“Simplicity is genius.” John Beck was always a great believer in slogans and motivational messages. This was one of his favourites. As Phil Chapple, a centre-back and linchpin of his famous Cambridge United side recalled, for a spell it could be found everywhere in the club’s training ground and stadium. It was inescapable. Even when sitting down to use the toilet, he encountered a sign pinned up on the back of the door emphasising the same three words.

Beck’s eccentric reputation precedes him. His name has many different connotations for players, supporters and pundits of a certain vintage. Some revel in the success his unfashionable Cambridge United squad delivered, others recoil at the means by which they did so. Once plucky underdogs, the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against them the further they rose. In his first managerial job, Beck helped take the club from Fourth Division also-rans to the brink of the Premier League in three remarkable seasons.

For all Cambridge achieved during that brief golden period from 1989 to 1992, which also included two FA Cup quarter-final appearances, the man responsible for it has a heavily-contested legacy. He was, in many ways, a contradictory figure. Beck was incredibly thorough, with an obsessive attention to detail and preparation that was ahead of its time, but applied these methods to agricultural effect. He was both revolutionary and regressive, a flawed ideologue for the long-ball game.

A faithful disciple of Charles Hughes, the notorious FA director of coaching, Beck emphasised the importance of taking no risks in possession, getting the ball into dangerous areas (including the infamous Position of Maximum Opportunity) as soon as possible and preying on opposition mistakes. This crude interpretation of football, based on turning defences, working the channels and loading the box, found some resistance both within the Cambridge squad and outside it, but the results were hard to argue with.

“Ultimately, he’s probably the most successful Cambridge United manager there has ever been, and took them to the highest place in the football pyramid that they will probably ever get to because of the way the game’s changed,” says Lee Philpott, a winger who arrived from Peterborough United as a 19-year-old with just seven first team appearances to his name. He left for the Premier League just over three years later with 178 more.

“To get to the play-offs in the Championship now would be an unbelievable achievement for a club of Cambridge United’s stature in the way of fan base and budget. The Championship now is full of clubs that get 20-30,000 crowds – the likes of Derby and Aston Villa. It’s a different animal to when we were there. John was known as being a bit unorthodox in his methods but, to be fair, he was a great coach.”

A talented ball-playing midfielder in his own right, Beck spent the final three years of his career at Abbey Stadium before retiring through injury. He served as coach and assistant to Chris Turner, taking over as manager when he resigned a year later. Still only 36, Beck had a clear sense of how he wanted his team to play and imposed order from the start. He was an idiosyncratic figure with unconventional practices and unshakeable convictions.

“Chris would train you hard. I suppose you could say that the style of play wasn’t markedly different,” says Chapple, who joined in 1988 and played under both Turner and Beck. “We certainly weren’t a team that built from the back – that wasn’t what the division was about. We were more back to front but we weren’t as rigid as we were under John. Chris was very much an old school motivator. When John took over he was a little different. He was quite quirky. He started putting things up around the training ground – pictures, messages, that type of thing.”

When Turner left Cambridge due to health problems caused by stress midway through the 1989-90 season, the club were 14th in the Fourth Division, having lost their last three league games. Beck’s appointment brought about an immediate upturn in fortunes, with 10 games unbeaten and progress to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup courtesy of a 5-1 hammering of Bristol City. It was the perfect example of Beck’s philosophy in action, as they profited from set pieces, crosses and knockdowns. The style of play was successful but could be stifling, with no individual choice.

“I had major disagreements because the position that I played in was the position that was affected most by the style of play,” said Steve Claridge. A former teammate of Beck’s at Bournemouth, he was signed from Aldershot. “When you’re talking about a player like me, who likes to hold the ball up and bring others into play, and you’re getting taken off for controlling it and passing it to a midfielder then you’re going to have problems. You had to just hook the ball on. I wasn’t allowed to get the ball down and pass it to a midfielder. I had to get it and just kick it in the corner. It was ridiculous.”

Training and preparation changed dramatically, with far greater professionalism and a studied approach. To execute the manager’s game plan, which involved aiming for the corners and hoping to force mistakes, incredibly high levels of fitness were required. During pre-season players would be run into the ground, and made to go again if they didn’t keep up with Beck on his bike. They were relentlessly drilled in the same routines, while diet, eating habits and drink supplements became important considerations. Recovery days and warm-downs, things that are now taken for granted, were introduced.

“Training was very intense. We were probably the fittest team in the league, whatever league we played in,” says Philpott. “He did work us really, really hard, but he had to, given the intensity we played with. Sometimes, towards the end of games, teams couldn’t match our physical fitness. Some of his training methods were unusual though. There was one mad game that we played where we had our eyes shut and we had to try to work out where things were. There were some training methods that were unreal.”

“He was a man with a plan. He knew exactly what he wanted. The instructions were given to us, which we had to take on board and play out. If not, then you didn’t play. There’s a lot of negativity about John’s methods but in some ways he was so advanced with things like training. There was no stone left unturned. He thought of everything, which the modern-day manager does. They’re always trying to get that edge, but John took it to the extreme. He was very good at what he did.”

Farsighted in many respects – statistics were compiled and opponents analysed in detail – Beck’s methods could also be strangely primitive and sometimes downright bizarre. To support his style of play, the grass was grown long in the corners so that the ball would hold up for wingers to run onto, while five-a-side matches took place in the centre of the pitch to churn up the grass, limiting the level of football that could be played and making it difficult to pass through his team.

Beck would go to great lengths in search of the smallest advantage. Visiting sides were made to feel as unwelcome as possible, with the heating turned off in the cramped away dressing room and flat, soggy practice balls given out. It was psychological warfare. The impact of these unsporting practices and intimidation tactics is impossible to quantify, and many felt they were done simply for effect – pseudoscience to create a hostile atmosphere. Meanwhile, Cambridge players were forced to take ice-cold showers before kick-off to ensure their alertness. A mythology developed around these rituals that remains to this day. Some opponents didn’t take kindly to it.

“We used to have a thing called lifeblood. We used to do it on the pitch before the game and in training. It was all about preparing for playing long balls,” said Chapple. “It was pretty much the back four and one midfield player across the width of the pitch. We used to play balls from one side of the pitch to the other, with two against one in the middle. When we played Southend, their chairman at the time marched into the middle of our warm-up and tried to derail it by giving a presentation in there. We did it everywhere, even at Highbury, it was just part of the preparation.”

Throughout his time in charge, many of the squad felt these affectations to be unnecessary and several were desperate for more freedom, for Beck to loosen the shackles. Claridge and Philpott, two of Cambridge’s most technically gifted players, had regular discussions with him in search of a compromise. None was forthcoming. The two were once substituted almost immediately after completing a one-two on the edge of their own box as a sign that such disobedience wouldn’t be tolerated. There was a script to be followed and to stray from it was unacceptable.

“Everything was black and white. There were no grey areas,” said Philpott. “At the time I didn’t particularly enjoy it because being a winger I wanted to get the ball down and dribble with it a bit more. I think we all recognised that it was extreme, but we also recognised that by doing what we’d been doing we were successful. And when you’re successful you don’t change things. You get on with it. The biggest test would have been if we were losing every week, or not doing very well one year, then more people would have spoken up about the way we were playing.”

As a centre back, Chapple was less affected. “We were direct, I don’t think there was any doubt about that, but we were also very effective at it. We had various rules and I think over the period of time that John was in charge, they probably got more rigid. We had various parameters to play in and over that time the parameters narrowed if anything. From the point of view of a central defender, I don’t think anything John put into place that directly affected me was controversial. We had some very good defensive principles. We used to squeeze the line, we were very well organised and we were very thoroughly briefed in terms of what we were going to face.”

Using a group of largely young players grateful to have been given a second chance, Beck was able to mould a side in his image. He could be demanding and dictatorial, throwing out Claridge’s boots on the striker’s first day at the club because they were too dirty. It set the tone for what was to come. Regardless of some grievances, the group forged a great camaraderie and strong understanding. Very few changes were made to the squad during those years and the team practically picked itself.

John Vaughan in goal. A back line of Alan Kimble, Liam Daish, Phil Chapple and Andy Fensome. A midfield of Richard Wilkins and Danny O’Shea, with Lee Philpott and Michael Cheetham on the wings. The towering John Taylor and Dion Dublin provided a focal point for attacks, with the rebellious Steve Claridge featuring as a slightly withdrawn striker, providing he hadn’t done too much to irritate the manager. He defied Beck on a few occasions but was always brought to heel. Chris Leadbitter and Colin Bailie were also regulars.

Beck encountered some resistance, but it would surely have been worse with more experienced players who didn’t owe quite so much of their careers to him. Most were solid, low-maintenance professionals eager to make their way in the game. Vaughan, Philpott, Dublin, Kimble, Chapple and Daish, among others, had been released by other clubs. Taylor was picked up from non-League for £1,000.  Provided they were willing to play by his rules, Beck gave a platform to young players, misfits from elsewhere, many of whom went on to bigger clubs. Together they made a formidable unit.

“Chris Turner essentially put together that team that went on to good things. Obviously John put the icing on the cake as it were and developed the style of play, but the raw foundations were laid by Chris in the summer of 1988. There was a big turnaround of players – a lot went out and a lot came in. Most were a similar profile to myself, coming from a bigger club than Cambridge, with all due respect, but they hadn’t made it and were looking to play first team football,” said Chapple, who’d dropped down from Norwich. “It was a great journey. We accomplished a hell of a lot for an unfashionable little team.”

Claridge in particular was adamant that more could have been achieved if Beck had been willing to be flexible, especially the higher they went up the Football League. In his first season, Cambridge finished sixth and promotion was achieved via the play-offs, beating Chesterfield at Wembley. Dion Dublin scored the game’s only goal, heading in his 21st of the campaign from a corner. The Third Division title followed a year later as they pipped Southend United by a point courtesy of a 2-0 final day win at home to Swansea.

Cambridge adapted to their new level quickly, winning their first three league games of the 1991-92 season and scoring 10 goals in the process. The bulk of the team remained the same. Players had a thorough understanding of the system, their role within it and what was expected in any given situation. There was a particular clash of styles with Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon. But opponents started to adapt, dropping deeper so there was less space to exploit in behind, and Second Division teams kept the ball better and didn’t surrender possession as often in potentially dangerous areas.

“We played off other people’s mistakes. But the better people you play against, the less they give you the ball back. We were that good that we were able to dominate teams even playing that way but the system became predictable,” says Claridge. “I can remember playing Newcastle. Brian Kilcline was marking me and I don’t think he came within 20 yards of me. He knew where the ball was going before we’d even played it. I said to John at half-time, ‘You’ve got to change this,’ but he just wouldn’t. It was a massive opportunity missed.”

Beck stubbornly stuck with the same approach, expecting his players to chase ever more forlornly and continue doing the same things but with diminishing returns, particularly at home. In the second half of the season, teams were wise to their methods. Cambridge won just three of their last 13 games. Having been challenging for automatic promotion at one stage, they limped over the line in fifth and were resoundingly beaten by Leicester City, whom they had thrashed 5-1 in September, over two legs in the play-off semi-finals.

That was as good as it got and it remains the highest league finish in the club’s history. After three years of almost uninterrupted progress, the team was dismantled that summer and results rapidly deteriorated. Dion Dublin joined Manchester United, Lee Philpott moved to Leicester. John Taylor had already been sold to Bristol Rovers after falling out with the manager. Beck was sacked in October 1992, after a poor start to the season. It had taken a while but his approach was finally found out. Cambridge were back in the fourth tier by 1995.

In his first managerial job, Beck won an impressive 47.2% of the 159 games he took charge of but was never able to replicate that success elsewhere. He subsequently went to Preston North End and then Lincoln City before an ill-fated return to the Abbey in 2001. With different players, and in different settings, the formula never worked as successfully as it had the first time. That strange alchemy, a unique convergence of factors, couldn’t be recaptured.

“80% of what he did was fine,” says Claridge. “He made me a pro. He made us all better professionals but he was intransigent in his attitude. He had some great players who should have been playing in the Premiership at 25, 26 but didn’t because he was completely inflexible. It proved after we all left that it wasn’t the system that worked, it was the players.”

“They got thrashed after we left and he’s never really made a success of it since. We were fit, we were well-organised, extremely well-drilled, but you can only give the opposition the ball so many times before they don’t give it back. We got to a point halfway through the season in the Championship where he needed to change and he didn’t. He wasn’t a big enough man to do that.”

Thankfully for him, Claridge got another chance to reach the top flight with Leicester later on in his career. Others, Chapple included, weren’t so fortunate. Regardless, the group look back on that period fondly, as they enjoyed great team spirit and hard-won success. While several of Beck’s squad went on to better things, for the man himself his time at Cambridge was the undoubted high in a career that has stalled ever since. His last two managerial roles, with non-League Histon and Kettering, ended after just a few months.

In 2013 he was given a job in coach education at the FA, prompting concerns that for all the talk of English football shedding its crude image and embracing a more sophisticated future, outdated tactics straight from the Charles Hughes playbook were still on the agenda. Not only has the game changed in recent years, with a far greater emphasis placed on possession, players have too. Very few would be willing to sacrifice themselves in the same way for such a prescriptive system. For a small but significant window of time it worked for Cambridge United, but many doubt that it ever could again.