1955/6 Summary

In the summer of 1955, Tim Kelly had a major clear-out of many of the players that Fred Stansfield had inherited or signed. Only Farquhar, Ted Duggan, Faulkner, Kinchin and Cyril Partridge remained; Billy Waugh had been Kelly’s own signing at the end of 1954/5, and Len Garwood had been re-signed at the same time after returning from Canada. So the new manager had to sign almost two new teams. It was even more important than before to have adequate cover, because the reserves had left the United Counties League in favour of the tougher Metropolitan League, consisting mainly of reserve teams of Southern League clubs and “A” teams of League clubs. The latter sometimes included already famous names-I remember seeing Mel Charles playing for Arsenal "A" when making a comeback after injury-or names which would become famous later, such as a certain G. Hurst who scored for West Ham "A" at the Eyrie early in 1958/9.

His own playing days being long past, Kelly cast his net rather wider than Ronnie Rooke had tended to do. His biggest coup was to persuade four members of the Headington team that had won the league title in 1952/3 and been runners-up the following year to move to Bedford. Bob Craig, a Geordie centre-half, Johnny Crichton, a balding Scots wing-half, Ronnie Steel, another Geordie who could play right wing or inside forward, and Harry Yates, a prolific goalscorer of Yorkshire origins, appear to have fallen out with the Headington management over the non-payment of appearance bonuses to injured players[1], but whatever the reasons behind their move this was an extraordinary piece of good business, effectively acquiring the “spine” of a whole new team; the players would have been out of contract and thus cost only their wages. Also, Kelly acquired a new goalkeeper, Terry Pope from Newport County, who was the only full-timer on the books and used to double as an assistant groundsman and odd-jobber during the week, two new full-backs, Billy Cooke from Watford and Des Quinn from Millwall, Bert Carberry, a wing-half from Gillingham, and two new goalscorers in Arthur Adey, a Scots inside-forward from Bradford Park Avenue, and Felix Staroscik, a Polish left winger who had arrived in the UK with his country’s Free Forces during the war and had played for Third Lanark and Northampton. Only Cooke had any previous connection with Kelly, having been at Luton earlier in his career. However, Dougie Gardiner, who had also been with Kelly at Luton, had retired to become first team “trainer-coach”, and he was to become Peter Taylor to Kelly’s Brian Clough, if that’s not too much of an anachronism.

It was still possible to recruit good players from Football league clubs by exploiting the absence of a maximum wage, in contrast to the one that existed in the Football League. John Plummer, who joined from Spurs the following season, recalled in correspondence in October 2010: “It was at the time when the pay was £18 maximum per week and outside the league it was possible to negotiate beyond that wage." It must have been easier still to do this with part-time players who could be found jobs in businesses owned by directors.

The eleven for the first match of the season, against Hereford at home, thus featured nine new players, plus Waugh who was almost new; only Faulkner had been on the books twelve months earlier, and he was only playing because Steel was unfit. It was a gamble of sorts to launch such a radically new squad, but the first five matches produced four wins and a draw, with attendances back into the 5,500-6,000 bracket as people sensed a new era. By the end of 1955 the Eagles had lost only five times in the league and were well up with the leaders; the summer signings had been joined by Bernard Moore, who was certainly an old Kelly contact from Luton via Brighton, but had gradually ousted Ted Duggan from the attack. Yates, Adey and Staroscik, a curly-headed incutter of a winger in the Finney rather than the Matthews mould, were all scoring steadily, and the defence, with Pope, Craig and Crichton the lynchpins, was a match for most of their opponents.

But it was in the FA Cup that this team really made its mark. Comfortable successes against local opponents paired them with Walthamstow Avenue, the leading amateurs who had held Manchester United to a draw a couple of years earlier, in the fourth qualifying round; but with surprising ease the Eagles put six goals past them without reply to entertain an 8,000 crowd. Leyton, another east London amateur side, were beaten 3-0 in the first round proper to put Bedford further in the competition than they had ever advanced before.

On 10 December 1955, 13,150 people crammed into a ground whose capacity had increased by a few thousand since the Second World War thanks to W T Hobkirk’s expansion programme, and which now had a cantilevered concrete roof at the Ford End Road end, but with its primitive grandstand dating from the 1920s, it was still essentially a basic affair. The opposition, Watford, were only the second Football League team to have played Bedford in the competition, and were a struggling side in the Third Division (South), but two goals either side of half-time by Staroscik really clinched the tie after they had equalised Steel’s earlier goal for Bedford. The 3-2 win put the Eagles into the completely unknown territory of the third round with the First and Second Division clubs. At a time when the FA Cup was viewed as the premier competition at all levels of the game, the draw pairing them with Arsenal at Highbury was national news.

For most adult Bedford supporters of that era, Arsenal were still probably the biggest team in the country. Under Tom Whittaker, they had last won the League title only just under three years earlier, in 1953, and that had been their seventh Championship since 1930, during which time they had also won the FA Cup three times and only once finished lower than sixth. Nobody knew at the time that their 1953 title was to be their last for another 17 years, until Bertie Mee’s double-winning era. In The Eyrie Roar (1999), several supporters of the period told their stories of the events of 7 January 1956; so many excursions by bus and train[2] were run in addition to the official Supporters’ Club parties that their exact numbers can only be guessed at, but there may well have been 10,000 Bedford supporters in the crowd of 55,178 on a murky day-so much so that many supporters feared that they had had a wasted journey until the fog cleared in the outer suburbs.

In view of the weather perhaps it was just as well that Arsenal had been one of the pioneers of floodlighting, and that the FA had recently relaxed its rules to allow FA Cup ties to be played under lights (the first Football League match under lights, at Portsmouth, was played the following month). The match programme notes complained that Highbury spectators at their recent home match against Wolves had suffered from the early kick-off necessary without lights in mid-winter-"the kick-off was at 2.15 pm and at 2.05 pm there was little indication that there would be a very large attendance, yet in that ten minutes (and the following ten minutes) thousands of people descended upon the stadium and on entering the ground found difficulty in finding places to see" because everyone clustered round the entry points. (The crowd at that match was some 43,000 incidentally, well short of the capacity of over 60,000). Arguing that everyone would benefit from a later start and more time for a meal first, Arsenal asked Bedford whether they would agree to the use of lights, and despite their unhappy experience at Headington a couple of years earlier (see 1953/4 Summary), Bedford agreed readily.

Bernard Moore provided some reminiscences many years later to a local magazine. “The night before we were given seats to see a show at the London Palladium but the club had been allocated odd seats that were not all together and we were dotted all over the place. On the day of the match we visited the Palace of Westminster before going to the Arsenal. It was all a bit of a blur, but I do remember being very impressed with the under-floor heating in the dressing room and by the big plunge bath.”

The first half went according to expectations and Tapscott put Arsenal ahead within the first five minutes; a volley from Groves five minutes after half-time made it two and but for Pope’s saves, Arsenal would have wrapped up their expected victory before the remarkable final 13 minutes. Then Steel pulled a goal back after a fine individual run down the right wing ending with a cross shot past Sullivan, and with six minutes left Staroscik, Adey and Yates combined from the left to play Moore in to equalise from close range. In the last seconds Yates had a goal-bound shot deflected into the side-netting by Arsenal’s giant centre-half, Jim Fotheringham; an eye-witness once told me that Fotheringham’s outstretched leg seemed to go on for ever until it finally made contact to deny the Eagles an historic win.

Bernard Moore also recalled the low-key aftermath: “When the whistle blew our chairman [Cyril Folkes] came on the pitch and kissed every one of us. Unlike today we didn’t celebrate; there was no party afterwards and we quietly packed our kit into our bags and went back home to the various parts of the country where we lived. It was as if nothing had ever happened”.[3]

In the programme for Arsenal's next home match, against Spurs on 14 January, the "Voice of Arsenal" column reported: "Several spectators have expressed themselves on the fact that both the goals scored against us were in the floodlit period and that if the match had been played in daylight completely, those goals might never have been scored". But as the columnist pointed out, the conditions were the same for both sides and Bedford had even less experience under lights than Arsenal.

The replay was played on the following Thursday afternoon and 15,306 people, many probably taking illicit time off from work or school, crammed into the little ground to see it. If anything Bedford exceeded their achievements in the first match, and had the better of a goalless first half; then in the first minute of the second, Yates fastened on to a botched clearance by Fotheringham to beat Kelsey from ten yards. The Eagles held their lead until four minutes from the end, and meanwhile a second Yates effort had been disallowed for offside. Tom Whittaker later told the Bedfordshire Times reporter that he’d resigned himself to an embarrassing defeat by then- “I was ready to pack up and go home”-but Groves saved his blushes with probably the best goal of the tie, a diving header from a left wing cross. Two minutes into extra time, a Tapscott header put Arsenal ahead, and their superior fitness saw them through despite a second disallowed goal, from Staroscik, in the last few minutes.

The best film footage of the replay available on line is a BBC "Sportsview" production, with Kenneth Wolstenholme commentating, about 12 minutes' worth, now on YouTube at https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+bedford+town+v+arsenal+1956&view=detail&mid=A2BD657661B1C1A13A1FA2BD657661B1C1A13A1F&FORM=VIRE. It shows the buildup to Yates's disallowed goal and although you can't see when the linesman flagged because he was on the same side as the camera, it does suggest that it was Moore who was adjudged offside (see the Daily Sketch photographs at 1955/6 in photos). This clip also suggests that Fotheringham nowadays might have been shown a red card for a foul on Moore when he was clean through in the closing minutes. There are also brief highlights at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/arsenal-win-bedford-replay, and a shorter clip, with commentary by David Jacobs (later compere of Juke Box Jury!), from Movietone News at ttps://youtu.be/pTW68U8tLRE. [4]

The Eagles were £5,000 richer for their efforts in the two matches, and had materially raised the profile of a club at that stage little known outside its own sphere. “When the ball hit the net [for Yates’s goal]”, wrote “V.M.H.” in the Bedfordshire Times, “the crowd broke all barriers of sound and decorum with a cheer that must have startled the rooks in Pavenham churchyard. Even the gasometers seemed to grin through the mist....”. One telling statistic buried in the reports is that only 30 additional policemen were on duty, although no problems were reported. Today’s sport fitness experts might be surprised to read that the Bedford players, at a special pre-match lunch at the Embankment Hotel, had “chicken with tea and toast to complete the meal-no vegetables were allowed”.

Back in the league, Kelly immediately spent a little of the cup cash on two new forwards, George Stobbart, one of his old Luton charges who had meandered on to Millwall and Brentford, and Jimmy Bowie, a Scottish winger from Watford who had once been a regular at Chelsea, and this pair by the end of the season had displaced Moore and Adey from the cup side; now Kelly was also able to release Ted Duggan, who returned to Luton in a coaching role. A splendid run of only one defeat and two draws in the next 13 fixtures, including a 5-1 thumping of Kettering at home watched by 9,200, took them into third place by mid-March; at that point they were six points behind the leaders, Guildford, with two games in hand. But the strains of so many matches now took their toll; the final eleven matches, including the customary three matches in four days at Easter, produced only two wins and three draws. Bedford made Guildford fight hard to secure their title in the penultimate match at Joseph’s Road when they came back from four goals down to lose only 3-4, but by then they were well out of contention themselves and had to settle for fourth place-their second best finish-by nine points, having scored one short of a hundred league goals. The reserves also did well at their new level, beating Headington in the final of the Metropolitan League Challenge Cup.

There had been a few problems along the way. The 0-1 defeat at home to Chelmsford in November must have included some contentious refeeing decisions, because in his programme notes for the FA Cup match against Leyton the following week, chairman Folkes thanked supporters "for the control you had on your tempers". He went on : "I am sure there is no other official who provokes the public and players as the one it was our misfortune to have last week. Attempts by the Board to keep this official away from the Eyrie have been made before, but if you remember it only made matters worse for we had the same official three or four games straight running...We are not the only club to make this same complaint, last Saturday a Chelmsford director was telling us they had the same trouble at their ground". The referee in question, Mr A B Lamb of Ilford, was one of the longest-serving oficials in the League and the chairman's words brought down the full wrath of the FA on the Eagles for the cardinal sin of "bringing the game into disrepute". A grovelling written apology was offered and the club was forced to reprint the offending notes, plus the apology, in the programme for the match against Worcester in April. What the FA would have made of some of the things managers say about referees today one can only wonder.

That apart, it had been a superb season, watched by the best crowds ever seen at The Eyrie, averaging over 5,500 for league matches[5]. Looking ahead, the directors had set out a number of strategic objectives including a new main stand, floodlighting, ownership of the ground and Football League status. Meanwhile, Kelly’s management had more enjoyments in store.

To see photos of thos season go to 1955/6 in photos

To continue the story go to 1956/7 Summary

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

[1] See A. and R.Howland, Oxford United-A Complete Record (Breedon Books). They had refused to play in Headington's county cup final against Banbury at the end of the previous season.

[2] Adult excursion tickets by train cost 7s 2d (£0.36) . There were thought to have been 200 busloads as well. The basic admission price was two shillings (£0.10).

[3] Interview in Discover Bedfordshire, issue no 13. Copyright JNB Publishing, reproduced by their kind permission..

[4] I'm grateful to Mike Crisp for the links to the archive footage here.

[5] 6,126 including the FA Cup ties.