1961/2 Summary

In the summer of 1961 Ronnie Rooke had yet another attempt to re-stock his playing resources with, presumably, a little less money to offer than before. The team for the opening match, a goalless draw at Worcester, contained eight new players, the biggest influx since Tim Kelly’s arrival. Vernon Avis, a strong tackling right-back from Brentford, and Gerry King (Luton) were a new full back pairing, Bill Goundry, also from Brentford, a diminutive but terrier-like right-half, and Willie Morrison, from Southend formed a new pair of half-backs, and there were also two new inside forwards, Alex Stenhouse from Southend and Brian Wright from Lincoln. Dennis Heath, a third former Brentford player, started the season on the left wing but did not appear after the opening weeks, and Joe Hooley, a much-travelled centre-forward, did not survive the first week. (Funny how often “much-travelled” turned out to mean “prone to disciplinary trouble”). However, Avis and Goundry were to be features for several years.

One win and a draw in the first six league matches, plus two draws in the league cup, represented an even poorer start than the previous season. An eight-goal defeat of Letchworth in the FA Cup (Bedford had been relegated to the qualifying rounds for the first time in six years) gave supporters the chance to see “Buck” Ryan, a prolific centre-forward in his day, score the first two goals in what turned out to be a trial too far for an injury-stricken veteran, for some reason preferred to the dependable if unspectacular Hukin, but few at the time noticed the opposing centre-forward, a lanky youngster called John Fahy, who was to become a familiar figure before long. A similar foreshadowing occurred on 23 September when the Eagles were knocked out of the Cup at Hitchin, despite being two up with 20 minutes left, by three late goals, the winner coming from another unknown young forward called Roger Figg, who would become an Eyrie favourite nearly ten years later.

Hitchin were a decent amateur club and perfectly respectable members of the Athenian League at the time but in most supporters’ eyes they were regarded, unfairly, as on a par with Biggleswade or Eynesbury, and this defeat, and especially the manner of it on top of the previous two years of disappointments and false starts, proved fatal to Ronnie Rooke’s job. Later he was to accuse some directors of having started to manoeuvre him out of the club even before the Cup defeat. Whatever the truth of that, he was sacked in the first week of October and Dougie Gardiner[1] was placed in temporary charge.

Meanwhile the floodlights, installed at a cost of £12,000 and as usual, largely paid for by the Supporters’ Club, had first been used in a competitive match on 28 September, when just over 4,000, destined to be easily the best gate of the season, turned up to see a 1-0 defeat of Oxford, already looking set for their second title in a row.

This came immediately after the Hitchin defeat and presumably the main reason for the big gate was curiosity, but supporters also saw the odd sight of Avis at centre-forward because both Hukin and Ryan were injured and Hooley had been suspended. Naturally, the demoralised side produced their best result of the season and Avis scored the only goal. The lights were “officially” switched on a month later at a friendly against West Ham, and that meant that Ted Ashdown’s board had achieved all the objectives of their 1956 strategic plan except ground ownership and Football League status. Sadly, that was to remain the case. It was hoped that the lights would be used to attract people to a series of attractive friendlies and the club also joined the Midland Floodlit Competition alongside Kettering, Corby, Worcester and Peterborough . But once the novelty of lights had worn off[2], people were reluctant to turn out for matches that were not meaningful contests-Peterborough only fielded their reserves- and this competition proved short lived.

Gardiner’s short period in charge didn’t produce any change of fortune, although it did see a certain Norman Cooley, a young forward who had appeared regularly in the reserves for a time after signing from Eynesbury, making his debut against Bexleyheath on 14 October and marking the start of a 17 year career. The club made an offer to Ronnie Allen, the former England and West Bromwich centre-forward, to come as player-manager but he preferred to stay with Crystal Palace. After just a single win in the interregnum the directors appointed Reg Smith, who had been manager of Millwall until the previous season, on 11 November. He refused a contract, at least initially, and although he saw his new team start with a 5-2 success against Kettering at home, there were to be only two more league wins in the next two months and by the latter part of January the Eagles were marooned firmly in the relegation places, after six defeats in a row.

Now, however, a 3-0 win at home to Gravesend on 27 January began a run of seven wins in the next eight games which sent the side towards the middle of the table and relative safety. Key roles in this sequence were played by George Sim, an assured-looking centre-half on loan from East Fife while on RAF service in the area, Southgate, who had settled into the left-wing spot, and Smith’s first signing, David Sturrock, who had played for him at Dundee United and had recently left Accrington Stanley shortly before the latter left the Football League. So started six successful years at the club which saw Sturrock evolve from a right-winger into a deep-lying inside forward or striker and eventually into a midfield ball-winner of some skill and a lot of courage.

Hukin had become Smith’s first choice centre-forward, but before the end of the season he also signed John Fahy[3], who had played for Letchworth at The Eyrie back in September, Jackie Walker, a wing-half from Luton, and Bobby Tebbutt from Northampton. With Thompson released at the year’s end, only Hawksworth now remained of the Championship winners of 1959. Sim, unfortunately, opted to return north when his RAF service ended, but by May Smith had already started to build a more stable side.

The good run of February and March evaporated into an indifferent finish, and a final 15th place, prompting the Bedfordshire Times columnist Mike McNay, later to become Arts page editor of the Guardian, to write his end-of-season review in the style of a Shakespearian drama which featured an assassination (of Rooke) and the crowning of a new Emperor (Smith) before ending "exeunt omnes" [4]. But for most supporters, a new manager with a fresh approach gave more heart for the future.

· Oxford United were elected to the Football League at the end of the season

[1] Gardiner had been “trainer-coach” until Tim Kelly’s departure and became what would now be called the club’s physio in 1959, but no longer ran on with the “magic sponge” because of back troubles. Tommy Ruff and Joe Campbell, two of Rooke’s old guard, shared the sponge for most of his second spell as manager, until Reg Game succeeded Ruff in the summer of 1961.

[2] Although some older supporters took a while to catch on. I remember an old man stopping in front of a poster advertising an evening match at the time and exclaiming “Half past seven kick off? They’ll never get it finished!”

[3] For some unknown reason the local press referred to him as “Jim” for several months before getting his name right.

[4] Thanks to David Ingham, who joined the paper as a junior sports reporter in 1961, for this recollection.