1973/4 to 1977/8-Upward path with Walker, into the fire with Fry
Upward path with Walker, into the fire with Fry (1973/4 to 1977/8)
The lights go out on another relegation (1973/4)
Jim Walker had some experienced players still available to him despite the ever-present financial problems; in one of his first press interviews he contrasted his own limited means with those of Kettering, who had just paid Chelmsford £9,000 for Eddie Dilsworth. Skinn and Cooley were both in their second decade at the club, and there was also Alexander in goal, the popular and hard-working Scurr in midfield, and Folds in defence. He was now able to sign a promising young striker in Gary Sargent, a Turvey boy who had joined Norwich from school but then drifted into the lower reaches of the Football League with Scunthorpe. His most important long-term signing, however, was Trevor Gould from Northampton, a defender who was to stay at The Eyrie until club and ground were no more. Just to emphasise the plight of the club however, three directors, Ian Whittemore, David Lennox-Lamb and Don Jones, resigned on the eve of the season after objecting to a demand from Senior for £1,000 each to cover wages; they claimed that they’d already given personal guarantees for the club’s overdraft and paid utility bills.
This was to be another season where goals were way short of what was needed, with the tally of 38 being the lowest in the Premier Division. To help the youngsters Walker signed Norman Dean, once of Southampton and Cardiff, but he was plainly unfit and was released in December without scoring a single goal. Only twice did the team score more than two goals in a League match and by the end of September they had won just three out of 12 matches, all 1-0. Then Histon, of the Eastern Counties League, surrendered ground advantage in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup, swapping their average home gate of 150 for an Eyrie crowd of 1,100, and were rewarded with a 2-0 win; Walker claimed that they’d had three shots in the 90 minutes. At home to Kettering in early November Sargent scored the team’s first League goal for a month but the match still ended in a 1-2 defeat. Things got literally darker that month as a work-to-rule by the National Union of Mineworkers began to threaten power supplies and the government once again banned floodlit football: as in the 1950s, kick-off times now had to follow the sun, and for Maidstone’s visit on 24 November, with a 2.15 start, barely 700 people turned up including several coachloads from Kent. After the match had ended in near-darkness, future starts were put back to 2pm. The ban also made midweek training almost impossible and threw the Eastern Professional Floodlit League, which the club had rejoined after a year without such distractions, into such chaos that its programme was eventually abandoned. Few people complained.
Gary Sargent (left) and David Parratt (centre) acclaim Sargent's second goal, the fourth of the match, in the 4-0 defeat of Grantham in an FA Trophy 3rd round replay at The Eyrie on 2 March 1974. This was one of the best performances of a poor season, watched by 2,231, but the run ended with defeat by Morecambe the following week
Over Christmas there was a brief glimmer of hope with three successive League wins, including a creditable 3-0 defeat of Cambridge City on Boxing Day, but after going down 1-4 at Dartford on 29 December the team failed to collect two points again until they won at Folkestone in mid-March. However, there were only five intervening fixtures because of bad weather, the ban on playing in midweek and a welcome run in the FA Trophy. Home wins against Chelmsford and Stourbridge (who ended the season as champions of the First Division North) led to a tough away draw with Grantham, who were to end the season as Premier Division runners-up, but a goalless draw in Lincolnshire was followed by an excellent 4-0 home win; sadly that sort of performance never happened in the League. Morecambe, of the Northern Premier League, and the eventual winners of the Trophy, were somewhat fortunate 1-0 winners at The Eyrie in the fourth round, and both these matches produced welcome financial relief with crowds of over 2,000. The Morecambe tie also produced The Eyrie’s first ever streaker.
Several matches at this period were played on Sundays to try to attract more people despite the enforced early kick-offs; at Atherstone in early January it was reckoned that this put 400 on the average home gate. Grantham’s League visit on 27 January was the first home game played on a Sunday and the crowd was 700 more than on the previous Saturday League match; Sargent had rearranged his wedding, in Norwich, from the Saturday to the Sunday some weeks previously so that he could play, but defied the switch by arriving twenty minutes after the kick-off (thanks to a helicopter sponsored by a supporter) and coming on as substitute.
Sorry about some of the hairstyles! This is a 1973/4 first team group. Back row: Jackie Scurr, Norman Dean, Alan Alexander, David Parratt, Norman Cooley, Bobby Folds. Front: David Skinn, Tony Castiello, Kevin Dove, Gary Sargent, Trevor Gould, Chris Dunkley.
The clocks eventually went forward and kick-off times returned to normal, but Bedford were unable to put together any consistent run until it was almost too late. The win at Folkestone on 16 March was the last for nearly a month. Jim Davis of the local press professed himself baffled by the team’s tactics: “the numbers on the jerseys were there for identification purposes only, they could not be connected with the positions the players were supposed to be in”, he wrote. They were beaten by an injury time goal at Maidstone, but then beat highly placed Chelmsford at home. Easter produced only three points out of six, but the Eagles were still one place clear of the bottom four and stretched that to two by winning at Hillingdon. Then an error by Alexander in the last seconds lost a point at home to Telford after they had been two up, and he was dropped in favour of the teenage Philip Merry from Shefford, but the team were still sixth from bottom going into the final week. Now, however, they had to play three times in four days. A single goal home win against Folkestone raised hopes, but neither Worcester (equally desperate for points and eventually relegated) nor Wimbledon would agree to a switch. Walker had to make several changes for these away matches at opposite sides of the country on successive nights simply because some players couldn’t get time off work. Both matches ended in 1-2 defeats, and the Eagles were relegated for the third time in seven years, finishing just a point away from safety. A 1-1 draw with a strong Luton side in the County Professional Cup final was scant consolation.
[Photograph by kind permission of the Essex Chronicle]
Above: Gary Sargent (centre) challenges Chelmsford’s keeper Willie Carrick in the FA Trophy tie at The Eyrie in January 1974. His £7,000 transfer to Peterborough in 1977 was rapidly followed by Jim Walker’s dismissal as manager.
Of the 42 League matches, 26 had been lost by the odd goal or drawn, and Walker insisted that “teams far worse survived”. The Board seem to have agreed since unlike Burgess and Heckman before him, he kept his job. But within his limited means he had in fact discovered several useful youngsters such as Kevin Dove, David Earl, Peter Hawkins and David Parratt, as well as the emerging Sargent, who had all played in the majority of matches and were to play important roles in the next few years.
For the first time the average League gate slipped below 1,000 (974). Most of the three-figure crowds were, naturally, in the last few weeks; on Easter Monday morning less than 500 turned up to see Cambridge City, but that may have been because the club had only announced a switch of kick-off from the afternoon on the previous Saturday. Some 150 puzzled folk turned for a 3pm start to find the ground locked up. In a way it was a symbol of things to come.
Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7374.htm
Promotion and 90 minutes from Wembley (1974/5)
Jim Walker’s second season was eventful both on and off the field. The dramas off the field sometimes seemed to obscure some good work on it.
Deciding to scrap the youth (or reserve?) team both on financial grounds and because Walker regarded the gap between Southern and United Counties League football as too large, the Board spent some weeks listening to approaches from Keith Cheeseman, chairman and owner of their neighbours Dunstable Town and soon to sign the ageing George Best at a reputed wage of £200 a week. In August he was said to be prepared to invest at least £10,000 and to take a “substantial”stake in the club; what seems to have deterred him was the shareholding structure put in place in 1951 whereby even the biggest investor was limited to 20 shares and therefore 20 votes. A few years later Cheeseman was sent to prison for a substantial fraud (try Googling his name for details). Perhaps W T Hobkirk and his co-directors back in the early 50s were wiser than their critics thought. Even though the club was spared Cheeseman’s involvement, at the AGM in October (the first for three years), debts were said to be nearly £80,000, but no signed accounts were produced for the three years ending 1973/4 because the auditors described the records as “very incomplete”.The whole of the Council donation and the fee for Cleary had gone direct to creditors, notably the Inland Revenue.
Walker was able to strengthen the side in the summer somehow. Having lost the long-serving and popular Jackie Scurr to Dunstable, and released Alexander, he replaced the keeper by Ray Peacock, who had been out of football for a while since leaving Cambridge City but was soon to become a fixture in goal for the next four years. Also recruited were new forwards Peter Phillips, a Cambridge graduate who had League experience at Cambridge United and Torquay, and Tony Buck from Northampton; Buck, sadly, played only a handful of times before receiving a career-ending injury, but Phillips was to prove a major asset with his positional skill and eye for a chance.
Gary Sargent heads just over the bar in the third qualifying round FA Cup tie at Potton in October 1974, where a 2-1 win sent the team through to what proved to be an unsuccessful three-match tussle with Kettering.
Despite a much better season in 1974/5 the crowds were not persuaded to return, and that was to be the story for the rest of the club’s existence. By now the lower (First) division of the Southern League had split into northern and southern sections to accommodate a big influx of teams mainly from the Birmingham and Western Leagues. Bedford’s relegation had taken them into the northern section where many of the opponents were from these areas, and they were rarely out of the promotion positions, finishing comfortable champions with 65 points, seven points clear of their nearest rivals, Dunstable, and with their best haul from a 42 match season. This was a decent achievement by a squad of only thirteen professionals. Sargent, Hawkins and Phillips stood out up front with Earl, Gould and Folds partnering the enduring Skinn and Cooley behind them andPeacock, a tall and assured goalkeeper, between the posts-even though the team often had a somewhat avian look with a Peacock, a Dove and a Parratt..... Skinn and Peacock were both ever-present, playing 68 matches each in all competitions, Gould and Earl both played in all 42 League matches, and Sargent (28) and Phillips (23) stood out among the goalscorers.
This 1974/5 team group shows: (back) David Earl, Bobby Folds, David Skinn, Ray Peacock, Russell Shreeves, Gary Sargent. (front) Gary Burdett, Jimmy Campbell, Trevor Gould, Kevin Dove, Peter Phillips
The team went unbeaten in the League until losing at Bromsgrove on 12 October, and they lost only four more times all season, twice at home and twice away. Their 85 goal tally was formidable, even though Dunstable managed a remarkable 20 goals more. Despite the occasional hiccup such as a losing both home and away to Bedworth, who finished third from bottom and attracted a home crowd of less than 100, promotion was never in serious doubt and was clinched by a 4-0 home win against Wellingborough in April; three days later a point at Redditch secured the title with three games still to play, the last of them a 7-0 win at Milton Keynes.
Norman Cooley scores the equaliser at Redditch, 22 April 1975, to gain the point that clinched the Division One North championship
To add to these efforts, the season also brought some Cup entertainment on several fronts. Wins against Wellingborough, Rushden and Potton (though only 2-1) brought a fourth qualifying round FA Cup meeting with Kettering, one of the Premier Division leaders, at Rockingham Road, oddly enough only the fourth time these near neighbours had been drawn together, and the first since 1933. The Poppies had won all three previous ties and must have thought they had maintained their record when they were 3-2 up after 90 minutes, only for Skinn to equalise in the sixth minute of stoppage time. The replay at The Eyrie ended goalless after extra time and it was only in the third match, at Northampton, that Kettering’s greater playing strength told in a 0-2 defeat; the three matches had been watched by over 9,500. The Eagles also reached the semi-final of the League Cup yet again, but again fell short, losing 1-2 to Premier Division Margate before only 700 in Kent.
Peter Phillips(left) puts Beford ahead with a spectacular header in the FA Trophy third round tie at the Birmingham League side Highgate United on 22 February 1975. A former Cambridge "Blue" at both soccer and athletics as well as an amateur international, his ability lit up many an otherwise drab encounter before health problems persuaded him to concentrate on his career as a chartered accountant.
But the best of the action was in the FA Trophy. After beating Hitchin, Ashford and Highgate United (Birmingham) in the first three rounds the Eagles pulled off a memorable 1-0 win against the odds at Wigan Athletic’s old Springfield Park ground before 5,400 in the quarter-final against that season’s Northern Premier League champions, who would be elected to the Football League three years later. Peacock performed heroics in goal as Wigan had most of the play, but Skinn scored the game’s only goal in the 46th minute; the referee at first disallowed it because he thought it had gone through a hole in the side-netting and only reversed his decision after talking to a linesman. So to the double-legged semi-final and the real chance of seeing the Eagles at Wembley. Over 5,300 people at Scarborough’s Seamer Road ground saw the home side win comfortably, 3-1, and a week later this scoreline probably restricted the crowd at the Eyrie to 4,010, including 500 away fans (though even that was the best turnout since 1967/8). Sadly, the first leg scoreline was repeated in a match that Bedford, weakened by the suspension of Sargent, never looked like saving, although Scarborough went on to lose 0-4 to Matlock Town at Wembley.
A narrow miss in in what was probably Bedford's best performance in the last years of the old club, a 1-0 win at Springfield Park, Wigan in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy in March 1975. A free kick from Trevor Gould (out of shot) has rebounded off the bar with the goalkeeper beaten
An unhappy feature of the season was crowd trouble; at Wigan, Bedford fans were attacked with bricks soon after Skinn’s goal, and in the home tie against Scarborough there was fighting before, during and after the match, with 30 visiting supporters removed by police “for their own safety”, though home fans were regarded as “far from blameless”. There was little fear of crowd trouble at Floodlit League matches, mainly because there were hardly any spectators, and once again fixture congestion meant that Bedford didn’t complete their fixtures. At last the club got the message that spectators regarded these matches as a waste of time and Bedford didn’t compete in such competitions again; while they had their place in the early 60s when floodlighting was a novelty, they had long outlived their public appeal.
David Skinn, nearing the end of his mammoth Bedford career, leads the team out at Scarborough in the first leg of the FA Trophy semi-final in April 1975, followed by goalkeeper Ray Peacock. Two 1-3 defeats ended any dreams of a Wembley visit.
Peter Phillips (left) and David Skinn attempt to storm the visitors' goal in the second leg of the FA Trophy semi-final against Scarborough at The Eyrie on 5 April 1975, watched by just over 4,000-an attendance never again to be surpassed. Scarborough won 3-1 to take the tie 6-2 on aggregate. By coincidence, over at Goldington Road on the same afternoon the Blues were also playing in a semi-final, in the new rugby knock-out cup. However, they were luckier, beating Coventry 13-6 on their way to beating Rosslyn Park in the final a few weeks later.
Title bid expires in final straight (1975/6)
Jim Walker steered his limited squad to ninth place in the Premier Division in 1975/6. This was a fair achievement given that almost the same squad as in the previous season had to do all the work; his only signing by September was Leo Markham, a midfielder from Watford.
There was an easy canter through the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup with wins against Ely, Bourne, Stamford-managed by Walker’s former Peterborough colleague and next door neighbour, Norman Rigby-and Lowestoft, only to be paired, just as they had been nine years before, against Wycombe in the first round proper-Bedford’s first appearance at that stage since 1966/7. This time only three matches were required for a result but after a goalless draw at Loakes Park and a 2-2 draw at Bedford, Wycombe went through 2-1 at home to avenge their earlier defeat and earn a visit to Cardiff in round 2. Over 4,000 saw each of the first two matches, and the Eagles let their chances slip badly when they were two goals up inside half an hour of the first replay at The Eyrie. The second match was played, by the toss of a coin, at Wycombe and was decided when an under-hit back pass by Cooley got stuck in the mud to allow Evans to score Wycombe’s second goal; Markham’s reply was just too late to matter. The FA Trophy saw Bedford reach the quarter-finals for the fourth year running, but after beating Chelmsford, Hastings and Harwich they went out at home again, 1-2 to Runcorn who were top of the Northern Premier League at the time, when an 80th minute error by Gould created Runcorn’s winner before just over 3,000.
In the League the promoted team more than held their own, even though they went over two months without a win until they beat Yeovil at home just before Christmas, when miserable weather and the usual lure of the shops kept the crowd down to 564. Defeat at Dover in March ended an unbeaten run of 15 games. Well into the last couple of months, they were serious contenders for the title until the final eight matches produced only one win. Sargent was easily top scorer with 29 in all competitions, but this time he lacked support; Hawkins, with 14, was the only other scorer in double figures. Essentially the team was almost unchanged from the previous season apart from Markham who appeared 43 times, and Jimmy Campbell, a locally produced winger who had returned to the club where he had started a few years before in the youth team before joining Oxford United. On and on went Norman Cooley and David Skinn in their accustomed defensive roles. Some idea of the state of the club’s administration can be gleaned from the story in the local papers in September that Skinn was about to make his 500th appearance for the club; the secretary thought that this was “about right”, but admitted that the club had no records, and added “Dave himself has no idea”. In fact, on my figures (and as explained elsewhere, they can’t be regarded as 100% correct), he had passed the 500 mark some five years earlier, in 1970/1!
Again the season offered something for lovers of the bizarre. The Beds Professional Cup tie at Dunstable in November was played with only two functioning floodlights. A “Buy a Player” fund launched the previous summer had raised just £1,000 by December, even then scarcely enough for a signing on fee. At Harwich in the FA Trophy, Sargent’s winning goal came in the 98thminute, time having been added on after home supporters festooned Peacock’s goal with loo rolls. Jim Walker appealed to supporters, successfully, for three mini-fridges to help him to make ice-packs for the compression of injuries. And at the end of the season The Eyrie staged international football- one of the first womens’ internationals, as England beat Wales 4-0. A few weeks earlier it had staged the televised Womens’ FA Cup Final, when Southampton beat QPR 2-1 before an attendance of 1,500, bigger than the crowd at all bar one of Bedford’s home League fixtures.
As Walker put it bleakly at the season’s end, “Without the players we won’t get the crowds, without the crowds we won’t get the money, and without the money we won’t get the players. Unless something changes, things keep getting worse, and you end up with nothing to show for your efforts”….
Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7576.htm
Sixth but still broke (1976/7)
The following season produced a sixth place finish, the best for eleven years, but Bedford were a whole 15 points behind the third time running champions, Wimbledon (who were elected to the Football League in the close season), and the better results made no difference to the declining trend of attendances, with only a handful of matches breaking the 1,000 barrier. Walker had retained all the existing professionals, but Markham moved to Wimbledon on the eve of the new season for a “small” fee, and the manager was able to sign Dave Spillane, a forward from Dunstable, and a mysterious Polish forward on trial, known as Steve Best. It soon emerged that this man’s real name was Zacharski, and that Best was a nickname perhaps bestowed in ironic tribute to his ball skills; in any event he returned to obscurity after making three appearances from the bench. Walker complained that clubs such as Kettering were paying “very ordinary players” £40 per week (the average full time weekly wage was now about £84) and that he could not look at players who were not locally based because the club couldn’t afford to pay travelling expenses.
A 1976/7 first team group. Back: Dave Spillane, Norman Cooley, Bobby Folds, Ray Peacock, Peter Phillips, Gary Sargent, Martin Bartlett (physio). Front: Kevin Dove, David Earl, Jimmy Campbell, David Skinn, Glen Burdett,Trevor Gould. The old campaigners, Skinn and Cooley, had one more season apiece left.
The FA Cup brought little cheer, with a single goal defeat in the fourth qualifying round at Dudley Town of the supposedly inferior Birmingham League after easy wins against local opponents in the earlier rounds; even the loyal local press reporter called this display “an absolute shambles”. This time there was to be no progress at all in the FA Trophy, when Walthamstow Avenue, cup opponents in far happier times, won 3-1 at Bedford in the first round. Just 239 people bothered to turn up at Kenilworth Road to see the Professional Cup final (won by Luton 1-0) in December. In the previous round against Dunstable, physio Martin Bartlett was the (unused) substitute because there was no-one else even partially fit.
So everything revolved around the League performances, and despite all their handicaps, the small squad, revolving around 13 or 14 regulars, performed decently. Between a 1-1 draw at Minehead on 3 January and a 2-2 draw at Kettering on 26 March, they went unbeaten in 14 League matches, winning eight of them. The 4-2 win against Bath, then top of the table and beaten only twice previously, at home in this run was described as one of the best performances for years and featured a rare David Earl hat-trick. This run took the team, going into their Easter programme, into third place, three points behind leaders Bath but with three games in hand. But just as it had done way back in 1957/8, Easter, which still involved three games in four days, proved fatal. Over 1,000 turned up to see each of the vital home matches, both against fellow-contenders; Minehead on Good Friday and Wimbledon on Easter Saturday, but two defeats in those games, plus a draw at Nuneaton on the Monday, virtually ended Bedford’s hopes. Hawkins had been carried off against Minehead and Burdett against Wimbledon, and at Nuneaton only a last gasp equaliser from Ronnie Bridge, recently signed from Kempston, salvaged even a point.Including the Easter matches, only two of the last eleven were won, the second being the final match at home to Margate when Ray Peacock, the only squad member who hadn’t scored to date, was allowed to put a penalty past his opposite number.
Of the eleven League defeats six had come at home. Weymouth, visiting in the last month, complained about the state of the pitch and Walker admitted that it had not helped his players; to save on a groundsman’s wages he had been doing the work himself. This was all of a piece with another year of off-field chaos. George Senior and his two co-directors announced their resignations in November , but at first nobody was prepared to take over and they carried on until January, when five new directors, headed by Alan Holley, an accountant, as chairman, assumed the unenviable task. Senior claimed that there had been “too much aggravation” and that the whole financial basis of the club needed to be changed. He remained on the board for a few more months after the restructuring, probably because he was still a major creditor, and may well by now have assumed the ambivalent position that Jack Salsbury had occupied in the 1940s; some may have wanted rid of him but nobody was prepared to assume the financial commitments required. A director since 1960 and chairman (apart from a short break after the shareholder coup of 1970) since 1965, he now recalled how at his first board meeting in 1960 he had been asked to write a cheque for £200 to cover wages. Things had not improved, he implied. At the end of the season one of the November leavers, Laurie Griffiths, sued the club for repayment of a loan of £2,500, claiming that since other directors’ loans had been repaid he should be treated similarly. The outcome of this is unknown, but he is unlikely to have received much if anything back. A new commercial manager was appointed in January with the aim of raising £1,000 a week from sponsorship and competitions; he had left within a month, probably recognising the impossibility of his task.
The weekly dog-racing meetings, run by outside promoters in return for a rent charge, and thus bringing in a regular income that was all profit, had at least reduced the club’s debts from nearly £80,000 in 1974 to a more respectable £30,000 by November 1976, and to put that in perspective, Chelmsford City in 1975/6 had an overdraft of £130,000. But in a telling contrast, the local press noted that while 600 people were watching the Gravesend match in mid-February, over at Goldington Road the Blues, then one of the half dozen leading sides in club rugby, attracted over 2,000 for their cup-tie against Rosslyn Park. The Bedford public seemed to have fallen firmly out of love with the club.
Link to LeagueTables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7677.html
Fry’s flops go down (1977/8)
The main event of the summer of 1977 was the sale at the end of June of Sargent, who had been attracting much attention from Football League scouts. After an offer from Mansfield was turned down, a £7,000 bid (with £4,000 payable up front) from Peterborough was accepted at the end of June. Jim Walker was said by chairman Holley to have been “fully involved”, but four weeks later he was sacked, in another bitter episode which ended in litigation (he eventually settled for £500 the following December). The official reason (which sat oddly with Holley’s earlier statement) was a “lack of co-operation with the directors”, but many believed that part of the trouble was Walker’s reluctance to part with Sargent. Walker claimed that this had been done without consulting him; telling reporters “I could write a book about what’s been happening”, he was clearly a favourite of the main football correspondent, who told readers how Walker had regularly cut the grass, marked out the pitch and repainted the offices, and how his wife had done all the team’s laundry each week in her Peterborough kitchen. “I didn’t know where he was half the time”, sniped Holley in reply. “I know he didn’t have great feelings for the board”. The chairman said that“some” of the Sargent fee would be available for a replacement, who proved to be Howard Kettleborough, a lanky striker from Hitchin. Sargent’s boots, which had contributed at least 92 goals in his four seasons with the club, would be hard to fill.
This team group is from early in the unhappy season of 1977/8. (Back) Elwyn Roberts, Howard Kettleborough, Brian Greenhalgh, Bobby Folds, Ray Peacock, David Skinn, David Lawson, Ray Newson, Steve Fountain. (Front) Lou Adams, Ken Goodeve, Barry Fry (Manager), Trevor Gould, Dave McCormick, Terry Mortimer.
This wasn’t an ideal start to the season and it would get no better. As manager, back in the first week of August came the familiar figure of Barry Fry, who had enjoyed a successful run at Dunstable until they ran out of cash, and a less spectacular one at Hillingdon, to whom Bedford had to pay compensation. Always a manager who liked to wheel and deal in the transfer market, he immediately re-signed Lou Adams, who had played for him at Barnet, for a third spell at the club, together with Ken Goodeve, a very experienced defender from Watford (via Wootton Blue Cross), and Ray Newson, a Kempston lad, from Kettering, while apparently falling out with two very important squad members from Walker’s time, Hawkins and Dove, who were speedily sold to Weymouth for a total of £2,750.
Fry’s single season as manager proved eminently forgettable. It was 6 October before the team managed more than a single League goal and between 15 October and 29 March they failed to win at home in the League; between 31 December and 29 March they failed to win anywhere, and despite a late improvement they ended second from bottom with only 29 points. This was the same total with which they had gone down in 1966/7 and only once, in 1948/9, had the Eagles posted a lower total (18) from 42 matches. Kettleborough, signed to replace Sargent, scored just three times in the League and five times in all. Adams, with 16, and Elwyn Roberts, signed from Corby in October for £500, with 10, were the only scorers to reach double figures, and Adams departed for Australia at the end of January, breaking a leg soon after signing for a club in Melbourne. Fry was not averse to spending money but little of it seemed to make any difference; Kettleborough proved a waste of money, and although Fry spent another £1,500 on Brian Greenhalgh, another man of many clubs, in September, Greenhalgh was off again in February to Hillingdon for £250 less than he had cost. A better signing was the return of Terry Mortimer, another local boy, from Kettering for an “undisclosed” fee-Kettering had asked for £5,000-but in the short term he had little impact. One enforced absentee was now Peter Phillips, who had been advised to give up football after being diagnosed with a heart murmur and didn't play again.
There were many comings and goings in Fry’s tenure. After a poor team display in a 0-3 defeat at Nuneaton in October Fry deposed Norman Cooley as captain, saying that “it was time to look to the future”, and after just four more first team matches Cooley, now struggling with major injuries, had made the last of his (at least) 737 appearances for the club. Gould replaced him as skipper, and was destined to play over 400 times himself before he was done. By the end of October Fry had used an extraordinary 30 players in the first team.
A bigger departure still came in November when George Senior finally resigned from the Board after 17 years, claiming that he was owed the curiously precise sum of £7,787, although the club’s auditors claimed that he had no proof of the amount. Senior admitted that “several of the books” were missing but said he could produce cheque stubs. “ I hope one day they can pay me back”,he said, “but I won’t hammer them for it”.
The FA Cup story was even worse than the League season, with a 3-4 defeat at Willesden in the preliminary round against a team from what amounted to the third division of the Isthmian League, of which they ended the season bottom. It was only the second season in which Willesden had entered the competition. For no apparent reason, Fry chose this match to give a debut to Chris Smith, from Marston Colts, who at 15 years and seven months was probably the youngest debutant to play for the club, and who made only one other known first team appearance. Willesden came back from three goals down, and this was probably the most humiliating result since the defeat by Bedford Avenue in 1945.
The FA Trophy brought the solitary light into this dark season, with the fifth quarter-final appearance in five years, and a crowd that could only be described, by the standards of the season, as huge; 2,251 people saw Leatherhead, of the Isthmian League Premier Division, hold the Eagles to a goalless draw at The Eyrie before winning the replay 5-2. Earlier, after giving 16 year old goalkeeper Tony Luff his first team debut in the first round against Hillingdon, in which he made what the reporter called three “tremendous” saves, Bedford had needed three matches to beat Hednesford and two to beat Hendon. The Hednesford tie was particularly awkward; after a 1-1 draw at home on 6 February, the replay was postponed twice, once too late to prevent the players taking time off work, and when it was finally played on 20 February it ended in a 2-2 draw after extra time. The FA ruled that the second replay should take place at Worcester, hardly mid-way between the two towns, and it was finally decided by a Roberts goal six minutes from the end before a crowd of less than 300. All this took a formidable toll of a small squad of players.
These matches also saw a renewal of the crowd trouble that was increasingly disfiguring the wider game. Bedford “supporters” did £200 worth of damage to the visiting team bus at the first Hednesford tie, and before the Leatherhead home game more than a hundred youths were said to have “rampaged”-a word rarely used except of football hooligans –through the town centre damaging shops and other buildings. None of this, of course, encouraged casual spectators to attend.
By the time they were knocked out of the Trophy the Eagles were second from bottom of the League and soon lost 0-2 at home to almost equally lowly Redditch, a result which Fry described as “rock bottom-I have put too much trust in players who have done well for me in the past”. Further permutations saw the manager take his boots out of storage and play himself nine times before the end of the season; an unkind observer described the now rather rotund Fry as “like a pork pie on legs”. By mid-April the team’s fate was virtually sealed and a new “low” in League gates was achieved when only 154 turned up for Leamington’s visit. But for Grantham losing their final match and slithering beneath them, Bedford would have finished bottom.
Yet there was still worse to come, on 18 May, when the Eagles lost to Potton in the final of the Beds Senior Cup (a competition previously only open to amateur clubs which they had not entered since before World War 2). Terry King, Potton’s manager who was later to manage the “new” Eagles, described them cuttingly as “a good UCL side”.
Relegation was made sadder still by the departure at the season’s end of the last two links with a really successful Bedford Town era, as both David Skinn and Norman Cooley ended their careers. Cooley, as we noted earlier, finally had to call it a day at Southern League level through injury. Skinn was rumoured to have fallen out with Fry earlier in the season, but still added 44 appearances to a career which almost certainly totalled over 900 outings. He declined the offer of a coaching job to become player-manager at Kempston; Cooley became youth team manager, although like Skinn he continued to play in local football for many more years. Between them they had clocked up over 1700 appearances in combined careers spanning nearly 30 years, but so little feeling for the spirit of the club now remained that only 189 people bothered to watch the last of several testimonial matches for the pair, against Peterborough in May.
It was exactly the wrong time-not that there could be a right time-to be relegated, for now it was announced that in the 1979/80 season a new League would be formed from the leading teams in the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. Effectively a Fifth Division of the Football League, this Alliance Premier League would offer a direct route into the League. But Bedford knew that however well they did in 1978/9 they would inevitably be left adrift, at least for now, in what was left of the Southern League after its top Premier Division clubs had been promoted.
Fry released almost all the staff, including the consistent Peacock who joined Newson and several others with Skinn at Kempston, but retained Mortimer, Roberts, Folds, Gould and Peter Robinson, a defender signed from Cambridge City earlier in the season. In June he added the former Cobblers stalwart Billy Best, who was to prove a rare exception to Fry’s track record of ineffective signings. Off the field, Alan Holley claimed at the end of the season that his board had inherited an unpaid tax bill from 1972 and a complete absence of records for the previous six years as well as debts of £24,000, and yet another winding-up order was staved off in April. But another shock was just around the corner.
Links to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7778.html
To see more photographs of this period go to https://sites.google.com/site/oldeaglespics/home/1973-4-to-1977-8