For a few months in 1992, Cambridge United supporters contemplated what would have seemed an impossibility to those who had witnessed the club in turmoil in the mid-80s: life in the top flight of English football. The man chiefly responsible for this extraordinary state of affairs was John Beck.
He took a group of players assembled by his predecessor, Chris Turner, and with a few judicious additions and the employment of coaching and management techniques that amazed the watching world, took them to the play-offs that would determine the make-up of the inaugural Premier League.
Along the way, he guided his team to two successive promotions including the Division Three title, and coaxed superlative performances from his players as they swept household-name clubs aside to reach two FA Cup quarter-finals. The rise of little Cambridge United to a position where it threatened to storm the bastion of the game’s elite was accompanied by incredulity, fear, derision and no little disdain.
Chris Turner had brought together a squad of gifted, brave, strong and determined men, some of whom seemed to have missed out on the chance of playing at football’s top levels. John Beck moulded those players, and the ones he brought into the camp, into an ultra-efficient force capable of defying seemingly impossible odds.
How he did it remains the subject of animated debate to this day. As a cultured midfielder with Queens Park Rangers, Coventry City, Fulham, Bournemouth and the U’s, he had been noted for his utter dedication to his craft and his delightful skill with the ball. Malcolm Webster recalled: ‘He would pass that ball until the ball didn’t want to be passed any more.’
But the realisation that rewards could be garnered through more direct methods transformed his thinking, and soon the U’s, schooled and drilled to a terrific degree, were bombarding opponents’ penalty areas with rapidly created crosses, and with free kicks, corners and long throws.
United fans laughed when critics described Beck’s game as boring. How could it possibly be boring when goalmouth action was near constant, when the ‘goals for’ total mounted at a dizzying rate and when the team was storming up through the divisions?
There was much, much more to John Beck’s management success than his adherence to rigid discipline. He pioneered techniques in conditioning, nutrition, psychology, motivation and other disciplines, some of which have only recently become standard practice. He was years, perhaps decades, ahead of his time.
A lot of water had flowed under the bridge when John returned to the Abbey in 2001. There was to be no second miracle, but memories of the glories of the early 90s ensured his place in the Cambridge United pantheon.