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Cambridge United fans thought they were dreaming when one of England’s greatest ever footballers agreed to grace their little ground.

Probably the best inside forward England has ever produced, he could, said Stanley Matthews, make the ball talk. And for two incredible seasons in the 1950s he played in the humble surroundings of United’s Newmarket Road ground.

Wilf Mannion was, no question, the best footballer ever to pull on the amber and black. U’s players of his era talk in awed tones of his ability; supporters’ eyes mist over as they recall his wizardry.

Growing up in Middlesbrough, the football prodigy outshone boys twice his age and by his mid-teens was playing for an amateur team while working at the town’s steelworks. Snapped up by his hometown club, the fair-haired young man, diminutive but good-looking, made his first-team bow in 1937 and was soon being called Golden Boy.

After losing seven years of his career to military service and the war, Wilf returned to football at the peak of his powers. He would complete 368 appearances for Boro, scoring 110 times, while starring for England in 26 games.

In 1948 he asked Middlesbrough for a transfer to Oldham. The club scuppered the move by placing a ludicrous fee on his head and Wilf went on strike, missing six months of football.

Club and player made peace in 1949 and he played on until 1954, when he first retired, then returned to play for Hull City. But trouble was brewing again: the Football League demanded he substantiate allegations of illegal payments he had made in a newspaper column. Wilf refused and was banned from League football, to the benefit of non-League Poole Town and then, in the summer of 1956, Cambridge United.

Wilf was 38 and past his best, but that didn’t diminish the incredible effect his arrival had on club, players, fans and city. More than 4,000 incredulous spectators turned out for his home debut.

He retained the mesmeric skills that had made him a household name: the swerves and sidesteps, the feints and dummies, the killer passes, the knack of always being available. Forming an unstoppable partnership with fellow forward Brian Moore, he stayed on for a second season.

Wilf scored 23 goals in the 75 games he played for United. In March 1958 a cluster of stars of the football firmament, and 9,500 spectators, turned out for his testimonial. They were back the following month for an exhibition match in which Wilf played, but even then he wasn’t quite finished at the Abbey: he returned in 1959 for old colleague Bob Bishop’s testimonial.

Having hung up his boots, he tried his hand at management then returned to the north-east, where he died, aged 81, in 2000. He had been the greatest player in the history of two very different clubs.

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