1978/9 to 1981/2-The Goulden Age –from beginning to absolute end

The Goulden Age –from beginning to absolute end (1978/9 to 1981/2)

Close…. (1978/9)

Barry Fry had been given a vote of confidence by the Board despite the previous year's relegation, and began his pre-season preparations in the normal way, signing Brian Robinson, who had been Alan Collier’s deputy in goal in 1966/7, to join not only the Peter Robinson he had signed from Cambridge City a few months earlier but also a teenage striker of the same name from Wootton who had appeared a few times in the last weeks of the season. These two had to be styled Robinson senior and Robinson junior. For a brief period of the pre-season friendly against Enfield all three Robinsons appear to have been on the field at once, although perhaps to the relief of reporters, Brian departed soon afterwards without making a first team appearance.

But only ten days from the start of the season proper, Fry himself resigned, “by mutual agreement”, claiming a difference of opinion with chairman Alan Holley. He claimed that his problem was that he “cared too much” about the club, and departed to resume a career that still had many interesting ups and downs to come, although to date they have only once, briefly, involved his home town club (see Managers and Coaches, 1945-82). Trevor Gould was the obvious choice to take over, and he became player-manager immediately.

This team group is from October 1978. (back): Gary French, Billy Best, David Lawson, Ken Goodeve, Trevor Gould (Player Manager), Terry Mortimer, Keith Thornton (physio). (Front): Phil Driver, Steve Russell, Peter Walters, Bobby Folds, Elwyn Roberts, Joe Brown.

With Gould’s appointment things soon seemed to have a less manic air. He got on with his rather thankless job as best he could with the meagre resources available, and soon signed a new goalkeeper, Peter Walters from Corby, who had been a Fry target in the summer. He became very annoyed at what he called the over-physical tactics of both Rothwell and Barton Rovers, opponents in the early rounds of the FA Cup, in which both opponents had a man sent off, and described the pitch at Barking, where his team went out in the fourth qualifying round, as like a ploughed field. The Eagles claimed that they were denied an equaliser by a linesman who didn’t agree that a Gary French shot had crossed the line.

However, in the League they were undefeated until they lost at Alvechurch at the end of October, and for much of the season they were up with the leaders. Peter Robinson senior broke a leg in the autumn which ended his career with the club, and at Christmas defender Phil Driver, signed from Luton in the summer, was sold to Wimbledon for £4,000 plus a £2,000 contingent fee after 15 appearances. Less widely noticed at the time was the signing of John Glover, a young defender from Dulwich Hamlet, who was to prove a classy member of the defence for the next year.

In the FA Trophy a good 3-2 win over Dover, eventual champions of the Southern Division, having come back from 1-2 down on a snow-covered pitch, was followed by a second home defeat by Runcorn in three years, this time by 1-3, and again, the occasion was marred by crowd trouble including damage to shops in Queen’s Park and a pitch invasion that had the player-manager making a personal plea for order. Once again the Eagles reached the semi-final of the League Cup, after a very creditable 2-0 win at Dartford from the Division above them, in the fourth round; but as before, reaching the final proved a bridge too far as Bath won 4-2 on aggregate. There was still a real chance of promotion as Easter approached, and hopes were high after a remarkable 5-2 defeat of Kidderminster where all seven goals came in the second half. However, once again Easter proved the end of the team’s hopes as they crashed 0-3 at home to Milton Keynes City, who were to finish second from bottom. The final position of fourth, five points behind the champions, Grantham, was probably a fair reflection of the limited squad’s achievements, and many were pleased that locally based players such as Joe Brown, a striker born in the West Indies but brought up locally, Elwyn Roberts from Corby and Terry Mortimer headed the goalscoring lists. Unfortunately Roberts decided to emigrate to Australia at the season’s end for work reasons.

Thirteen clubs from the Premier Division moved into the new Alliance Premier League for 1979/80, joining seven from the Northern Premier League. It marked the passing of an era; no longer would Bedford be in the same company as teams like Kettering, Weymouth, Yeovil, Gravesend and Worcester with whom they had played for most or all of their time in the Southern League, and even if in future they managed to finish at the top of their division in the remaining rump of the League, they could not automatically be promoted. The reason lay in an issue that was to be at the heart of the rest of the club’s existence: they did not own The Eyrie, and their landlords, Charles Wells, had already said that there could be no further extension of the lease beyond its expiry date in May 1982. Unless they could secure a long term home somewhere, the Eagles were stuck, in football status terms, where they were-or worse.

Link to League Tables; http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7879.html

Closer….. (1979/80)

Gould had attempted to re-sign Gary Sargent in the summer of 1979, but Sargent opted to move within the League, to Northampton, which at least gave Bedford a sell-on fee. Two familiar faces who did return to The Eyrie were David Skinn, who became assistant manager after a season at Kempston, and Frank O’Hagan, last seen in an Eagles shirt way back in 1951, who would look after the youth team. Skinn’s main role would be with the newly re-established reserve team, though this was mainly again a youth team and played in the Wallspan League, based on the South Midlands area. It wasn’t long before Skinn had put his boots back on to act as player-coach.

Player-manager Trevor Gould (left) is joined by two former players who were brought in to help at the start of 1979/80-David Skinn (right), who came back after a season at Kempston to look after the reserves, and Frank O’Hagan (centre), who had played for the club as far back as 1949/50, and was now youth team manager

David Liddle, a Bedfordian who had played for Northampton, and Dave Lewis from Cheltenham, both strikers, and Stuart Robertson, a very strong central defender also from Northampton, were the main close seasons signings, but two weeks into the season back came another “old boy” in the shape of George Cleary, who had been released by Fry’s Barnet following a row over training. Back too came Lou Adams, for the fourth time, but after playing a few reserve matches he was off again, rejoining Fry at Barnet without making another senior appearance. Yet another move involving Barnet was that of David Lawson, a tough, blond –headed defender who had done little wrong over two extended spells with the club, clocking up 170 appearances, and he also opted for some more of the Fry experience.

With Robertson, Folds, Glover and Gould forming the heart of the defence and Best dominating midfield, Mortimer on the right wing and now Cleary back again up front, this looked like a useful side and despite an immediate exit from the League Cup at the hands of Cambridge City, they were not defeated in the League until they lost at Milton Keynes at the end of October, just like the year before. Another good run meant that the next defeat was not until just before Christmas, at home to Barry, but after that the results became less consistent. Between this match and mid-March they won only two matches out of 12 and lost ground in the table. Five wins in a row, scoring 16 goals and letting in none, then re-established the title challenge, however, and this run coincided with the signing of Cliff Campbell, a tall striker who cost £1,500 from Nuneaton and scored nine times in his 20 appearances down to the end of the season, taking some responsibility off Cleary, who would end the season with 19. After beating Milton Keynes 5-0 at the end of March (four of the goals coming in the last six minutes), the run of wins ended but by 7 April, with six matches left, the team still stood second in the table, four points behind leaders Minehead but with a game in hand.

The inevitable “however” moment came at Alvechurch in the next match where keeper Walters was injured early on and his replacement, Liddle, was also injured, both, according to Gould, from blatant unpenalised fouls. The ten men went down 1-2 and worse was to follow in their next away match, when a weakened side crashed 0-6 at Bridgend, the eventual champions. A national journalists’strike at this point meant that reports of the final matches were either non-existent or very sparse, but it’s clear that this and the last two matches were all lost, leaving the Eagles in third place but a full ten points behind Bridgend and seven behind runners-up Minehead.

The Cups had brought very little success earlier in the season, with a disappointing third qualifying round exit to Chesham, after a replay, in the FA Cup and an immediate departure from the FA Trophy at the familiar hands of Wycombe, again after the inevitable replay. The seven previous FA Cup battles between these sides had attracted a total of over 43,000 people, but this time the combined turnout was just over 1,300. Even the Beds Senior Cup provided no success with a single goal defeat at Dunstable. The youth team had done well to reach the competition proper in the FA Youth Cup, and some 700 people, more than most first team gates, had seen them put up a plucky display before going down 0-1 to Stoke. But as in the previous season, with such a limited squad, Gould’s men probably did as well as anyone had a right to expect. The releases at the season’s end of Robertson, Cleary, Liddle and Mortimer must have been largely dictated by a need to trim the wage bill of the most expensive players, although Mortimer, who had failed to turn up for the vital trip to Bridgend, had clearly fallen out with the manager.

Even after the disappointing end to the League season it was still just possible that the Eagles might be promoted to the Alliance Premier League; neither Bridgend nor Minehead applied, so if Bedford had been able to give guarantees of security of tenure of their ground, they could have applied themselves as the next highest club in the Division. But that is exactly what they couldn’t do, with the Wells lease having just two years left to run, and the faint hope promptly vanished.

All season the local press had carried rumours and speculation about possible new grounds: there was brief talk of a merger or ground-share with Kempston Rovers, rebuffed by the latter club who stuck proudly to their 100-year old independence, but by June 1980 the only viable option appeared to be the new Marina site near Cardington (near the present Priory Park), where the North Beds Council’s planning committee were prepared to grant the club a lease, subject to certain as yet unspecified conditions. Even that would leave the club to fund much of the necessary building work. With debts still almost £30,000 (including George Senior’s disputed loan), the club wasn’t exactly an attractive proposition for an investor or lender; it was significant that in the 1978/9 season the greyhound racing had produced income of some £10,000 compared to just £4,042 in football gate money. As the following season ended, hopes were pinned on a new lottery, launched jointly with Bedford RUFC in February, which was projected to produce £4,000 profit each month. This was to prove as illusory as the idea of rescue by millionaires such as David Robinson. There was a sense of time running out.

Link to League Tables:

http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl7980.html

So near but yet so far (1980/1)

The departures continued into the summer. Glover was sold to Nuneaton for £3,000 in June, and after making over 400 appearances, Folds moved to Hitchin, of the Isthmian League, explaining that he could not spare the time from work for the longer journeys to away matches in the Southern League. Then Walters refused terms and moved to Kettering. Nine players had now gone from last season’s squad and Gould returned once again to Northampton to sign Graham Felton, a classy winger who would slot in as a replacement for Mortimer. Frank Lane, a former Tranmere, Liverpool and Notts County goalkeeper, arrived from Kettering to replace Walters, and Charlie McGowan, a Corby based forward, was signed from Wellingborough along with that club’s former player-manager, Brian Knight, who soon became Gould’s assistant since David Skinn had moved to Wootton as player-manager; here, eventually, he would be joined by Cleary, Newson, Lou Adams and several other former team mates. Jan Piatrowski, signed from Luton, was referred to as“Trotowsky” for several weeks before the press got his name right; they had had similar problems with Felix Staroscik 25 years earlier.

Almost before the ink was dry on their lease offer at the Marina site, the local authority’s planning officers refused to allow dog racing at the site, putting the viability of the whole project into doubt; then when the full council met in July they refused to ratify the offer of a lease and the whole idea crashed in flames. Accusing the councillors of wasting three years’ work, chairman Alan Holley soon resigned and Albert Winter, another accountant, took over just as the season was starting.

This is a team group from 1980/1, the old club's penultimate season in which they narrowly failed to win the SL Midland Division title. In the background is the roofless Long Shelter and the Charles Wells brewery buildings that were soon to swallow the ground up. Back row, left to right: Brian Knight (player-coach), Nicky Platnauer, Ken Goodeve, Frank Lane, Cliff Campbell. Front row: Suki Dadhria, Glen Perkins, Kevin James, Peter Robinson, Billy Best, Neil Kirkup, Graham Felton

In the League this was to be the most gut-wrenchingly frustrating of Gould’s seasons of near-misses. Despite the departures of so many key players, the player-manager, who had made a good recovery from the injuries that had restricted his own appearances to 14 in 1979/80, found a blend of youth and experience that clicked from the start. With himself, Goodeve, Felton and Best to provide the ballast, and Campbell’s formidable height up front, he was able to introduce youngsters such as Nicky Platnauer, Kevin James, Neil Kirkup and Peter Robinson (the last survivor of the unrelated trio who had started 1978/9) from the youth ranks. All four established themselves as regulars. Robinson was to hit 24 goals and Campbell did even better with 34. This effective combination went undefeated in the League from 30 August, when they lost at Bromsgrove in their third match, to 28 February when they went down at Kidderminster, in their 26th. By that stage, although disappointingly defeated 2-3 at Hitchin in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup and eliminated from the FA Trophy by another Isthmian League side, Sutton United, in the third round, they had also reached the semi-final of the League Cup for the seventh time-but this time they had at last overcome the apparent jinx by beating Gloucester 3-2 on aggregate. They had occupied first or second spot for most of the period since Christmas and looked booked for the title.

On 21 February 1981 the Eagles went down 0-2 to Isthmian Leaguers Sutton United at their Gander Green Lane ground in the third round of the FA Trophy. Here Cliff Campbell (far right, dark shorts) watches as Neil Kirkup (far left) attempts to find a way through the Sutton defence.

The final phase of the season brought home the elusive League Cup for the first time; the Eagles were paired with Bognor Regis (eventual runners-up in the Southern Division),and goals by Campbell and Kirkup gave them a 2-1 lead in Sussex before a 900 crowd which was converted into silverware before a rare four-figure turnout at The Eyrie a fortnight later by Campbell’s early goal which effectively ended the tie.

But by now some clouds were massing. The club were incensed with the County FA for making them play a Senior Cup semi-final against Sandy (admittedly postponed several times by bad weather) on the same day as a League match at home to Corby; Sandy beat a youthful lineup comfortably 2-0 and although the “first” eleven beat Corby at The Eyrie, the County imposed a fine on the club for not playing their strongest side in the less important competition. Other postponements and cup commitments had also created a backlog of League matches, which meant that after winning the League Cup on 11 April, the Eagles had to fit in eleven League matches between then and 6 May, twice having to play three matches in a week. This time they didn’t slip badly at Easter, collecting five points out of six, and on 20 April they sat second, two points behind Alvechurch but with two games in hand. The Worcestershire side slipped so badly in their run-in that by the time they travelled to Banbury on 30 April, the Eagles needed only three points from that and their remaining three matches to be champions. But with the title there for the taking, the team simply stalled; the Banbury match, Trowbridge at home and Minehead away all brought defeats without a goal being scored, and although Bedford did manage a win at Enderby in the final match, Alvechurch finished on the same total of 61 points and a goal difference of 36 to Bedford’s 31. The players must have looked back at that moment to the match at Stourbridge a fortnight earlier, when they had been leading 3-1 with a few minutes left but drew 3-3, and to the Minehead trip where the home side scored the winner with two minutes left. Older supporters-just a tiny handful now in the crowds of a few hundred-might have remembered the similarly dismal end to the 1957/8 season.

If there was any consolation-apart from the emergence of such a crop of good young prospects-it was that once again any question of promotion to the Alliance Premier League was academic. Alvechurch didn’t wish to apply, leaving the way open for Bedford if only they could have offered a secure ground; but with the collapse of the Marina deal that was just as impossible as it had been 12 months earlier. Trowbridge’s 1-0 win at Bedford in the last home match thus proved doubly galling, since they thereby finished third and were promoted as the highest ranking club to meet the Alliance’s ground requirements. “We are very sorry that a club of the standing, reputation and playing record of Bedford Town cannot make the progress they deserve”, an Alliance spokesman was quoted as saying at the end of May.

It was all a very poor reward for Trevor Gould’s efforts against such a discouraging background. The local authority were unwilling to go any further:“the Eagles are a commercial enterprise and must look after themselves”, said a spokesman at the end of May. “The Eagles are not our problem”, said Wing Commander Oliver Wells, chief executive of the brewery company, although the company did agree to allow an extension of one more season to May 1983. Beyond that they could not go, because they needed the land to expand their brewery, which had moved from its old site in Horne Lane to the old gasworks site next to The Eyrie a few years earlier. However, the club’s board issued a statement (published in the Bedfordshire Times for 29 May 1981) that unless outside assistance in some form came along soon, winding up in the next two years would be inevitable. The statement ended:

“We, the directors, think it is high time that the ostrich society that has developed around our club came to an end. Does the town want a football club or not?”

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl8081.html

The bitter end (1981/2)

So to 1981/2, in the knowledge that the club would be homeless at the season’s end unless something turned up in time. The detailed story of the club’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a new home has been told in Dave Twydell’s Defunct FC (Yore Publications) and will not be repeated at much length here. On the field, Gould was still relying on most of the players who had achieved reasonable success, relative to the depressed level of football now involved, in the previous three seasons, supplemented by youngsters such as Tony Luff, now established as the regular goalkeeper since Lane had decided to retire, Paul Grant, another former youth team forward, and Alan Kurila, a summer signing from Birmingham in defence. At least Gould had avoided the substantial defections of players that had happened the previous summer.

Although the playing squad was scarcely any weaker or less experienced than in 1980/1, they rarely strayed far from mid-table in the league and ended a disappointing 15th, with 37 points. Part of the problem was a shortage of goals, only 45 compared to 63 the year before, and this must have been connected with the declining form of Campbell, who this season managed only 18 goals from 44 games compared to his previous 34 from 58, before departing to Leamington in March. Robinson also hit 18, but from 59 matches, and nobody else reached double figures. In the 18 League matches up to Christmas the team managed only 19 goals, and only six of them came at home; the faithful few hundred home supporters (exact gate figures were now rarely reported) had seen only one home league win, against Bridgend at the end of September. They were to see only four more home League wins in the short time that remained, the last of them against Stourbridge on 31 March; the remaining five home games produced just one goal and three points.

The Eagles progressed only one stage in the FA Trophy before going out in a second round replay to Telford, but the FA Cup provided a little more interest. Starting again in the preliminary round before a princely 231 home crowd, they beat Hoddesdon, followed by Potton (after a replay and after the home team had come very close to a relative giant killing at Potton), Barton Rovers, Ely and Wisbech to reach the first round proper for the first time since 1975/6 and only the second time since 1966/7; and for the first time since the latter season they were drawn against Football League opponents. However, Wimbledon, in their fifth year in the League, were hardly strangers to Bedford supporters. Before a nostalgic and respectable crowd of 3,869, the biggest since the Scarborough match in 1974/5, the Eagles did their best but never looked like causing a surprise, going down 0-2 in what proved to be the last episode of their memorable FA Cup career. An error by the normally dependable Best in the sixth minute led to the Dons’ first goal, and a gashed leg 15 minutes later forced Gould out of the game; a second goal just after half-time ended the contest, which had kicked off at 2.15 because the visitors were unhappy with the rusting floodlights that had stood sentinel over the Eyrie since 1961. Six and a half years later, Wimbledon won the FA Cup against Liverpool at Wembley, while the old Bedford Town was no more and the new version yet to be born.

The last ever FA Cup tie involving the old Bedford Town-on 21 November 1981, a crowd of 3,869 saw them go down 0-2 to Wimbledon, old Southern League opponents but by then in the Football League Division Four (now League Two!). Here Peter Robinson (arm raised) appeals for a corner in an Eagles attack

In goal for Wimbledon that day at The Eyrie, as at Wembley later, was Dave Beasant, whose son Nicky was playing, at the start of the 2012/13 season, for the present Eagles; when I was last at the New Eyrie I asked Dave if he remembered the only time he had played against the old Eagles. He was kind enough to admit that he did, but modestly said he’d played in “a few” big FA Cup ties since then.

The general malaise of this season could be explained by off-field financial distractions. Gould’s players may have felt that their efforts lacked focus, and their supporters certainly continued to drift away, now averaging around 300 for League matches-numbers totally lost in the cavernous main stand and empty terraces of a ground with room for 18,500. Weeds and grass had invaded the River End terracing, the dog track made the pitch seem remote, and the Long Shelter had now lost its roof; behind it loomed the brewery buildings, soon to engulf the whole scene.

Several more increasingly desperate attempts were made to find a new home, however basic: for a while there was a possibility of a new site behind the Bunyan Centre in Mile Road, but local residents objected, not surprisingly in view of the repeated hooliganism of recent years; this was a period when football generally had acquired a connection with violent disorder. Neither was anyone very keen to have dog racing on their doorstep. The headmistress of the local secondary school whipped up feeling among parents who wrote letters to the council protesting about the risk of litter and vandalism; one called the planned ground “a corrugated chicken hutch”. Yet another possible deal with Kempston fell through.

As the year turned, things started to fall apart. Knight resigned as assistant manager, complaining that he wasn’t playing enough and disagreed with the manager’s 4-4-2 formation. In February the reserve team was abruptly scrapped. Gould warned that he might have to let higher earners such as Best and Goodeve go before the end of the season to reduce the wage bill below £350 per week, and as if to underline the point, several 16 year-olds were drafted into the first team for a few games, without making much impact. Other proposed sharing deals with Biggleswade or Hitchin were briefly canvassed, then dismissed. Slowly it began to dawn on everyone that this time it really could be the end.

On 24 April 1982, Bedford drew 1-1 with Wellingborough in what was to be the final Southern League match at The Eyrie, watched by just 310 people. Like the match at Wellingborough earlier in the season, it was an overly physical affair in which both teams ended with ten men after using their substitutes and then picking up further injuries. Charlie McGowan had the distinction of scoring the club’s last home league goal. A midweek trip to Barry, opponents, on and off, ever since that first Southern League season 37 years before, ended in a 0-1 defeat. Then, on 1 May, at Manor Park, Nuneaton, where the home team needed a point to clinch the championship and therefore attracted a bumper crowd of nearly 1,500, the Eagles took flight for the last time, losing by a goal to nil. A win would have secured a place in the new Premier Division being formed in 1982/3. Except that there would have been no club to take the place up.

Link to League Tables: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sc397/football/nl/sl8182.html

The absolute end-the centrefold of the progamme for the old club's last match, at Nuneaton on 1 May 1982. Charlie McGowan's name has been misprinted. "By Bedford's standards", said the programme notes, "this season has been a disappointment with the club still to consolidate their future at The Eyrie. It would be a tragedy to see one of the most respected clubs in Southern League football follow the fate of Romford, Rugby Town and Guildford, whose demise came after problems with their grounds". But that is exactly what happened.

Although the landlords were prepared to allow them to stay one more season, the Board now had to face reality. Unless a miracle happened, said chairman Winter on 6 May, the club would be closing down before the start of the season. The miracle would need to be an injection of £400 to £500 per week; anything else would amount to trading while insolvent, and therefore illegally. George Senior, who had been devoting his time to local politics since leaving the Board, was now Mayor, and once again tried to enlist David Robinson’s support, but the millionaire stayed clear again. On 22 July Winter admitted:“it’s time to go. We won’t be playing next season”.

The players were released from their contracts and told to find new clubs (one or two, such as Goodeve, already had). The biggest move was that of Platnauer to Bristol Rovers (managed by Trevor Gould's brother Bobby), for £3,000 up front plus £5,000 after 30 first team appearances, and a sell-on fee as well; the club’s creditors must have pricked up their ears slightly at that. Trading officially ceased on 27 July, too late to avoid a fine of £1,000 from the Southern League for resigning after the last date for giving notice; that was just another debt to be added to the total of about £40,000 which had brought the club down. The fixtures for 1982/3 had already been drawn up; in some national papers the Eagles continued to appear in spectral fixture announcements each Saturday morning for several months. Trevor Gould, after at least 452 appearances, stayed on the bridge of his sinking ship until the very end, the club’s last employee, moving to Rushden as a player in the autumn.

By then a liquidator had been appointed, and on 18 October, the Inland Revenue presented a winding up petition, unopposed, in the High Court, claiming taxes of almost £8,000. After just over 74 years of giving pleasure to many and doing harm to no-one, Bedford Town Football Club was no more.

Built 1946, collapsed about 1982- the remains of the Long Shelter just before demolition

To see more photographs of this period go to https://sites.google.com/site/oldeaglespics/home/1978-9-to-1981-2

Next section-Epilogue