1953/4 Summary

From a very early stage it was clear that the club would face problems building on its most successful season so far. They started with the retained list, when the directors insisted on economies in the wage bill. A six-hour board meeting in May 1953 produced “sharply divided opinions”, but ended with the release of Butler, Millbank and Summers, who had all been regular first team players at various times, and deferred a decision on Gage, who eventually decided to leave to concentrate on the pub he ran in Essex. It was also decided to scrap the “A” team and even in May, Rooke was telling reporters that the directors were insisting that he reduce the wages of the men retained. The amount he had to spend was, he said, “stupid and ridiculously small”; he needed to strengthen the squad because, in his view, the exhaustion of several players at the end of the previous season, notably Gardiner and Garwood, had cost Bedford the championship.

Such public conflict between the manager and the board hardly gave much encouragement for the new season. Things got worse in July, when Rooke told the AGM that potential signings had “laughed” at the money he was able to offer; Taft and Dubois, like Gage, had already refused terms, Murphy had been forced to return to Ireland because he had been evicted from his Crystal Palace club house and could not afford to rent a house in Bedford, and with a month to go to the start of the season, Rooke had only four professionals on the books. It sounded as if he was daring the board to sack him on the spot, but the directors had troubles of their own.

The meeting, which was attended by 500 shareholders and lasted for four hours, was told that the club had lost money-albeit only £359-in the period from January 1952 to May 1953 despite the playing successes. An enormous £2,500 had been paid in Entertainment Tax, which was levied at up to 25% on the price of admission and was very unpopular with theatres and cinemas as well as sporting organisations (it was not abolished until 1957). The wage bill for the 1952/3 had clearly increased, possibly by over 40%, and seems to have been accounting for more than 70% of revenues[1]. But things really livened up when the chairman, William Hobkirk, publicly resigned, claiming that he had been the only director to subscribe to the share issue the previous summer and accusing his colleagues of a lack of support. One of them, Cyril Symes, who ran a motor coach business, replied that Hobkirk seemed to think he was the only director to have bankrolled the club, reminding the meeting that other directors had loans of over £700 outstanding and that his own company had transported the players for the whole previous season free of charge. There was also a clear antipathy between Hobkirk and several other directors whose re-nomination he opposed. The proceedings ended with the election as chairman of Cyril Folkes, aged only 38, who had been secretary when the new company started and had been a wartime colleague of Rooke in the Army PT instructorate.

This seemed to settle the boardroom feuds and, if only temporarily, the quarrel with Rooke, who may well have been on the point of leaving. Enough money was found to persuade the other retained players to re-sign (including Summers, whose release was reversed) and recruit three more: Charlie Bumstead, a goalkeeper and another old Rooke colleague at Crystal Palace, Frank Morrad, a veteran defender from Brentford, and Johnny Jordan, a much-travelled inside forward who holds the distinction of being the only man to play both for the Eagles and Juventus (in the late 1940s). The new board also reversed its predecessor’s decision to increase season tickets from £2 2s to £2 15s (£2.75), or £4 including a stand seat and car parking space. Ground admission was pegged at 1s 9d.

The season started ominously, with Rooke having an operation for “quinsy” (a form of tonsillitis), defeats in the first three matches and no win until the sixth. The first home Saturday match, against Exeter Reserves on 29 August, attracted only 3,800 people. This had dropped by another 500 when Gravesend gave the team their first success a week later. Luck seemed in short supply; in the second match, at Cheltenham, captain Wilkins became a passenger with a cut head, the following week at Guildford came a 0-1 defeat thanks to a controversial last minute penalty, and at Kidderminster in the league cup the team did well to secure a draw after losing Dennis Adams, a young local defender who had recently turned professional, for the whole second half. But on 12 September came a 0-8 away thumping by Barry Town, despite Bedford playing their strongest available team. It could have been even worse since Barry missed two of the four penalties they were given. Rooke claimed that three of the goals were at least six yards offside and that three of the penalties were for offences well outside the area, but his official complaint about the refereeing ended rather unconvincingly: “I bear no grudge because we lost the match.....” He may have felt better after hitting a hat-trick a few days later against his first club, Guildford, in a 4-0 home win.

The FA Cup provided a temporary distraction, but even here there was a scare when Biggleswade held Bedford to a goalless draw in the second qualifying round before going down in the replay. The 4-2 win at Dunstable in the next round was hardly convincing either, since the scores were level with four minutes to go. A 2-0 win at Gorleston, from the Eastern Counties League, owed much to a penalty save by Bumstead, who had established himself in place of Gage. But the draw for the first round proper did the Eagles no favours with a long and not very lucrative trip to Weymouth. They did at least help to achieve a local attendance record of 6,652, but rarely looked like winning as they went down 0-2, one of the goals coming from Andy Easton who was to join them four years later. Ayton was off injured for much of the second half and Rooke’s troubles continued, missing a “sitter” when the score was only 0-1; he told scribes that it was the kind of goal he used to score in his sleep.

In fact, the manager’s time was running out. After their cup exit on 21 November Bedford had sunk to fourth from bottom in the league. Hints of discontent and disorganisation were already evident; earlier in the month they had been forced to play a whole game, away to the Newport club Lovells Athletic[2], with ten men after Tommy Rudkin, an elderly winger from Peterborough who had recently been signed, had missed the coach. A five-goal defeat was followed by a £25 fine by the League and much disgruntled comment by supporters. Rooke had recently signed two more experienced forwards, Ted Duggan from Worcester and Ian McPherson, another old Arsenal colleague, from Brentford, but Duggan was cup-tied and neither could make much impact in the short term. There were unseemly allegations (firmly rejected) that a regular donation of £400 by the Supporters’ Club had been used to fund an under-the-table payment to McPherson. More defeats followed and in the first week of December the national press carried speculation that Rooke had resigned or been sacked. The following week chairman Folkes announced that the board had decided not to renew his contract when it expired the following summer; soon afterwards he was given what would now be called gardening leave for the rest of the season. Jack Wilkins and Dougie Gardiner, the first and second team captains, were put in charge of team selection for the time being.

“It had been clear for a few weeks that all was not well”, said the Bedfordshire Times with much restraint. Folkes said that the board had decided to look “for a younger player-manager”. Rooke protested that he’d made clear when he arrived that he would not be able to play on indefinitely (in fact he’d made 136 appearances in just under three years) and claimed that he’d received “300 to 400” letters of support. Meanwhile troubles on the field continued, and defender Bernard Lawson broke his leg, in those days a career-threatening injury, in the one-goal defeat at Bath just before Rooke’s exit.

Now, however, the tide turned. Six of the next seven matches were won, sending the team well out of the re-election zone and into the top half of the table. Duggan’s goalscoring was a key factor; he scored in all seven, and against Cheltenham at home just before Christmas he hit a new postwar club record of five in a 6-0 win. Frank Faulkner, a local product who’d rarely got a chance under Rooke despite having been around since 1949, came in on the right wing and the same forward line, Faulkner, Woodward, Duggan, Jordan and Holland, appeared in the next 17 matches. The fact that the experienced McPherson was dropped for several weeks from both the first team and the reserves may suggest that he did not see eye to eye with the temporary bosses. This sequence of matches was certainly eventful; a 6-1 defeat of Chelmsford in early February put the team into fifth place, although this was to prove the limit of the recovery and was followed by a 0-7 defeat by Headington in the league cup and a 4-4 draw at Llanelly in which the team had been 1-3 down and later 4-3 up.

The Headington match at the Manor Ground was Bedford’s first under floodlights, attended by 3,600 people, far more than could have seen an afternoon match in midweek, and such was their novelty that Bedford supporters criticised the management for agreeing to play an important fixture under these conditions. The players were, said the press report, “consulted first” before the evening kick-off was agreed. Headington installed their lights long before many bigger clubs had even considered them-at this stage neither Football League matches nor FA Cup ties were permissible under lights.

On 8 March the board ended their search for a “younger player-manager” by appointing Fred Stansfield, formerly of Cardiff and Newport, who was certainly six years younger than Rooke but had stopped playing three years earlier. There had been 112 applications to pick from. Perhaps some people wondered whether the club should have stuck with the Wilkins/Gardiner arrangement when only three of the remaining ten league matches in the season were won, although a 1-0 defeat of Luton in the County Invitation Cup was some consolation.

The final league placing of eighth was actually the second highest the club had achieved, and many would have settled for it when Rooke left, but it was perceived as something of a disappointment after the good run at the turn of the year. Duggan’s 25 goals in only 33 matches made him the biggest success of the year on the field; otherwise only Jordan, Woodward and Rooke (who did not play after December) reached double figures. Wilkins, Bumstead, Garwood, Gray and Ken Fisher had been the key men of the defence, but Garwood now decided to emigrate to Canada and Gray opted to move to Salisbury, so as to be nearer his home and cricketing base in Southampton.

Stansfield surprised many by releasing Wilkins, who had missed only two first team matches in two years and left to rejoin Rooke at his next club, Hayward’s Heath, as well as Jordan, and with McPherson deciding to rejoin the RAF, and the departures of Gray and Garwood, only eight professionals were retained. The club had budgeted for weekly gate receipts of £350, but actual weekly takings were nearer £250, against running costs of £300-so the Supporters’ Club’s donations of over £6,000 were even more vital than previously, and the new manager would be unable to splash out on players. Gates over the year averaged 4,372, down for the third season running, and the financial result of the reserve team’s visit to British Timken at Duston in January had been minus 16 shillings (80p), since their travelling expenses exceeded their share of the takings! Remarkably, though, the club for the first time made a profit of £1,973 on the season.

[1] This has to be an estimate, because the new company changed its accounting date at this time. A wages figure of £16,950 was quoted for the 68 weeks from January 1952 to May 1953, compared to £9,734 for the 1951/2 playing season, suggesting that the figure for the 1952/3 season may have been about £14,000 on a pro rated basis. Receipts for the 1952/3 season were stated as £18,975. Nowadays experts on the financial side of football tend to sound alarms when wages exceed 70% of a club’s turnover. Hobkirk had claimed in his programme notes for the match v Hastings on 28 August 1952 that personal friends of his had taken over 25% of the disappointing number of shares subscribed in the attempt to raise another £3,000.

[2] Sponsored by Lovells the confectionary manufacturers. Despite often including several amateurs, they achieved respectable positions for many years.