1966/7 Summary

After the disappointing outcome of the Football League AGM, the club settled down to plan for the new season. Ron Burgess finally landed the centre-forward he’d wanted all along in Ron Fogg from Hereford, a proven goalscorer who was also Alan Wright’s brother-in-law. Other newcomers were Tony Gregory, a midfield player with local origins who’d played for Luton in the 1958/9 FA Cup Final and later for Burgess at Watford, Graham Willis, a defender, and Steve Hyde, a winger, both from Oxford, John Blake, a wing-half from Hastings, and Brian Robinson, a goalkeeper from Peterborough. The last signing was needed because shortly before the start of the season Bellotti, the number two keeper, followed Brown and Bailey to join Basil Hayward at Gillingham, for a fee of about £3,000. Cheered by England’s historic win in the World Cup, supporters should have approached the new season with confidence.

The new Selective Employment Tax introduced by Chancellor Jim Callaghan was the pretext for another increase in admission prices from 3s to 4s (£0.20), but more far-reaching financial issues were about to take up much more column space in the local press than playing matters.

At the football club AGM in July, chairman George Senior announced that the Supporters’ Club, an organisation that had jealously guarded its independence for many years, was being asked to place its committee (and by implication its funds) under the ultimate control of the football club’s board. Fund raising would become the responsibility of a sub-committee of three directors and three Supporters’ Club representatives, with the directors having a casting vote. This was an attempt to change completely the relationship that had existed between the two entities since the incorporation in 1951. A legal agreement had been drawn up at that time under which the Supporters’ Club would pass at least 60% of its annual income to the football club board; in fact, the Supporters’ Club claimed, the actual donations over the intervening 16 years were closer to 85%, and had recently averaged £10,000 a year.

At the start of August, the Supporters’ Club rejected Senior’s request, only to be hit with an ultimatum. On 6 August the chairman announced that from the start of the new season the board would take over all responsibility for management of the ground including programmes, catering, PA system announcements and advertising rights. At their own AGM shortly afterwards, Supporters’ Club members were told by their solicitor that the board were in breach of the 1951 agreement and that: “In effect they [the board] are saying ‘Get out in 14 days’ ”. Senior denied, in a letter to the Club officers, that they were being “evicted”; he claimed that the board merely wanted everyone “to work together in harmony”, and that similar arrangements existed at many other clubs[1].

Passions ran high in those late summer weeks. Senior was given a rough ride at the Supporters’ Club AGM and at the first home league match ten days later-when the new arrangements produced a shortage of programmes- he was loudly abused all the way to and from his seat by a group of spectators[2]. So many years later, it is pointless to rehearse the arguments on either side, but it’s not hard to see why the Supporters’ Club members who had raised so much money, which had paid for most of the ground improvements over the previous 15 years, felt so slighted. Equally, the board had to consider its commercial position; things had rubbed along well for a long time without too much concern as to who owned what-for example, the Supporters’ Club offices on the ground itself- but now the football club wanted to create a social club and the board were determined that they should own this potentially large source of income. The directors had also supplied personal guarantees of £22,000[3] (over £300,000 in 2010 money) and clearly felt over-exposed. They had already started, in the previous two or three years, to run their own pools competitions which inevitably took business away from the various fund raising efforts that the Supporters’ Club had run for many years.

This situation needed to be properly resolved, but the approach of the directors was surely needlessly confrontational. Soon writs started flying around. By November, a new “Bedford Eagles Supporters’ Club” had been formed, firmly under the control of the board (although Felix Staroscik, one of the heroes of the “Arsenal” cup run, was its first vice-chairman). By the end of January 1967 they had managed to donate the princely sum of £100 to their parent club, whereas the “outlawed” Supporters' Club club had been giving at that level about once a fortnight. The dispute was not resolved until late in the 1967/8 season[4], and there seems little doubt that it had a bad effect on the club’s cash flow during 1966/7: whereas the “old” Supporters’ Club had donated £3,799 during the 1965/6 season, the “official” one managed to raise just £288 in 1966/7, and the board’s own pools proceeds declined from £6,037 to £5,041[5].

Against the background of this unhappy row, the playing season could not have started much worse. Hereford, now led by the former Welsh international star John Charles, cantered to a 5-1 success on the opening day at Edgar Street. Despite a tepid win at home to Cheltenham the following week, Bedford then went down embarrassingly by the only goal at home to Dunstable in the league cup, and although they won the second leg comfortably enough, it was evident that much was wrong with the side. Certainly injuries played a part and were to do so all through the season. Hall missed the first match and then injured an eye against Chelmsford on 10 September. Despite a brief comeback this kept him out until Christmas. Fogg was goalless and by mid-September Morgan was also out of action and did not reappear until mid-October, although Willis proved a reasonable deputy. The end of September arrived with only the single league win (against Cheltenham) and only four goals scored in five matches. A better effort produced a 3-0 home win against Hillingdon on 1 October (this coincided with Hall’s brief comeback and he scored one of the goals) but when the FA Cup trail started in mid-month Bedford were struggling towards the foot of the table. Already one of Burgess’s signings, the ineffective and unfit-looking Gregory, had left for Hastings, Hyde had faded after a bright start and Fogg had still to score in any competition. “You would find better players on Goldington Green or Bedford Park” wrote a testy supporter to the local paper in mid-October.

But for the cup run that started in the fourth qualifying round against Romford, the season would have been uniformly dreadful. An unconvincing effort at home saw Bedford escape with a 1-1 draw –Romford had a late goal disallowed for offside-but despite having failed to win away in the league the team produced a fighting effort in the replay and deserved to go through 2-1; they were two up inside half an hour and Collier made a string of good saves to defy Romford despite a late home reply. By now, Fogg had finally broken his duck, against Cambridge United in the Floodlit League, and managed his first league goal two weeks later at home to Wellington, a match preceded by two minutes’ silence in memory of Ted Ashdown, chairman in happier times, who had just died.

By the end of October no fewer than 18 professionals were injured, and although Morgan had now returned, Cooley was out for a month and Wright, a key member of the defence who now played as a second centre-half, was both injured and on the transfer list, the first of the inherited players to fall out publicly with Burgess. So endless were the injuries that I remember thinking “Not another one?” when the Bedford Record’s report of a tedious Cambridgeshire Cup tie against Wisbech was headlined “Paton breaks monotony”. Cooley’s return, in a more encouraging 4-0 home win against Cambridge City, was at wing-half, perhaps one of Burgess’s few tactical insights because it presaged the more defensive role that Cooley would fill for the rest of his long career, but any optimism was shattered by a five goal defeat at Wimbledon which even the Bedfordshire Times’s loyal and rarely critical reporter, Jim Davis, thought was one of the worst he had ever seen; in what was perhaps a symptom of off-field disorganisation Collins and Benning arrived in the same car only five minutes before the start. Two days later came an even more depressing home defeat by Nuneaton, 2-3 after being two goals up at the break. Injuries clearly forced some changes but Burgess was now tinkering with the side continually, saying “until I find the best team I will keep experimenting” after the Nuneaton defeat.

Most supporters thought that the best team was the one he’d inherited, but he now introduced Chris Riley, a tall and rather cumbersome striker on loan from Tranmere but also a serving RAF officer, and David Corbett, a young midfielder from Oxford, without either looking the part. Corbett was included for the first round FA Cup visit to Wycombe Wanderers’ steeply sloping Loakes Park ground on 26 November, which produced a better-than-feared 1-1 draw, and that only thanks to an 85th minute strike that equalised Paton’s 65th minute effort. Wycombe were still (nominally at least) amateurs and there was a view at the time that they were likely to be less fit that semi-or full-time professionals. That theory was to be demolished in the replay at The Eyrie, where Sturrock saved the day with an equaliser from a hotly contested penalty two minutes from the end of extra time. He had given Bedford-who were using the new dressing rooms beneath the main stand for the first time- a first half lead with a fortunate goal when his intended cross was carried past the goalkeeper in the wind, but goals from Bates and Horseman put Wycombe ahead with ten minutes of normal time remaining. Skinn equalised with a flying header eight minutes later, but Merrick seemed to have won it for Wycombe with a goal early in extra time, before Sturrock’s late penalty. On the toss of a coin, Wycombe hosted the second replay, played in driving rain, in which Riley came in at centre-forward with Fogg moving inside, but when the final whistle went with the score 1-1 again the referee ruled the pitch unfit for extra time, and back the teams came to The Eyrie for their fourth meeting, where finally the Eagles made it by 3-2. Even that wasn’t straightforward; they were two up inside 20 minutes, but Wycombe had drawn level eight minutes after the break. At last a flying header from Fogg with 15 minutes left settled the tie, which had been watched in total by over 32,000 people.

These matches had created some much-needed excitement but in truth Wycombe were most unlucky not to win the first replay in which they were by far the better side. Chairman Senior showed again his tendency to look for trouble by printing a sharply worded criticism of Corby for not agreeing to postpone the home league match which came between the first and second replays, something that Corby were under no obligation to do and for which he was later forced to issue a written apology; perhaps fittingly the match ended in another defeat, and Burgess had to drop Morgan and Corbett for arriving late.

By the end of the Wycombe saga, on 8 December, Bedford were fourth from bottom in the league with only eleven points from fifteen matches. An excellent 3-1 home win against Hereford, the then leaders, proved to be merely one of several false dawns, and two major chances went begging over Christmas, when Folkestone (who finished bottom) twice got away with draws, equalising in injury time in Kent and coming back from two down to draw 3-3 at The Eyrie next day. Hall’s return in these matches proved almost as brief as his previous come-back, for during the next week he broke his wrist in training and disappeared for another two months. The 1-3 defeat at Cheltenham that followed led the manager to accuse some players of not pulling their weight, but again the Cup provided a brief respite.

As against Wycombe, the luck that eluded Bedford at other times smiled on them at the Manor Ground against Oxford United in the second round (unusually played after Christmas). Wright and Lovell both returned after long absences, and although Bedford were overwhelmed for an hour, with Fogg playing as a lone striker (Riley was unable to get leave from the RAF), Oxford managed only a single goal, from Graham Atkinson[6] in the 31st minute. Fogg’s 65th minute equaliser-his only shot of the match- may also have been fortunate, since Oxford goalkeeper Brian Sherratt claimed he was distracted by a toilet roll thrown from behind his goal. Collier was man of the match in the replay in a series of goalmouth scambles, as Bedford held on to a third minute lead snatched by Sturrock, whose shot from a rolled back free kick went in off a post. The crowd of 11,949 who exhaled with delight at the end had seen, as things turned out, Bedford’s last victory over Football League opposition in the FA Cup.

Still things failed to improve in the league; a 1-1 home draw with Bath was described by Jim Davis as “a shocker, a pain in the neck long before the end”, before a gate artificially boosted to just over 5,000 by the sale of tickets for the home third round FA Cup tie against Peterborough, for which the basic admission charge went up to five shillings (£0.25) amid general grumbling. Burgess’s team selections and decisions were now increasingly bizarre; against Peterborough he included David Pygall, one of his old Watford players, who was on trial and had appeared just once in the first team, in the floodlit competition the previous week. Just over fourteen thousand people saw Bedford give Peterborough, a modest Third Division side then, a decent game for 45 minutes, with Cooley hitting a well-taken equaliser after Watson had given Posh an early lead; but when Watson scored the second of his hat-trick two minutes after half time Wright almost immediately had to go off with an eye injury, and Willis became Bedford’s first FA Cup substitute. This disrupted the team and goals by Conmy and Fairbrother just after the hour put an end to the Eagles’ chances. But something about the dispirited capitulation that conceded two more goals before the inevitable end spoke of a deeper malaise in the side.

From that thumping 2-6 defeat it was downhill nearly all the way. Pygall played once more, then left as silently as he had come. Hall was transfer listed[7] and Sturrock, after five seasons, was dropped, never to reappear. By Easter, in late March, the team had won only once in the league since the Peterborough defeat and were firmly entombed in the bottom four. Hall did eventually return but looked a shadow of the goalscoring hero of the previous season. In a final desperate attempt to find some firepower, Burgess signed Mike Denton from Bath and (as he had tried to do twelve months earlier) re-signed John Fahy from Cambridge United. They were both included on Good Friday when over 4,000 turned up in the faint hope of seeing Bedford claw back from the brink, but a dismal defeat by Weymouth was followed by an even poorer display the next day against their fellow-strugglers Worcester, and after the return match at Weymouth had ended in a third defeat in four days, the board told Burgess to clear his desk and depart.

Burgess accused the players of going behind his back to the directors and talked of being made a scapegoat for the failings of others; there may have been some truth in the former claim because Burgess had certainly advised the board to cancel the remaining full-time contracts[8], but considering the team he had inherited he had failed to strengthen the reserve cover adequately to cope with the injuries suffered, and the players appeared to have long since lost confidence in his judgement.

After a brief caretaker stint by Vernon Avis, Ron Heckman, who had left as a player in 1965, returned as manager, initially only part-time because he was employed as a coach by the London Education Authority, but by now there was little that could be done. Only one of the next seven league matches was won, and that was the only one in which the team managed more than one goal. On the last Saturday of April a 1-4 defeat at Corby, in another match that had the reporters scouring their thesauruses for abuse, doomed Bedford to the first-but not the last- relegation in their history. Another defeat at Burton a few days later meant that they had gone a whole season without an away win. For the last few matches Heckman relied entirely on players who had been regulars under Hayward or his predecessors; Fahy and Denton managed just one goal each in the league. After drawing 3-3 at Nuneaton early in February, the team scored more than one goal in a match only twice more, both in matches after they were virtually or actually relegated. Second from bottom, six points short of safety, and with only 54 goals scored against 72, summed up the worst season since before the first Rooke era.

There was an inevitable price to pay at the turnstiles; although home gates held up reasonably well while the team were still in the FA Cup, the season’s league average crowd dropped by nearly a thousand to 2,681 and the loss on the season was over £7,000, with debts of nearly £25,000. In April Cyril Folkes, chairman from 1953 to 1956, and a few others briefly tried to lead a shareholders’ revolt but nothing came of it. Familiar faces who moved on in the summer included Collins, Sturrock, Lovell and Vernon Avis, who had resigned as first team trainer when Heckman became manager. Fogg was the only player signed by Burgess who started the following season in the regular first eleven[9].

The earliest years of Bedford Town FC, up to 1939, were a story of reasonable success at local level(see First Years, 1884-1939). The first years in the Southern League, from 1945 to 1950, were years of unmitigated struggle (see First Years in the Southern League, 1945-50). The years from 1950 to 1967, featured on this site, had some disappointments but the good times outweighed the bad, and the best times gave great pleasure to thousands. From 1967, (see Later History, 1967-82) however, there were to be no more challenges for the title at the highest level of the Southern League and no more giant-killings in the FA Cup: it was to be a trend of slow decline, enlivened only by a few “yo-yo” promotions and relegations from and back to the lower divisions, and punctuated by ever-worsening financial problems. We had seen the Best Years.

· Hinckley Athletic (to Birmingham League), Tunbridge Wells Rangers (liquidated) and Sittingbourne (to Kent Premier League) resigned at the end of the season

· Brentwood Town (from Metropolitan League) were elected for 1967/8

[1] See front page article in the Bedfordshire Times, 19 August 1966. This reproduces some of the correspondence.

[2] Personal reminiscence. “You big headed b***er” seemed to be the main theme of the abuse. Admittedly the loudest noise came mainly from a group of perhaps 12-20 men.

[3] According to a statement published in the match programme for the Southern League Cup tie against Dunstable on 1 September 1966, which also claimed that the guarantees would shortly be increased to £32,000.

[4] Once legal proceedings were started the local press stopped commenting on the story, making it hard to establish what was happening. By March 1967 the “original” Supporters’ Club had taken an office in Ford End Road, and continued to run its competitions, banking the proceeds until the dispute was finally resolved a year later. It was not until March 1970, however, that the Supporters’ Club finally merged their weekly pools competition with that of the board.

[5] Bedfordshire Times, 15 September 1967.

[6] Brother of the more famous Ron, who missed this match but played in the replay.

[7] Although he stayed until sold to Gillingham in November 1967.

[8] Bedfordshire Times, 31 March 1967

[9] Fahy and Denton were still on the books but were transfer-listed and sold after playing only a handful of games in 1967/8.