Ronnie Rooke spent another busy summer in 1952. The £3,500 donated by the Supporters’ Club over the previous season was earmarked for several signings who were still on League clubs’ books at significant fees, having refused the terms they had been offered. Under the regulations at the time (which persisted until the PFA under Jimmy Hill famously had them overturned by legal action in the early 1960s), this meant that they could not move elsewhere in the League unless another club was prepared to pay the fee stated, but there was nothing to stop them signing for non-league clubs; no fee reached their old clubs but no doubt a signing-on fee did reach the player.
New arrivals on this basis were Dougie Taft, a proven goalscorer who had spent the previous two seasons at Chelmsford, but was still on Wolves’ books at £10,000; Joe Dubois, an Ulster-born winger (Doncaster, £5,000); Jimmy Ayton, an inside-forward (Shrewsbury, £5,000); Jack Wilkins, a centre-half (Brighton, £3,500); and Eric Painter, a wing-half (Swindon, £2,000). Free transfers secured Don Wade, a winger from West Ham, and Joe Murphy, an Irish defender who had played for Rooke at Crystal Palace. Trailor and Wallbanks were two of the older players released, along with McInnes and Allen, who had both struggled with illness. Rooke told journalists that he would have signed other players but for problems encountered by married men in finding somewhere to live, with wartime controls on housing still in force. Seven newcomers were in the first team for the opening match at Bath.
The new players had first use of the new dressing room block that had been completed over the summer at the Ford End Road end of the ground, behind some new (but still uncovered) concrete terracing, and linked to the field by a new tunnel flanked by two stone eagles that were to remain on the ground until the end of the club’s existence. No longer did the players have to endure what the local paper called the “disgracefully inadequate” old dressing rooms in their lean-to at the back of the stand, where tactical talks had to be whispered to prevent the other team overhearing through the flimsy walls.
Most of the building work had been done by volunteers, which was just as well because a new share issue intended to raise £3,000 had produced only £750 by July. Admission prices went up from 1s 6d to 1s 9d, mainly because of the Government’s Entertainment Tax, which prompted some predictable jibes when the football on display was less than entertaining, and the chairman announced that players’ wages, fees and expenses in the first twelve months of the new company’s existence (to mid-January 1952 and thus including parts of two seasons) had been £13,527 against gate money of £13,235. This did not augur well, even though he stated that it was “never the policy of the board to make a profit and give half of it to the Inland Revenue”. The wages component of these figures was £9,734, suggesting an average wage in the £8 a week region.
The season started on the field in spectacular style, with seven successive wins in the league and league cup; over 16,000 people saw the two legs of the league cup tie against Kettering, which produced two 2-1 wins, and the team was undefeated until 16 September when they lost 3-4 in a thrilling match at Headington. They were leading here 3-1 with 20 minutes left thanks to a Rooke hat-trick, only to go down to a last-minute winner. By mid-November the Eagles were top of the league for the first time in their history, and they were still on top at Christmas, having lost only once more (at Merthyr) after the Headington match. Taft was taking some of the goalscoring pressure off Rooke and Woodward in the attack, Wilkins was consistent enough in defence to oust the experienced Millbank, whom he succeeded as captain, and Dubois, Wade and Murphy were also proving useful acquisitions. Shortly after the start of the season Rooke had signed another newcomer, Len Garwood from Spurs, who could play in either full-back or wing-half position and was to give the club six good seasons.
It was a measure of the successful league progress that “only” 4,143, the lowest home crowd so far, watched the first qualifying round FA Cup tie against Potton in September, with several supporters complaining that it was “hard on those who pay their 1s 9d” that Bedford had to bother with these rounds, but after comfortable wins in this match and against Eynesbury in the next round, a different challenge awaited the team at Hitchin in the third qualifying round. The gates at Top Field were shut on a crowd of over 6,300, swelled by many Eagles followers, and some people perched in trees and on the roof of a neighbouring factory, which collapsed causing minor injuries. On the field Rooke won an early penalty-cynics dared to suggest that he tended to go to ground rather easily-which Taft converted to set Bedford on their way to another 3-2 success. In the fourth qualifying round at Peterborough, then in the Midland League, an extraordinary crowd of 15,327, almost as many as had watched the Swindon tie the previous year, broke the London Road record, but the team unfortunately chose to produce their poorest display so far. They were two down after 25 minutes and never really recovered, with Rooke being played out of the game by the rugged Norman Rigby, still in the Posh side when they reached the Football League eight years later. Nothing much went right that day-Wade had a goal disallowed for offside, and as the players left the field at the end, Rooke was punched by an unknown spectator who was annoyed by an alleged challenge by Bedford’s player-manager on his opposite number, goalkeeper Jack Fairbrother.
But this setback didn’t affect the league campaign, and the following week Bedford pulled off an excellent 3-2 win at Gravesend despite playing with ten men for all but the first 25 minutes after Dubois had been injured. They had also reached the league cup semi-final with a 5-1 win at Dartford. Only after Christmas did problems start to arise. January and February brought five defeats, including a grim trip to the west in February which produced 1-4 and 0-5 defeats, at Cheltenham and Hereford, in three days. Early in March came a horrible 1-7 thrashing at Weymouth in the league cup semi-final. The reasons for this slump were not explored in any detail at the time-there don’t seem to have been any significant injuries, although Rooke was later to claim that by now many of his players were tired (some of them were not exactly in their first flush of youth). At Weymouth, however, he was forced to play a young amateur in goal with both Gage and Boulton injured, and bizarrely the reporter claimed that the team were so hampered by the foggy conditions that they were “wary of long passes”.
By now the local football journalists had largely written off Bedford’s title chances. On 12 March they suffered their first home defeat, to Llanelly, but soon after this a run of four successive victories allowed them to reach Easter in third place, only a point behind the leaders, Headington, though they had played one game more. In second place and level on points were Kettering, their opponents on Good Friday at home and on Easter Monday away-with a home game against Chelmsford on the Saturday in between, as was normal until the 1970s. That Good Friday, 10,184 people, a club record for a league fixture that would never be beaten, saw the Eagles falter on the big occasion as they had done at Peterborough, losing 0-2; but wins against Chelmsford and at Rockingham Road in the return match (watched by over 7,000) meant that they had climbed above Kettering. They even defeated Headington, 4-2 at home, later in April, and after drawing at Gloucester the following week they were still only two points behind Headington with three games left. On the very last day of the season, in a match that kicked off at 6.15 pm to allow supporters to watch the "Matthews" FA Cup Final on TV first, they could still have won the title had they beaten Cheltenham at The Eyrie provided that other results went their way; but Cheltenham, who had beaten the Eagles on their own ground in February, drew 3-3 to become the only team to avoid defeat in both their fixtures with Bedford, and Headington duly took the title by two points, sending Bedford down to third, behind Merthyr.
It had been a splendid effort and easily the most successful season in the club’s history. Rooke again netted 37 times but this time he was supported by Taft (29 from 53 matches), Woodward (21), Wade and Dubois (11 each). Wilkins, ever-present, had been the backbone of the defence, well supported by Murphy who missed only two matches, Gray and Garwood. Competition was so keen that Rooke claimed he really didn’t have a reserve team-it was more a case of two first teams. The second team outclassed most United Counties League opponents, winning the league (last won by the first eleven in 1934) and the league cup, clinching the latter by beating Spalding 6-1 at home before nearly 5,000. Nowadays, however, a manager would hardly get away with playing the entire first eleven at Rushden over Christmas merely because there was no senior fixture that day.
Despite all this, average crowds were actually slightly down, to 4,821 -even though the first two home reserve matches both attracted over 4,000. In the absence of floodlights, there was no solution to the problem of winter midweek fixtures which although normally played on Thursdays, which was early closing day for the town's shops, inevitably struggled to get decent crowds. However, for Gravesend’s Thursday afternoon visit in March the crowd of 2,750, the lowest of the season, was swelled by eighteen employees of Igranic Engineering who took an unauthorised afternoon off and were then suspended by their firm. Chairman Hobkirk expressed regret and suggested that Igranic adopted his own firm’s practice of allowing those who wanted to watch the match to start earlier in the mornings that week. Earlier in the season, in his programme notes for the League Cup tie against Hereford on Thursday 2 October-kicking off at 5.15-the chairman asked for supporters' views on switching to Wednesdays. As well as giving injured players more time to recover before their next Saturday match, this would, Hobkirk felt, be more popular with "the young ladies". His reasoning would strike us as strange-on Thursdays, he wrote, these ladies, who presumably mostly worked in shops, "have a very powerful influence over their male companions in drawing them early enough to get to the pictures, theatre and other entertainments, including long walks (if they are still courting), whereas if...young men could see their football match on a Wednesday, such arrangements would not influence their attendance at football matches". He seems to have been unable to persuade the rest of the Board to change, however, and Thursday continued to be the regular midweek match day until floodlighting arrived in 1961, when Monday became the usual slot.
Under Rooke's leadership the players were expected to behave themselves on and off the field. A small booklet entitled "Players' Instructions and Training Rules" was issued to each player, which also incorporated a pass admitting them to the ground and dressing rooms. "It should be a point of honour with you to conduct yourself in such a manner which will ensure you taking the field in a perfect mental and physical condition, thus enhancing your own and the club's reputation", said the instructions. "If you have any complaints, take them to the manager and he will see that you get a fair hearing. Do NOT go to any Tom, Dick or Harry for sympathy". Players living in the Bedford area were expected to turn up to training on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings by 6.30 pm, and "players living away will see that they get at least two evenings training" , and preferably three, wherever they lived.(1)
One of the very few instances of bad crowd behaviour was recorded during Merthyr’s visit in January, when the visitors had a player sent off after a punch-up and the pitch was “invaded” by a single rapidly removed spectator. Most of the time, as the Bedfordshire Times observed in January, “the true Bedfordian is not a noisy fellow”. Noisy or not, at the season’s end there was much satisfaction at what had been achieved, but trouble was in store.
(1) There is an example of these booklets on the Annex site (https://sites.google.com/site/oldeaglespics/home/1966-7-and-earlier)