1957/8 Summary

Tim Kelly’s signings for the new season included Andy Easton, a Scottish inside or centre-forward from Weymouth and previously Yeovil, already a proven Southern league goalscorer, Alan Thompson, a full-back from Luton and Ron Smith, another defender from Watford, Jim Smillie, a Scottish winger from Headington, and Colin Morhen, a goalkeeper from Derby. Only Easton and Thompson were in the team for the opening day, a 3-1 win at Lovells, and Thompson was only covering for the injured Quinn at this stage. Easton took a while to establish a regular spot but his opportunism and aggression were soon to prove a valuable asset.

In a rather uncertain start, the team only won two of its first seven league and league cup matches and Kelly was faced with more problems than he had been used to so far. Crichton missed the start of the season through injury and, in fact, was never to regain his regular place; Len Garwood, in his testimonial season, would play more first team matches than ever before to plug the gap. Kelly turned to Bela Olah, a young Hungarian refugee who turned out to be a very promising winger or inside forward, Syd Asher, a striker who had already played for many clubs and would play for many more, and Ben Marden, ex Arsenal and Watford, to fill in gaps, but by about the end of September the team started to stabilise. The team lost only once in the league between 7 September and 7 December-that being a bizarre 2-7 defeat at Cheltenham in which Stobbart was sent off for the second time in a few months and the Bedford players complained that objects were thrown at them by spectators-and by Christmas they were sitting in pole position in the table.

This time there was to be no FA Cup success; Walthamstow Avenue came to Bedford in the fourth qualifying round but gained revenge for their heavy defeat two years earlier by winning a replay 1-0 after a 1-1 draw in a disappointing performance. Kelly dropped both wing-halves, Hughes and Crichton, after the first match but it failed to do the trick and for the first time in his career at the club the manager’s judgement started to be questioned in the press. Wing-halves were regarded as the key positions in a team in those days, their role being to link defence and attack and ensure a plentiful supply of ball for the forwards. People wanted tough-tackling players in these roles and tended to barrack anyone who dwelled on the ball too long or passed sideways instead of forwards. “Stop tip-tapping it about !”, was a common cry from the terraces.

However, the team’s league form remained the best answer to Kelly’s critics and despite a bad stumble at home in December which saw successive defeats by Gravesend and Lovells (the latter match marking the end of Staroscik’s first team career), Christmas was celebrated by putting 14 goals past the unfortunate Hastings in two days; 9-1 at home in what proved to be the last Christmas morning match at The Eyrie, and 5-2 at Hastings next day. Smillie made his first team debut in the home match and scored four times. In the middle of this sequence came a 3-3 draw at Chelmsford which appears to have ended in a series of running fights between players as Bedford fought back from being three down at the interval; reading between the lines, the combustible presence of Arthur Adey in the home side may have been a factor in this, yet nobody appears even to have been booked, let alone sent off, and journalists seem to have taken the line that “incidents” such as these were best kept veiled.

Although they had gone down 2-5 at Guildford in the third round of the League Cup in mid-February the team were still favourites for the long-awaited title when March came round; after beating Barry 5-0 at home on St David’s Day they were six points clear of Cheltenham, in second place, with ten games left to play, although Gravesend lurked menacingly in sixth place with four games in hand, nine points behind. But now the problems began. Some criticised the manager for discarding Yates, who had been a regular scorer for the previous two and a half seasons, in favour of Tom Ritchie, an Ulsterman signed from Dartford in January in part-exchange for Stobbart, while others pointed to the growing fallibilities of Pope in goal, but the real problem was clearly the fact that only one of the final five home matches was won. Of the ten defeats in the season, in fact, six were at home. Panic started to set in at Easter, when on Good Friday 8,800 saw a point dropped against Kettering, who were in mid-table and not expected to prove awkward, and the following day came a 1-2 defeat by lowly Dartford. Pope had made a bad handling error that led to Kettering’s equaliser and the Dartford defeat marked the end of his first team career; Morhen, who had deputised ably when needed, took over for the rest of the season. Bedford came back to win their next three away matches, the return match at Kettering on Easter Monday and then at Yeovil and Dartford, but they could no longer afford further slip-ups.

Everything now depended on the final league fixture, at home to Chelmsford on a very bright but chilly 26 April 1958. Bedford started the day four points clear of Gravesend, who had gathered points steadily as they caught up with their fixtures, and a win would, despite all the falterings of the previous month, make the title almost certain, which encouraged 7,200 to turn up. Ritchie gave Bedford an early lead but hopes were dashed 14 minutes later when Chelmsford were awarded a much-disputed penalty for handball which Jimmy Jones initially missed, but a re-take was ordered for encroachment and he succeeded with the second attempt. A fractious second half saw Arthur Adey net an 83rd minute winner against his old colleagues, and the referee was given a police escort at the end. To my nearly eight-year old eyes, he appeared to have been arrested for bad refereeing.

When disappointed supporters bought their “Pink’Uns” that evening they learned that Gravesend had won one of their three matches in hand, at Exeter, but they still had another two matches left and needed at least three points from them, so there was still hope, but Gravesend beat Headington on the Monday and Hastings on the Wednesday -their eighth win in a row- to win their only title, having never been top until after their final match. Even so, had Bedford beaten Chelmsford they would have been champions on goal average. Sixteen points in all had been dropped at home. “Write the whole team off except two”, was the headline of a disgruntled letter from a fan calling themselves “Fair Play [name and address supplied]” printed next to the Bedford Record’s report of the Chelmsford match-the two excused being Craig and “one of the wing men”, Smillie or Bull.

Nobody could complain about goals-Bedford had hit no fewer than 112 in league matches (though Cheltenham, who finished sixth, managed 115), but this was a bitter disappointment in a season without Cup excitement, and after the team had held the leadership for virtually half the season. Kelly decided to swing the axe, releasing Pope, Yates and Crichton from his original 1955 signings as well as Smillie and Hughes. During the summer he also lost Ritchie, who preferred the chance to return to League football with Grimsby, and the promising Olah, whom he had been unable to sign as a professional because of his immigrant status; as soon as Olah had been in the UK long enough to turn professional, Northampton swooped for his signature. Financially, the average attendance dropped very slightly to 5,206, amid nationally declining gates. There were fears that after three seasons of getting ever closer to the elusive title the club was at risk of slipping backwards.

1958/9 would pose different problems because the Southern League was to be split into two regional sections, North West and South East, in preparation for the creation of a Premier and First Division in 1959/60. A number of new clubs from the midlands and west country had been elected members[1], and a large influx of clubs had been expected from the Kent League, but they fell foul of their league’s regulations about resignations and were forced to carry on where they were for another season. The two new Southern League sections would, therefore, be quite small, with only 18 teams in the North West section and 17 in the South East.

Since the excitements of 1955/6 the club had applied each summer for membership of the Football League, though for any non-league club this was a pretty hopeless task because there was no automatic relegation from the Third Division (North) and (South) and applicants thus had to take votes away from the bottom two clubs in each section who had to apply for re-election. This summer was no different, with Bedford collecting just two votes. Peterborough received 15, but even this was well short of any chance of admission. This was to be a recurring theme of the next few years.

[1] The new clubs in the NW section would be Boston United, Corby Town and Wisbech Town (all from the Midland League), Burton Albion, Nuneaton Borough and Rugby Town (Birmingham League) and Wellington Town (Cheshire League); and joining Bedford in the SE section would be Cambridge City (Athenian), Cambridge United and Clacton Town (Eastern Counties), King’s Lynn (Midland), Trowbridge Town (Western) and Yiewsley (Corinthian). Cambridge City and Yiewsley (later Hillingdon Borough) had both been amateur clubs which now turned professional.