At 3pm the following day, however, there was serious business to conduct.
If United could draw their home game against mid-table Margate, a second successive Southern League championship would probably be theirs. If they were to win, the title would be a certainty and the club’s case for election to the Football League would be strengthened even further.
As 5,298 tense spectators filed on to the terraces, the eleven men chosen by manager Bill Leivers to fulfil their dreams sat in the dressing room, waiting for the signal to run out and set about their work. All but two of them – left back Colin Meldrum and inside forward John McKinven, in for Brian Grant and John Gregson – had started the Chelsea game just a few hours before. Mercifully, United’s first string had had to play a mere 45 minutes against the Blues before being replaced by the visitors’ reserves.
Facing Margate were goalkeeper Rodney Slack; defenders Jimmy Thompson, Dennis Walker, Terry Eades and Meldrum; schemers Mel Slack (no relation to Rodney) and McKinven; and forwards Roly Horrey, Mal Lindsay, Bill Cassidy and George Harris.
The previous season’s finale had seen the championship shield secured with a 3-0 win over Kettering Town, and ace marksman Tony Butcher had kick-started a stunning hat-trick with a headed goal in the 45th minute. But this time U’s supporters had to wait much longer for the opener.
Margate were, to say the least, unadventurous. Seemingly content to go home with a 0-0 draw, they packed the defence and frustrated United’s normally free-scoring forwards, who watched in horror as efforts by Cassidy and Horrey rebounded off the woodwork. Then, in the 80th minute, with fans’ fingernails bitten to the quick, the visitors conceded a penalty.
The man chosen for the task of converting it was left winger George Harris, who was on his way to a goals total for the season of 35 from just 47 appearances. The suspense was palpable as he stepped up … and beat goalkeeper Garry Steel.
Harris later told how he, feeling the pressure of the situation, had at first thought of taking the penalty quickly, only to recall an occasion when he had rushed a spot kick and missed. ‘This time I waited for some seconds,’ he said. ‘Then I moved the ball and settled again, but boy was I glad to see the ball hit the back of the net.’
The tension broken, pandemonium reigned and the cheers increased in volume a couple of minutes later when Bill Cassidy’s clinching goal ensured the shield would stay at the Abbey.
It wasn’t long before the players were parading the huge shield around the ground, fighting their way through the crowds that had flocked on to the pitch.
Then it was back to the dressing room, where the champagne corks popped and thoughts turned to the Football League’s annual general meeting in June, when United’s determined bid for election would be debated.