Why are the real ‘Moneyball’ pioneers all but forgotten? Part 2

In 1990, a young manager outlawed his team from shooting from distance, insisted that they got the ball into the box as often as possible and made set-pieces a frightening weapon. He, like many other early pioneers are being ignored in discussions about the ‘statistics revolution’ in football. The reason is that his style of football is now unfashionable at the very least but also regarded as something that set English football back many decades. I refute this and would like to tell his story and others like it.

So, John Beck’s Cambridge United team had won promotion and reached an FA Cup quarter-final in his first five months of management. Those first few months couldn’t be topped though, could they?

The 1990/1991 Division Three season began disappointingly for Beck as his team won just one of its first six league fixtures. One of their two league defeats was heavy as they went down 4-1 at the hands of Southend United at United’s home, the Abbey Stadium. Those early disappointments led Beck to alter his style of play rather than look for alternative personnel. He was working with pretty much the same squad as had won promotion but clearly believed that his methods were the key. The young manager was obviously learning from his mistakes and honing his beliefs into something which would work even better.

Cambridge United’s style under John Beck had always been direct but the manager’s alterations took that directness a step further. I described the changes he made in part 1 but to summarise simply, they made Cambridge an even more potent attacking force than they had previously been. Ironically given the situation today, it was Stoke City who were the first to complain. Their manager Alan Ball said that United would “get the game done away with” describing his own side as the passers and United as the kickers. Beck retorted, “we’ll have to wait until the end of the season to see which style is most successful”.

Just as in the previous season, cup runs got in the way as United reached the southern semi-finals of the Leyland Daf Cup and had another run to the last eight of the FA Cup. The FA Cup run was arguably even more impressive than the previous season’s as three of Division Two’s top teams were despatched in rounds three to five. First, United dominated a Wolverhampton Wanderers team at Molineux in a way not reflected in the 1-0 scoreline. Middlesbrough were next on an Abbey Stadium pitch which looked more like a beach than somewhere to play a professional football match. This was due to a drainage collapse but the home team had no problem with it, running out 2-0 winners.

It was the fifth round tie that lives the longest in the memory though. By this stage, United’s style was ruthless with opposition defenders pressed whilst on the ball, direct and accurate long balls played quickly out to the wings and devastating finishing from strikers Dion Dublin and John Taylor. Sheffield Wednesday were unbeaten in 18 matches, and would be promoted to Division One at the end of the season, but they literally did not know what hit them. The four goals Cambridge scored that day (see video above) were all stunning in their own way but it is the first which typifies the team at the time. A back pass under pressure was struck first time on the volley by Dion Dublin for a spectacular opener. United had reached the FA Cup last eight again after progressing through five rounds. Their quarter-final opponents were Division One leaders Arsenal at Highbury and the Gunners had lost only once all season in league and FA Cup competition.

Beck’s era had become so special that United fans past and present travelled from far and wide to Highbury with a rumoured 15,000 queuing outside the stadium before the match. We knew that this was as good as it was ever going to get for our little club. Arsenal’s crowd of nearly 43,000 was their largest of the season and was buoyed by this away support but unfortunately it was not to be as Arsenal went on to win 2-1. Dublin’s goal for Cambridge (1:53 in the video) was typical though – a couple of touches from winger Cheetham before a testing cross and Dublin finishing in whatever way he could.

Having been knocked out of the cup United had 19 matches to play in under two months including, at one point, four in eight days. There was no evidence of injuries or fatigue due to lack of rest during that run with win after win being racked up. In fact, in one April sequence of five matches in 12 days including three away, Cambridge won all five. Seven of United’s players started all of those fixtures and 10 played some part in each one.

Cambridge United clinched promotion to Division Two in the penultimate match of the season but could still finish top by winning their final match. They had not led the division at all during the rest of the season. Southend, the team who had beaten them 4-1 at home in those early days, were the only other team who could win the title and the trophy was at their home of Roots Hall on the final day of the season, May 11, as victory against Brentford would be enough whatever Cambridge did. However, Brentford shocked Southend with a goal just after half-time and Cambridge’s easy 2-0 win against Swansea City gave them the Division Three title by a single point. And Alan Ball’s Stoke City? They finished 14th, their worst ever league ranking, 26 points behind United and without Alan Ball in charge. He had been sacked in February.

As a footnote to this, I would like to share this article with you that I found during my research for this piece. I wrote it back in 1998 and the third paragraph illustrates that I was fascinated by stats even before I joined my current employer. I am credited on the first page here.

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