United have only played Aston Villa four times in their history, but it could have been five. Len Saward was United’s right-winger in 1957 and his brother Pat played for the Villa (152 League games in 6 years); in fact Len was excused from playing for the U’s in an Eastern Counties League match at Sudbury Town in March of that year so that he could watch his sibling turn out in the Villans’ defeat of West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup semi-final at Molineux. United drew 1-1 in his absence.
Len was in his benefit year at the Abbey and set about arranging for Villa to come to Cambridge to play in his testimonial match that October. United did not have any floodlights at the time so he paid for a set from his benefit funds, shelling out £14 a pop for primitive lights that amounted to little more than lamps on telegraph poles. Sadly Villa could not make the date he had in mind, but the lights had already been installed so the first ever match under floodlights at the Abbey was staged a week later, on 21st October, against Great Yarmouth Town in an East Anglian Cup replay. United won 3-0 and Saward, fittingly, scored the first goal.
Len got his testimonial eight days later when an Invitation XI, including his brother Pat and two other Villa players, Stan Lynn and Peter McParland, came to Newmarket Road and won 4-3 with a goal for McParland and a hat-trick for Vic Keeble of West Ham before a crowd of 5,500, Brian Moore (2) and Wilf Mannion scoring for the U’s. Len later sold the floodlights to the club.
United and Villa finally crossed paths on 26th January 1980 for United’s first ever game in the fourth round of the FA Cup. A sellout crowd of 12,000 packed the Abbey to witness the visitors, fifth in Division One, take the lead in the 16th minute through Terry Donovan. That served as a wake-up call to the U’s and they equalised 17 minutes later via Chris Turner’s first ever goal for the club, a thunderous header. In the second half a rampant United forced 16 corners to Villa’s 7 but had to settle for a draw. “I’m not used to the crowd so close to me,” said Villans keeper Jimmy Rimmer. “I really had to concentrate.”
The replay at Villa Park attracted an attendance of 36,835, far and away the largest number ever to see the U’s at the time, and Villa’s second best crowd of the season, more than they had drawn to see Manchester United or local rivals West Bromwich Albion. Donovan again shot the hosts ahead early on but Steve Spriggs slipped through to equalise on 14 minutes, only for Donovan to double his tally just before half-time. United were then undone by two goals in two minutes from set pieces on the hour mark from Allan Evans and Brian Little, but battled gallantly to the end.
Villa visited the Abbey again later that same year but the following season in the third round of the League Cup. The visitors were on the way to the League title while the U’s lay 18th in Division Two, but the attendance was a disappointing 7,628 with Villa having returned 2,200 of their 2,850 terrace tickets unsold.
England international winger Tony Morley give the Villans the lead inside six minutes, but United responded almost immediately when Tom Finney headed against the bar and the ball cannoned into the net off Rimmer’s back. The Abbey was then sent into raptures by Spriggs’ 30-yard thunderbolt on 18 minutes which put the hosts in front, and they hung on thereafter for a famous win to add to their home and away victories over Wolves in the previous round.
Villa skipper Dennis Mortimer blamed United’s “small and tight” pitch, but that was an optical illusion, because the dimensions of the Abbey and Villa Park’s playing surfaces were exactly the same, 115 yards x 75 yards.
If you search the history books you will find that Aston Villa also played Cambridge United in a friendly on 6th April 1911, but that United had no connection with the club which was founded as Abbey United a year later. Villa won 4-2 in front of a crowd of 800 at Cambridge’s County Ground, in Malta Road off Mill Road, and that United amalgamated with Cambridge Town in 1914, keeping the latter club’s name.
Norris 7. His poor kick led to Villa’s second goal, but otherwise satisfactory.
Keane 8. The real Keith Keane has stood up at last.
Coulson 7. Won several decisive headers.
Dallison 7. New boy looks the part.
Adams 7. Another good showing, just needs game time.
Elito 7. Fairly poor first half on the wing in which he regularly drifted out of position and left Keane exposed, much better after the break in a central midfield role. He and Norris were the only men to complete a full 90 minutes.
Newton 7. Continued his fine form.
Clark 7. Calm and assured as ever.
Berry 7. Lively and always involved.
Williamson 7. Pacy and alert, but that first goal of pre-season still eludes him.
McGurk 6. Injured early on and subbed off after barely a quarter of an hour after promising early signs.
Taylor 7. Getting back towards last season’s excellent form.
Trialist 6. Did nothing wrong, debatable if he did enough right.
Legge 7. Ever reliable.
Roberts 7. One particularly fine block.
Williams 6. Played his part.
Maris 7. Fiercely committed as ever.
Dunne 7. Quietly effective.
Dunk 8. All action as usual.
Mingoia 7. Put in some useful work on the right flank.
Pigott 7. Always looked dangerous. Number 1 striker at the moment.
United gave a good account of themselves against higher level opponents, and only let themselves down by conceding goals to basic defensive mistakes. They’re almost ready, just a little residual rust to shake off.
Man of the Match
Keith Keane. Calm, controlled and influential performance at right-back and in central midfield.
Rock 6. A few dubious decisions, notably near the end, but no major complaints.
Soundtrack of the Day
Whitney “No Matter Where We Go”
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