sat second, but a nervy end to the season left them open to being pipped by a Middlesbrough side who played ten league games in April, winning six of them to capitalise on Cambridge’s clincher’s disease.

As it turned out, the U’s fell down to finish fifth and – with sad inevitability – lost 6-1 on aggregate to Leicester in the play-off semi-finals, copping a 5-0 hammering in the second leg.

Cambridge’s fate since has shown that this was a one-shot deal and, once the bubble burst, they could not sustain their success. Dublin was sold to Manchester United in the summer and Cambridge started the 1992-93 season with an almighty hangover – losing their first four games and never rising higher than 18th all season.

A run of only three wins in their last 15 games saw them fall to second bottom, relegation, and the subsequent break-up of the team – the like of which the Abbey Stadium faithful haven’t seen the like of since.

What other underdog teams punching above their weight do you have fond memories of?

Cambridge fans old and young: what are your favourite memories or stories of your early 1990s team?

Read more from Tom here!

Get in touch with Tom at @TallulahOnEarth

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