1970/1 to 1972/3-Premier Division Respectability

Premier Division respectability (1970/1 to 1972/3)

Defence in depth (1970/1)

It was hardly surprising that Alan Wright was quoted in June 1970 as“fed up with things and thinking of moving on”. It seemed a poor reward for a successful season. He attempted to bolster the experience of the squad for a return to a higher level by signing Mike Harrison (Luton), Cliff Jones (the former Spurs and Wales winger) and Gerry Baker (Ipswich), only to be rejected by all of them, presumably for financial reasons. He did sign John Hawksby, a classy schemer with much League experience, Dennis Coughlin, a much-travelled striker, Brian Etheridge, a former Northampton midfield player and Roy Low, a forward with First Division experience at Spurs. Of these only Hawksby became a regular; Coughlin , despite scoring twice in an encouraging 4-0 opening day defeat of Bath, proved over the hill, Etheridge was soon on his travels again and Low came with disciplinary baggage which led to suspensions for missing training and a parting of the ways in February. George Heyes, once Gordon Banks’s understudy at Leicester, briefly kept Barron out of the team but the former Cobbler was back to stay after Heyes let in five goals at Wimbledon in October.

Wright’s priorities were still defensive, and sometimes this brought letters of complaint in the local press, but a final position of seventh was respectable enough and there was never any real threat of relegation. The team scored 62 League goals which was only fractionally less than the clubs in the top three places, though Cleary, Davies and Figg were the only men to reach double figures in the League. In the new year, Cliff Jones, who had turned the Eagles down in the summer in favour of King’s Lynn, changed his mind on grounds of travelling problems and joined the club on a free transfer. He was the most famous player to turn out for the club since Len Duquemin and provided some touches of genuine class, plus five goals, in his 20 appearances, and he still looked fit for a man of 36, but despite scoring on his debut he was back on his travels, this time to Cambridge City, by the summer; by now this kind of signing, very much the norm in the Rooke and Kelly eras, was out of Bedford’s class.

There was not a lot, again, to cheer about in the Cups. In the second qualifying round of the FA Cup the team was perhaps unlucky not to win at St Albans, having been disrupted by the early loss of Cooley, but the defence could not quite hold out and conceded an 86th minute equaliser. Wright drew a lot of criticism by bringing in three reserves for the replay, although both Cooley and Low were injured, and St Albans were already three up before two late goals failed to prevent defeat. The crowd of 3,365 for the replay was–apart from an almost identical attendance for Cambridge City’s visit on Good Friday-easily the biggest of the season and as usual many did not return. The FA Trophy produced an unconvincing narrow win against Thornycroft Athletic, a Basingstoke club from the Hampshire League, a good win at King’s Lynn and finally a poor display at Dover in the second round, and in the Southern League Cup the Eagles went out to Wimbledon for the second year running, though only after a late and hotly disputed penalty against David Lawson for handball.

Alan Davies (right) scores the Eagles' goal against St Albans City at Clarence Park in the FA Cup second qualifying round tie on 12 October 1970. St Albans equalised in the last few minutes and won the replay 3-2. Davies, a former QPR apprentice, scored 67 times in 187 outings.

Now, for the first time since 1945, average attendances fell below the 2,000 mark, to 1,855. First place in the Eastern Professional Floodlit League, attended only by the real diehards, failed to excite interest and the club decided to switch to the Midland Floodlit Competition, in which they had briefly played ten years earlier, for 1971/2. For the two Christmas matches against Kettering, bitterly cold weather kept the home gate down to fractionally under 2,000 and less than 800 turned up for the return match at Rockingham Road, a clear sign of the troubled times. Despite making a small profit in 1969/70, thanks to the Garner transfer fee, the club’s finances were still perilous and at the end of the season it was decided to scrap the reserve team, a move that was becoming common in the game generally. The Eaglets marked their departure creditably, however, by beating West Ham’s third team 4-2 on aggregate to win the Metropolitan League Professional Cup. The League itself, now reduced to an unviable size by similar resignations, came to an end at the same time (see The Eaglets).

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7071.htm

Wright out, Smith back (1971/2)

The summer of 1971 saw further abortive fund-raising schemes aimed at reducing the club’s debt, now running at £40,000, and again Alan Wright expressed annoyance at the lack of cash for new players. It may have been because of his inability to sign anyone that he attempted to get himself match fit again, despite chronic injuries (he’d managed only eight appearances in 1970/1). He probably chose the wrong match for his comeback-a pre-season testimonial match at Kempston, where a full first team lost embarrassingly 2-4 to the UCL club. Wright said that his players had shown “no effort at all”. A few days later, on the eve of the new season, he was advised to give up any more thoughts of playing again, and decided to concentrate on management.

The opening matches produced no consistent pattern of results but equally little cause for real alarm, with decent home wins against Cambridge City, Gravesend (6-0), Wimbledon and Folkestone-but in none of these did the crowd exceed 2,000. Against Merthyr, in mid-October, only 858 turned up, the worst League attendance since the 1940s. Supporters may have wanted to see new faces but on these figures that was unrealistic. Meanwhile things were unhappy off the field. The club picked up an unwelcome fine for repeated disciplinary offences in 1970/1, and players’ wages, unbeknown to most supporters, were now seriously in arrears. As so often, it was the FA Cup that brought things to a head.

A very poor display in the first qualifying round saw the team scrape home 1-0 against Banbury in a home replay after extra time, and after a slightly better display had defeated Biggleswade in the second round, they faced Witney Town of the Hellenic League at home. The attendance just crept over 2,000 for the first time in the season, but many had already left when Cleary hit a last-ditch equaliser, shortly after Davies had missed a penalty for Bedford and then Witney had missed an open goal and the chance to clinch the tie. Worse followed in the replay, played at Oxford United’s Manor Ground since Witney had no floodlights; Wright had only 13 fit men to choose from, but even the normally fulsome Jim Davis of the Bedfordshire Times described the 0-2 defeat as the worst Eagles display since he started covering the team in 1962. Only 425 people turned up to see a Southern League Cup tie against King’s Lynn later that week and barely 1,000 to see the next home League match, a 3-3 draw with Dartford. Two days later, on 1 November, Wright was sacked.

Now the recriminations began in earnest. Wright claimed, like many a manager before and since, that he’d been made a scapegoat for the mismanagement of the directors; he’d been playing for five years with a persistent injury when he should have retired, and had been forced to manage without a proper physio. There had been no coach transport to away games and with wages in arrears he’d been unable to exert any discipline. It now emerged that some players had demanded a meeting with the directors before Wright’s sacking to insist that wages and expenses were paid up to date. Roger Barron recalled that “we hadn’t been paid for quite a while”,but his sympathies were with the departed manager who he thought had been badly treated. After playing in a League Cup replay at King’s Lynn on the night of Wright’s sacking he decided to leave at once, for Bletchley, and Alan Alexander, an experienced Scottish keeper formerly with Corby, replaced him. The vice-chairman, Geoff Irvine, also took Wright’s side and resigned.

George Cleary tussles with Guldford defender Ray Sleap during Bedford's 2-0 win at The Eyrie on 27 December 1971 watched by 2.083-the only League attendance of the season to top 2,000. Cleary scored one of the goals, towards his tally of nearly 150 in his Eagles career-the old club's most prolific scorer. Barry Fry, the other scorer, brings up the rear

Now the club turned again, ten years after his first appearance, to Reg Smith, who worked initially as a caretaker but was appointed “permanently” in January. Presumably the players’ wages were brought up to date by further cheques from the remaining directors, and Smith presided over an uneventful remainder of the season. The team’s final League position of 17th was modest, but there was little danger of relegation and there was only one home defeat in the competition after Smith’s appointment, and that was not until Chelmsford’s visit in April. More consistency away from home would have produced a much better finish. The team again reached the League Cup semi-final, partly thanks to a brilliant performance by Alexander at Cambridge City in a third round replay, but a 2-4 defeat at Barnet prevented a first appearance in the final. Cambridge City were also defeated in the first round of the FA Trophy, again in a replay, after a fractious 2-2 draw at home; City claimed that both Bedford’s goals, from Scurr and Davies, were offside, and although Cliff Jones made their equaliser with a run that beat four defenders, Bedford claimed that Marshall’s shot didn’t cross the line. It was all for nothing, however, for the long trip to Dorchester of the Western League, where the Eagles had been defeated in the FA Cup in 1954/5, brought a 0-1 defeat and an apology from Smith to the 200 supporters who had travelled to see what the manager called a “shocking” display. Soon after this he told Figg and Davies that they could both leave the club.

Roger Figg is foiled by Dorchester keeper Whiting in the Eagles' 0-1 defeat in the FA Trophy on 2 February 1972. Manager Reg Smith felt obliged to apologise to the supporters who had travelled to see what he called a "shocking" display

Gates continued to decline, the League average down now to 1,194, and only Guildford’s visit at Christmas produced a crowd above 2,000; most away gates were no better, although Hereford, in contention for the title and on the verge of the Football League, attracted almost 6,000 for Bedford’s visit in April. Not helped by bad weather in January and a power workers’ strike that caused a temporary ban on floodlit matches, the Midland Floodlit Competition proved a total flop; despite a points system aimed at encouraging attacking play (ten points for a win, five for a draw and an extra point for every goal), spectators objected to paying first team prices to see what were often, because of the burden of fixture congestion, virtual reserve teams. When they went to Tamworth in November, the Eagles could barely even manage that since a motorway traffic jam delayed three players travelling by car and forced them to play with only eight men. The last home match in this League, against Burton in May, produced what was to remain the lowest recorded attendance at the Eyrie for a (theoretically) first team match, just 43. The team had to play an horrendous 82 matches in all competitions (David Skinn appeared in 75 of them) and in April they were forced to play on three consecutive nights- at home to Telford in the League, then at Luton in the County Professional Cup final, and then at Telford in the floodlit tournament. The County FA refused to agree to reschedule the Luton match, once a highlight of the club’s calendar, and Smith was forced to give a 16-year old youth team defender, Bobby Wright, his debut in a scarcely surprising 1-5 defeat before just 828 Kenilworth Road diehards.

At the season’s end Figg (into retirement) and Davies departed as expected, and Hawksby had a better offer from Kettering. Roach and Cooley, two of only six players retained, declined terms; Roach moved to Hillingdon but Cooley, part of the fabric of the club, later relented.

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7172.htm

Back from the brink (1972/3)

The first of several nailbiting summers now followed. Despite having only recently signed a contract, Reg Smith resigned in June 1972, blaming supporter apathy. In his place came Brian Garvey, a former Hull, Watford and Colchester centre-half, as player-manager, and he did a reasonable job to keep the team in the top half of the Premier Division.

However, Garvey was lucky to have a job at all, and had almost no money to spend, because in the summer of 1972 the club had come close to going out of business, the first of many near-death experiences in the next decade. At the AGM in May, disclosing a £12,000 loss on the previous season, and debts now running at £67,000, chairman Senior claimed that they were “not far from liquidation” and launched a “Save the Eagles” appeal which was said to have raised £2,300 in a few weeks; the club was also forced to sell, for £2,500, their right to 25% of the fee if Garner was sold on by Southend- as, almost inevitably, he soon was, to Chelsea, for £100,000, leaving the Eagles £22,500 worse off than if they’d been more solvent. The Inland Revenue, who as the largest creditor were owed £14,000, and John Cooper, a private individual who was said to have lent the club £4,500 in 1966 to finance the new dressing rooms, applied to have the club wound up in June but the following month the club came to an arrangement with creditors to avert liquidation. George Senior claimed to be the second largest creditor, for £8,000. Finally the landlords, Charles Wells, granted a ten-year extension of the 21 year lease of The Eyrie granted back in 1951, and the club was able to carry on.

Garvey’s job had been advertised at £75 a week, or £3,900 a year; it’s not clear if that’s what he was paid, but to put this in context, the same week’s edition of the local paper announced the appointment of a new Town Clerk at £8,433 a year, and a statement by the county’s chief planning officer that the minimum salary needed to afford a house in Bedford was £2,500. Ground admission was now £0.30 and an annual ground season ticket cost £5.50.

Cleary, the previous season’s leading scorer with 34 goals from no less than 71 matches, started the new season suspended and was then injured until the end of September. Appointed only a fortnight before the first pre-season friendly, Garvey had managed to sign Neil Townsend, a useful central defender, on loan from Northampton, to replace Roach, forwards Jim Baillie from Cambridge City and Roland Horrey from Chelmsford, and Charlie Sorbie, a striker from Luton who’d arrived on loan right at the end of the previous season. Two League wins by a single goal, a defeat at Worcester and a four-goal thumping by Kettering in the League Cup provided hardly an awful start but the customary clouds of gloom started to gather when the team went down 0-1 at Slough in the preliminary round of the FA Cup, played as early as 2 September; the club hadn’t been forced to play at such an early stage since 1949. In fact, this was hardly a total disgrace since Slough went on to win the Athenian League and finish runners-up in the FA Amateur Cup that season, but Garvey concluded “We were woeful”. He improved his playing staff soon afterwards by releasing Horrey, who’d failed to turn up for the match at Weymouth, and signing Bobby Folds, once a junior in the club’s youth team of the mid 60s and now returned from spells at Gillingham (with Basil Hayward), Northampton and Telford (with Hayward again); Folds was to stay almost to the end of the club’s life.

Jimmy Campbell (left) bursts past a Waterlooville defender to score his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win on 3 February 1973. An England youth international, he moved to Oxford United but never got into their first team, returning for a short spell later before emigrating to Australia

Goals were a problem throughout the season and the club managed only 43 in 42 matches, three fewer than the tally when they were relegated in 1968/9, yet only 36 were let in, easily the best record in the League. Lou Adams made a brief return from Barnet in December but had gone again by April; his transfer fee of £500 was said to have been donated by a supporter who thus handed over £62.50 for each of the eight goals Adams contributed. That, however, made him joint top scorer with Cleary. The Clapham striker’s record had interested several Football League clubs but he eventually moved to Kettering for £2,000 in March, having scored the only goal and also been sent off in his last appearance, at Burton, and arrived just in time to help the Poppies to the championship for the first time since 1957. In the eight years since his debut as a teenager he’d clocked up 350 appearances and 139 goals. That same week, Garvey, by all accounts a likeable and conscientious man who’d done well with almost no resources, decided that he’d had enough and resigned as manager while agreeing to stay on to the end of the season as a player. Only now was it disclosed that he had worked on a series of monthly contracts.

This programme cover from 1972/3 seems to have been inspired by the TV programme "Thunderbirds"! It shows Norman Cooley in an aerial duel with Yeovil's Bill Herritty in a good 2-1 win at The Huish ground (famous for its slope) on 24 February 1973. The programme is for the return match the following week where the scoreline was reversed.

The final position of eighth was more than the club could have expected in the circumstances; in the same month that Cleary departed, the club was bailed out by a £17,000 donation from the Borough Council after the Inland Revenue again threatened to wind them up for unpaid PAYE. The Council’s decision produced half a page of hostile letters in the local press and it was clear that the club now had few friends outside its dwindling band of regular supporters. There was a little more cheer in the FA Trophy, where for the first time the Eagles reached the fourth round and played Northern Premier League opposition at Stafford, but two goals conceded in the first 15 minutes proved fatal, and the manager was criticised for leaving Scurr and Adams on the bench. Hopes of a fee when Townsend moved to Southend at the end of the season proved vain since he had in fact remained on Northampton’s books throughout the season and the Cobblers pocketed the £6,000 paid by Southend, although they gave the Eagles £600 as an ex gratia payment.

Bobby Folds scores from the penalty spot in Bedford's 1-4 defeat at Stafford in the fourth round of the FA Trophy in March 1973. It was the furthest the club had yet gone in this competition and the first time they had met Northern Premier League opposition, who on this occasion were too much for them.

In April Garvey was replaced by Jim Walker, a long-serving Peterborough defender. Manager and players were now forced to share The Eyrie with weekly greyhound race meetings, which forced the playing pitch further away from the spectators and lessened what little atmosphere still remained for the crowds of barely a thousand. Only 160 people had bothered to attend the public meeting called by the board in the previous summer to “save” the club. If there was a glimmer of hope, it was to be found in the “Bedford Eaglets” eleven which had finished runners-up in the United Counties League’s second division and won its sectional knock-out cup; they were denied promotion because the League regarded them as a reserve side, despite George Senior’s insistence that they were a separate club that simply shared the Eagles’ facilities! In all but name, however, they were the club’s youth team and were to supply several regular first team players in the years ahead.

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7273.htm

To see more pictures from this period go to https://sites.google.com/site/oldeaglespics/home/1970-1-to-1972-3

Next section-1973/4 to 1977/8-Upward path with Walker, into the fire with Fry