1965/6 Summary

During the summer, Basil Hayward went back to Yeovil to sign Peter Hall, a player he had brought there from Bournemouth, possibly because of common Potteries connections since Hall had started, like Hayward, at Port Vale. He immediately made a big impression with a goal in a pre-season friendly against QPR which was won 5-1, sparking optimistic predictions. Hayward was also able to acquire Billy Brown from Chelmsford, a centre-forward he had tried to buy the previous season. Two new and proven strikers matched exactly what many supporters had been urging for ages. The other signing of note was Alan Collier, a former Luton goalkeeper, also from Chelmsford, initially to understudy Bellotti, although the young Londoner was attracting attention from League clubs and the experienced Collier might well need to step up.

The club also entered a new floodlit league, the Eastern Professional Floodlit Competition, featuring most of the local Southern League clubs, and although this proved more popular with supporters than the short-lived Midland Floodlit League of 1961/2, it never threatened the supremacy of the main league action. Gates in this competition started reasonably but dwindled as colder evenings came along, and by the end of the season these fixtures had started to look like distractions from the main business of the club.

Brown and Hall were both in the side for the opening match, a draw at Poole, and figured in an excellent 2-1 win the following Monday at home to Hereford (with Wallace in goal), a game of quality and excitement in which Hall opened the scoring and Sturrock hit a late winner before a much-improved crowd of 3,800. The team was undefeated for almost a month, until Hereford avenged their earlier defeat 1-0 at Edgar Street on 15 September. In that time they had taken a point at home from the champions, Weymouth, and thrashed Margate 6-0 in one of the best attacking displays seen at The Eyrie for a long time, featuring a Hall hat-trick, which took them to the top of the table. Three fractious matches had failed to produce a winner in the league cup against King’s Lynn, and Paton had been sent off in the second for retaliating after repeated heavy tackles. But the Hereford defeat was followed by an excellent 3-1 win at Plough Lane over Wimbledon, newly promoted and in only their second season after turning professional, and the Eagles were still deservedly up with the leaders.

A relative slump followed, including an exit from the league cup in the second replay at King’s Lynn and a first home league defeat at the same hands, culminating in a miserable 1-6 defeat at Wellington. After this match, however, Hayward made two decisive changes which were to have a big effect on the rest of the season. He pulled Skinn back to left-back, where he was to spend most of the rest of his long career, and put Cooley wide on the left up front. Skinn’s move meant the effective end of Avis’s long first team career. The manager was immediately rewarded by a sparkling 7-1 win at home to Cheltenham, although the Wellington thrashing had sent the attendance down to 2,100, the lowest so far.

This brought round the FA Cup and for the second year running Bedford were paired with Cambridge United, this time at Newmarket Road. Car ownership was growing fast and so many supporters drove from Bedford to the match that while the journey to Cambridge took about 50 minutes, crossing the city to the eastern fringes took over an hour and many missed the kick-off as well as United’s early goal against a shaky remodelled defence. As the game progressed, however, the 5,800 crowd saw Bedford grow in confidence and they deserved to go through via two second half goals from the rapidly improving Bailey. The first was a superb shot from the edge of the area and the second created by a powerful run from deep in his own half by Morgan, also now one of the brightest prospects.

This goal typified the way Hayward was now getting the team to play, with old conventions about defenders hoofing the ball upfield giving way to a more creative approach as wing-backs and overlapping runs became more widely accepted. As supporters were now able to see top-class football every week on TV in the recently launched Match of the Day, they began to appreciate the greater sophistication to be found even at this humbler level of the game. Up front, the scheming of Paton was now giving more scope for the main goalscorers, the tall and rather languid Brown, who could be infuriating as he faded out of a game for periods but was very strong in the air, and Hall, a real battler who never stopped running and put away many of the chances that had previously gone begging. This took the pressure of scoring off Sturrock, who wore several different numbers over the season but settled into a midfield terrier role, winning the ball and using his pace to open up defences. Benning’s strong running in a conventional right-wing role was complemented by Cooley’s deeper play on the left.

The first round proper of the FA Cup took Bedford to Exeter, but first good wins against Nuneaton and Romford maintained the league challenge. The Romford match saw the debut of Collier, who came in when Bellotti unluckily broke an ankle in training, and that proved to be the end of his regular tenure because Collier’s experience and consistency, though lacking some of Bellotti’s acrobatics, meant that he kept the job when Bellotti recovered. For the Exeter match, several hundred supporters who could not join the thousand or so who travelled west were able, for two shillings (£0.10), to sit in the stand at The Eyrie and hear a live commentary given by the regular hospital radio commentators[1]. They heard Hall give the Eagles an early lead from a header and although Exeter equalised early in the second half, another Bailey piledriver soon afterwards clinched the tie against Third Division opposition in front of nearly 7,000. This highly praised effort was followed by a home win against Rugby that featured a Brown hat-trick. However, two days later an important home point was dropped in a 2-2 draw with Worcester that left the team with ten men when Collins was injured, and a very wet evening sent the crowd below 2,000 for the first, and as it turned out the only, time in the season in the league.

This put Collins, now club captain, out of the side for the second round at Brighton the following Saturday. Wright and Bailey effectively played as double central defenders with Sturrock taking over Bailey’s midfield role. In pelting rain against a team who had put ten goals past Wisbech in the previous round and nine past Southend in the league a week earlier, this reshaped defence performed heroics under continuous pressure. A header by Brown from Hall’s cross soon after half-time gave Bedford the lead against the run of play and Hall had a second attempt disallowed for offside; they came within seconds of another win but Gould equalised from a corner in stoppage time. Nearly 12,000 poured into The Eyrie on the Monday night (replays were always held in the immediately following week then), and saw Bedford unluckily behind at half-time when a free-kick was deflected past Collier by the unwitting Sturrock. In the second half the encouragement from the terraces was deafening and gradually Bedford took control. Hall equalised in a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd minute and with eight minutes to go, Brown played Paton in to slot home the winner. There were invasions of the pitch from the River End by over-excited supporters after both goals and after the second the referee seriously threatened to abandon the match. Many supporters looked back on this match as, in its way and with its recovery from adversity, the best of all the old club’s Cup feats. The reward, though, was not a glamorous money-spinner in the third round but another visit from familiar opponents in Hereford.

Before that, the league campaign suffered a setback with successive 0-3 defeats at home to Chelmsford and away to Cambridge City, but two excellent Christmas performances took four points from Cambridge United; the home match on Boxing morning was won by a late effort from Hall, sliding the ball in from an acute angle, before nearly 5,000, and the following night Paton put on a dazzling individual effort on an icy pitch to create probably the best league performance of the season. New Year’s Day brought another tense encounter against Wellington, won by a single Brown goal, to maintain the leadership challenge, and put Bedford into third place, five points behind leaders Weymouth with a game in hand. But on New Year’s Eve the optimistic mood had been punctured when Hayward announced that he was leaving to take over the vacant manager’s seat at Gillingham. At the time there was the usual talk about betrayal and selfishness, but even those who acknowledged the manager’s right to ambitions were disappointed at the timing of the decision. He agreed to delay his departure until after the Hereford match, and meanwhile Ron Burgess, the former Spurs and Wales captain who was then on Fulham’s coaching staff, was appointed to take over.

The changes off the field, and the temporary absence of the injured Hall, may have been partly to blame for a run of three matches yielding only one point, including defeats at lowly Tonbridge and Guildford; unexpected results like these were in the end to cost the club its chance of the championship. But a 2-1 home win against Cambridge City on a snowy day restored spirits ahead of the Hereford match. Another heavy fall of snow during the week put the match in danger until an hour before the start and it would almost certainly not have been played today, but at the time there was a theory that a covering of snow kept the pitch nice and soft underneath, and nobody had yet started to worry about spectators falling over on the icy terraces. In the conditions, long ball tactics were inevitable and Hall had possibly his best game for the club, opening the scoring with a precisely placed header after Brown had wandered away from his marker on to the right wing, and then haring 30 yards after Brown had created another opening for a brilliant individual second mid-way through the second half. A late scare brought a Hereford goal but the Eagles held out before a crowd officially reported at 14,232 but probably bigger. Now Burgess took over as the draw brought Everton to The Eyrie for the fourth round, and the directors cunningly decided to sell tickets inside the ground at the following week’s league match against Poole, lifting the attendance to over 7,500 to see a 3-1 win. But another important away defeat, at Worcester, followed before Everton’s visit.

There was never much chance of an upset against Everton before 18,407 people (an extra 500 were crammed in on benches in front of the stand) against what was then one of the wealthiest clubs in the country, and two goals by Temple inside ten minutes in the first half effectively ended the tie long before Pickering, who was otherwise well subdued by the excellent Collins, got a late third. Bedford put up a decent display and won plenty of admirers. Nor was it a disgrace to go out to a team that went on to reach Wembley without conceding a goal and beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 in an exciting final. After the match Brown became the first of several players to follow Hayward to Gillingham, for a fee of about £2,000.

With Burgess now in full control there was still a decent chance of the championship even though Weymouth were again favourites. A run of four successive league wins, ending with a excellent 2-0 home defeat of Wimbledon before just over 4,000, which took the Eagles into second place by the middle of March, made this a serious possibility. But a vital match was lost at home to Romford on 2 April before another 4,000 crowd, which sent the team down to seventh place. A further unexpected reverse followed at Cheltenham where both points were dropped, and there were draws in matches that should have been won at Corby and Rugby. An Easter double against Folkestone put them back to fourth place with 45 points from 37 matches, three points behind Chelmsford, the then leaders, but Weymouth were only two points behind with five games in hand-having suffered several home postponements earlier in the season- and when they beat Bedford 1-0 on their own ground a week later the team’s last realistic chance of the title had gone. After wins in their last two matches against Dartford and Tonbridge, Bedford were left with no more than a faint mathematical chance of overhauling Weymouth, but a slightly better one of beating Chelmsford and Hereford into second place. However, as had happened in 1952/3 and 1957/8, the other results did not go their way and they finished fourth, five points behind Weymouth and two behind runners-up Chelmsford (the only team to complete a double over Bedford), but only the minutest of fractions behind Hereford who had scored 81 goals to Bedford’s 80. Bedford had taken 34 points out of a possible 42 at home, but only 18 away, and that was where the title chance had gone.

Burgess had made several unsuccessful attempts to replace Brown, at one point being on the verge of re-signing John Fahy from Oxford before Fahy chose Cambridge United instead. Cooley missed a month through injury and the manager tinkered slightly with the team in the final stages, giving league outings to Lovell and Miles, who had both faded from Hayward’s thoughts in the autumn, and briefly introduced the young Clapham striker George Cleary, who had been a prolific scorer for the reserves for the last two seasons, but in the final few matches he went back to the eleven that had been the first choice when Hayward left, apart from the departed Brown. Soon after the season had ended, Bailey was, as had been rumoured for some time, also sold to Gillingham.

Not surprisingly, all the other regulars were retained with the exception of Miles, whose persistent injuries had curtailed his early promise, and Avis, who was to become first team trainer for the following season. Spirits remained high at the year’s end, with the best league finish since the Kelly era and the feeling that there was more to come from what was by no means an elderly squad (the average age of the team that had begun the FA Cup run at Cambridge in October was only just over 23, an interesting comparison with the first Rooke era and Tim Kelly's earlier years when it was around the 30 mark). It was unfortunate, however, that the club decided to scrap the youth team because players were having problems getting away from work in time for away matches; at the end of the season Burgess gave part-time contracts to Trevor Marriott, Peter Harris, Les Newman and Peter Massey, all of whom had come through this team. Three more, Bobby Folds, David Quirke and David Peach, joined Basil Hayward at Gillingham. Folds was to return to The Eyrie much later in his career, Quirke later clocked up over 200 league appearances for Gillingham, while Peach went on to play some 500 league matches and won a FA Cup winner’s medal with Southampton in 1976.

For the first time since 1959/60 the average league attendance had topped 3,000 -3,460, an increase of over 70% on the previous season, and this at a time of nationally declining crowds. The cup run had turned the previous season’s £8,000 loss into a profit of about £2,500[2], and chairman Senior now announced plans for £15,000 worth of ground improvements, involving the conversion of the dressing rooms behind the Ford End Road end into a bar and social club, and building new players’ facilities under the main stand.

For much of the 1965/6 season there had been talk of at least one Fourth Division club going into liquidation-Halifax were the favourites-and thus a vacancy arising for a non-league club. A vocal campaign was mounted by the chairman all through the latter part of the season and early summer to urge Bedford’s case on the back of the excellent season they had just enjoyed. But in the event no League club went to the wall, and at the League AGM in June Bedford received only three votes. Cambridge United and Wigan Athletic (then in the Cheshire League) received five each and Hereford four. Bedford had actually received four votes the previous year without doing any campaigning at all. The least successful of the League clubs, Rochdale, were re-elected with 36 votes. “Alas, poor kids, they never had a chance”, wrote Sam Leitch in the Sunday Mirror. But as things turned out, this was to be the least of the club’s troubles in the year ahead.

To see photos of this season go to 1965/6 in photos

To continue the story go to 1966/7 Summary

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

Deal Town resigned at the end of the season, joining the Kent League, and were replaced by Banbury United from the Birmingham League

[1] There were a few teething troubles. The commentary was broadcast down the telephone line and early in the match the voice of the operator interrupted to ask if the caller wanted to pay for further time. “I think you’ll find, love”, said one of the commentators in very un-PC fashion “that we’ve booked the line until five o’clock”......

[2] Bedfordshire Times, 2 August 1966. No more precise numbers were quoted