Commentary season by season, 1945-50
FIRST YEARS IN THE SOUTHERN LEAGUE
A formidable challenge
[For league tables covering this period please see the end of this document]
(For results and lineups see Results and teams, 1945-50)
The Southern League, to which the Eagles were elected in the second week of February, 1945, was a much bigger competition than the United Counties League, and dated back to 1894. It had rivalled the mainly north and midlands-based Football League before 1914 (Tottenham were still members of the Southern League when they first won the FA Cup in 1901). When the Third Division of the Football League was created after the First World War many of the Southern League’s leading clubs were elected to it, leaving their reserve teams behind; of the 23 clubs in the league in the last season before the Second World War, twelve were the reserve sides of Football League clubs. The League got restarted a year earlier than the Football League, in August 1945, but consisted of just eleven clubs; two reserve sides, Cardiff and Swindon, Colchester, who were to join the Football League in 1950, Bedford, and seven other clubs who were to be their companions for many years to come-Chelmsford, Hereford, Bath, Cheltenham, Barry Town from South Wales, Yeovil and Worcester. All the other clubs had been members of the League immediately before the war. Another new opponent, Guildford City, who had also been prewar members, restarted in time for the League Cup competition in the new year.
For this new venture Bedford appointed their first professional manager (as distinct from a player-coach), Alf Strange (see Managers and Coaches, 1945-82). Reports from 1945 say that Strange, presumably now demobbed, was still living in Derbyshire and travelling to Bedford each week, taking training three evenings a week. Whether he later moved nearer to Bedford is unclear, but he certainly seemed to find many of his players from his home area (one reason why it’s extremely hard to find out much about many of them).
The Supporters’ Club had continued to meet throughout the war, and handed over £250 (about £8,000 in 2011 money) in March 1945; a combined season ticket and Supporters’ Club membership for the new season cost £1 3s (£1.15), but additional donations were invited. The League fixed a maximum wage of £4 a week (though this did not apply for long), and although Bedford probably couldn’t compete at that level –as we shall see, many of the team would be amateurs-their travelling expenses were clearly going to be vastly bigger than in the UCL, where nearly all their opponents had been within a couple of hours' drive at most; now the nearest thing to a local derby would be a trip to Chelmsford (60 miles) or Colchester (75), and there would be treks to the likes of Barry (170 miles) and Yeovil (165), all in a land without motorways. Inevitably, chairman Salsbury began to issue regular appeals for further funds. The club was taking a big step into unknown footballing and financial territory.
1945/6-a baptism of fire
Although the Eagles had shut down in 1940, local football had continued, and clubs like Bedford Corinthians, Queen’s Works (the works team of W H Allen’s engineering business), St Cuthbert’s and Bedford Avenue (confusingly called Queen’s Park Rangers until 1945) had competed in local leagues and against service teams. Thousands of men had passed through the various military establishments in the area, especially the RAF camps at Cardington and Henlow, and although the war was over, many of these were still there, awaiting demob or doing national service (which would continue until the end of the 1950s). These local and service connections would provide Bedford with many players in their early Southern League years, many of them amateurs. Especially in 1945/6, the rules about player registration seem to have been highly elastic and many players came and went from the local league clubs, such as Avenue, with bewildering frequency. Servicemen also came in and out of the side on a match-by-match basis; some of them were genuine professional footballers, on the books of Football League clubs, who were allowed to appear as “guests” for as long as they were in the area, but who were liable to be recalled by their “parent” club as soon as they were released from the forces or transferred nearer home.
Alf Strange thus had to create a team from a somewhat chaotic background. Six years of total war had taken its toll on footballers as well as everything else and only a handful of Eagles players from before 1939 were still available. Ivor Cullen, a regular scorer in 1938/9, rejoined from Queen’s Works, as did Joffre King (born in 1915, his first name commemorated the French general who had held up the German advance on Paris in the First War) and very briefly a left-winger called G Jeffrey; he had signed in the summer of 1939, played in the two league matches of the “season that never was”, and turned up again six years on, only to play just three matches before being discarded. Strange’s major signing was George Henson, a prewar striker with several League clubs who had returned to his native Stony Stratford and now turned himself into a central defender and club captain. Harry Dukes, a goalkeeper from Norwich, Ben Poole, a full back from York City, and Jack Stone, a utility player from Sheffield United, were the most experienced available guest players. The most successful of the many players imported by the manager from the east midlands was Ken Flint, an amateur inside forward or winger from Notts County. The other team slots would be filled by local players and servicemen-or even occasionally spectators! As supporter Ralph Ames recalled in The Eyrie Roar (1999):
“You would sometimes get a message over the loudspeaker ‘Is there anybody wants a game?’, as they were often short of players”.
Although there’s no report of this happening in a first team competitive match, it certainly happened before a friendly against Hatfield in January 1946-the volunteer, unnamed but from Harrold, went in goal and only let in four goals-and there were other instances in reserve matches. Match officials would also sometimes fail to appear-the Essex Chronicle reported that for Colchester’s visit to The Eyrie in September 1945 the appointed referee and one of the linesmen were replaced by “spectators”, but nobody seemed to complain.
But now it was time for the serious stuff to start. The first League opponents were Bath City, at home, on 25 August 1945, only a week after VJ Day, but the Eagles, presumably wearing the gold and black kit that had been used just twice in 1939/40, went down 0-2, watched by a crowd of 2,901. The Bedfordshire Times reported the following week that “the newly painted and renovated stand was packed to the last seat”, but admitted that “the match was rarely raised above the mediocre”. Dukes and Stone, two of the Eagles' most experienced men, were both missing, playing for RAF Cardington in the final of the Cricket Hospital Cup, and Dukes was replaced in goal by an otherwise unknown youngster called McCreddie from RAF Cardington. Bath’s goalkeeper, by contrast, was Vic Woodley, the regular Chelsea and England keeper at the outbreak of war. Bath encountered a few problems of their own, as the Bath and Wilts Chronicle reported the following Monday:
“Bath City’s victory...over their unknown opponents, Bedford...was all the more gratifying in view of the mishaps on the journey down and before the start back to Bath. Just before the start of the 109 miles journey one of the vehicles conveying players had a puncture, a screw becoming embedded in one of the tyres. ....Eventually Bath was left at 9.30 am. Melksham was the first port of call, to pick up Pilot Officer Pearce, DFC, the next stop being Swindon, where young Barnesfield, who is employed at the G[reat] W[estern] R[ailway] works, and Sgt Brown, RAF, joined the party [these three were outside left, inside left and centre forward respectively in the team that played that day]. Everything went well until Oxford was reached; here the wrong turning was taken, and after adventures through by-lanes, some narrow, some bumpy, a friendly farmer led the contingent in his car to Bicester. At Buckingham a stop was made for lunch. Here there was some delay. Mr [Arthur]Mortimer [the Bath chairman] had ordered the lunches two days previously, but the young waitress would not take it in that seven of the lunches must be fish and bread and butter, as some of the party were footballers, who must not have a heavy meal before a match. [Only seven players were travelling because the others were based in London and were making their own way to Bedford]. Finally the fish was brought. Bedford was reached a few minutes past two o’clock. No fewer than eight people were asked where the ground was-and one directed us to the rugby ground......What a relief it was when we were put on the right road, and finally steered into Nelson Street, where two newly painted gates, “Bedford City AFC” [sic] indicated we’d arrived at last. Misfortune was still on our trail, one of the vehicles was involved in a collision with a jeep, and suffered a badly-dented wing.......[After the match], after adjourning to the Midland Hotel for a really grand tea, Bedford was left at exactly six o’clock, but there was still more trouble, a flat tyre and the bulb of a wing lamp defective. ....Bath was reached at 9.30 pm. The total distance covered, taking into consideration the lost trail...was 250 miles.”
In the return match at Bath a week later (also lost, 1-3), McCreddie missed his train and Stone had to go in goal, earning a standing ovation from the crowd at the invitation of Bath’s announcer. A two-nil defeat of Colchester gave the club its first league points, but a week later came another bizarre episode.
The FA Cup had restarted a year earlier than the Football League, but “guest” players were not permitted, and so Bedford’s team against their amateur neighbours, Bedford Avenue, members of the UCL as the Eagles had been until the war, at their Newnham Avenue ground on 22 September was weakened to the point where they were lucky to escape with a goalless draw in front of some 2,000 people-though how much some of them saw on an open playing field with no raised spectator accommodation must be open to doubt. Worse followed in the replay. Several players were unable to get time off or leave from barracks and at lunchtime there was still a chance that Bedford might have to concede the tie because they could not raise a team. Eventually a team was cobbled together but it may well have been weaker than their supposedly inferior opponents, and Avenue won 4-0. Four of the players who appeared in one or both of these matches seem to have been making their one and only senior appearance. Twenty years later supporters of the period were still recalling this defeat with a shudder, but they may have forgotten that Avenue were at the most successful period of their history-they reached the fourth qualifying round before going down at Grantham-and their team included four members of Bedford's pre-war side, former player coach Len Potter, George Watson, Eric Harrison and Ron Branson. Later in the season they clinched the United Counties League championship for good measure.
Bedford goalkeeper McCreddie cuts out a cross in the goalless draw with Bedford Avenue in the FA Cup in September 1945. Over two thousand people attended this match at the Newnham Avenue field. The following Thursday a weakened Eagles side were thrashed in the replay 0-4 by their United Counties League opponents, one of the more embarrassing Cup defeats in their history.
It was hardly surprising that with little cash and so many changes forced upon the manager, results were largely mediocre. Bedford managed creditable-looking wins against Colchester (twice), Cardiff Reserves (by an intriguing 7-5 scoreline at home, after being 2-5 down), and Yeovil in the League, but those, plus a draw at Cardiff, were the sum of their successes. They should, of course, have played 20 matches but only managed sixteen; like several other clubs they could not complete all their fixtures because of travel and player availability problems. Bedford were credited with a rather generous six notional extra points for their unplayed fixtures, but even this could not push the final league position higher than third from bottom.
The League programme was completed by early January, and for the rest of the season an enlarged League Cup tournament was played on a "mini-league" basis, in eastern and western sections, but even that only produced three wins out of ten, nowhere near enough to qualify for the play-off against the western section champions. Even these extra matches left blank Saturdays in the programme. These were filled with friendlies, in one of which a young Len Duquemin, who was to become an Eyrie hero over a decade later, scored for Tottenham Reserves; in a League Cup match against Swindon Reserves in January the Eyrie crowd saw one of Duquemin’s future colleagues, a young Ulsterman called Danny Blanchflower, guesting for the visitors. By the turn of the year a reserve side had been launched in the United Counties League (see The Eaglets).
Financially, there were early signs that the club might have bitten off more than it could chew. By November, the chairman was complaining that attendances which needed to be in the 3,000 to 3,500 bracket to break even were instead averaging about 1,600, and only fifty people had bought season tickets. Supporters retaliated in the local press with complaints about everything from an over-reliance on guest players to the inadequate bus service on match days. They had even more to grumble about in February, when the small pre-war shelter on the eastern touchline lost its roof in a gale (see The Eyrie in photographs). Salsbury alleged that Worcester were paying their players £8 a week (the League rules published in its 1946/7 Handbook specify this as the new maximum, with £6 in the summer) and even their reserves were attracting 2,000 crowds; in the programme for the Christmas Day match against Chelmsford he complained that Chelmsford were attracting crowds twice the size of Bedford's from only half as big a population. Admission charges, originally one shilling (5p) for adults and sixpence (2.5p) for boys and members of the forces, had to be raised in November to 1s 6d and 9d respectively. Salsbury claimed that Bedford’s home gate takings averaged only £79 and the cost of away trips averaged £24, but considering that only three players (Henson, Dukes and Poole) were said at the season’s end to be professionals, it is hard to see why Bedford should have been so financially strapped.
This group photo, unfortunately of indifferent quality, seems to have been taken at the end of the 1945/6 season, possibly at one of the three friendly matches played after the league programme had ended. Back row (left to right):Alf Strange (manager-coach), Jack Salsbury (Chairman), C J Franklin (Secretary), Roy Evans, Charlie Scarlett, Jack Kemp, Ben Poole, Stan Denton, M Greenwall (Trainer). Seated: N Campion (Supporters’ Club official), Harry Dukes, Joffre King, George Henson, Ken Flint, Ivor Wylde*, H Dear (Assistant Secretary). On ground: Bill Bex, Vic Ford. *Wylde didn’t play a first team match. Note that goalkeeper Dukes is playing as an outfield player and Kemp, who replaced him next season, is in goal.
The whole season seems to have lurched from one weird and disorganised episode to the next. The long trip to Barry just before Christmas 1945 involved a train journey from Paddington on which none of the Bedford party was able to find a seat, and they arrived over an hour late. On Christmas Day at home to Chelmsford, the local press claimed that the team included two players with the same name, Tommy Reay, neither of whom had played before, and said to be cousins (see Players, 1945-49: R-Z)-one of them scored from the penalty spot both in that match and in the return match the following day, but neither ever played for the club again. There must be some suspicion that a player known only as “Newman” who played only at Colchester in April, was merely a variant on the celebrated A N Other. The alleged former Football League careers of several players do not seem to stand up to research in the archives-players said to be “from Coventry” or “from Middlesbrough” have a habit of not actually having played for those clubs.. Also over Christmas, J R (Reg) Smith, of Millwall and England, was scheduled to appear as a guest, but didn’t turn up: sixteen years later he remedied this by becoming the club’s manager (see Managers and Coaches, 1945-82) . But there was sadness as well; Frank Nichols, a promising winger “from Leicester”, had just got established in the side in the new year when his wife died giving birth to their son. And, of course, many players and supporters will have been coming to terms with the loss of loved ones in the six year conflict that had so recently ended. At least it was a start.
1946/7-recovery frozen off
In 1946/7 the Southern League grew to 17 members, the newcomers being Gillingham (who would join the Football League, along with Colchester, in 1950), and several others who would become regular opponents in the years ahead-Dartford, Gloucester, Gravesend, Guildford and Merthyr Tydfil. Cardiff and Swindon both withdrew their reserves but were replaced by those of Exeter and Millwall-the latter still being a member of the Football Combination on Saturdays and planning to play all their SL games in midweek. This proved impracticable and they failed to complete all their fixtures, causing further fiddling with notional points, though they did play all their scheduled League and League Cup matches against the Eagles.
Above, a scene from the pre-season friendly against a Spurs XI (mainly reserves) on 31 August 1946, with the Eagles on the attack. The Long Shelter on the right hand side is on the way up (its predecessor had blown away the previous winter). Bedford won this match 3-1 and what seems to be a team group taken before the match appears below.
Above, a very rare programme for the Eagles' Southern League Cup tie against Millwall Reserves at the (old) Den in January 1947. The Millwall ground was badly bomb-damaged and the presumably small crowd saw Millwall beat Bedford 3-0 on a Monday afternoon. Thanks to Millwall historian Chris Bethell for making the programme available.
For the new season, with the Football League back in full swing, the wartime guesting rules had been scrapped. Alf Strange had thus lost the services of Jack Stone, who had been recalled by Sheffield United, but Dukes and Poole had both decided to sign permanently. They were joined by Arthur Biggs, a tall, blond inside forward from Wootton who had returned home after a long career with Arsenal and several Scottish clubs, and Bill Bex, a promising winger who had played a few matches as an amateur at the end of the previous season and was now a professional. Stan Ball, a wing-half from Wolves, Gordon Dreyer, a Geordie full-back who had played for Luton, and (rejoining from Avenue) George Watson, a winger and prewar favourite with supporters whose brother Norman (known as Paddy) was on the training staff, were the other main newcomers. The reserves would now be competing in the London League, which had a limit of five professional players per side.
The team got off to the most dismal of starts in the League, losing 3-7 on the opening day at Cheltenham. By 12 October when they ran out against Worcester at The Eyrie they had just a single point from six matches, but that day at last brought a 4-2 success. No sooner had Dukes signed for the club than he was lured back to Norwich to help them out of a goalkeeping injury crisis, so Strange introduced one of his Derbyshire recruits, Jack Kemp, who was first choice for most of the season; he travelled each week from his home at Butterley to play as an amateur. A major change was soon made in the defence where Dreyer moved from centre-half to full-back and was replaced by “Jock” Boyle, an amateur with experience at St Mirren, who was to become the mainstay of the defence for the next three seasons.
Things began to stabilise after the success against Worcester, and the team were undefeated in their next ten League matches, not losing again until they went down 1-6 at Merthyr in late March. In the meantime they did nothing of note in the League Cup, again played on a regional mini-league basis, and struggled past Wolverton in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup only after a replay. Leighton [Buzzard] United in the next round were more easily disposed of but that paired the Eagles with their old rivals, Hitchin, in the third qualifying round.
Before a crowd of 4,037, the largest since the war, at The Eyrie Bedford drew 2-2 but the headlines were reserved for the then rare phenomenon of crowd trouble: some people invaded the pitch to protest at Hitchin’s tackling after the Eagles’ centre-forward, Bert Pope, was injured, and home captain Biggs had to persuade them back over the fence,.The Hitchin defenders then surrounded the referee in protest at Pope’s late equaliser. More trouble followed at Top Field in the replay the following Wednesday afternoon, when Hitchin were reduced to ten fit men after an injury to their centre-forward, Frank Wingate, and although he scored twice as a “passenger” on the wing, Ken Flint seemed to have scored the winner for Bedford a few minutes from the end of normal time with the score 2-2 again. The referee at first allowed the goal, but then disallowed it after consulting a linesman who was either (according to the Bedfordshire Times) flagging for an earlier foul-throw, or (according to the Hertfordshire Express) trying to tell the referee that the throw had been taken by the wrong side. Again, said the Express, “an ugly situation developed as spectators intruded on the field of play”, as they did again in extra time when Henson was injured. Wingate popped up yet again to complete a hat-trick and take his team into the next round in the final minutes, though goalkeeper Kemp, said the reports, might have saved it “but for the failing light”. Bedford complained to the FA about the referee’s performance but, of course, this got them precisely nowhere.
This team group photo-it seems to have been damaged in someone's pocket-appeared in the "Bedford and Kempston Express", a short-lived freesheet, on 9 February 1983 with an invitation to readers to name the players. The following week reader R Daniels supplied the following names: Back row: Roy Evans, Graham Wass, Jack Kemp, George Marriott, Ben Poole, Stan Ball. Front row: Bill Bex, Arthur Biggs, G A Tudor, Ken Flint, George Watson. Although Mr Daniels didn't supply a date for the picture, it was clearly taken in late summer (see the trees in full leaf at the River End), and comparison with match reports establishes that this team played in a pre-season friendly against Spurs Reserves on 31 August 1946, winning 3-1. Wass was one of Alf Strange's Derbyshire recruits who never made a competitive first team appearance, and this particular eleven seems to have played only on this one occasion.
The team had reached a more respectable position by the new year, with a much more settled look than before: the constant comings and goings of 1945/6, when at least 54 players had been used in 24 competitive matches (“at least” because several line-ups are incomplete), no longer featured, and in this season only 36 players appeared in 44 matches. Kemp, Dreyer, Poole, Henson, Boyle and Ball became the regular defence, and up front Bex, Biggs, Pope and Flint-who was still an amateur but attracting attention from League club scouts-were equally consistent. The run of ten undefeated matches was completed by an 8-1 home thrashing of Exeter Reserves on 8 February, easily the biggest win since the war.
Now, however, the worst winter weather in living memory descended on the entire football programme and Bedford were unable to play again in the League until 22 March-when they were beaten at Merthyr. Those who remember this winter claim that it was even worse than the Great Freeze of 1962/3 (see1962/3 Summary) ; on the night of 25 February the local press claimed that the temperature had plunged to minus 21 degrees centigrade, the coldest for 174 years. It was compounded by wartime hangovers such as fuel and food rationing. The Government imposed a ban on midweek sport to discourage absenteeism from work and unnecessary travelling, so even when the weather relented clubs could not catch up with their fixtures by playing on weekday afternoons; none of them, of course, had floodlights, so the arrears could not be tackled until the clocks went forward at the end of March. Thus it was that the Eagles could not complete their programme until 14 June, when they went down 0-6 at Gillingham, who thus clinched the championship. By now press coverage was even more sparse than usual because the papers, still rationed for space, had to squash football into part of the column inches normally occupied by summer sports, and players who were also serious cricketers had to choose between their sports.
Just before the big freeze, this team drew 2-2 with Hereford at home on 1 February 1947. Back row: "Jock" Boyle, Gordon Dreyer, Jack Kemp, Ben Poole, George Henson. Front: Bill Bex, Arthur Biggs, Don Filby, Edgar Duffett, Frank Nichols, Stan Ball. Photo by kind permission of Sarah Hampshire, George Henson's grand-daughter,
Ben Poole (with barrow) and Don Filby (with shovel) attempt in vain to clear the pitch at The Eyrie during the Big Freeze of early 1947. Note the absence of any covered accommodation at the Ford End Road end. Poole, normally a full-back, had been a postwar guest player from York who became a permanent signing in 1946, and Filby, a striker despite his small stature, was a local amateur player who had several spells at The Eyrie in between spells at Kempston and Potton.
The team never really recovered from the disruption of the snow, and of their last 15 matches after the March resumption they won only two, drew one and lost the rest, conceding 51 goals. That meant they could finish no higher than 12th out of 17 clubs, but at least that was an improvement on the first season. They had achieved this without a manager since early January, when Alf Strange had resigned in what were described as “amicable” circumstances, on the grounds that the finances would not support a professional manager. From then on, the chairman, club secretary C J Franklin, and a selection committee ran the playing side, and this was to continue for over a year. The bad winter had played havoc with the fragile finances. A loss of £1,700 was incurred on top of the £928 lost in the first postwar season; when the scheduled match with Dartford just before Christmas was called off at short notice because of snow, with hundreds queuing outside, the lost gate was reckoned at £250.
This season, like its predecessor, abounded in odd happenings. For their match at The Eyrie in early February, Hereford’s players arrived in a Rolls, a Ford and an old Army truck; some had been on the road since 5am. Bedford players had to be at the station in time to catch a 0545 train on their trip to Merthyr in March. Earlier in the winter, the club had offered 60 free tickets to German prisoners-of-war, who attended under escort from camps at Colmworth, Clapham and Chimney Corner; Salsbury insisted they couldn’t “come in as stragglers”, but some were thought to have come in individually after hanging around the entrance and being “treated” to admission by supporters. At the time of the Nuremberg Trials this must be a considerable tribute to Bedfordian tolerance if true. In January the reserves were a man short for their home match against the Royal Naval Division and a volunteer made up their numbers, which was considered preferable to a fine from the League, but he was “so inept that it was his misfortune to be derided by the crowd whenever he went for the ball”. In the middle of the freeze-up a home match against Chelmsford was abandoned at half-time, whereupon some spectators bombarded the referee with snowballs. He locked himself in his dressing room but they bombarded the closed door instead, and carried on until the police were called. Even stranger is the fact that the match started in the first place, with the pitch under four inches of snow. A few weeks later a vain attempt to get the pitch playable after a heavy snow-melt involved six men with strirrup pumps and buckets.
Ironically, the season ended in some of the highest temperatures for many years. By now, it was clear that interest was on the wane; Bedford were scheduled to play Chelmsford three times over Easter, twice in the League and once in the League Cup, but it emerged that whereas Bedford thought the Easter Saturday match was a League Cup tie and the one on Easter Monday a League match, Chelmsford’s understanding was the other way round. What could have been a serious problem was averted when both matches produced 1-0 victories for Chelmsford, and Bedford, already out of contention for honours in both competitions, decided that it didn’t matter either way........
So the season ended amid general grumbling and dissatisfaction. Many were calling, as they would do for the next few years, for the formation of a limited company and a wider financial base for a club that was still being bankrolled by its chairman.
1947/8-rock bottom, part 1
The League now stood at 18 clubs, with one extra member, the Welsh works team Lovell’s Athletic from Newport, and with Torquay’s reserves replacing Millwall’s. Bedford’s Committee retained Poole, Watson, Bex, Henson and Boyle for the new season (Biggs had left for Colchester in the final weeks of the previous season). Attempts to persuade Ken Flint to sign professional for the club failed and he joined Tottenham as a free agent, presumably depriving Bedford of a useful fee; although he never established himself at White Hart Lane, Flint went on to play over 300 League games for Aldershot over the next decade. Newcomers included Ron Palmer, a utility player from Aldershot, Dai Ridley, a centre-forward from Brighton (soon joined by his brother Frank, a defender from Millwall), John Hutton, another utility player from Millwall, Maurice Campbell, a forward from Norwich, and Ernie Reid, a defender previously with Chelsea and Norwich. A new goalkeeper, Bill Greygoose, arrived from Southall, and was to get plenty of exercise, even if much of it consisted of picking the ball out of his net. Typical of the vagueness of the period were the reported ages of Palmer (28) and Dai Ridley (27); my research suggests that they were actually 32 and 31 respectively.
Eagles’ goalkeeper Bill Greygoose collects the ball, watched by Cheltenham’s Peter Goring (who would appear against Bedford again in very different circumstances for Arsenal eight years later) in the League match at The Eyrie on 9 October 1947, with defender Frank Ridley (striped shirt) in the background. The afternoon ended in yet another defeat, 0-2. . The gold and black stripes had been adopted recently and persisted until 1950/1, when there was a switch back to plain gold shirts.
The season kicked off in temperatures of 88 degrees F at Bath, and again at home to Colchester, but these matches produced 0-4 and 1-5 defeats, followed by a remarkable 8-2 home win against newcomers Torquay Reserves in which defender Poole tried his hand at inside-right and scored twice. The next eight League matches, however, were all lost, with 27 goals conceded, and the next League win was not until 6 December at Gravesend. The FA Cup produced an eventful 7-4 home win against Eynesbury in which Dai Ridley hit five goals, a less emphatic 2-1 success against Arlesey and a 3-2 revenge success at Hitchin before almost 5,000 including seven coachloads from Bedford (Henson hitting a last minute winner from a 30 yard free kick). But then the team disappointed its followers again in the third qualifying round by going down to the amateurs of Vauxhall Motors (coached by Bedford’s future manager, Tim Kelly-see Managers and Coaches, 1945-82), 0-2 at home after a 1-1 draw at Luton. Nearly 4,500 attended the replay and with the winners drawn at home to Peterborough, many supporters had already booked stand tickets for the next round. A supporter wrote in the Bedfordshire Times that it was “a disgrace that our loyal crowd had to pay 1s 3d to see such a defeat at the hands of a smart works side”.
Bedford centre-forward Dave Sayers hurls himself at a cross despite the efforts of a Vauxhall Motors defender in the FA Cup replay at The Eyrie on 8 November 1947. Sayers was one of many amateurs of this period about whom little is known, and he could not prevent a 0-2 defeat which denied the Eagles an attractive tie against Peterborough in the next round. Note the unroofed Long Shelter in the background-the roof had blown away the previous winter and the club could not yet afford to replace it.
With the Cup exit there was nothing left but a grim struggle in the League. Team selection seemed to follow no discernable pattern; the local paper’s correspondent who saw the 0-2 defeat at Gillingham (watched by over 8,000) in September said that supporters “could hardly believe their eyes” at the forward line, which had Frank Ridley taking his brother’s place at centre-forward, and that Bedford were lucky not to go down by ten goals. The enforced departure of a skilful young amateur inside-forward, Edgar Duffett, who was serving in the Military Police and had been posted elsewhere, didn’t help; he was to return as a professional seven years later (see Best Years Players C-E). George Watson also moved on, to Nuneaton, early in the season. Opposing clubs’ correspondents described the team as easily the weakest in the League; the Colchester correspondent in the Essex Chronicle wrote after Bedford had been lucky to lose only 0-3 at Layer Road in December that they “badly needed an ex-League player to co-ordinate and inspire them”.
“Who picks the team?” asked the Bedfordshire Times’s reporter in November. Trying to answer his own question, he wrote that he had always assumed in the past that it was the chairman, Jack Salsbury, but had recently been told that it was two (unnamed) players; secretary Franklin now told him that it was neither, because the Selection Committee took the decisions. At any rate, he went on, it was not surprising that results and team spirit were poor when many of the players didn’t train together because they lived at a distance (though this problem would persist through much more successful periods until the end of the 50s). Some idea of the confusion of the period emerges from a small note in the sports columns of the local paper in October that “reminded” players that the next day’s match at Yeovil kicked off at 3pm and not, as “some players think”, 3.15. Not that it did much good, because those who went by train were delayed so much that they didn’t have time to warm up beforehand, and the team went down yet again, 0-3. One player at least should have had no excuse for being late on this occasion-“Fred” Brown, a wing-half who had guested in 1945/6 but now joined on a match-by-match basis, lived in Torquay! Another with no travelling problems was a wing-half, "Jock" Murray, who worked for Horsehoe Coaches and often drove the team bus to matches in which he was playing.
Hereford goalkeeper Lovett punches clear from Bedford forwards Charlie Scarlett and Derek Gadsden at The Eyrie on 28 February 1948. A 1-1 draw followed the success at Gloucester the previous week when the Committee had virtually swapped the first and second teams round in a desperate search for points.
The solitary win at Gravesend in December was followed by six more successive defeats, until Cheltenham were beaten 3-2 in early February. But after another defeat at home to Gillingham the following week, whoever actually did pick the team decided on a bold step, dropping no fewer than eight of the team that had played against Gillingham and virtually swapping the reserves and the first team for the visit to Gloucester on 21 February; only Boyle, captain and centre-half, and the left wing pairing of two young amateurs, Derek Gadsden and Pat Comerford, survived. Comerford was to give the club several good seasons later, as did the promoted reserve goalkeeper, Sid Coleman, but most of those who came in at Gloucester were to prove just as fleeting as those they replaced. Despite that, they brought back a 2-1 success to vindicate whoever had taken the decision. Salsbury later said that some of the changes were “for reasons of economy”, and the Gloucester line-up did include eight amateurs, as opposed to five against Gillingham the week before. Back at The Eyrie, however, there was much grumbling as the reserves (formerly, on the whole, the first team) played a friendly against Tottenham Reserves. Full admission charges applied (well, it was arguable that it was a first team match...), but in an anticipation of England’s friendlies under Sven Goran Eriksson many years later, so many substitutions were made that one complainant said that the match was effectively a public trial. There was no pleasing some people.
Dai Ridley (right) leads a charge on the Dartford goal in the 3-0 win at The Eyrie on 8 April 1948. Although he scored all five goals in an FA Cup tie against Kempston early in the season, Ridley failed to find consistent form and returned to his native Wales at the season’s end, along with his brother Frank, a defender.
Most of the promoted reserves retained their places to the end of the season (Coleman so effectively that Greygoose departed for Chelmsford in March, where he didn’t have to pick the ball out of the net quite so often), but to little effect; of the remaining 16 League matches, only two were won, three drawn and the rest lost. The team finished the season resoundingly bottom with just 15 points from 34 matches, six points behind Torquay and conceding a massive 104 goals. It was hardly surprising that the local press’s verdict was that the season had been “the blackest from the playing point of view in the club’s history”, and “the public had their patience grievously tried”. The correspondent singled out some of the amateurs who had emerged since the Gloucester match, Coleman, Bob Craddock, Charlie Scarlett and Ron Pell, for special praise.
Team management by committee had been tried and failed. Just before the season ended, the club again appointed a professional to run the playing side, although his title this time was merely “player-coach”-Charlie Bicknell, a very experienced full-back from West Ham and previously with Bradford City and Chesterfield (see Managers and Coaches, 1945-82). There seems to have been a clear distinction in the use of this job title, in contrast to Alf Strange, who had been officially “manager”, and although Bicknell was to remain a fixture in one role or another for the next ten years or more, he probably never had a free hand in selection or player recruitment in his time apparently “in charge”. Indeed, soon after his arrival he told a reporter that his ambition was “to become a manager”-presumably elsewhere.
Newly appointed player-coach Charlie Bicknell (left) greets captain Jock Boyle (right) and secretary C J Franklin on taking over in April 1948
Taking over in April 1948, Bicknell announced at the outset that he planned to play only for one more season (he was already nearly 43). It seems that he was only appointed on a part-time basis because the club appealed to supporters to find him a job as well as accommodation (he eventually became a meter-reader for the Gas Board). Jack Salsbury was still very much in charge of the purse-strings; in November 1947 he had professed himself willing to work with anyone who was prepared to “contribute substantial sums” to the club, but nobody came forward, and by March he was accusing “some people, including the press, of trying to run the club”. With Bicknell appointed by the end of the season, exactly who decided on the retained list is unclear, but only four professionals were retained-Boyle, Hutton, Campbell and Frank Ridley, plus Bicknell himself. Among those leaving who were very popular with supporters were the veteran Henson and the entertaining winger, Bex. These decisions were said to have been “agreed” by the new coach, but the size of his task was already looking enormous.
1948/9-rock bottom, part 2
Advertising in the newspapers for new players and even insisting on “references” before signing them, the club had recruited several newcomers by the start of the 1948/9 season, including Jack Ball, a winger from Luton, Bert Sharpe, a full back from New Brighton but previously also with Luton, Trevor Smith, an experienced inside-forward from Watford, Sid Smith (unrelated) from Vauxhall Motors, who was to play in almost every position over the next few seasons, and Roy Parsons, a young centre-forward from Hemel Hempstead. A Colts team was to be run in the Beds and District League.
This is the team that started the 1948/9 season with a win against Chelmsford at home on 21 August-the only win of the season until the end of February 1949. Back row, left to right: Bob Thompson (trainer), Derek Gadsden, Ken Feasey, Jack Ball, Sid Coleman, Roy Parsons, Maurice Campbell, John Hutton. Front row: Bert Sharpe, Jock Boyle, Charlie Bicknell (player-coach), J T (Trevor) Smith.
Charlie Bicknell of course amounted to an additional signing, and he picked himself for the opening match at home to Chelmsford. A good crowd saw his team win 2-0 in a performance which inspired optimism in the press for the months ahead, strengthened by creditable draws in the League Cup at Tonbridge (one of four additional teams who had been elected, along with Chingford, Kidderminster and Hastings) and in the League at Colchester before a crowd of almost 9,000. Bicknell’s own play was widely praised; although he had understandably lost pace, his tackling and distribution were still outstanding. But it was to prove the briefest of false dawns. After the opening day defeat of Chelmsford, the team failed to win another League match for more than six months: not until 26 February 1949, when they defeated Lovell’s 2-0 at home. The whole season was to pass without an away win. With just five wins in all and eight draws in 42 matches, only one League position was possible-bottom again, although this time a mere 101 goals were conceded instead of 104, and Bedford were only three points adrift of the nearest club, Chingford-who nonetheless thumped them 5-0 in the final weeks of the season. One of the few creditable efforts in the League was the 2-1 home win against Merthyr in April, which in the end deprived the Welsh team of the championship, and was achieved despite Parsons having to play as an emergency goalkeeper when Coleman “failed to arrive”.
There was nothing to celebrate in other competitions either. Although they beat Tonbridge in a replay to reach the second stage of the League Cup, this merely brought a six-goal thumping at Colchester. The FA Cup preliminary round meeting with Kempston at The Eyrie saw a Bedford player, this time Parsons, score five times for the second season in a row in a 7-0 win, but Vauxhall Motors repeated their earlier success at Bedford in the first qualifying round, this time 2-1 at the first attempt before over 4,800. Before long the new professionals had started to disappoint and the familiar amateurs were back, doing their best but basically outclassed. “At my age I should have given up playing, but I want to hold the team together”, Bicknell had told a Supporters’ Club meeting in August, but it proved too much.
A scene from the 2-2 draw with Gloucester at The Eyrie on 23 September 1948. Bedford’s Ken Feasey, a local player who had several spells with the club in between assisting Bedford Corinthians, Bedford Avenue and St Neots, challenges the defenders with Jack Ball looking on, far right.
Despite the gloomy results, attendances still kept up quite well around the 2,000-3,000 mark, and the first home reserve match attracted 2,082; it needs to be remembered, however, that many people at the time had to work until lunchtime on Saturdays and were therefore unable to travel to most away first team fixtures. After several crowds of almost 4,000 in the early weeks, the next best turnout was 3,500 for the March visit of Yeovil, only a few weeks after they had hit the national headlines by beating Sunderland in the FA Cup. The Eagles’ line-up for that match included eight amateurs, and it was grimly typical of the season that they were soon reduced to ten men by an injury to Hallam, their right winger, and further handicapped when Bicknell and Boyle collided and knocked each other out. A 0-3 defeat probably represented a let-off in the circumstances. On Easter Monday at Kidderminster, Hallam went one better and didn’t turn up at all, forcing the team to play one short, which brought a fine as well as yet another heavy defeat.
One of the larger crowds in 1948/9 was the 3.500 who saw the Eagles go down 0-3 to Yeovil on 12 March 1949, a few weeks after the visitors had shocked the country by beating Sunderland in the FA Cup. Here (below), their centre half Les Blizzard, who would soon follow his manager, Alec Stock, to Leyton Orient, seems to have got the better of the Eagles' earthbound forward Sam Kinnear.
This reserve line-up from September 1948 has been included because it includes several players who appeared in the first team. Back row: A Ashley (trainer), D Bloom*, Sam Kinnear, Sid Coleman, Boris Garratt, T Dobbie*, J B Smith, S Hughes (Committee). Front: Roy Johnson, Alan Quinlan, Ron Pell, Pat Comerford, Bob Craddock. *Bloom and Dobbie never appeared in the first team.
Not surprisingly, complaints continued to pepper the newspaper columns. “How much longer is the average man going to pay his 1s 3d to watch a team which is not up to Northants League standard?”, asked an anonymous writer in November. He (presumably it would have been a “he” ?) went on : “We want a limited company..if Mr Salsbury does not want it, then buy him out”. The chairman responded in the match programme for Gillingham’s visit on 27 November with a real counterblast:
“The busy-bodies are at it again, wanting to run the club- the reply to them is the same as it always will be-those who finance the club, it doesn’t matter who, will naturally manage the club. The chairman is ever ready to hand over to anybody who will repay the unsecured loan. This appears to be an opportunity never to be missed to inform the local press only to publish correspondence from persons of standing or status who are in a position to substantiate their views”.
The sports editor of the Bedfordshire Times, to his credit, replied immediately to the effect that it was a free country and within the laws of libel and decency he would publish whatever he wanted to publish. But he also had to acknowledge that nobody as yet was prepared to repay Salsbury the several thousands of pounds he had sunk into the club. The club, meanwhile, were stuck with him.
Once again it’s the bizarre that strikes the reader all these years on. Bicknell certainly did his best but his coaching methods seem to have been those that would soon see English teams humiliated by continental opponents, such as the Hungarians. In August he announced that pre-season training would consist largely of “laps” and PT, and that “the players probably wouldn’t see a ball for a fortnight or more”. Once again the team arrived late because of train problems on the way to Exeter in September, causing the reporter to lament the club’s inability to afford overnight accommodation. Spectators at the Gillingham match in November may have had extra time to read the chairman’s tetchy notes, because the ground was enveloped in a fog so thick that nobody in the stand could see either goal, and they could only follow the play “by the shouts of nearer spectators”; the teams changed straight round at half time and it was only after the final whistle that many people, including the reporters, realised that the visitors had scored a late second goal.
In February the club was fined ten guineas (£10.50) for improperly signing a Scottish forward, Sam Stewart, as an unpaid “permit player” while he was in the forces, unaware that he was actually a professional on Airdrie’s books. For the home match against Hereford in March, played on a Thursday, “workmen” were admitted at half price; the continuing Government ban on midweek afternoon sport meant that the earliest kick-off time that would also allow a finish before it got dark was 4.30, meaning that many people could not arrive until half time. At Hastings, also in March, the home team scored what was quaintly described as “a disputed goal scored from a position apparently but not officially offside”. The reserves also had their share of misfortunes: they travelled to Braintree to play the works team, Crittall’s Athletic, in January with only ten men, but picked up an eleventh man on the way during a comfort break. This volunteer proved to be an unselected Crittall's player called Lindsell, who hit a late equaliser in a 3-3 draw. They might have wished they still had him when they returned to Braintree for the final of the London League Cup in April; 2-1 up with ten minutes to go, they now had only eight fit men and went down 2-5 after extra time.
Bedford were no match for a powerful Colchester side in this 0-2 defeat at The Eyrie on 22 January 1949. Here Sid Coleman, a locally based goalkeeper who made 79 appearances over four seasons, cuts out a high ball from Colchester’s Bob Curry, watched by team mate Maurice Campbell. Colchester’s FA Cup exploits the previous season, when they knocked out first division Huddersfield, did much to secure a Football League place just over a year later.
So for the second year running, the club had to apply for re-election to the Southern League. Addressing the League AGM on 31 May 1949, the chairman, Arthur Mortimer of Bath City, said: "Bedford Town, who have to compete against a great rival attraction, viz, rugby, are to be congratulated and encouraged on their effort", and recommended re-election of the Eagles, along with Chingford who had finished second from bottom. The meeting also decided to extend the competition by two clubs. In a poll along with Chingford and four potential new members, Headington, Weymouth, Llanelly and Uxbridge, Bedford came top with 20 votes, followed by Weymouth (19), Chingford (17) and Headington (10) (see Lenzel's Southern League Handbook 1949/50). The press reported that Jack Salsbury “smoked a record number of cigarettes” as he waited outside for the verdict of the other clubs, but the result was favourable again.
This time only three professionals were retained; one of them was Bicknell himself, who did not expect to play regularly again, another was Tom Potter, a defender who was only signed a few weeks before the end of the season, and the third was Jock Hutton, so there had been a virtually total demolition of the professional staff. Bicknell announced that he would be looking for new players prepared to live locally to avoid training and travelling problems, but with a national shortage of homes, especially for married men with families, this would not be easy. By now, the Southern League had abolished the maximum wage and instead had set a minimum figure, for part-timers, of £3 a week all the year round; for full-timers the minimum was £6 in the season and £5 in the summer. Bonuses could add up to £2 for a win and £1 for a draw. The Football League retained a maximum wage limit until 1961, and this increasingly meant that some players were better off playing for the more prosperous Southern League clubs than in the lower reaches of the Football League,
At one of the many black periods of this season, when the team had only six points, a supporter had offered Bicknell a goose if they reached 20 by the end; but the coach was to finish two points short of his free dinner. It was probably the least of his troubles as he tried to improve results for 1949/50.
1949/50-the struggle continues
By the start of the 1949/50 season The Eyrie had started to look a little more comfortable (for spectators rather than opposing forwards) when the “Long Shelter” on the eastern touchline, which had been started in 1946, but had then lost its roof in a gale the following winter, acquired a replacement roof as well as a back wall. Supporters had erected this very basic stand with their own labour. Keeping 2,500 people dry(ish) and known variously as the Long Shelter, the Gasworks Stand or the Monkey Run, it was to endure until the end of the club’s existence (see The Eyrie in photographs). Doug Hammond recalled in The Eyrie Roar (1999) how the volunteers had pulled up loads of large elderberry bushes to clear the site and then formed all the concrete for the terracing and pillars, for no more reward than an occasional bottle of beer. Writing in 1967, Reg Barnes remembered that behind the goals the only cover was supplied by “three sheets of corrugated iron on pieces of wood”, and how the earth mounds at these points and either side of the small seated stand were held in place by railway sleepers secured with iron stakes. The Supporters’ Club also paid for the erection of a “club house”-exactly where it was isn’t clear-in which Bicknell could give tactical talks on winter nights, assisted by “magnetic model players”.
Players of the real-life variety also arrived, including Jimmy Cumming and Frank O’Hagan, both Scottish forwards from Exeter, George Lunn, a centre-half from Kidderminster, Vic Hayes, a full-back from Gravesend, George Chapman, an experienced inside-forward from Tonbridge, Fred Allen, a goalkeeper from Coventry, Alan Moorhouse, a winger from Rochdale, Albert Capstick, a wing-half from Accrington, and Freddie Hall, a young centre-forward from Birmingham. Pat Comerford-who had had trials with Arsenal the previous year-was now a professional and Sid Coleman would soon join him. All this amounted to the biggest payroll in the club’s history. All but three of the new players were said to live locally.
If this seemed financially irresponsible, it has to be remembered that this was the high point of football attendances all around the country, as people who had been starved of entertainment during the war years, and men released from the forces, made up for lost time. In the previous season, over 41 million people had watched Football League matches, a total never to be surpassed (the equivalent figure for the Premiership and Football League in 2014/15 was some 30.17 million). Despite their dismal recent record, Bedford too were able to attract the biggest attendances in their history to Ford End Road. Almost 5,000 watched the opening fixture against Merthyr, and in the next month this would be followed by three attendances of over 5,000, unprecedented in Bedford’s short Southern League career. The weather was good-temperatures on the opening day were in the mid-80s F-but this can’t explain everything. People clearly had an unsatisfied appetite for the game, and this may have made the management ready to risk even more cash on players.
In front of a shirt-sleeved crowd of nearly 5,000 in temperatures of over 80F on 20 August 1949, Bedford were unlucky to lose 2-3 to Merthyr Tydfil, who would win the League for the second time this year. Above, the Merthyr keeper, Reid, saves from Bedford newcomers Frank O’Hagan (left) and Alan Moorhouse. Below, he is injured in a tussle with Freddie Hall (who later broke his leg) and receives attention. (Lower photo by permission of Bedford Community Arts)
But events on the opening day suggested that the Eagles were still to be haunted by misfortune. Freddie Hall, who had scored four goals in the previous week’s public trial match, broke his left leg after his penalty had put Bedford 2-1 ahead, and they went down 2-3 despite keeping the powerful Welsh side on the back foot for much of the game. Hall didn’t reappear until almost Christmas. But the team fought back creditably from this depressing start, helped by a strange programme which gave them four successive home fixtures. They won the next two, against Barry and Lovell’s, and drew the third, against Exeter, where the attendance of 5,823 on a Thursday evening beat the previous ground record of 5,667, set at the FA Cup tie against Dartford in 1934. But that, almost inevitably, was as good as it got. Seven more League matches went by before Bedford won again, at home to Hastings at the start of October, and there were only two more successes between then and Christmas.
A new record home crowd of 6,596 saw this second qualifying round FA Cup tie against St Neots on 15 October 1949, won comfortably by Bedford 3-0. Here Saints’ keeper Richardson and former Eagles defenders Jock Boyle (left) and Maurice Campbell are pre-occupied with Bedford’s Jimmy Cumming (centre) while George Chapman (far right) has slotted home the third goal.
The FA Cup produced better things. Although Kempston proved a tougher nut to crack in the preliminary round than the previous year, going down only 0-2, Luton Amateur were beaten in the first qualifying round and for the second, against St Neots, the ground record was broken again when 6,596 turned up, a thousand of them from St Neots. A comfortable 3-0 win, against a team featuring four former Bedford players (Garner, Boyle, Campbell and Feasey) and another against Hitchin in the next round, took the Eagles to a fourth qualifying round tie at Hastings, whom they had recently beaten 4-0 in the League at home. A thousand supporters travelled to the south coast to swell the crowd to nearly 5,000 but two early goals by Hastings shook the stuffing out of the visitors and they never got back into the game, although Moorhouse had a good-looking goal disallowed for offside.
Another large crowd, 5,886, saw Hitchin defeated in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup on 29 October 1949. In this excellent shot, visiting keeper Folbigg seems about to be overwhelmed by Bedford striker Harold Parsons (9), who scored the first goal in a 2-0 win, and his (unfortunately unidentified) white-shirted colleagues. This Parsons should not be confused with the Roy Parsons who played in the same position in 1948/9 (see Players, 1945-49: F-Q).
The Cup exit, coming amid further disappointing League results, caused a resumption of moans in the press and around the ground. Even before the season started, Salsbury had been accused at the Supporters’ Club AGM of signing “rejects” and of looking for a chance to bail out of the club. He replied that “if the money came in” [through the gate] “he would not try to take it out, but would try to get better players still”, but few were convinced. In October Bicknell was forced to deny rumours both of dressing room dissent and of his own departure. More bad luck followed with injuries, as the promising O’Hagan broke his wrist and was out for several weeks; and when the fixture list required the players to visit Hastings in the League the week after their Cup defeat there, they were involved in what a local reporter called the toughest match seen there since the war. Lunn was sent off for retaliation, only to be kicked by a female spectator on the way off, and the players needed a police escort at full time. Lunn was suspended for 28 days. “In many tackles too much interest was shown in the man rather than the ball”, was the reporter’s understated summary .
Bedford are on their way out of the FA Cup in this scene from their 0-2 defeat by Hastings at their Pilot Field ground on 12 November 1949. Goalkeeper Fred Allen looks well out of position as Hastings almost add a third goal, and giant centre-half George Lunn (5), who was sent off in the League game on the same ground a week later, looks no better placed.
Lunn proved to be something of a character, not always for the right reasons. In The Eyrie Roar (1999), a contemporary supporter, Ron Braybrook, recalled:
“There was a player called Lunn....he seemed about seven feet six inches tall. He would jump up and chest the ball down to the ground, then as it bobbled he’d boot the ball over the gasworks. We named him “Gasworks Lunn”, and the blokes on Barrackers’ Hill [to one side of the main stand] would shout ‘That’s it, we shan’t see that for another three weeks’ as another ball sailed over the stand”.
In February at Yeovil, Lunn’s style of defending got him into further trouble when he was booked for booting the ball out of play in protest at a decision; as the game went on (ending in a 0-4 defeat) he was repeatedly booed for “continually kicking out”, presumably a reference to the ball rather than the opposition. Afterwards the chairman announced that the Committee would investigate these events, and the outcome was that Lunn never played for either the first team or the reserves again. Clearly the club believed in setting standards.
Further problems followed. In November, Guildford managed to win 1-0 at The Eyrie despite having only nine fit men for most of the afternoon, and when Hall came back into the team for the home match against Headington (newcomers this season along with Weymouth) in December he cracked his shin and was out again until March. Although given a bye in the League Cup, Bedford went out at Weymouth in the second round 1-3. A 2-0 home win against Kidderminster in mid-December broke up the run of failures, but the next win was not to be until 23 March at home to Hereford. Meanwhile, there was a double set of Christmas defeats by Colchester, when what would prove to be Bedford’s last visit to Layer Road attracted over 9,000, and then a run of five successive draws. One of these, at Worcester on 7 January, was a creditable effort against one of the leading teams, especially as Fred Allen was injured and forward Roy Smith had to go in goal for the last 25 minutes. Another 1-1 draw came against Chingford three weeks later in the strange setting of the West Ham Speedway and Greyhound Stadium at Customs House, East London, a vast arena which was reputed to hold 120,000 people. It was being used because Chingford’s own pitch had drainage problems, but in a football context the ground’s only claim to fame was as the venue for the lowest ever recorded Football League attendance-469 in 1930, to see the very short-lived Thames Association play Luton. Almost certainly an even smaller crowd saw Chingford meet the Eagles-the reporter described it as “a few”.
Then followed a dismal run of eight successive defeats, including the trip to Yeovil which ended Lunn's career with the club. This trend if continued would have condemned the club to seek a third successive re-election, and could well have led to expulsion. But it was followed by an almost equally remarkable run of four successive wins, against Hereford, Worcester, Lovell’s and Chelmsford, the best sequence since the club joined the League, and achieved with basically the same players. This, needless to say, couldn’t be maintained, but the last eight fixtures did produce three more wins and this-by goal average-was enough to avoid the two re-election slots. On the last day of the season a 1-5 defeat at Merthyr allowed the Welsh side to win the championship for the second time. Hall had returned again earlier in this sequence, but after just one match he was injured yet again, in a 0-3 defeat at Bath, and that ended his unlucky season.
Bicknell had basically stuck with the same players for much of the season, using only 25 players in 52 competitive matches. Alan Moorhouse at outside left had become the first Eagles player to be ever-present in a Southern League season. Capstick had played in 50 matches, Hayes in 49, Cumming in 46, Roy Smith in 42 and Potter in 41. The club clearly couldn’t afford to acquire many more players and after all, Bicknell was slightly more successful with this strategy than previous coaches or committees had been with continually changing the side around. (It's interesting to note that in the five immediate postwar seasons the club used at least 142 players in competitive first team matches, compared with only 53 more-195-in the following sixteen seasons down to 1966/7). At the end of the season he retained all these regulars (except Smith), plus Chapman, Comerford, Coleman, Hall and O’Hagan. Attendances were the highest yet achieved, and gate receipts had risen from £2,721 in the first season after the war to £8,224 in 1949/50. So were supporters content with these meagre returns?
Some clearly weren’t. Off the field, discussions about forming a company continued to revolve around Salsbury’s loans. In February 1950 the chairman met Supporters’ Club members to explain that the wage bill for 18 professionals was running at £90 a week, plus an average of £27 in bonuses. Other expenses took the weekly cost to £150. Another £800 was needed just to survive to the end of the season and pay wages to the end of players’ contracts in July. The Club voted to set up a committee to explore incorporation, and to donate £500 for immediate needs, but members insisted on the production of accounts before further funds were granted. Discussion was thus widened to look at the longer term. Again, Salsbury insisted that he was prepared to agree to the formation of a company provided he was paid off; he mentioned between £8,000 and £10,000, but when these figures “caused consternation”, he explained that he was referring to what was required both to repay his loans and to capitalise the company adequately. Ideally, he said, he was looking for people ready to invest £50 to £100 each (average weekly wages at the time were around £9). He claimed that he was prepared to take shares in any new company in lieu of his debt. This seemed to clear the air, because, said the report (from the Bedford Record for 7 March 1950), “Mr Salsbury referred to “the hard things said about me” and in reply he emphasised ....how after the war, with no one to push him on, he was responsible for getting the Eagles into the Southern League. Mr Salsbury’s statement was loudly applauded”.
Somehow the club had kept going despite these dismal seasons. But money was being lost on a serious scale; £928 in the first Southern League season, over £1,700 in 1946/7 (made worse by the bad winter) and three pounds short of £1,000 the year after that. Although the next two seasons saw losses reduce, those in charge realised that things could not go on like that, and in the summer of 1950 serious steps were taken to form a limited company. That decision marked the start of the period that I make no apology on this site for calling the Best Years (see The Best Years (1950-67)).
(below) Bedford forwards on the attack in a rare 4-0 win against Gravesend on Easter Monday 1950, as (left to right) Freddie Hall,George Chapman and Jimmy Cumming harrass visiting keeper Gould and his colleagues.
Notes on changes in the membership of the League in this period
1945/6: All the clubs had been members immediately before the war except Bedford. Hereford (previously in the Birmingham League) had joined in the summer of 1939 and took part in the handful of matches played before the outbreak of the war. Guildford City, also prewar members, competed in the League Cup but not the League. At the end of the season Cardiff and Swindon withdrew their reserves and joined the Football Combination. Yeovil and Petters Utd changed their name to Yeovil Town.
1946/7: New joiners were Dartford and Gloucester (both prewar members who had just restarted), Gillingham (prewar members who had played in the Kent League in 1945/6) Gravesend and Northfleet (newly formed), Guildford (see above) and Merthyr Tydfil (Welsh League), along with Exeter Reserves (also newly restarted) and Millwall Reserves, who were also still in the Football Combination and played their SL matches in midweek. Millwall withdrew at the end of the season in order to play only in the Combination.
1947/8: New clubs were Lovell's Athletic (from the Welsh League) and Torquay Reserves (Western League)
1948/9: New clubs were Chingford Town (from the London League), Hastings United (newly formed), Kidderminster Harriers (Birmingham League) and Tonbridge (newly formed).
1949/50: New clubs were Headington United (from the Spartan League, having turned professional) and Weymouth (Western League). At the end of the season Colchester and Gillingham were elected to the Football League when the Third Division (South) was expanded by two clubs. They were replaced in the Southern League by Kettering Town (Birmingham League) and Llanelly (Welsh League).