1967/8 to 1969/70-Up, down and back up again

Up, Down and Back Up-1967/8 to 1969/70

Heckman leads goal rush (1967/8)

Ron Heckman (see 1966/7 Summary) was able to lead his team straight back into the Premier Division in 1967/8, finishing in the third promotion place with 55 points. Although Rugby and Dartford had the same total the Eagles finished ahead by virtue of a huge goals tally of 101, eight of them in the home match against Merthyr in April that clinched promotion. The manager went back to his London stamping ground for most of his signings, including his old Millwall team mate Peter Burridge, an accomplished midfield player, and the former Arsenal and Northern Ireland full-back Billy McCullough, who played a useful role for a year –despite being sent off in both League games against Kettering- before deciding to start in management on his own in Ireland. There were also big contributions from Lou Adams, a former QPR youngster who had arrived at the tail end of 1966/7 and now started the first of three goalscoring spells at the club, and Laurie Churchill, a former amateur international winger from Enfield. These two were the leading scorers with 22 and 19 respectively in competitive games.

This is a squad photo taken at the start of 1967/8.

Back row: Norman Cooley, Peter Hall, Alan Collier, Les Newman, Chow Chee Keong, Ron Noble, Peter Harris.

Middle row: Ron Heckman (manager), Danny Paton, George Cleary, David Skinn, Bill Manning, Les Ames, Charles Gallie and Gordon Bruce (directors), Laurie Churchill, John Fahy, Terry Mortimer, Trevor Marriott, Les Garner (groundsman), Dr Jim Boyd (medical officer).

Front row: Ron Fogg, Peter Burridge, Mike Denton, George Senior (chairman), Alan Wright, Harry Collins (vice-chairman), Lou Adams, Ted Robbins, Peter Massey.

Goalkeeper Chow, who played several times in first team floodlit league matches in 1967/8, was already a Malaysian international at the age of 18 (his Wikipedia entry claims he was first capped at 15), and went on to have a long and succesful career in Hong Kong football.

Alan Wright had settled his differences with the club and Ron Fogg found goals easier to come by at a lower level. Crowds did not plummet by as much as some feared, averaging 2,292, but there was no FA Cup run after a defeat by Boston United, then in the West Midlands League, in a home replay after a draw in Lincolnshire. Peter Hall, so effective in his 1965/6 form but troubled by injuries since then, became the last Eagles player to be sold to Gillingham when he rejoined Basil Hayward for a £1700 fee in November, but was unable to establish himself there. Alan Collier at first seemed not to meet with Heckman’s approval and was displaced first by Gerry McGuire and then by Brian Caine; he then had a short spell on loan to his previous club, Chelmsford, where for the second season running he was involved in an FA Cup giant-killing against Oxford, but eventually re-established himself at the turn of the year. Other useful contributions came from Cass Theodore and Barry Kelcher, two strikers who arrived in mid-season, and Bobby Bristow, a talented winger from QPR’s junior ranks. Another experienced player who seemed to fall out with Heckman was Danny Paton, who demanded a transfer in February but eventually decided to stay put. Peter Morgan, another survivor from better times, was released in April and went to Dartford.

By the end of the season, the outlawed Supporters’ Club had at last been reconciled with the football club’s directors, still under George Senior’s chairmanship, although the board was firmly in control of the Social Club at the back of the Ford End Road covered stand where the old dressing rooms had been. Relations remained distinctly cool; in March 1968 the Supporters’ Club agreed to vote an emergency donation to save the Football Club from a lawsuit over a debt of £1800, and that was only after a casting vote from their chairman. The meeting minuted that no more funds were to be voted unless Senior resigned.

Caricatures of recent matches were a very old form of football art by the late 60s but many papers still used them. This one came from the Bedford Record for 2 April 1968, and illustrated the vital 3-0 win against Kettering the previous Saturday-which also happened to be Grand National day, won by a horse called Red Alligator-in which Billy McCullough was sent off

Thus, finances were hardly flush. The season showed a loss of over £17,000. Heckman was forced to help out with the groundsman’s duties and also did the team’s washing-he was still working without a contract in March 1968, though he may have signed one later. The average potential signing from a Football League club, he complained to a reporter at the season’s end, wanted at least £35 a week, plus a signing on fee, to drop into non-league football as a part-timer, whereas his younger players were on no more than £5 (average weekly wages across the UK were about£29).

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl6768.htm

A second relegation (1968/9)

1968/9, however, proved to be the first of several “yo-yo” seasons and Bedford never looked much like surviving back in the Premier Division, although they were only two points away from escaping the drop at the end. A mere 46 goals was the key to the problem and George Cleary, now established in the side, was top scorer with just 14 in the league; Fogg (10) was the only other player in double figures. As had happened in the late 50s and early 60s, an embarrassing early exit from the FA Cup, at Stamford of the United Counties League by the only goal in the second qualifying round, lost many supporters for the season and cast a gloom over the succeeding months.

Theodore moved on to Margate at the start of the season and Tony Thear, loaned by Gillingham for a while the previous season, soon signed permanently, but managed only three goals in 31 appearances. Dennis Roach, from Barnet, proved an effective central defender, but Alan Wright struggled with injuries and after the FA Cup exit he disappeared for a cartilage operation that kept him out until the team were already doomed to the drop. The manager dropped Fogg and Bristow for lack of effort before the Stamford match and played a less than fit Burridge in an unaccustomed winger role. In an attempt to introduce some superior class he signed Alan Sealey, briefly a star and European Cup Winners’ Cup medal winner at West Ham a few years before, but Sealey had been out of football with long-term injuries for some months and rarely impressed. The team went from 16 September to 4 January without a league win, not scoring more than a single goal a game in that period. To add to the FA Cup disappointment they were dumped out of the League Cup by Brentwood from the division below them. Successive wins against Romford and Poole at the end of January and start of February proved a false dawn and by the end of February Heckman had apparently fallen out with most of his players; Fogg, Thear, Roach and Burridge had all asked for transfers, along with Paton who had renewed his request earlier in the season. Bristow had been suspended for some weeks after failing to turn up for a reserve match.

George Cleary is foiled by Stamford keeper Pitts in Bedford's depressing 0-1 defeat at the UCL club's Wothorpe Road ground on 5 October 1968, the first of several defeats to teams from a lower level in the next few years

By early March, therefore, Heckman had clearly lost his way and was sacked. Alan Wright now became the club’s first player-manager since Ronnie Rooke in 1951. His first match in charge produced an unlikely 1-0 away to the eventual champions, Cambridge United, but this was to prove the season’s only away success in the League and there was little Wright could do to avert relegation which was confirmed by a dropped point at Chelmsford in the last match at the start of May. To add to the gloom, the Reserves finished bottom of the Metropolitan League. By now, Churchill had been sacked for playing in an unauthorised Sunday League match in London which came to light when he was badly injured, and both Fogg and Paton had refused terms for 1969/70. Attendances dwindled to an average of 2,032 (the champions, Cambridge United, averaged 3,002) but despite another relegation Bedford’s average was the seventh best in the Premier Division (the figures ranged from 697 at Poole to 3,526 at Nuneaton).

Rather as in the first postwar seasons, the eye tends to be caught by the bizarre. In this season, the club advertised for supporters to fill empty seats on the team coach at away matches, but insisted they had to be male; a “rescue fund”-the first of several- was set up to raise £5 donations and after three weeks it had raised £440, including an amount from “Jock”Boyle, centre half in the late 1940s: having decided to leave the unpopular Eastern Professional Floodlit League at the end of 1967/8, the club decided to rejoin half way through the 1968/9 season, and had to fit in all its matches in the remaining weeks; not surprisingly, perhaps, when the Floodlit League match at Romford in February ended with four inches of snow on the pitch, and the final whistle blew six minutes early, neither club, faced with a fixture backlog, disputed the referee’s insistence that he hadn’t abandoned the game but merely mis-read his watch. And as if supporters didn’t have enough to worry about, those drinking in the Social Club at half-time during the match against Burton in November found themselves in the middle of a police raid which meant that many missed the second half of a less than thrilling 1-1 draw (no prosecutions seem to have followed).

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl6869.htm

The Wright stuff-Division One champions (1969/70)

Alan Wright made a good recovery from injury, appearing 59 times as he proved an inspiring leader in 1969/70, taking his team back to the Premier Division at the first attempt as First Division champions, and reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup before going out to Wimbledon. By now, with Morgan and Paton from Hayward’s teams gone, the new manager, plus the local stalwarts Cooley and Skinn, were the only survivors in the first team of that era, since Collier was now a permanent second choice in goal. Other key members of this promotion side were Roach, later to become much better known as one of the first high profile players’ agents, and some good new signings- Roach’s one-time Barnet colleague Roger Figg, a chunky little forward whose tussles with goalkeepers amused the crowd, Alan Davies, an aggressive winger from Guildford, Jackie Scurr, a midfield dynamo from Cambridge United, Roger Barron from Northampton in goal, and a scrapping, tough Bedford-born midfield player who had spent very unsuccessful periods at Manchester United, Luton and Bolton, named Barry Fry. At the time his career seemed to be circling back into obscurity, but he was later to make quite a mark on the wider football scene. Figg’s merits only became apparent later, since he was injured very early in the season and didn’t feature again until the new year, but still hit 10 goals in 27 matches. Sealey, though retained, had been released in July after failing to report for pre-season training.

This is the 1969/70 playing staff seen at the start of the season. Back row: Trevor Hodgkinson, David Lawson, Peter Ranson, Brian Stevens, Peter Massey, Tony Thear, Peter Harris, Ray Sutton. Middle row: Ray Cole (physio), Norman Cooley, Jackie Scurr, Roger Barron, Alan Collier, George Cleary, Lou Adams. Front row: Bill Garner, Barry Fry, Roger Figg, Dennis Roach, Alan Wright (Player-manager), Alan Davies, David Skinn, Colin Parker

Wright also made some money by selling Bill Garner, a lanky but strong striker signed for £500 from Dunstable the previous summer, to Southend for£11,500 (plus a potentially lucrative sell-on fee, of which more later) as soon as he started to head the league goalscoring charts in November, having scored 16 in 24 games in all competitions. The FA Cup, however, proved another disappointment with a 2-3 home defeat by Corby in the first qualifying round-the first time Bedford had failed at that level since 1948/9. This was after they had a last minute goal by Adams disallowed for offside, and a“certain” penalty appeal turned down immediately afterwards. 1969/70 was also the first year of the FA Challenge Trophy, a new cup for senior non-league clubs with the prospect of a Wembley appearance, but although the Eagles made it to the first round proper they went down, a shade unluckily, 3-4 to Chelmsford at home.

The team made a spirited start to the 1969/70 season, with new signing Bill Garner from Dunstable providing some punch up front. Here against Cambridge City in the Southern League Cup at The Eyrie on 25 August 1969 Garner towers above the visiting defenders watched by Alan Davies (7). After scoring 16 goals in 25 appearances, Garner was sold to Southend for £11,500. Three years later Bedford missed out on a potential £22,500 sell on fee when he moved on to Chelsea-they were so desperate for cash that they'd sold their sell-on rights back to Southend for a fraction of their value a few weeks earlier.

The FA Cup tie, on 20 September, was the team’s first defeat in any competition, and they rattled through the first half of their league programme undefeated until going down 2-3 to Trowbridge at home on a foggy day just before Christmas, the winner coming from a last-second free kick. They were defeated only six times more, just two defeats less than in the Championship season of 1958/9. More firepower up front (plus feebler defences) was clearly important, with Cleary, Davies and Fry all scoring 20 or more goals, but the defence only conceded 37 goals, better than any team in either division of the League and the lowest total in the club’s history to date. Garner’s replacement, Mike Dixon from Dunstable, signed in December, scored eleven in 21 appearances. There was a slight wobble over Easter with a 0-3 defeat at home to their nearest rivals, Cambridge City, followed by another at Dartford who were just behind Cambridge, but in the return game at Milton Road three weeks later before a 4,500 crowd City were beaten 2-1, and promotion was clinched with a 4-0 home win against Wisbech on 22 April. On 2 May a Figg goal at Trowbridge secured the Championship.

People again wanted to watch a successful team even at a lower level, and home gates averaged 2,702 as compared with 2,032 the previous year. Bedford’s gates were way ahead of most First Division clubs; on the first day of the League season the Eagles were watched by just 403 people at Canterbury, 53 fewer than the gate for their own reserve match at The Eyrie. On August Monday the crowd of some 1,500 at Banbury included some 500 Eagles supporters, three of whom had cycled all the way from Bedford. Although Wright’s tactics could sometimes amount almost to what might now be called a “flat back nine”, as in the 0-1 defeat at Wimbledon in the League Cup semi-final, it was probably a case of tailoring tactics to the available players.

To mark the successes on the field the club took the players on a short end-of-season trip to Ibiza, where they played two local teams in what Roger Barron recalls were less than serious conditions; the players were offered the option of a week’s holiday after a week of football, but some, like Roger, could only afford a week off work and had to do without the holiday part.

Roger also kindly let me see one of his playing contracts from this period. In 1969/70 as a regular first teamer he was on £15 per week as a basic wage, plus £3 first team appearance money, and a further £1 for each home match with a crowd of over 2,500 and ten shillings (50p) for each additional 500. There was an extra £1 for each League point gained in excess of four per month and a further £2 for each round progressed in the FA Cup-the latter sadly not relevant this season. In the close season he was on £10 a week. The club had to offer terms which were at least as good as these for the following season by 13 April each year, failing which the player became a free agent. This was probably typical of most of the regular players.

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl6970.htm

Jackie Scurr (centre) in action for Bedford at Dover's Crabble ground in December 1972. A very effective and tough midfielder, he arrived from Cambridge United at the end of 1968/9 and stayed for five seasons.

A shareholder coup-February to June 1970

Off the field there were hints of trouble in the offing. In January 1970, George Senior had described the survival appeal of the previous year as a“dismal failure” that had raised only £500. At the end of that month, having ruled unopposed for the previous six years, he was surprisingly voted off the board at the AGM. There had been occasional rumbles from a “Shareholders Association” involving what were described as “former chairmen and directors”for some years; it is thought that one of these may have been Cyril Folkes, chairman at the time of the “Arsenal” cup run fourteen years earlier. At the AGM in February that organisation, through its spokesman, Kenneth Martell, a prominent local solicitor, objected to Senior’s re-election by a show of hands and demanded a poll, which saw him voted out by 2,610 votes to 1,538 [each shareholder had a maximum of 20 votes regardless of the size of his holding]. Leslie Ames, a Wootton builder, was voted into the chair, and immediately frustrated the will of the meeting by announcing that Senior would be co-opted back onto the Board. By June this had happened, and it’s unlikely that anything was really achieved by this brief shareholder coup. As with Jack Salsbury in the 1940s, the club could not ignore Senior because it was estimated that it owed him some £6,500. A poorly attended public meeting in March was told that the club was costing £600 a week to run on income of £300.

During his brief tenure of the chair Ames presided over a “crisis meeting” of the Board which seriously considered putting the club into liquidation, but instead put the basic adult admission price up from 4s (£0.20) to 4s 6d (£0.22) while doubling the price for concessions from one shilling to two (£0.05 to £0.10). By June, Senior was not only back on the Board but also, by invitation, in the chair. He noted that Cambridge United had just been elected to the Football League (in place of Bradford Park Avenue) whereas Bedford “had been at sixes and sevens for years”. Ray Capes, one of his fellow directors, alleged that the Shareholders Association only had only 120 members out of 1,300 shareholders and had failed to produce a substantial investor who might rescue the club, as they had promised. Meanwhile, a genuine potential investor, the TV rental millionaire David Robinson, who was based in Cambridge, offered to invest £10,000, but only if creditors agreed to write off at least£15,000 of their debts. The adverse balance on capital account at the previous AGM had been some £55,000. Nobody was prepared to accept Robinson’s terms, so he withdrew his offer.

To see more photos, go to https://sites.google.com/site/oldeaglespics/home/1967-8-to-1969-70

Next section-1970/1 to 1972/3-Premier Division Respectability