1958/9 Summary

Tim Kelly’s most notable summer signings were all forwards-Maurice Robinson, a left-winger who had been a member of Kettering’s 1956/7 title-winning team before a short stay at Northampton, Jimmy Clugston, a Northern Irish inside-forward from Portsmouth, and Jack Winter, a centre-forward with long experience of this level of football at Gravesend and Dartford. It was taken for granted that Bedford would finish in the top eleven of the sectional league so as to qualify for the Premier Division in 1959, but the real objective in everyone’s sights was the elusive championship. Marking the golden jubilee of the club (counting from 1908) with such an honour would be ideal, and a special gold-tinged programme was introduced for the season.

The geographical split denied Bedford their customary league derbies with Kettering but introduced potential new ones with the two Cambridge clubs. As well as the league programme with its new opponents, and the league cup, the Southern League authorities devised an extra competition to make up for the reduced size of the two sectional leagues, called the Inter-Zone Competition. This, naturally, mixed the two sections up and gave Bedford home and away matches with Kettering, but there was an air of unreality about it which spectators soon saw through and it was not well supported. When its fixtures fell into arrears because of bad weather in the new year the planned quarter and semi-finals and final were simply cancelled, leaving a competition without a winner. By then everyone had lost interest anyway. However, it did produce two remarkable matches, at home to Cambridge United in October and away to Kettering in January, in which Bedford went behind three times in the first half yet crossed over 4-3 up; and on both occasions the apparently exhausted teams could only manage a single goal in the second half with both games ending 5-3 to Bedford [1]. Bedford finished second in their section, level with Cambridge United on points but behind them on goal average. The winners of each section were awarded a "small trophy" (to quote Lionel Francis's Seventy Five Years of Southern League Football, 1969).

In the League, Bedford got off to an excellent start with a thumping 5-2 win at Gravesend against the reigning champions-who would finish runners-up this time and win every one of their remaining home league matches-but their early league efforts after that were patchy and the attack struggled to dominate inferior teams such as Yiewsley, who held Bedford to a draw in the first home match, and Hastings, who were only beaten by a flukey own goal. Goals, by contrast, abounded in the league cup in which ten were put past Corby in two matches, and after a draw at Boston in the next round an extraordinary replay finished with a 5-6 defeat, Boston’s winner coming from a penalty in the last seconds of extra time. The first Cambridge derby, against United at Newmarket Road on 27 September, attracted 4,500 people to a 1-1 draw, and the only convincing league win after the opening day was a 3-1 home defeat of Yeovil, hitherto unbeaten, on the first Saturday of October, which was also the first time that more than two goals had been scored since that day. The team had been reasonably settled, with Morhen starting the season in goal and the three new men, Winter, Clugston and Robinson all doing reasonably well in attack, but something seemed to be missing.

One thing that remained missing, for the second year running, was a run in the FA Cup; again the team fell at the first hurdle, this time to Wisbech, led by their charismatic former England centre forward, Jesse Pye. This match was a major embarrassment because it was a home tie, 8,041 people had turned up and the opposition was effectively reduced to ten men mid way through the first half when Langton was injured. Despite this Wisbech romped into a three goal lead by half-time and although Bedford pulled back two goals early in the second half, a fourth breakaway goal engineered by Pye settled their fate. This defeat released a deluge of criticism in the local press, much of it suggesting that Kelly had signed “too many old men” and was unwilling to give local youngsters a chance. For the first time in his four year tenure, Kelly had seriously lost the goodwill of the club’s supporters. The strength of these attacks emphasised the paramount importance of the FA Cup in contemporary non-league thinking. Nobody mentioned the fact that the team had been beaten only once in the league (at King’s Lynn in September).

Over the next few weeks, however, the manager made several crucial decisions that would silence his critics. The Wisbech defeat effectively marked the end for Winter and also Phil Frost, a wing-half who had arrived the previous year from Weymouth, but the players who were to replace them for most of the rest of the season were launched on an unsuspecting public at very short notice in the home match against Weymouth on 22 November. They were both signed from Tottenham-Colin Brittan, a wing-half who had been on the fringe of their first team until Danny Blanchflower ended his chances, and the biggest name to join the club since Ronnie Rooke- Len Duquemin, the Channel Islander centre-forward whose goals had spearheaded Spurs’ achievements in the early 50s but who had been out of the first team for several seasons. The clubs didn't disclose whether a fee changed hands for these players but according to national press reports, they cost Bedford £2,000 for the pair; it was also claimed that Duquemin had been on the point of joining Millwall when Kelly secured him. The fact that he was 34 and Brittan 31 was soon forgotten by those who had attacked Kelly for not giving youth its chance.

Duquemin scored twice in the 5-2 defeat of Weymouth, twice more in the first visit to Cambridge City the following week (where his presence swelled the crowd to 5,530) and by the end of the season he had scored 31 times in only 30 appearances. His eye for a half-chance and ability to create moves by wide-ranging passes revitalised the attack, and allowed Easton to settle into the inside-right berth, where he formed a most effective strike partnership, collecting 34 goals himself. This in turn allowed Murray to move from inside-left to left-half where he was now more effective. Brittan slotted into right-half where his rangy figure and cool composure gave the defence a sounder look-and also, eventually, spelled the end of Len Garwood’s years of loyal service.

The following week, for the visit of Trowbridge, Kelly made another vital change when Morhen, faulted for at least one of the goals against Wisbech, was dropped in favour of Tony Hawksworth, a newly signed goalkeeper from Manchester United who was thought by some to be on the small side but whose handling and courage against some of the burly strikers of the period (with much less protection from referees than would be available today) soon made the spot his own. Then, after a bizarre defensive performance against Dunstable (who played in the Metropolitan League with Bedford’s reserves) in the Beds Professional Cup had ended in a 4-5 defeat, Kelly axed his two long-serving full-backs, Hepple and Quinn, and promoted Ron Smith and Alan Thompson, who had both been in the shadows since their arrival at the start of the previous season (though Smith had missed a chunk of it with a broken leg). So by Christmas, he had more or less settled on the team that was to secure the title at last.

From that point there was no further serious stumbling. Smith and Thompson’s first match together saw an 8-2 thrashing of Gravesend, one of a string of eleven league wins on the trot. The team remained undefeated at home in the league and failed to score only twice, at Poole and at home to Clacton. A fast, direct style allowed the ball to reach the forwards quickly and chances were taken when offered. By the eleventh of these wins, at home to Cambridge United on 14 February, Gravesend were still ahead of Bedford in the table, despite conceding 13 goals in their two games against the Eagles, but only by a single point, and Bedford had five games in hand-the reverse of the position at the end of the previous season. When the run ended at Yeovil the following week, an injury kept Duquemin out of the team for the first time and a slight stutter followed, with a surprising failure to beat Clacton at home, a familiar defeat at the bogey ground, Guildford, and a 3-4 defeat at Trowbridge. There was a feeling that the South Eastern division was the weaker of the two and that Bedford hadn’t been seriously tested, reinforced for some by Peterborough’s decisive 4-0 win at The Eyrie in the East Anglian Cup in mid-April-which attracted a gate of some 5,200, larger than all but four of the season’s league gates.

However, Gravesend were now the pursuers rather than the target, and doubts were erased when Bedford overwhelmed Poole 9-0 at home on the Saturday after the Peterborough defeat, a result that effectively clinched the divisional title barring a highly unlikely combination of results. This was Duquemin’s biggest triumph, his six goals beating Ted Duggan’s 1953/4 record. The last three of the six were scored in a 15 minute spell in the second half; there were no penalties or injured defenders to take the gloss off the achievement, although one of the goals was a rather fortunate deflection off the Poole goalkeeper's body. And to rub the point in, the Eagles visited Peterborough a fortnight later and obtained revenge by winning the Hunts Cup 3-2.

Now the final task was to win the title play-off against Hereford, winners of the North Western section. After much harrumphing, Bedford accepted the League’s decision that this should only be a one-legged match and that Hereford had won a secret “draw” for home advantage. So on 9 May 1959 several coachloads of supporters made the long journey west to Edgar Street. On a hard ground the game never reached great heights but Bedford always had enough in hand; they could have made the game safe before they did, but Robinson missed a penalty in the 62nd minute before they took the lead when the goalkeeper fumbled Easton’s shot three minutes later. Griffiths equalised with five minutes left after Hawksworth appeared unsighted, but in the final minute Bull dispossessed his full-back and crossed for Duquemin, the man who had transformed the season, to slide the winner home. At last Tim Kelly had achieved his ambition.

This may not have been Bedford’s best ever team in terms of quality; at their respective best, Pope was probably a better goalkeeper than Hawksworth, and Staroscik a better left-winger than Robinson, but it was certainly very much better than anything that came after it for the next few years. Craig was a rock in the middle of the defence, Brittan and Murray controlled the midfield, and Bull’s pace and trickery kept the forwards well supplied. Duquemin’s power and ability to convert chances were far too good, even in his mid-thirties, for most opponents. The team averaged nearly three goals a game in the league, and the inside trio of Easton, Duquemin and Clugston, another goal-poacher, hit 93 between them in all competitions, with Robinson adding another 22. The average age of the team that clinched the title at Hereford was still fairly high (just over 28), but this was still a couple of years less than Rooke's most succesful side in 1952/3 and Kelly's own team for the Arsenal matches three years earlier.

The only disappointments at the end were that the title had not been won at home, and the further sharp decline in gates; the average attendance was 4,086, down more than 20% on the year before. With TV and private car ownership increasing, gates were slumping nationally and the shortage of meaningful fixtures in the reduced competition was also a factor, but the club needed more to justify its investment in the new stand and bolster further applications for Football League membership.

As the local newspaper group proudly displayed the large Southern League Championship shield in its office windows during the summer, Tim Kelly decided to release two of his old stalwarts, Quinn and Garwood (who had played under three managers), as well as Morhen and Frost who had started the season in the first team; Winter had moved to Cambridge United soon after Duquemin’s arrival. Kelly had been no keener than Rooke or Stansfield to play local players from the amateur ranks and had been content to keep some very experienced players permanently in the reserves; two centre-halves, for instance, Phil Nolan (1955-7) and Mick Nagy (1958/9) had both failed to dislodge Bob Craig, and the manager was always looking to refresh what would now be called his squad. Perhaps he was just a little luckier than Rooke had been with his choices, or perhaps the cup successes of his first two years had given the directors more confidence and spare cash with which to back his judgements.

Whatever the truth, however, they received a shock during the summer[2]. Hastings United tempted Kelly with, presumably, a better offer, and having perhaps achieved everything he felt was achievable, he left. And, despite the presence on the board of several of the directors who had sacked him less than six years before, his successor was none other than Ronnie Rooke. It was déjà vu all over again.

· Bedford Town were champions by virtue of beating Hereford United 2-1 in the play-off.

· The top eleven clubs in each section formed the Premier Division for 1959/60.

· The remainder formed the First Division, along with the following newly elected clubs: Ashford Town, Bexleyheath and Welling, Dover, Folkestone Town, Margate, Ramsgate Athletic, Sittingbourne and Tunbridge Wells United (all from the Kent League), Hinckley Athletic (Birmingham League) and Romford (who turned professional from the Isthmian League).

· Lovells Athletic resigned at the end of the season and joined the Welsh League.

[1] Thanks to Mike Crisp for this bizarre sequence.

[2] The exact timing and circumstances of Kelly’s departure can’t be followed in the local press because a national printing strike meant that for much of the summer of 1959 only very short typescript editions were produced.