The Interview: John Beck
March 1, 2020

Our Editor Jon Orchard met with the legendary Cambridge United Manager John Beck to chat through his incredibly successful time at the club.

Q – During your time at Cambridge United, you took the club from the 4th division to the 2nd, and very nearly into the newly formed Premier League. You also took the club to two consecutive FA Cup Quarter Finals, something that Cambridge United and their fans had never witnessed before – can you tell us about this time?

Let me think about how this all started. I was a player at the club and Chris Turner was the Manager. He looked to me to help him out as I was considered the elder statesman, I was about 34/35 then and had completed all of my coaching badges. The Assistant Manager left, so I was asked to step into that role.

Chris then decided he wanted to take on the role of General Manager at the club and suggested that I take on the Manager’s job – it came before the board, they said ‘No!’ and Chris got the sack! They then invited me to take over until the end of the season. I was devastated and had already decided that I couldn’t take on the position as I felt so upset – my then wife Sandra, gave me a good talking to and persuaded me to take on the job. I had 3-4 months to work with the team before a new Manager would be recruited.

I can clearly remember my first training session down at Coldhams Common. We marked out the pitch, the ground was as rough as anything, it was cold and windy and everyone was moaning. We played 11 v 11, Firsts versus Reserves. We wanted to play keep possession football, so we started with the goalkeeper rolling it our from the back. The First team immediately lost possession and the Reserves scored a goal. Not a great start. I thought ‘no wonder we’re in the 4th division’, I went back to the office and sat down to think about where we go from here. Things had to improve or we had no chance – ‘What do I do?’

I’d always admired Dave Bassett, who was Manager at Sheffield United. Dave had developed a style of play that was know as ‘the direct game’. His method was very refined so I went to watch a match to see what I could learn.

I watched the match and as I was leaving a guy called Neil Lanham approached me in the car park – he introduced himself as a football analyst and asked whether he could come to Cambridge United for an in-depth chat with me, to which I said yes. That meeting made me realise

and understand that football was based on the laws of chance, and every team scores at the same rate because of these amazing facts. Neil Lanham made me look at football in a completely different way and it was a real lightbulb moment for me. It made me understand that if we wanted success we needed to improve our framework of probability, through the laws of chance. In understanding the laws of chance, to put it in layman’s terms, if you spin a coin heads or tails it has a 50/50 chance of being heads or tails. If you continue to spin the coin you find that you get a run of heads and a run of tails, but the closer and closer you get to 1,000 spins the laws of chance determine that you will have 500 heads and 500 tails. So now we developed a method of play that recognised the laws of chance. For example, all teams score at a rate of 3 to 1 in the six-yard box. All teams score at the same rate of 90 attacks to 1 goal. So we developed a method of play to have more attacks resulting in efforts and shots closer to goal in the six-yard box.

I also made a key decision take advice from a Management Consultancy company on how to motivate the players, and their advice was invaluable.

  • Pay the players on time
  • Make sure the equipment you use is in good condition
  • Make sure the playing surface is good
  • Keep the changing rooms tidy
  • Feed the players
  • Make sure they do ‘warm up’s and cool downs’
  • Make sure training is enjoyable and fun
  • Recognise achievements on and off the field
  • Most importantly, get the players to recognise achievements – peer recognition
  • Even the players that were not in the First team, or leaving the club, everybody was treated very, very well.

The board thought I was mad making all these changes, but no other teams were doing this at that time. I pulled in a few favours from people I knew, got food donated, asked the university if we could use their sports grounds for training and contacted the local radio for sponsorship.

Along with good discipline, we started to pull together a good team spirit. Everything we were working on during the training became second nature in the games at the weekends and we started to see unbelievable results. From here we went on an incredible journey.

Q – What was your greatest match as Cambridge United Manager?

Definitely Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup – Ron Atkinson was the manager there and had been manager at Cambridge. I really wanted to beat him and his team. We won 3-1 and psychologically that was a big win for me.

Q – What was your toughest match as a manager?

Leicester in the final play-offs for the Premier League. We had played them at Cambridge and had a 1-1 draw – we then had to play away. It all started really well, they then scored a freak goal from a corner which seemed to give them a great lift and we ended up losing 5-1 – we were stuffed!

Q – Who was the greatest player you managed?

A guy called Richard Wilkins, he was a central midfield player and was playing for Colchester. I went to watch him play and decided to sign him after 15 minutes. We paid £20,000 for him. He was just about
to be signed up by a Premier League team and he damaged his cruciate ligament and never recovered from it – it ended his career.

Q – Would you still like to manage?