1962/3 Summary

Reg Smith added to his late-season signings in the summer, at a period when several Southern League clubs captured tabloid headlines by signing players who were on the transfer lists of Football League clubs at hefty fees. This had been going on for years-Ronnie Rooke had indulged heavily back in 1952-but with the Professional Footballers’ Association now attacking the Football League’s "retain and transfer" system in the courts, these arguably “illegal” signings attracted more attention[1]. Smith’s highest-profile recruit was Jock Wallace, a Scottish goalkeeper “listed” at £7,500 by West Bromwich Albion, and they were joined by Ken Hawkes, Roy Banham and Jimmy Dunne, two defenders and an Irish international inside-forward from Peterborough, followed by Ken’s brother Barry, an inside-forward.

In the summer England had gone down again to Brazil in the World Cup in Chile, and there was much talk of the need to make our game more vibrant and entertaining to win back the steadily vanishing crowds (although Bedford’s average gate had slightly increased in 1961/2)[2] . Smith led the way, parading his team in a whizzy-looking strip of white shirts with a blue hoop and blue shorts instead of the tired old plain blue shirts and white shorts. So when the season started in brilliant weather with an encouraging 2-0 home win against Chelmsford, a team who had spent more on new players than anyone else, hopes rose high, especially at the turnstiles when 4,373 turned up; this was better than any attendance the previous season. When the team went on to win its first five fixtures, with the next two home matches also attracting crowds of well over 4,000, talk turned to championships. But the problem was goals; apart from a 4-2 success at Cambridge United in the league cup, the four league matches had produced only five goals.

Surely enough, this good start could not be sustained. After beating Dartford 1-0 at home on 1 September, Bedford did not win another league match until Bath went down 0-4 on 27 October, and things would have become very grim without some overdue FA Cup successes. Wolverton were easily overcome in the first qualifying round and a repeat of the previous season’s embarrassment at Hitchin was avoided with a 5-3 win in the second. Then followed one of the best efforts of the season at the start of October, when Cambridge City, another of the big-spending clubs and eventually champions the following May, were beaten 2-1 in the third qualifying round in front of a 5,400 crowd. Wisbech, beaten 1-0 at home in the next round, looked an easier proposition on paper but in fact proved tougher.

The high spot of the season probably came in the first round proper. Some were disappointed with the draw which produced the now-familiar Cambridge United at home on 3 November, but the Cambridge derbies were now acquiring something of the atmosphere which the Kettering encounters had enjoyed a few years earlier, and now the floodlights somehow gave an extra edge to the latter stages of winter Saturday matches. A crowd of 6,700 saw a cracking cup-tie on a grey November afternoon, won by a very late effort by Brian Wright after Hukin’s battling opportunist opener had been equalised late into the final stages. The trip to Gillingham in the second round sadly failed to avenge the defeat of three seasons earlier, but the 0-3 scoreline slightly flattered the home side and an already injury-weakened Bedford side was further handicapped when Sturrock became a passenger for much of the second half.

So by the end of November Reg Smith could claim some successes, and the league form had picked up somewhat as the cup run went on, with four successive wins in late October and November. Wallace, who had displaced the loyal Hawksworth, was often brilliant in goal though prone to bizarre errors at times; Coney and Avis now had a good understanding as the regular full-back pairing-so much so that the experienced Ken Hawkes could not get into the side- Banham was a steady centre-half, Goundry was an excellent and tireless ball-winner and Wright was a courageous inside-forward. Smith’s real failure was not to have been able to sign a proven goalscorer; he never seemed entirely happy with Hukin at the front, yet was not yet sure he could trust the less experienced Fahy. The problem was perhaps that both were rather similar, tall and good in the air yet both rather willowy and apt to be bundled off the ball by some of the robust centre-halves who flourished under the tolerant eyes of too many referees. Whitby, Stenhouse, Dunne and Sturrock all had their moments as goal-providers yet none had nailed down a consistent place, and the promising Southgate had not played since being carried off against Poole in the second home match back in August; it was effectively the end of his career.

The really new feature of Smith’s thinking was that he was not afraid to give younger local players their chance. He soon gave Fahy opportunities, and at Wellington in September Bedford’s equaliser had come from a fair haired 18-year old midfield player called David Skinn. Most supporters on reading this will have said “who?”, because Skinn had hardly as yet appeared even in the reserves; soon he had displaced the experienced Morrison at left-half to begin a career that would last until 1978. And in the FA Cup tie against Wisbech, the biggest match of the season so far, Smith introduced another teenager, David Lovell, for his first team debut-certainly not something Rooke or Kelly would have contemplated. Those who had regularly criticised those managers for “signing too many expensive old men” at last had their moment. Smith would regularly extol the virtues of his youngsters in interviews and programme notes, while urging supporters to be patient as they progressed.

This quality was certainly needed once the FA Cup run was over, because the team now went for the next eight matches without a win and were also knocked out of the league cup by Cambridge City. The 1-2 home defeat by Clacton just before Christmas, in a fog so deep that the referee placed both linesmen on the same touchline in the second half and patrolled the other line himself, was a particularly low point-Clacton were bottom of the table without a win at that stage. But after drawing at Yeovil on Boxing Day, the team was able to get on to the field only three times more in the next two months; the worst winter of the century now obliterated football almost completely for weeks (there was snow on the ground until early March) and the finances inevitably suffered. In this hiatus Smith was able to sign Ron Heckman, one of his former Millwall players, from Crystal Palace, who played in a snow-enwrapped, televised match against Cambridge United at The Eyrie that was the team’s solitary action in January. (A tiny video fragment of this match can be seen on United's excellent history site-see http://www.100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk/matches.html). Supporters did not immediately appreciate his ball skills and many would have preferred an out-and-out goal getter.

The long gap meant many people did not get back into the football watching habit once pitches became playable again. A lot of matches had to be played in a short time to catch up; some of these were decent efforts, such as a 2-1 win against the almost-crowned champions, Cambridge City, at Milton Road, holding their main rivals Cambridge United to a goalless draw at Newmarket Road before a record crowd of 6,200, and putting seven goals past Wellington and Worcester in three days early in April, but there were also some grim affairs, notably two dire Easter matches against Kettering that brought only a point; the home match on Good Friday was the first morning kick-off at The Eyrie for ages and boosted the gate up to 3,600, the best since the FA Cup run, but few of the absentees will have been tempted to come back.

There were late consolations as the reserves, captained by Ken Hawkes, won the Metropolitan League Challenge Cup over two legs against Guildford, and the first team beat an admittedly weakened Luton side 3-0 at Kenilworth Road to win the Bedfordshire Professional Cup outright for the first time since 1953/4. But the final league finish of ninth place was probably a fair reflection on the team’s merits, and many noted that only 61 goals had been scored (Gravesend, second from bottom, scored 62)-the team’s lowest tally since 1948/9. In that context it seemed a strange decision by the management to allow Hukin, who had hit 108 goals for the club, to join Corby in the summer ( he joined Stenhouse, who had moved there the previous January). Whitby and Tebbutt were also released and it was clear that the manager would be looking for forwards over the break.

To see photos of this season go to 1962/3 in photos

To continue the story go to 1963/4 Summary

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

· To bring the Premier Division back to 22 clubs Worcester City were not relegated despite finishing fourth from bottom

· Crawley Town and Stevenage Town (from the Metropolitan League) and Deal Town (Kent League) were elected to the First Division for 1963/4 to bring that division up to 22 clubs

· Name changes for 1963/4: Bexleyheath and Welling to Bexley United, Tunbridge Wells United to Tunbridge Wells Rangers

[1] By mid-season the Football League persuaded the FA to threaten non-league clubs with expulsion from the FA Cup if they signed any more players who were not free agents without paying the listed fee, although this came to nothing. The League refused to allow such clubs to apply for membership at the summer election meeting, but for most of them this was meaningless because they had no chance of election anyway. WBA eventually reduced Wallace’s fee to £2,500, but it is unlikely that Bedford ever paid this. The "retain and transfer" system was ruled an unfair restraint of trade by the High Court in the George Eastham case in 1963.

[2] Up from 2,499 to 2,532.