Troubles on the Field

Refs, fights, discipline, weather and other oddities

Bedford’s years in the Northants League and the UCL had their share of strange occurrences and indisciplined behaviour. This section simply collects a miscellany of troubles on the field, as distinct from the endless financial ones off it which are covered in the Financial section (see Finance, wages and attendances).

Refs, rights and wrongs

Throughout the period under review here, the Northants League and the UCL did not require the use of qualified linesmen[1], and clubs supplied their own, often ex-players-Bedford relied at various times on Tommy Walters and Walter Tysoe in this role-and this doubtless made referees’ lives difficult. Criticism from the crowd didn’t help-when Northampton Reserves visited the Eyrie for a friendly in November 1913, and turned up without a linesman, a Mr Silcox volunteered to run the line for them, only to be abused by the supporters and attacked after the game.

[Tommy Walters (extreme left in back row), a Welsh full-back who had been a good servant to the club in the 20s, was doing duty as club linesman when this team group was taken in 1932/3. Others are (back) Tommy Cummings, Maurice Carr, Percy Bowles, Bob Latheron, Jack Bidgood, Norman Watson, Charlie Chester (trainer); (front) Lew Stockwell, Cyril Foster, Bert Rogers, Len Potter, Dickie Gunnell. It would be 1957 before the UCL adopted qualified and neutral linesmen.

The diagonal system of control (invented by Stanley Rous in the 30s ) was still unknown for most of the period and linesmen would often be out of position to see incidents missed by the referee. The offside rule inevitably caused disagreements –in September 1919 Wellingborough got a 3-3 draw with two goals reckoned five or six yards offside-and players and spectators had to adjust to a major change at the start of the 1925/6 season, from when the law required only one player between the last attacker and the goal line for him to be offside rather than two. This led gradually to a change in the role of the centre-half, who became an additional defender rather than a midfield player who might expect to score a few goals, and reports are full of grumbles about teams “playing the third back game” in order to police the last attacking forward. Nowadays new tactics can be seen immediately all over the media as soon as they happen, but in the 1920s, if you wanted to see how they worked you had to go up to London to watch Arsenal or Chelsea putting them into practice, so they took a long time to percolate down the leagues, and grumbles about third-back play and packed defences were still going on in the 1930s in the local press-Len Potter was criticised as player-coach for “excessive third back tactics” as late as December 1938.

Rather than offside, it was whether the ball had crossed the goal line that seems to have caused most arguments. No doubt the absence of neutral linesmen had an effect on this but it’s striking that journalists were calling for the introduction of “goal judges” in this level of football some 80 years before UEFA introduced them in the Champions League, pointing out that even a qualified linesman could not always get into position in time[2]. Perhaps obscure pitch markings made the officials’ task harder. The passions this could arouse were seen in October 1927, when Desborough were so incensed about Bedford’s late winner, after being 2-0 down, which they insisted hadn’t crossed the line that they had the referee struck off the list, although he was reinstated on appeal.

The Northants League referees’ list consisted of about 40 officials but because few of them would have had cars, they normally officiated a convenient train journey from home, so Bedford’s home games tended to have officials from Rushden, Wellingborough, Kettering or Luton, with the same refs turning up again and again. Some of them were perhaps too well-known: Mr C H Ridgway of Leighton Buzzard, a frequent visitor, actually held up play against Market Harborough at the Eyrie in November 1923 to lecture spectators who had barracked him, allegedly saying “I don’t want yawping at like a pig”. A club official had to persuade him to get back to the game, in what the Bedfordshire Times called “a most undignified proceeding…if a referee cannot control his temper how can he be expected to control the game?”[3] .

In the first match of the 1933/4 season against Stamford, referee Lansdowne from Dunstable turned down a penalty appeal near the end which might have denied Bedford a winner, and had to be escorted back to the station by police afterwards. In the final of the 1938/9 UCL Knock Out Cup against Kettering, referee Faulkner from Northampton turned down two big penalty appeals in the closing stages: part of the crowd demonstrated afterwards, the police were called and the Kettering players were booed as they collected the cup; one spectator was banned for the whole of the following season and warning notices had to be posted.

Despite regular grumbles about particular decisions, however, the League seems to have had a core of respected officials who did their best in difficult circumstances, and three of those who officiated between the wars later became FA Cup Final referees[4].

Henry Pearce of Luton, one of the UCL referees of the 30s who made it to the top, meets Phil Taylor of Liverpool (left) and Joe Mercer of Arsenal before the 1950 FA Cup Final

[1] Although they were used in FA Cup ties and in the East Midlands League

[2] Pink ‘Un, 18 December 1926, after a hotly disputed goal awarded to Peterborough Reserves at the Eyrie the previous week.

[3] 9 November 1923. Ridgway was one of the senior referees in the area, a Football League linesman who ran the line in the 1928 FA Cup Final.

[4] Tom Crew (Leicester), 1930, Jack Barrick (Brafield), 1948, and Henry Pearce (Luton), 1950.

Law and disorder

As early as October 1909 the club had to post warning notices after spectators tried to attack referee Leo Bullimer[1] in the match against Rushden Windmill and then joined in a fist fight that had developed between several opposing players. This was a mere storm in a teacup, however, compared to the trouble caused by the Northants Senior Cup semi-final in 1912/13. Bedford were drawn away to Peterborough City and the match, on 1 March, was described as a “rowdy affair in which the football arena was utilised as a boxing ring” and the Pink ‘Un’s headline ran “Police Stop Free Fight”. In the second half things came to a head when Joe Chamberlain of Bedford and Peterborough’s Cresser were sent off for fighting. This didn’t stop them- once they had left the field Cresser was alleged to have laid Chamberlain out, “and only the vigorous intervention of the police stopped a free fight”.

Peterborough finished the game 2-0 winners. The match had to be replayed, but not because of these incidents-the Northants FA decreed that Peterborough had played an ineligible player, Evans, and ordered a replay at Bedford on 27 March. Meanwhile they suspended Cresser and Evans, but because they had no jurisdiction over Bedford’s players they merely reported Percy Chapman, not Chamberlain, to the Beds FA.

Already chaotic, the affair now seems to have taken on a weird life of its own. Chamberlain, to Peterborough’s annoyance, seems to have escaped any kind of penalty, and Chapman, who doesn’t appear to have been involved in the trouble at all, was merely “mildly censured”. Not content with that, the Beds FA promptly complained to the Northants FA that they should have appointed a neutral commission of enquiry instead of dealing with the matter themselves. Bedford, meanwhile, complained about the replay date (a Thursday afternoon) saying that they could not raise a team, while Peterborough claimed that because Bedford refused to play then, they themselves should be awarded the match as a walkover, or that Bedford should at least be fined £10. The Northants FA eventually insisted on the match being played on 7 April at Bedford, and Peterborough, still insisting that they should have a walkover or at least ground advantage, and complaining loudly at the Beds FA’s lenience with Chamberlain and Chapman, decided to send a token team of six men to Bedford; not surprisingly they lost by eleven goals to nil, Chamberlain scoring one of them.

Bedford went on to beat Northampton Reserves in the final, but they may have suffered more in the end, as a tired team, hitherto unbeaten, lost their last two Northants League matches and were unable to fulfil a third, which they would probably have won, against Rushden Fosse; they finished six points behind champions Luton Clarence, while the arguments about the semi-final reached the level of the FA in London and may never have been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

[1] A man who had a remarkable career: born to French parents, he changed his name from Leon Bouillimier, played in goal for numerous clubs, ending his career at Northampton, then took up refereeing, reaching the Football League list, and finally spent over 50 years as scorer and chief fundraiser for Northants County Cricket Club (see Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack , 1955, for his obituary).

Trouble down Arlesey way

Matches against the south Beds team Arlesey Town seemed for some reason to attract trouble. In a bad-tempered Beds Senior Cup tie at the Eyrie in February 1920, Bedford’s Freddie Blakeman and Arlesey’s T King were fined and censured for fighting which the referee missed, and Arlesey unsuccessfully claimed that Bedford had held back their share of the gate. In December 1924, in the Beds County League, the Eagles players were “struck blows” by home spectators as they left the Arlesey ground, having won 2-0; the dressing rooms were a mile away, but fortunately the players had arranged for their driver to take them to the ground and back again. As they boarded the vehicle with difficulty, skipper Cyril Marlow was warned not to get involved by the village policeman, who said that “any retaliation would bring the whole village round your ears”[1]. And in January 1934, after the Eagles had won 4-0 at Arlesey in the Northants League, an Eagles fan complained that “clods of earth and stones go the way of the unwary person who happens to make a remark not to the taste of the locals”. [2]

Bedford crowds however did not always behave themselves either: against Potton in a County Cup tie in December 1910, a reporter said that “it was scarcely sportsmanlike to hoot the villagers [from Potton] as they returned to the dressing rooms”-which would have involved walking down Ford End Road to the Horse and Groom, of course.

Eagles’ skipper Cyril Marlow had to be prevented from getting into a punch-up at Arlesey in 1924

[1] Bedfordshire Times, 26 December 1924. In 1928 Arlesey’s ground was closed for two months after a female spectator had struck a visiting player across the face with a whip (BT 7 September 1928)

[2] Bedfordshire Times, 2 February 1934

Grudge matches

The understated reporting of the time probably conceals some feisty encounters in a League with so many local derbies. At Wellingborough in October 1926, tussles between Bedford’s Tommy Irvine and the home full back Warwick ended with Warwick going off injured, whereupon there was “continuous hooting against Irvine” from the home supporters for the rest of the game. The rivalry between the Eagles and Rushden in the 1930s must have been intense as they repeatedly battled for the Northants League title. When the teams met at Rushden just before Christmas 1930, the Pink ‘Un’s commentator the following week noted that “a great deal of feeling" in the game led to "regrettable scenes" at the end; Bedford were accused of "stopping the man at any cost", and Dickie Gunnell was later cautioned by the Beds FA, although no further details were given. When the teams met again at The Eyrie in February, the reporter said he was “pleased to note the game was played in a sporting spirit. There was an absence of the shady tricks that marred the game earlier in the season. I said the Eagles could win if they played the game…” . You get a distinct feeling that there was a lot more than meets the eye in those matches, but of course the incidents were not available instantly to be replayed and analysed over and over again as they are now.

Freddie Garratt about to score one of his two goals against Rushden at the Eyrie in February 1931, when the players were praised in the press for avoiding the “regrettable scenes” and “shady tricks” that had been a feature of the match at Rushden earlier that season.

Wild weather days

It would take too long to deal with all the matches where extreme weather was a factor in the day’s events, but a few may be mentioned. Several seasons started in heatwaves, notably in 1926/7 when the first few weeks where extremely hot and in the opening match against Wolverton, water breaks and an extra five minutes at half time were allowed by a kindly referee.

But more typical were days like 1 November 1924 at Higham where the game was played in “drenching rain and mud”, or at the aptly named Dog and Duck ground in Wellingborough –which in February 1922 was described as a ploughed field. In February 1929 it was “as near as nothing to being under water”. Northampton Wanderers’ Militia Field went one better since it was actually used to graze cattle during the week. “It is difficult to enthuse when the rain runs off one’s hat and coat like a miniature Niagara”, wrote a damp scribe who saw the North Beds Charity Cup tie at Arlesey in March 1912. The pitch at Stamford for a Northants Senior Cup tie in October 1912 “contained a number of lakes and mud islands”.

One of the grimmest weather stories was told about the East Midlands League fixture at Desborough on 28 December 1929, a day of “mud inches deep” and continuous rain. After an hour’s play the referee called the players off and announced an abandonment, only to be loudly barracked “from the shelter of the stand” by the (presumably) small crowd who wanted their money’s worth. He persuaded the players to go back out, but Bedford’s keeper Harry Mingay was “in such a state through the wet and cold” that he went to centre-half and Freddie Garratt went in goal. Bedford went down 3-6 but “during the last twenty minutes it was almost impossible to distinguish the players owing to the oncoming darkness”. [1]

Bad light, of course, was a continual problem in those pre-floodlighting days and one of the most ridiculous occasions must have been the abandonment of the match at Desborough in April 1935, a vital one in the race for the title, with only six minutes to go and the score 4-4 (the replay was lost 0-4). Matches that started late, another regular occurrence as buses broke down or got lost, were particularly prone to this fate. The Northants League rules did allow referees to play a minimum of only 35 minutes each way if that would allow the match to be finished.

In fact, a striking feature is how few matches were postponed or abandoned, when so often they seem to have been played in dreadful conditions; some would argue that players were tougher in those days than those today, but this must have been partly because clubs would rather complete a match, however bad the weather, rather than have to rearrange it for a midweek evening in April when they would struggle to raise a team-especially if playing away-because players could not get away from work, and also struggle to attract any kind of decent crowd.

Obviously like football supporters everywhere and at all periods, bad weather was more bearable if you won. If you won a vital cup tie it was irrelevant-and when 3,000 fans crammed into the completely open Ford End Road ground on 17 April 1913 to see the Eagles beat Northampton Reserves in the Northants Senior Cup Final replay and win their first major trophy, most will have echoed the comment of the reporter who said: “It rained pitilessly for much of the game, but what of that?”

[1] Bedfordshire Times, 3 January 1930.