David Moyes: Cambridge Blues

Amidst all the media hype surrounding the end of the Ferguson dynasty at Old Trafford and the installation of his replacement, one small but important detail from David Moyes’ CV has been almost totally overlooked.

I say ‘almost’ because those of us addicted to the amber and black are acutely aware that the tale of two Scotsmen currently being played out in a blazing glare of publicity contains an unlikely Abbey factor. David Moyes, it cannot be denied, spent two years as a player in one of the worst Cambridge United sides of all time.

As a 20-year-old centre-half, Moyes arrived at the Abbey from Celtic and went on to play 79 times for United, scoring just once, before moving on to Bristol City. The side he was part of, however, carved themselves a place in the club’s history for all the wrong reasons. Playing in the 1983-84 equivalent of the Championship under hapless manager John Ryan, Cambridge set a new Football League record of 31 games without a win.

In their fine book celebrating United’s centenary, ‘Cambridge United: 100 years, 50 Memorable matches,’ U’s fans Russell Greaves and Dave Stacey capture Moyes’ reflections of a club where ‘losing had become almost habitual,’ and provide an insight into the contrast against the winning mentality already instilled in the young Glaswegian.

“I had come from a background where I thought winning was the only thing. I came from Celtic where you just couldn’t lose any game and I found it really tough,” Moyes recalls. “I wouldn’t say losing was acceptable, but it had become a habit that was easy to get into. I never went into games thinking we wouldn’t win but you get to a point where you’re looking at other teams thinking, ‘they’re better than us.’”

Incredibly, the losing run came to an end when Cambridge beat a Newcastle side containing Keegan, Beardsley, Waddle, McDermott and Roeder 1-0 at the Abbey on a Saturday afternoon in April. It was a mere blip in the form book of course, with all the pressure on the Geordies and none on already relegated United. The Magpies were promoted and Cambridge went down.

Nick Hornby, a student at Cambridge at the time, captured the mood perfectly in his contribution to the football writing anthology ‘My Favourite Year.’ “Cambridge United were a terrible team that year,” he wrote. “They won four games (two of them after they had been relegated) and lost twenty-four. They used thirty-two different players, fourteen of whom played in the number seven shirt at some stage during the season, and four of whom were goalkeepers. And they got through the requisite three managers (one sacked, one caretaker, one who saw out the rest of the season). It was brilliant.”

If United’s long suffering fans thought that season was bad though, they were in for a rude awakening. Things were about to get even worse for Moyes and his young cohorts. Initially under Ryan and then with the truly abysmal Ken Shellito at the helm, Cambridge endured another torrid season, culminating in a second successive demotion. Relegated with just 21 points from 46 games and losing 33 times, United set two more unwanted records.

Future England international Andy Sinton, who was in that less than legendary United line-up alongside Moyes, recalls in Greaves and Stacey’s book how even then the 20-year-old defender had already begun to take his football seriously from more than just a playing perspective. “He actually told me one day he was going to go and coach and that he was going to be a manager,” Sinton reflects. “Even at 20, he used to go to watch games on a night. He’d get in his car and drive 50 or 60 miles to watch almost any game. He was obviously a student of the game.”

While most of his team mates departed for oblivion, Moyes went onwards and upwards. After more than 500 career appearances, he ending his playing days at Preston and went into management there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Michael Barnes