1963/4 Summary

During the English summer Reg Smith normally worked as a coach in South Africa, mainly with the Addington club in Durban. It appears to have been while he was there in 1963 that Bedford signed Dennis Emery, a local boy from Sandy who had started at Eynesbury Rovers but then turned professional at Peterborough, climbing with them from the Midland League and through the Fourth Division to the Third. A gifted inside-forward who had been tipped for great things, he had been badly hurt in a car accident late in 1961 and never regained his regular Peterborough place. He was unkindly followed by stories that he was “finished” and that the board had signed him (for a fee quoted at £1,500) without consulting the manager.

Whatever the truth behind this, Smith’s only other signings of note in the summer were Mick Collins, a centre-half from Chelmsford but originally from Luton, and Alex Bain, an experienced Scottish striker who had once played for Huddersfield under Bill Shankly as well as at Falkirk for Smith himself. Bain managed to get himself suspended for failing to attend training before the season had really started, but both Collins and Emery played in the 4-3 defeat of Dartford on the opening day, before a crowd of only 2,326, easily the smallest crowd for the opening day since the 1940s if not before. Collins, tall and very strong in the air but also possessing accurate distribution, started at left-half but soon displaced Banham at centre-half, and became a fixture there for the next four seasons, supplying a steadiness reminiscent of Bob Craig. Although Emery’s ability was still plain for all to see, those who had seen him in his Peterborough days commented on a loss of pace and he became the target of some nasty barracking, too often the fate of players who tried to do more with the ball than hoofing it at high speed in the direction of the opposing goal.

The season started with two league wins but after a surprise home defeat by Stevenage, who had just joined the lower division, in the league cup the team hit a bad wobble. This culminated in 48 awful hours between 19 and 21 September, featuring home defeats by Guildford (1-7) and Yeovil (1-4). The Guildford result was the biggest home defeat since 1950 but the display against Yeovil was even worse, featuring a second-half collapse, before a crowd of only 1,900. After the Guildford match the club announced that Reg Smith had handed in his resignation. It was reported that he had in fact first given the club notice on 20 August, before the first league match, citing unspecified "differences of opinion", but that meanwhile the Board had been trying to make him change his mind. The timing of the release of this news could hardly have been worse, immediately after the worst home defeat for years, and many supporters assumed that it was the Guildford result that had triggered Smith's decision. In fact, it soon became clear that he had already decided to work permanently for Addington in South Africa, although he eventually agreed to stay until December. Exactly what had triggered his decision back in August was never explained; rumours persisted that it was related to Emery's signing, although the directors may have wanted Smith to curtail his summer coaching trips.

Before he left, however, Smith oversaw some significant changes. For the return match at Guildford the following week he brought back Fahy at centre-forward in place of Emery and gave a debut to Steve Miles, a waif-like but clever young outside-left from Kempston Rovers. The resulting forward line of Lovell, Sturrock, Fahy, Heckman and Miles soon looked better balanced, and Heckman, happier at inside-left than on the wing where his lack of pace was a problem, was the ideal experienced prompter for his much younger colleagues. Collins finally got preference over Banham at centre-half and Skinn took over at left-half. The return Guildford match was won 3-1-Miles scoring on his debut- and although the league form never threatened the leading positions it averted the worst predictions after the debacle of 19-21 September, and the younger locally born players were soon starting to attract attention from bigger clubs.

Exempted again until the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup, the team had now stabilised, but when Cambridge City were two ahead with 25 minutes left at The Eyrie little hope seemed to remain. Two goals by Sturrock, now a steady scorer from inside-right, took them to Milton Road for an exciting replay watched by nearly 8,000 where Fahy snatched a late winner to send Bedford through 3-2. On 9 November they survived a tough battle in the mud at Weymouth in the first round to come back from a second minute goal to draw 1-1 and Miles scored the only goal of the replay at The Eyrie the following Thursday. There was some disappointment at a second away draw against familiar opposition in Chelmsford in the next round. Bedford had a poor record at Chelmsford , but they confounded the form-book with another 1-0 win, again with Miles getting the vital goal, before a 9,000 crowd at New Writtle Street, with both Wallace and Collins playing key roles. Now came a reward, at least financially, in the form of an away draw against Newcastle United in the third round.

A few days before the Chelmsford tie, with Reg Smith having confirmed that he would leave on 19 December, the club announced not just one new appointment but two. First, Basil Hayward, manager of Yeovil who would end the season as League champions, was named as Smith's permanent successor on a three-year contract and a reputed salary of £40 a week (average earnings at the time were about £23) which was said to make him the best-paid manager in non-league football; but as Yeovil were also still in the FA Cup he would not start until they were out of it. Meanwhile, Tim Kelly, who had been out of football since leaving Hastings some 18 months earlier, was appointed caretaker-manager.

So just before Christmas Smith finally took his leave of the club, leaving them in mid-table, which was a considerably happier state of affairs than he had found them in two years earlier. Kelly's return allowed journalists to revisit the stories they had written eight years earlier about the luck of the Irish, and his obliging tendency to ham it up for the cameras with party pieces such as putting out bowls of titbits by the goalposts for leprechauns, but what real effect he had on the field is unclear. Nevertheless, the team remained unbeaten in the league throughout December (the attendance for Worcester’s visit at Christmas even crept above 3,000) and approached the Newcastle match with a happy and settled look. Kelly had to make one enforced change when Skinn was injured but there was a dependable replacement in Bobby Anderson, a tough Smith signing from Cowdenbeath who had deserved more than the few chances he’d had since arriving in the summer of 1962.

It was a very different type of team to the one that Kelly had chosen against Arsenal eight years earlier: every member of that team (average age just over 30) had appeared at some time or another in a Football League match, whereas the team that ran out at St James's Park included five men without a League appearance between them and had an average age of just over 25 (inflated by Heckman (34) and Goundry (30)).

Over three thousand Eagles supporters travelled north-eastwards on 4 January 1964, and as many of them had done in 1956 they spent much of the journey peering through thick fog, but again it had cleared by the end of the journey. Newcastle had been relegated to Division Two in 1960/1 and although they sat modestly in mid-table, the atmosphere at St James’s Park was still that of a big club, and 33,820 people made a decent crowd in what was then a very undeveloped ground, with tall open terraces at one end and along one touchline. For the first 20 minutes the home side completely dominated play and Bedford supporters assumed that they would see a convincing Newcastle win, merely hoping that the scoreline was kept respectable, but Wallace made the first of a string of excellent saves before Fahy rose elegantly to head Lovell’s cross into the bottom right hand corner of the net after half an hour. Few of us had recovered from the shock when full-back Bill McKinney deflected another Lovell cross into his own net just before half-time.

Newcastle ran into an almost impermeable barrier in the second half as Wallace made a series of brave aerial saves and Collins won most of his battles with their centre-forward Barrie Thomas, but Heckman was unlucky not to score on the hour when he hit the intersection of bar and post, and Miles would have surely done so if Fahy had played him in on goal when he was unmarked shortly afterwards. Injury time, normally no more than a minute or two in those days, went on and on, extended when Wallace lost a contact lens in the mud[1] and again when small boys threw straw over the touchlines, and home captain Stan Anderson finally beat Wallace low to his left in about the 94th minute, but somehow Bedford held out. Wallace was chaired off by his team-mates and both supporters’ special trains ran out of beer on the way home. For those of us who were too young to have been at Highbury eight years earlier, it was a magnificent day of our own to savour. Bedford had soaked up pressure well and scored their goals on the break; they had inevitable moments of luck but Newcastle’s players and supporters took their defeat with good grace. Interestingly, Joe Harvey, their manager, kept his job and was to lead them not only to promotion the following season but also the Fairs Cup (later the UEFA Cup) in 1968.

For the next three weeks Bedford occupied the sports pages of the tabloids and the London-based journalists wrote their customary patronising pieces about the gallant part-timers who had set the sleepy little town ablaze, etc, etc. While the players were being prepared by Tim Kelly for the home fourth round tie against Carlisle, Basil Hayward remained at Yeovil, even though they had been knocked out in the third round at home by Bury, saying that he didn't want to step on Kelly's toes while Bedford were still in the competition. With cigars and brandy still circulating in the boardroom after the Newcastle match his hefty salary may have seemed a good deal, especially since the club had now also agreed to sell Fahy to Oxford once the cup run ended for £2,500 (about £38,000 today), which more than covered the new manager’s annual salary. However, they declined alleged offers for Lovell and Miles.

The supporters tuned up with a stirring 3-2 win against Rugby in the league, featuring a last-gasp winner by Fahy which proved to be his last goal for the club[2]. A week later the attendance record was, naturally, broken as 17,858 squashed into The Eyrie to see Carlisle, who were among the leaders in Division Four but were otherwise a very unfamiliar proposition to spectators in the southern half of the country. However, they put on a professional display, marked Fahy and Heckman out of the game and gradually took control, taking the lead just before half-time and finishing Bedford off with two goals in quick succession in the second half. Heckman had a goal disallowed at 0-1 which might have made a difference, but in truth this was a moderate if courageous Bedford team that was unlikely to be under-estimated twice.

After leading his “old” club to a 1-0 win at Yeovil against his new one the following week, Hayward took over. The mysterious Bain, invisible since August, was drafted in to replace Fahy but played a deep-lying game that immediately deprived the attack of any focus. Bedford failed to score in four of the next five league matches after the cup exit, forcing the new manager to discard Bain in favour of Norman Cooley, at that time a centre-forward, who obliged with a goal, the winner at home to Margate at the start of March, in what became the first match in an unbroken run of 14 seasons. Emery was also recalled for most of the rest of the season, replacing sometimes Lovell and sometimes Sturrock, as Hayward made only very minor changes to the team he’d inherited.

A happy afterglow from the FA Cup exploits still bathed the club at the end of the season, even though all there was to show was the retention of the Beds Professional Cup (with a 2-0 home win against Luton) and the Hunts Cup in which Cambridge City were beaten 3-2. But still not enough goals were being scored- although the total of 71 in the league was ten better than the year before- and there were some disappointing displays before poor crowds as the season petered out to an eighth place finish. Defeats by three of the relegated clubs-Hereford, Kettering and Hinckley-and two draws against the fourth, Merthyr, in the final month underlined the view of most supporters that the manager would need to make significant changes over the summer.

Despite the Cup highlights, which increased gate receipts from £11,500 to £14,265, and produced a profit on the season of £600 compared to a loss of £1600 in 1962/3, only three league gates had topped 3,000 and nine had failed to reach 2,000, with the average league crowd coming out at 2,202. The wage bill was running at around £17,500[3]. The contribution of the FA Cup run to the improved financial results was clear from the fact that season ticket sales had reduced by 30% from 1962/3. There was much work to be done.

To see photos of this season go to 1963/4 in photos

To continue the story go to 1964/5 Summary

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

· Clacton Town resigned at the end of the season, joining the Eastern Counties League, and were replaced by Wimbledon, who turned professional from the Isthmian League

· Yiewsley changed their name to Hillingdon Borough for 1964/5

[1] Though in an interview with a Scottish journalist some years later, Wallace said that he had got some sand stuck behind a lens and that in trying to loosen it he jammed it further into his eye, playing with impaired vision for the last 20 minutes (quoted in the Bedfordshire Times, 17 February 1978).

[2] Or the last in this spell, until he returned in 1967.

[3] Figures quoted in the Bedfordshire Times for 19 June 1964 were £17,230 for 1962/3 and £17,741 for 1963/4. This includes transfer fees (possibly net of fees received).