So back came Ronnie Rooke, this time purely as manager, as he was almost 48, although he had been player-manager both at Hayward’s Heath and Addlestone (Surrey) since leaving in 1953 and was still registered as a player, ready to turn out occasionally if needed in the reserves. He inherited the whole of Tim Kelly’s squad, but as usual started with some more signings of his own. The only ones who would figure to any extent in the first team were Denis Howe, a tall and classy-looking defender whose main experience had been at Southend, Brian Edwards, an inside-forward who had won a championship medal at Yeovil, and Ron Clark, a Scottish winger from Gillingham. Of these only Howe became a regular, getting his chance when the unfortunate Ron Smith was badly injured at home to Tonbridge in mid-September.
Bedford, of course, competed in the new Premier Division. Into the First (really the Second) Division came the former Kent League clubs and a couple of others. There had been hopes of attracting Peterborough, with their large home gates and away drawing power, but they preferred to stay in the Midland League. The new managership started on a very hot day with a celebratory 3-1 win at home to Nuneaton, when the mayor handed over the League championship flag and a respectable 5,600 attended. Len Duquemin, who scored the third goal and hit a hat-trick at Cheltenham the following Saturday, was the name everyone knew when Bedford were mentioned and he probably added several hundred at least to away attendances. In the first midweek match, however, there was a reality check when Hereford, as League Cup winners of 1958/9, were entertained in the Champions v Cup-Winners’ challenge match and got some revenge for their defeat the previous May with a three-goal win , and when Bath, replete with expensive players such as Charlie “Cannonball” Fleming, won 3-0 on their own ground ten days later it became clear that there would be some much more testing encounters in this division.
Nothing brought this home more clearly than a horrible 1-5 home demolition by Boston on 12 September. Most supporters hadn’t seen their team taken apart like this since the dark days of Fred Stansfield. Soon after this Ron Smith’s injury forced the first big change from the championship side. Comfortable home wins against Wellington and Worcester were both rather hollow, being achieved against ten fit men. Then came an embarrassing 0-2 home defeat in the East Anglian Cup by Romford from the tier below and a single-goal home defeat by Kettering, who were stuck at the bottom of the table. Stuart MacCallum, a recently signed inside-forward who’d scored the winner in a tight game at Chelmsford, was so badly injured in a reserve match that he lost the sight of an eye and was forced to retire. Despite a 5-3 win against the amateurs from Hayes in the FA Cup, things were not going well, and now Rooke made a voluntary change from the championship side by dropping Robinson, switching Bull to the left wing and signing David Gibson from Headington to play on the right.
The first match with this new formation ended in a four-goal defeat at home to Gillingham in the first round proper of the FA Cup, and although Bull had what many thought a good goal disallowed when Bedford were only a goal behind, they never looked like winning and the attendance of only 6,728 was a further disappointment. The team were marooned in mid-table because they rarely managed to string together more than one win at a time. Now, having been knocked out of the Southern League Cup at home to Boston, they crashed to a 2-9 defeat at Worcester (six of Worcester’s goals came in the second half) in what turned out to be Andy Easton’s last game for the club. The prolific inside-forward, who’d hit 76 goals in two and half seasons, seems to have fallen out with the manager and was sold to Kettering just before Christmas. Rooke replaced him, for a fee of £250 (it was rare to discover amounts in those days) with Arthur Hukin, a lanky but persistent goalscorer from Boston who was married to a Bedford girl and had been a target for some time. He proved to be virtually the only Rooke signing who was as good as any of the players they replaced, and scored the second of his 108 goals for the club in the first few minutes of his home debut against King’s Lynn on Boxing Day, a battling, solo effort which immediately endeared him to the supporters.
There was a half-decent run of results in the New Year, starting with a 3-2 win at Boston in which Hukin scored the winner against his old club, which saw only two defeats in the next eight matches and took the team at one point into fourth place, but that was as far as they could get. Bath were racing away at the top and a 0-2 home defeat by Chelmsford in the middle of this good run further emphasised the gulf between Bedford and the best teams. Duquemin, despite another 34 goals in all competitions this season, was now more tightly marked and the defence proved much more fallible than before; although the forwards hit 97 league goals, second only to Bath’s 116, the defence leaked 85. The final month brought a pleasing 1-0 home win against Bath, who were already assured of the title, but also four league defeats, including an Easter double at the expense of Tim Kelly’s Hastings and a surprise loss at lowly Barry, as well as a second successive Beds Cup defeat by Dunstable, and only 1,800 people, the lowest league attendance since the Bicknell days, saw the final match of the season against Wisbech, where a 3-1 win saw the Eagles into seventh place.
Down went the average attendance again, to 3,245, which meant that two thousand supporters had been lost, week by week, in the last two seasons. Even in the good run in January and February the attendance only once topped 4,000. As had happened in 1953, Rooke now found that the board were insisting on economies, and H.L.Miles, a director who resigned at the end of the season after unspecified disagreements over policy, told journalists that there would be a 25% cut in the playing budget for 1960/1.
Almost certainly that was why supporters soon learned that three of the championship team, Bull, Clugston and Ron Smith, had been released, and a little later that Duquemin had declined terms; it later transpired that his contract allowed him to leave if his wages were ever reduced. He and Bull both joined Tim Kelly at Hastings, and although in both cases their best days were behind them, supporters probably realised that the club had nobody of equivalent talent to follow.
Rooke’s return had not been an entirely happy one, although for those who remembered him as a player he probably retained an aura. His relationship with the board must at this point have been very good, because although when appointed he had only been given a one-year contract, this had been extended to four years as early as January 1960 . But a remarkable picture of his relationships with his players soon after his arrival comes over in a piece by the non-league football expert Tony Williams, who played a few games for the club at this period as an amateur while on National Service at RAF Cardington:
“Under a strange but brilliant Irish manager Tim Kelly, who apparently believed in Leprechauns, Bedford had won the Southern League championship in style. But for some reason the manager had been replaced by famous Arsenal striker Ronnie Rooke. The senior players were not happy with this change, especially as the new boss was bringing in his own players and breaking up the championship winning squad. Rooke had been a good old-style, bustling centre forward, who had scored 68 goals for Arsenal in 88 games, but he had lost his pace. I found myself playing alongside him for a Bedford XI against Letchworth in an East Anglian Cup tie [this was in September 1959, the first of Rooke’s two appearances in the first team that season]. The match went well from an attacking point of view and the manager scored one in a 5-3 victory, with first team striker Jimmy Clugston looking very impressive. I felt pleased with my involvement and was thrilled when Rooke told me to report the next day for a first team Culey Cup tie against King’s Lynn away.
I was to play alongside Clugston, an ex-Portsmouth player and the famous Len Duquemin...
Being a humble new boy and an amateur, I sat near the front of the bus on my own. A huge striker called Andy Easton who wasn’t pleased to have been rested because I was playing, came and sat down beside me and explained they knew it wasn’t my fault I had been picked. Apparently I had been the only one passing the ball to the new manager in the Letchworth game!
We came in at half time one down and the most memorable part of a special day was Rooke’s team talk: ‘Murray you’re f....ing useless’. ‘I’m useless boss?’ ‘Yes you’re f.... ing useless son.’ ‘I’m useless boss, I can’t accept that’. Murray you are f.... useless! The rest of the lads were pleased the manager was concentrating his criticism on midfielder [Terry] Murray, an ex Irish international, but it was an eye-opener for me as nothing constructive was said and ‘the Duke’ whispered that this was one of the manager’s more inspirational half-time talks!”
This is perhaps a misleading snapshot by someone who passed through the club only briefly, but it does cast some light on what was starting to become a period of struggle and disappointment.
To see photos of this season go to 1959/60 in photos
To continue the story go to 1960/1 Summary
To see results and t eams go to Results and teams, 1950-67
· From now onwards the bottom four clubs in the Premier Division were relegated and the top four in the First Division promoted.
· However, on this occasion Exeter City Reserves resigned at the end of the season (joining the Exeter and District League) and Guildford City were promoted in their place.
· Kidderminster Harriers also resigned and joined the Birmingham League.
· Canterbury City (Metropolitan League) were elected for 1960/1.
· Headington United changed their name to Oxford United for 1960/1.
 Where their dominance, helped by the departure of most of their stronger rivals, was such that in the last five seasons before they were admitted to the Football League in 1960 they not only won the title every year but suffered only one home defeat.
 Several sources for years claimed that this was the match that made Hereford league champions of 1958/9!
 Williams was on Reading’s books at the time and had played a few reserve matches under Tim Kelly the previous season. Mixed elevens were put out for these two local cup-ties played on successive days.
 From the Non League Paper, 4 May 2008, reproduced by kind permission of Greenways Media Ltd