1951/2 Summary

Ronnie Rooke preceded his first full season in charge with a burst of transfer activity. The most eye-catching recruits were the very experienced former Luton wing-half and captain Dougie Gardiner, Joe Simner, an inside or centre-forward from Swindon, Larry Gage, who had been one of Rooke’s goalkeepers at Crystal Palace, Bob Allen, another very experienced defender from Colchester, John McInnes, a Scottish left-winger from Chelsea, Joe Campbell, a Scottish inside-forward from Gillingham, and Ken Fisher, a central defender from Watford. They joined Vivian Woodward, a veteran Welsh inside forward who’d arrived from Aldershot in time for the final match of the previous season and was to give the club several good years.

Simner was quoted in the national press as saying that he had been promised £8 a week (about £190 today) just to play in the reserves, and that he would be better off on this basis than in the Football League-which no doubt he was, given the then maximum wage of £15 and the likelihood of one of the directors finding him a convenient job with no problems over time off. Rooke gave a hint of the kind of money he was offering when he told the local press that Bedford would need an average home crowd of 8,000 to pay their way. Basic ground admission for the new season went up from 1s 3d to 1s 6d (£0.125, or about £3 in 2010 terms), so this would equate to income of £1,000 a week from which to pay his staff of some 25 professionals and meet all the other running costs. Season tickets, incidentally, cost two guineas (£2.10).

Average weekly wages in the UK in 1950-51 were about £9.50[1], so if Simner was right even Bedford’s reserve players might be almost as well rewarded for playing part-time as many of their supporters were for working full-time. It’s likely that these players’ wages were at the higher end of the range for non-league football and the weekly cash-flow must have been fairly sensitive; the first AGM of the new company in the summer of 1952 was told that at the start of the 1951/2 season only £161 was in hand from the share issue the previous winter, so as ever, donations from the Supporters’ Club were continually necessary. By the end of the season they had donated £2,750, which represented their whole reserves, and were to add another £1,900 the following season [2].

Hopes were high at the start, and after a morale-boosting 4-1 opening day win at Hastings the ground attendance record was beaten again the following midweek when 8,136 saw the return fixture, though they would have been disappointed with a 1-1 draw. By the end of September only three league matches out of ten had been won, and this was to remain the theme throughout-a talented- looking squad on paper didn’t quite perform consistently . There were only two runs of three successive victories, but the first of these, early in 1952, was followed by three successive defeats, and the second came too late to matter. The new recruits had forced regulars of previous seasons into the reserves and this may have caused trouble, for in February 1952 Pat Comerford and Freddie Hall were respectively suspended and severely reprimanded for unspecified breaches of discipline. Both departed at the season’s end.

In the FA Cup the team progressed comfortably through the early rounds against junior opposition and also through the fourth qualifying round at Bromsgrove of the Birmingham League (watched by 1,500 travelling fans), which earned them a first tilt at Football League opposition at Swindon Town’s County Ground, but on a gluepot of a pitch they went down 0-2 before almost 16,000 people, the largest crowd to watch the club to date, from which Bedford earned £689. Delaney and Trailor, two of Rooke’s earliest signings, did not last the season but he found two successful newcomers in the Hampshire cricketer and full-back, Jimmy Gray, another recruit from Rooke’s Arsenal days, and a Scottish left winger, Johnny Summers, who was taken on after a trial. Gage proved a reliable goalkeeper although he created a brief sensation by being sent off, a rarity in those days, for dissent at home to Worcester in September, a match that ended with the chairman having to appeal for calm over the PA system after spectators threatened reprisals against the referee.

Strangely for a team with Rooke’s sharpshooting to call on, they were often short of goals. and between 1 December and 5 January they never managed more than a goal a game. Rooke hit 37 goals in 46 matches, maintaining the remarkable strike rate that had characterised his whole career, but must have been handicapped by playing for a month in early 1952 with an injured ankle, and Woodward scored 24, but the next highest scorer was Simner with only 13. At the season’s end this all added up to a mere 12th place finish, although that was easily the best since the club had joined the Southern League, and by beating Cambridge United (then in the Eastern Counties League) in the Hunts Cup, the club secured its first trophy since the war.

Crowds proved respectable by the standards of the time, averaging 5,118[3] for the first team, but never approached the 8,000 average of Rooke’s early exhortations. Inconsistent form was a factor in this but the club were also unlucky in having to play six successive away matches in September. At this period, also, the only significant cover was on the Long Shelter (Gasworks) touchline, so a wet day could result in a big drop in turnout. But some of the figures are still remarkable. The visit of Merthyr Tydfil on a Thursday afternoon in March, with a 4.30 start, attracted well over 3,000 even in continuous rain, which was reckoned to have cut the crowd by some 1,500. Even though neither side was in the running for the title, the ground record was broken yet again on Good Friday when 8,422 saw the derby with Kettering, and almost 7,000 saw the County Cup final with Luton at the season’s end. Even the reserves, who had returned to the United Counties League after some years in the London League, attracted 3,400 to a match in September 1951, and averaged almost 2,500 for the season; in March their opponents, Spalding, brought six busloads of supporters-who had a wasted journey as the match was snowed off. In February 1952 even the “A” team, playing in the South Midlands League, were watched by 900 people at Bromham Hospital.

Supporters were still inclined to grumble. Writing in the programme for the Weymouth match on 3 November, chairman Hobkirk complained about letters signed "A well-wisher" or "A supporter of thirty years", which tended to end with such things as "If you don't do so-and-so we'll go and watch the rugger or go to Luton". "There are other places such people could go to", wrote the chairman, "but I'll leave you to guess where they might try. I and the other directors will first look and see if the writer gives the name and address of the sender, if not it will be consigned to the waste-paper basket". He had also been getting letters suggesting that attendances were being under-reported. "These sort of people look at the attendance board and as soon as the figure goes up murmur "There's more than that here, I'll bet you what you like". Now just think what can happen if that were true-I and all the directors along with gateman and officials, could be summoned for evading tax".

Despite these moaners, contemporary comment shows that overall, people saw the season as a step in the right direction, much better than anything in recent memory, and 1952/3 was to prove better still.

For photos of this season go to 1951/2 in photos

To continue the story go to 1952/3 Summary

For full results and teams go to Results and teams, 1950-67

[1] See www.measuringworth.org/ukearncpi/

[2] Figures from the match programme v Bath on 30 April 1953. At that stage the club had 3,529 members.

[3] This figure, and the average quoted for later seasons (except where indicated) was that reported in the Bedfordshire Times in its end-of-season review each year. So many gates quoted in match reports were clearly estimates, especially in the early 50s, that these averages are impossible to check, but they are likely to have been those shown by the club’s own records, which have long since disappeared.