It is often stated that losing, as well as winning, can become a habit. Just ask the players and supporters of Cambridge United during the 1983/84 league season. For seven long months the team embarked on an unwanted record breaking run consisting of 31 matches without victory. A run involving three managers, 32 players, thrashings, near-things, Nick Hornby, and no airing of I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts (I'll explain later) for far too long. A regrettable season maybe, but in many ways an unforgettable one too.
Cambridge United were still a relatively new club in the league come the start of the 1983/84 campaign. Elected to the old Division Four in 1970, Bill Leivers led the team to another promotion in 1972/73, but after suffering relegation the following season, Ron Atkinson became manager in November 1974, and United never looked back.
Big Ron led the team to the Fourth Division title in 1976/77 and the club were flying high in Division Three when West Brom came calling. Despite losing their manager, Atkinson's replacement - his assistant, John Docherty - finished the job off, and at the start of the 1978/79 season, Cambridge United were now a Second Division club.
With players such as Malcolm Webster, Dave Stringer, Chris Turner, Lindsay Smith, Steve Fallon, Steve Spriggs, Tom Finney (the Northern Ireland international, not the Preston legend), Derrick Christie, Alan Biley and George Reilly, Docherty managed to establish Cambridge as a mid-table club in the next five seasons. Finishes of 12th and 8th in their first two years as a Division Two club highlighted the great job that Docherty done, and even after the departure of Biley - sold for £350,000 to Derby - Cambridge did not drop below 14th for the next three campaigns.
The real problems began to develop when the Football League clubs took the decision to change the method by which gate receipts were shared. Previously, all money would be divided equally between the home and away clubs, yet from 1982 onwards the rule was adjusted so that only the home team received gate receipts. Acceptable if you were a big club (even in times of declining attendances), but not for club like Cambridge, who struggled to get 4,000 into their Abbey Road stadium each week.
"We held our own for six years, but from going away to Newcastle and getting half the money, we were now paying to stay up there overnight and clubs like Cambridge suffered from that," Tom Finney explained in this article in 2013. As the years progressed and the lack of money started to bite, gradually the team began to break up, and Cambridge started flirting with relegation.
The 1982/83 season ended brightly enough. Twelve consecutive clean sheets at Abbey Road brought nine victories and three draws that saw the club survive relatively comfortably, and during the half-time break of the final home match of the season, Webster came out to receive an award to mark the occasion. However, there then followed a torrid second half for Webster and Cambridge, as Oldham hammered four goals past him. Sadly, it was a sign of what was to come the following season.
Reilly had gone by the start of the 83/84 season, but two wins and two draws in the opening seven league matches suggested that at least Cambridge would be competitive. But the last of these victories - their 2-1 win over Oldham on October 1 - would be the final time I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts (the tune played after every home victory) would be heard over the public address system until April 28. Their long journey into the record books was about to begin.
The Daily Express noted after the opening defeat - a 3-1 loss at home to Crystal Palace - that Cambridge "looked a pale shadow of the side who last season went a record 12 home games without conceding a goal", commenting that Docherty had his hands full trying to rebuild the team. A 3-1 defeat up at Leeds, who themselves had lost five straight games, was not particularly surprising, but the 3-0 drubbing at home to newly promoted Huddersfield set the alarm bells well and truly ringing.
Cambridge were now in the middle of a seven-match losing streak, the fourth game of the run involving a last minute Graham Pearce goal giving ten-man Brighton a thrilling 4-3 win at the Abbey. As if to emphasise the trouble the team were in, two 5-0 shellackings at Portsmouth and Cardiff spelt out the problems in bold capital letters. It was little consolation that Biley did not score for Pompey, but for Webster, who "celebrated" his 33rd birthday in the Cardiff defeat, he must have wondered how he had gone from his clean sheet exploits of the previous season to conceding 24 in just seven matches.
There was the occasional ray of light during this abysmal run (if you looked hard enough). The form of a 17-year-old Andy Sinton was a revelation, and he was destined for better things in the future, but on the whole, Cambridge's playing staff consisted of far too many teenagers chucked into the first team in desperation, loanees, and signings that hardly improved the situation.
Nick Hornby, who was studying at Jesus College and watched every home match of the non-winning streak, noted in Fan Mail: Twenty Years of Writing about Football, that of the 32 players who played for Cambridge that season, only eight were registered as professionals just five years later. Having been chucked in at the deep end, a lot sunk and not too many swam.
The Cardiff defeat was the seventh consecutive defeat suffered by Cambridge, although the plight of Swansea was so bad that Docherty's side was, amazingly, still not bottom of the league. A 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough stopped the rot, and the team battled bravely in losing 2-1 at St. James' Park against a promotion chasing Newcastle side containing Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle, but time was seemingly running out for Docherty. His mood was not improved when Fulham drew 1-1 at the Abbey, Docherty cursing his luck after the visitors were awarded a dubious penalty. Shrewsbury's first league win for two months proved the final straw for Cambridge's directors. A few days later, John Docherty was sacked.
It was a sad end for the longest serving Division Two manager and a man who had done so much for the club. According to the Daily Mirror, Docherty was dismissed by the board, acting in the absence of chairman David Rushton, who was shortly to return from a round the world trip. Docherty revealed his disappointment, defending his record vehemently: "We have done well to stay in the division for five years on the lowest gates and the lowest resources". He may have had a point, but Docherty must have realised that the run Cambridge were on could only lead to one thing. It's a shame it had to end that way though, but it often does.
Immediately former player, and Norwich youth team manager, Dave Stringer was linked with the vacancy, but in the meantime assistant manager John Cozens was put in temporary charge of the team. It would be under Cozens' stewardship that the team came closest to breaking the drought, only a hideous error by on loan keeper Bobby Horn gifting Grimsby an equaliser in the fourth minute of injury time. A 1-0 defeat away at Blackburn finally saw Cambridge hit bottom spot, and when they failed to beat fellow strugglers Swansea, the run had stretched to 16 matches.
Cozens' last match in charge was a 2-0 loss at home to Carlisle, although scraping the barrel of consolations, Swansea's 6-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday at least pushed Cambridge up a position. Both clubs were ten points adrift, however, and spent the remainder of the campaign battling to see who could finish last, Cambridge unfortunately winning (or losing) that scrap. It was soon apparent that Cozens was not going to be given the job full-time though, and this was confirmed after the Carlisle game, when John Ryan was appointed as Docherty's permanent successor.
Ryan's appointment was a big gamble by the Cambridge board. Aged just 36, Ryan had recently finished his playing career, and like a vast majority of Cambridge's squad, seemed too inexperienced for the position the club found themselves in. "John Ryan was a jack-the-lad with no experience when we needed somebody with experience who knew what they were doing and could get players in," said Steve Spriggs when interviewed in 2012. Unfortunately, Spriggs was spot-on.
On being appointed, Ryan indicated that he was looking forward to the challenge, before issuing the understatement of a lifetime: "They (Cambridge) have had a dodgy spell lately, and the only way is up". If Ryan was unaware of the task at hand, his first match would have fully opened his eyes to the problems ahead. A 5-2 defeat at Charlton kicked the Ryan regime off in the most appropriate fashion. A change in manager was not about to bring a change of fortunes.
A 0-0 draw at Oldham in Ryan's second match on February 4 was encouraging, but that was as good as it got until April 1. Seven straight defeats stressed that both Ryan (as well as Yazz and the Plastic Population) were inaccurate in their analysis of the situation; Cambridge were heading down in spectacular style. It almost seemed appropriate that during this run, which confirmed the relegation of Cambridge United, that the 1984 Boat Race was cancelled for 24 hours, after the Cambridge boat crashed into a barge and sank.
Ryan cut a frustrated figure throughout the seven match losing run, complaining about Chelsea's rough tactics in Cambridge's 1-0 defeat in front of 10,602 at the Abbey, and after defeats against Portsmouth, Brighton and Derby, he finally owned up to the inevitable as Cardiff became the latest team to profit from the generosity of their hosts. "This was our last chance to stage a revival," Ryan admitted, as Cardiff won 2-0, and further defeats against Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield - the latter of which saw Ryan field seven teenagers in Huddersfield's first league win of 1984 - brought both the winless record and the relegation trapdoor into clear focus.
April did at least provide a few notable performances. A 1-1 draw at Palace with nine men (Andy Beattie and Michael Bennett dismissed) included an excellent display from Dean Greygoose (Cambridge's fourth keeper of the season), and further draws against Leeds and Middlesbrough saw Cambridge go a giddy three matches unbeaten. Alas, the 1-1 draw at Ayresome Park meant that Cambridge were officially relegated, although even the maddest of optimists had seen that coming for months. It just remained to see if Cambridge could beat Crewe Alexandra's 1956/57 achievement of going 30 league matches without a win.
It was rather apt that the record should be equalled in an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat against Barnsley, and it would be a trip to Grimsby that would confirm Cambridge United's sporting infamy. The grey humour felt by the loyal bunch that made the fateful trek to Blundell Park was highlighted by supporter Paul Johnson in the match programme for the final home game of the season (against Shrewsbury). "The twenty-four of us (this season's away average), created quite a lot of noise, cheering our way to beating Crewe's record of 30 games without a win, to the tune of 'Anything Crewe can do, we can do better!'".
The 0-0 draw against Grimsby was actually Cambridge's fourth draw in the last five, not that this mattered though in the context of the season or their record breaking achievements. That the team should then go and beat Newcastle five days later seemed perplexing. In an all-ticket match - Cambridge had been informed by Newcastle that they expected 10,000 fans to travel to the match - Kevin Smith's penalty and some frantic defending gave Cambridge their first win since October 1, and put a slight dent in Newcastle's promotion hopes.
Hornby explained the excitement of that rare old occasion in Fever Pitch. "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. 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".
In his match programme notes for the Shrewsbury game, Ryan admitted that mistakes had been made during his reign, but vowed that the future was indeed bright. "We have the nucleus of a very, very good side here and I think in the next couple of seasons there could be some very exciting times ahead for the club". Oh dear. Ryan's optimism seemed reasonable when Cambridge promptly brushed aside Shrewsbury, but the final day 5-0 thrashing at Man City was a more accurate measurement of what was to follow. If 1983/84 was bad, then the next couple of seasons were frightening.
By February 1985 Ryan was no more, sacked after winning just five matches during his 13 months in charge. At one point Cambridge looked determined to try and beat their own record, going 23 league matches without a win, before the obvious relegation to the basement followed. An ill-fated spell under Ken Shellito saw the club scrape deeper depths, as Cambridge had to reapply for re-election to the Football League. Luckily they survived this scare, former player Chris Turner steadying the ship in his time in charge, before John Beck took over. From this point on, the Cambridge fans who had endured the slump from 1983 onwards had something to truly enjoy.
The days of Beck, FA Cup quarter finals, and Dublin and Taylor must have seemed a million miles away though for Cambridge United fans during that 1983/84 season. At a time where just one win would have been welcome, those who had to endure the dark days of the mid-eighties could justifiably say that they had put in the hard yards before experiencing the happier days in the early part of the next decade.
Cambridge lost their record to Derby in 2008, a team that failed to win a league match in 36 attempts. I wonder if there was a slight sadness felt by Cambridge United supporters of a certain age as Derby edged past their 1983/84 mark? It must have been hideous in parts, but football supporters are a tough breed, and any Cambridge United fan who had to stand or sit through the debacles of the mid-eighties can probably look back on their loyalty to the cause with a sense of pride.