Seasons on the Field-1936-40

“ long as the team is successful we will not interfere”-Committee member on Len Potter’s appointment as player-coach, 1938

The last three peacetime seasons started with a reasonably successful one, with the runners-up position being attained again in the UCL, although the Eagles were six points behind champions Rushden and rarely in serious contention; in the EML they finished second from bottom and decided to drop out in the summer of 1937.

It was an increasing struggle to find players who could add the extra ingredient of class and experience to the enthusiasm of the local products; new secretary F G Cox said at the start of the season that he had received “dozens” of approaches from former Football League players who were prepared to sign for the club if work could be found in the Bedford area, but with the depression still in full swing, that was hardly ever possible.

To make matters worse, George Watson decided to move to Rushden before the start of 1936/7, leaving his older brother Norman to soldier on into his twelfth season. Neither he nor Bert Rogers, the second longest serving player, agreed to re-sign until the middle of September. Percy Bowles had also now gone, back to Biggleswade. Tommy Cummings was now captain, but Jack Pacey returned after a spell at Vauxhalls, where he worked. There was an upsurge of goalscoring when Maurice Carr, who hadn’t made it at Northampton and had moved on to Wellingborough, returned and hit 24 goals, making him easily the season’s top scorer from only 20 appearances, but he moved on again, to Kettering, the following summer. Leighton United pulled off a shock by dumping Bedford out of the FA Cup at the first opportunity.

A bright afternoon at The Eyrie launched the 1936/7 season on 29 August 1936 when the Eagles defeated Newmarket Town 3-0 in the United Counties League Knock-Out Cup. Here visiting keeper Ashby foils Bedford's J Farren (white shirt, nearest camera) and S Baxter (right)-two of the many players whose first names are unknown. The attendance of about 600 was disappointing, however and dwindling crowds were to be a feature of the season

In September 1936 the club took the seemingly long overdue decision to form a “Selection Committee” of six members to take charge of playing matters; previously, at least in theory, the full committee of 20 or so picked the team each week. Needless to say the local press regularly accused the select six of too much chopping and changing as 34 players appeared at various times. Some changes were enforced- Jack Bidgood left in December 1936 to take up a headship back in his native Cornwall, and J Farren, signed from Dartford in the summer, departed for reasons unknown a little earlier after a promising start. Jack Chester returned for a final brief period but was past his best. One of the officials’ biggest problems was the lack of reserve talent; the second team finished second from bottom of the South Midlands League, with only three wins from 26 matches and a horrendous 142 goals against. There was no new money available, with gate money down from £1,339 in 1934/5 to £646 in 1935/6, partly because of the lack of a long Cup run but also reflecting the national economic position. In June 1937 the club also lost Charlie Chester, Jack’s father, who had been involved as trainer since it began nearly 30 years before; he died the day after the AGM, aged 64.

Perhaps in an attempt to break out of this impasse, the club decided in September 1937 to appoint a player-coach for the first time in the shape of Leslie Odell, a Sandy product who had spent a long and steady career as a full-back at Chelsea. Now 34, he was well known for having a tremendous kick either with a dead or moving ball-it was described on his debut as “steam-hammer kicking”- but it was made clear that his role would be to handle the coaching and “advise” the Committee about playing matters, not to pick the team. In fact the club had used senior players before in such a role, but limited to the reserve team, where Bob Graham, a former Luton defender, and Freddie Garratt had worked earlier in the decade. Odell’s intended role was probably similar to that given to Charlie Bicknell in the late 1940s.

Leslie Odell, briefly player-coach in 1937/8, must have found a sharp contrast between playing for Chelsea at the top of English football and trying to inspire the Eagles to better things.

Odell’s personal play was highly praised-after all, he was descending about five levels from the then First Division-but he was able to make little difference on the field. His fourth appearance saw the team go out of the FA Cup at Hitchin in a performance described by the local press as “too bad to be true”, and before Christmas they were thrashed 1-5 at home by Kettering and 0-8 at Rushden. Their performance against St Neots a few weeks earlier had “reached the depths of dullness”, and the local reporter remarked of their efforts at Biggleswade at Christmas: “the machine-like forward line that used to be a feature of Bedford’s team has disappeared and in its place were five individuals, each out to bring success off his own bat”[1]. Carr’s departure to Kettering on the eve of the season had emasculated the forwards to such an extent that they managed only 49 goals in all competitions (only 35 in the UCL), the lowest total since 1920/1, and the veteran “Paddy” Watson was the only goalscorer to reach double figures-and he only got ten, most of them from right-half.

Jack Salsbury, who became chairman in 1938 and would dominate the club for the next decade and more

Supporters continued to stay away, and the finances were so bad that on 22 January 1938 Leslie Odell’s contract was cancelled by mutual consent; there was no criticism of his performance, but the club could now longer afford to pay him. The average take at the gate was now said to be just £9. Mrs Spencer had now given way in the chair to Harry Dear, a Kempston decorator, but a more significant figure was probably the new treasurer, Jack Salsbury, a wholesale tobacco merchant. He was soon having to deny rumours that the Eagles would not survive the season, and at its end allowed it to be put about that “he was dipping generously into his own pocket to enable the club to carry on”. This may have involved paying off any money owed to Dick Spencer's estate. It was the start of a saga that would last until 1950. So the club limped to the end of the season in third from bottom place, their worst finish since 1923/4.

Reporters highlighted the disorganised way the club operated compared with the smooth operation of the Spencer/Baker era. On the second Saturday of the season only nine players had arrived to catch the bus to the game at Wisbech; “Paddy” Watson, who was supposed to be working, managed to scrounge the rest of the day off to make up one place, but in goal they were forced to play Freddie King, now aged 44 and a former forward who had been retired for some years. The reserves struggled to raise a team almost every week and suffered from players simply not turning up when selected: and for a friendly match against the City of London Police just before Odell’s departure, the Eagles were still a man short as the complete Police team were waiting to kick-off, and then it was realised that nobody had appointed a referee. Freddie King was again "volunteered", this time to take the whistle.

For the 1938/9 season the Committee decided that they still needed a player-coach, and persuaded Len Potter to take the role. He had played a few League games for Northampton without establishing a regular place and had spent 1937/8 acting as player-coach at Kettering. A committee member was quoted as saying “So long as the team is successful we shall not interfere”, but that “of course” Potter would submit his team selection to the Committee each week.

Jack Salsbury assumed the chair in July, already probably the club’s biggest creditor, and thenceforth he was effectively in control of the club. It was probably Salsbury who was the “anonymous donor” who paid for a replacement for the east side shelter that had blown down the previous season. It was also probably he who negotiated an agreement with Luton under which their “A” team, recently elected to the UCL, would play their home games at the Eyrie in return for a fee of £120 for the year: so people could watch first team football every week[2], and the struggling reserve team was put out of its misery and scrapped.

George Turner, an experienced former Luton forward, bolstered the attack in the last peacetime season and went on to play in the wartime UCL competition. Here he heads for goal in the 2-2 draw with Kettering at the Eyrie on 19 November 1938

Ron Gilbert, another of the local youngsters who got chances as the club’s finances worsened, heads goalwards during the 2-2 draw against Luton “A” on 4 March 1939. Luton played their home UCL games at the Eyrie that season

Potter, perhaps not as quick as he had been, spent most of the season at centre-half, with Bert Rogers moving to right-half, and again the problem was the lack of a proven regular marsksman on the scale of Potter or Carr in earlier years, although two local players, Ron Gilbert from Lidlington and Ivor Cullen from Stewartby, both hit double figures in all competitions. “Paddy” Watson had at last been released after 14 seasons, and turned out for Bedford Queens’ Park Rangers, and another long-serving player, Tommy Cummings, had moved to Kettering.

George Turner, a veteran forward from Luton, added experience and further goals, but the best the team could do in the UCL was fifth from bottom. Waterlows’ eliminated them from the FA Cup after two replays; in the first match, a goalless draw at Dunstable, the gate was too low to cover expenses. The best UCL attendances were for the two matches against Luton “A”; in November the crowd saw a future Eyrie favourite, Ted Duggan, score a late winner for Luton.

This team group is from early in 1938/9. Back row: ?(referee), Bert Rogers, Len Potter (player coach), Arthur Slater, Roy Evans, Walter Thompson, Bill Godfrey, ?(Linesman), Front row: Archie Denton, N G Thorne, Dick Jones, Ron Gilbert, George Turner, John Burke, Ivor Cullen

There was more to cheer about towards the end of the season, as the club reached the final of the UCL Knock-out cup by defeating Rushden at the third attempt in the second round and then Biggleswade in the semi-final. The final at the Eyrie on 2 May paired them with the League champions elect, Kettering, but a cold and wet evening kept the gate down to £27 as the Poppies won 3-1, two of the three coming from Maurice Carr. Bedford felt they had two strong penalty appeals turned down and there was crowd trouble afterwards. The following week, however, the Eagles at last beat a Luton eleven in the County Cup final-even though it was largely the “A” team with whom they had shared the ground all season, and who had finished third in the UCL.

So the last peacetime summer began. Len Potter was told, like Odell earlier, that the club could not afford to keep him as player-coach, and declined an offer to stay as a player, instead taking the coach’s job at Biggleswade. The club had been outside the East Midlands League for two seasons, but as finances dwindled and the public showed little liking for friendlies, they decided to rejoin in 1939. Thus, the first of the two matches played at the start of the official 1939/40 season was a visit to Spalding in the EML, where a 2-1 win resulted. A week later, on 2 September, Desborough won 3-2 at the Eyrie in the UCL, four of the five goals being penalties. That evening the Pink ‘Un published a warning that in the event of “a national emergency” the paper would no longer be published; and the following morning the country was at war again. By the following Tuesday when the Bedford Record reported the match, it shared space on the page with news of the arrival of the first evacuees and advice on air raid precautions.

The regular competitions were of course suspended, but in fact the club played throughout the 1939/40 season. They won what was officially described as the “United Counties (War Period) League”, a programme of fourteen matches between November and April; the most notable feature of these matches was the goalscoring of Ernie Watson (no relation to “Paddy” or George), who hit 27 goals in those 14 matches. The local correspondent thought this eleven would have won the peacetime league as well. Attendances seem to have been around 500 to 800. In contrast to the rules that had applied in peacetime, gate monies in this competition were pooled, and Kettering Town refused to take part for that reason; the town was represented by a “Kettering Amateurs” eleven from smaller clubs, and a similar team represented Northampton.

Numerous friendlies were also played, but were poorly supported. The last organised Eagles’ football of any kind at the ground was on 13 May 1940 when Watford won 4-1. This match and the previous friendly, against Mansfield, lost £25, which finally convinced chairman Salsbury that continuing to run the club in wartime was unaffordable. He did, however, entertain the players to tea in July to celebrate their success in the wartime league, and the Supporters’ Club presented them with inscribed tankards.

So with Hitler’s forces overrunning the Low Countries, Bedford Town’s operations were suspended for the duration of the war. Salsbury continued to pay the rent on the ground, and when peace was on the horizon again in early 1945 he took the momentous decision to seek election to the Southern League-as described in the “Into the Southern League” section of this site.

For details of players see Player List, 1908-39

For detailed results see Results and Teams, 1908-39

To continue the story see Into the Southern League (1945-50)

[1] Biggleswade Chronicle for 31 December 1937.

2 Unfortunately no gates seem to have been reported for Luton’s “home” games, except those against Bedford, but in April 1939 it was reported that their gates were “sometimes” better than Bedford’s.