30 years on - Chesham's run to the FA Cup 3rd Round 1979/1980
Originally published in the Chesham United matchday programme during the 2009/10 season to mark the 30th anniversary of a memorable FA Cup run.
Part One – the season gets underway
The summer of 1979 saw Chesham United in the Isthmian League 1st Division. The newly formed Alliance Premier League, the forerunner to the current Conference, had just taken the top clubs from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League but the Isthmian League clubs had not joined the new set up and the Premier Division still included such names as Wycombe Wanderers and Dagenham. In Chesham’s first division Farnborough Town had just been promoted from Division Two, Kingstonian and Leytonstone had been relegated to join us, and we were also enjoying rivalries with the likes of Maidenhead United, St Albans City, Harrow Borough, Harlow Town and Bishops Stortford.
The 1978/1979 season had shown little prospect of the excitement to come the following season. A disastrous start had left United struggling in the Isthmian League first division and it was something of a relief to finally finish safe from relegation in 19th out of 22 clubs. As the new season approached it was announced at July’s AGM that all the previous season’s squad had signed up and there were hopes of securing some new recruits from Isthmian Premier Division sides. Admission charges were to increase from 40p to 50p for the new season and it was announced that, “Due to incidents in the Club bar on match days, the bar will be closed from 4p until 4.40pm when a home game is being played”.
Meanwhile, the United faithful could spend their close season break enjoying Blazing Saddles, Monty Python & The Holy Grail or Watership Down at the Embassy cinema. That was also the year of Saturday Night Fever which had become such a success that an ‘A’ rated version was also doing the rounds so that the kids could also get in. Though my memories of the Embassy were that they weren’t ever that concerned with things like age restrictions as long as you paid to get in, or at least didn’t get caught climbing in through the gents’ window.
As the ‘79/80 season approached the Cup draws were announced, and Chesham learnt that they would travel to Southern League Wellingborough in the FA Trophy on September 8th and would then open the FA Cup campaign a week later with a 1st Qualifying Round tie at home to Isthmian Premier Division side Boreham Wood. Manager Mike Hall and his assistant Peter Wright had spent their previous first season laying the foundations and the start of the new campaign saw several of the promised new arrivals taking their place. Norman Dodd and Joe Maguire came across from Hemel Hempstead, then a second division Isthmian outfit, to be joined by Danny Johnson from St Albans, Tim Smith from Kingstonian, along with former Wokingham and Slough player Bobby Horrastead. Another new name was to become well known at Chesham for many years to come as a 19 year old goalkeeper called Martin Baguley was snapped up from under the noses of Harrow Borough in time for the first pre-season game on 28th July, a 2-0 loss at home to Slough Town.
Elsewhere on the local football scene a major boardroom re-shuffle at Amersham Town saw former Chesham chairman, Alan Moore, taking control along with fellow ex-Meadow men, secretary Ron Hodgkins and reserve manager and coach, Dennis Smith and Tom McAteer. They were expected to take plenty of Chesham’s reserve squad over to join the Magpies.
As the pre-season warm up continued a Watford XI came to The Meadow on 4th August. Chesham’s team, who were defeated by a single goal included Alan Jackett whilst his brother, a young prospect called Kenny, who went on to make 335 appearances for Watford before managing them, Swansea and now Millwall, was in the Hornet’s line up. Chesham followed this up with a 3-0 victory over Marlow before the final pre-season match saw Chris Nash score the only goal late in the game to seal a win away at Premier Division Oxford City.
The local music scene was producing bands like Panther 45, Weapon, Crossfire and The Beez with gigs regularly held at Amersham’s Jubilee Hall. In the summer of 1979 The Beez released their single ‘Easy’ which got airtime on Radio One thanks to John Peel and plans for announced for all four bands to play The Great Chesham Music Festival in Lowndes Park with organisers appealing for the prospective audience to make sure it was a peaceful, trouble-free day.
The new Berger Isthmian Division One season got underway on Saturday 18th August when Bromley came to The Meadow. Late goals from Chris Nash on 83 minutes, and Rene Glenister a minute later, overcame the visitor’s 45th minute opener to secure an excellent opening day win. The following Tuesday Ware came back from a two goal deficit with just three minutes left to take a draw after Rob Martell and Glenister had put United clear. Those not watching United in those opening games could have made their way to the Embassy for more movie classics as Ronnie Barker was taking the TV series onto the big screen starring in Porridge.
The following Saturday, United travelled to newly promoted Farnborough Town who had eased into their new division by winning both opening games by 3-0. Rob Martell scored the only goal in the 38th minute after a flowing move saw the ball with Rene Glenister on the edge of the box, His cross eluded Chris Nash but Martell was on hand to slot the ball home. However, only a fantastic penalty save by United keeper Billy Barber in the final seconds of the game enabled Chesham to bring all the points back to Bucks. The impressive start to the season continued the following Tuesday as Wokingham were demolished 4-0 in Berkshire in a Hitachi League Cup tie.
Part Two – here come the cup ties
As the ‘79/80 season started to settle down, Chesham’s impressive League start continued into September. A 1-0 win at Wembley, thanks to Joe Maguire’s 10th minute strike, took them up to second after four games on ten points – two behind early leaders Leytonstone & Ilford who had started with four straight wins.
With United exempt until the 1st Qualifying Round, the FA Cup got underway locally with the Preliminary Round on Saturday 1st September. Whilst Chesham were winning a friendly with Hemel 1-0, Chalfont St Peter were going out of the competition by the same score at home to Banbury United. New to Chalfont’s Athenian League that season was a Woodford Town side that included former Spurs stars Jimmy Greaves and Joe Kinnear along with ex-West Ham pair Frank Lampard and Johnny Ayrie. A week later, on 8th September, Saints travelled to beat a Woodford side fielding both Greaves and Kinnear by 5-3. At the same time Chesham’s hopes in the FA Trophy came to a swift end. A 2-0 defeat at Southern League Wellingborough, the first loss of the season, put them out of the competition.
Chesham’s first outing in what was to become a momentous FA Cup run came at The Meadow on Saturday 15th September 1979 when Isthmian Premier League Boreham Wood were the visitors for the First Qualifying Round. Both sides had enjoyed relatively recent success in the competition. Three years earlier Chesham fought their way to the First Round Proper only to lose out at Brentford, whilst a year later, Wood reached the same stage and held Swindon Town to a draw before losing their replay. It was a fractious encounter with the visitors having three players booked, one sent off, and then manager, Micky Lennon, ordered from the dug out. Danny Johnson gave Chesham the lead seven minutes into the second half when he had a simple finish after Maguire had received a Horrastead in the box and slipped the ball through for him to score. After 85 minutes Pete Wright replaced Ray Lee for Chesham and the sub helped to seal victory five minutes into added. He put the ball through to Martell who took it to the bye-line before turning and cracking home a spectacular goal from a seemingly impossible angle. Manager Mike Hall hailed the victory as, “a triumph for football over brute force,” and United were rewarded with a 2nd Qualifying Round trip to Haverhill Rovers in Suffolk.
The excitement of the cup-tie carried over to the following Tuesday as old rivals Maidenhead United were dispatched 3-1 in the league at The Meadow to leave Chesham as one of only two undefeated teams in Isthmian Division One.
Back in 1979 the British obsession with property values was already evident as the lead story in the Examiner reported that, “Rocketing house prices in the Chilterns are driving skilled workers away.” Clearly there was to be some failure to stop the increases as those rocketing prices included a four-bedroom detached house in Manor Way on the market for £67,000, and a two-bedroom house near the river Chess for £28,000. In slightly more football related news, elsewhere it was reported that United’s fellow Isthmian Division One competitors, Bishops Stortford, had signed the former Arsenal, West Ham and England striker, John Radford. Maybe it’s nostalgia but there did seem to be a lot more top class professionals ending their careers with smaller clubs back then. Radford proceeded to score twice in his debut, a 6-0 thrashing of Clapton.
Chesham’s unbeaten league record continued on 22nd September. Leytonstone, who had beaten Chesham at Wembley in the Amateur Cup Final back in 1968, had been relegated from the Premier Division last season. However, neighbours Ilford had lost their ground and were on the verge of extinction so in the summer the two clubs merged and took Leytonstone’s place in Division One. Two late goals gave the new outfit the points as they continued an impressive start to their first season. That defeat prompted a collapse in Chesham’s league form. The following week they travelled to face a Metropolitan Police side who were anchored to the foot of the table without a win all season and lost 1-0. Anyone who travelled to Imber Court may well have been better off spending their Saturday at the Misbourne School Fun Day, though I’m not sure they would now choose to advertise it these days as featuring, “The Capital Radio Tranny Van – plus the Capital Girls.” In midweek United followed up that first loss with 3-1 league defeat at Wokingham to leave them back in 9th place in the league, albeit with games in hand.
Three straight league defeats was not ideal preparation for a tricky cup-tie as Chesham travelled to East Anglia to meet the Town & Country League champions, Haverhill Rovers, on Saturday 6th October. With a crowd of over 300 giving vociferous support to the home side, United were satisfied to come away with a 0-0 draw.
Much to the relief of their own fans, Chesham finally regained some of their early season form in the following Tuesday night replay. In the opening minute Joe Maguire hit the post and, on the quarter hour, a Haverhill defender nearly lobbed his own keeper from 20 yards. The breakthrough came seven minutes before half-time when a Rene Glenister effort came back from the goalkeeper for Maguire to tap into the goal. Within seven minutes of the re-start Norman Dodd headed home a John Watt corner for 2-0, and on 55 minutes it was all over as full-back John Smith smashed home a 30-yard shot to confirm a 3rd Qualifying Round tie with Bedford Town.
Part Three – some notable non-league scalps and into the First Round Proper
Chesham United may have been progressing in the FA Cup, with wins over Boreham Wood and Haverhill Rovers seeing them into the 3rd Qualifying Round, but, by mid-October 1979, a defeat at home to Finchley had made it four league losses on the bounce. Despite a 3-1 1st Round Berks & Bucks Senior Cup win at Flackwell Heath, things did not look promising in the Chesham camp. After being named as substitute in several games it was reported that striker Chris Nash had fallen out with United boss Mike Hall and would not play for the club again. As a contracted player this caused something of a dilemma and the Board was to hold a special meeting to decide whether they should let him leave.
With Southern League Bedford Town arriving on Saturday 20th October it was hoped that it would be the cup-tie Chesham that chose to turn up on the day. Three years earlier a partisan Meadow crowd had inspired United to knock out a previously undefeated Worcester City on the way to the 1st Round Proper. Like Worcester, Bedford were a Southern League side who also came to Buckinghamshire on the back of an unbeaten record for the season. The task looked immense: Chesham on a run of four league defeats; Bedford, 4th in the Southern League (roughly equivalent to Conference South now), no losses all season, and with six wins out of eight on their travels.
In fact, Bedford maintained their unbeaten record. But only just. With 10 minutes to go at The Meadow, Rob Martell broke through the Eagles’ offside trap to go clear for a one-on-one with the keeper. However, he was unable to break the deadlock. The game finished goal-less and everything was set for a Monday night replay at Bedford’s old Eyrie ground.
Despite the concerns aired in the press a couple of weeks earlier, Chris Nash had patched up his differences with Mike Hall and made the starting line up in both Bedford games. For the replay United travelled to Bedford with exactly the same line up as the first game: Barber, Griffiths, Smith, Glenister, Dodd, Peter Johnson, Jackett, Watt, Martell, Danny Johnson and Nash. Joe Maguire was on the bench.
With Bedford now firm favourites it took a tenacious, controlled Chesham performance to soak up the pressure and finally spring a winning surprise on the home supporters. It was not until the 75th minute that the sides were finally separated. Despite being reported as, “clearly looking for a penalty,” Rene Glenister was able to tempt a tackle from behind after threading his way through the home defence and into the box. The referee had no hesitation in awarding the spot kick and Danny Johnson stepped up to place the ball to the left of Bedford’s keeper. A nailbiting final 15 minutes followed, and then a further four minutes of stoppage time, but Chesham were through. Their reward was a Final Qualifying Round tie on 3rd November, at home to Maidstone United of the newly formed Alliance Premier League, and the chance to enter the draw for the FA Cup 1st Round Proper.
A week after that dramatic win, Chesham finally brought an end to their sequence of league defeats, but only by drawing at home to Kingstonian after Rob Martell’s 36th minute goal cancelled out the visitors’ opener. The following Tuesday night they were demolished by 4-0 at Wexham Park by Slough Town in the Hitachi League Cup 3rd Round, a result that left Mike Hall under no illusions about the task ahead: “On paper Maidstone are a much better side than Slough, so where does that leave us?”
Away from match days things were looking no better. The rift between Hall and Chris Nash had finally become irreparable and the striker was released from the club. Of the remaining forwards, both Rene Glenister and Rob Martell were carrying injuries so Steve Woolfrey, recently returned to The Meadow from Hemel, was earmarked for a start against Maidstone.
Of course, the football at Chesham United was not the only entertainment in the area in the autumn of 1979. Anyone in search of the cultural high life could have been treated to Joan Collins in The Bitch at Chesham’s Embassy cinema followed up with a dose of the Jim Davidson Show at Hemel Pavilion. Meanwhile, in an era when armchair fans depended upon the likes of Dickie Davies and the wrestling on ITV’s World of Sport for their Saturday afternoon fix, the old Elgiva was catering for Chesham’s own grappling fans with, “TV’s sensational Iron Fist vs Badboy Steve Young.” As if that wasn’t worrying enough, those politically correct promoters had supporting bouts featuring Hilarious Catweazle vs The Gay One and Miss Mitzi Mueller vs Klondyke Kate. The Pavilion though did show some of the reasons for it once having been a decent music venue. Possibly the scariest thing I found was that it was exactly this time 30 years ago that they featured the cracking double bill of The Buzzcocks supported by Joy Division. I don’t care if you don’t agree, that’s a great gig.
Anyway, away from such distractions and back to the cup run. Maidstone boss, Barry Watling, had been able to watch the Bedford replay and happily had his ‘Manager’s Big Book of Cup-Tie Clichés’ to hand when he spoke to Examiner. “Chesham seemed to be a very fit and competitive side. They worked very hard to get a result at Bedford and we’re by means expecting a walkover. The FA Cup is a great leveller so it doesn’t mean that because we’re from the Alliance Premier League that we have a divine right to victory. I think it’s going to be a very hard game indeed.”
It was certainly going to be a hard game for Chesham. In goal for the Stones was an FA Cup legend - Dickie Guy, who had memorably saved a penalty for then non-league Wimbledon against Leeds United. In their last FA Cup campaign Maidstone had reached the first round proper and then knocked out Wycombe Wanderers and Exeter City to reach the third round. They then forced a draw at The Valley against 2nd Division Charlton Athletic before going out 1-2 at home in the replay. Those exploits meant that they were exempt until the final qualifying stage this time around making the trip to Chesham their first game in the competition. Their league form was enough to cause a few nerves as well. The previous Saturday they had made the long trip to Barrow and, with a 2-0 victory, notched up their fourth win in a row and moved themselves up to third spot in the Alliance, equivalent to Conference National now. So, as Mike Hall had noted, ‘on paper’ Maidstone were the third strongest team in the competition in this round.
The weather on Saturday 3rd November lived up to the great FA Cup giant killing traditions. Chesham’s team, on a rain-soaked mudbath of a Meadow pitch, lined up as: Barber, Griffiths, Smith, Glenister, Dodd, Peter Johnson, Jackett, Watt, Martell, Danny Johnson and Steve Woolfrey, with Horrastead on the bench.
Rob Martell opened the scoring for Chesham on 25 minutes, but only after they had survived an early onslaught from the visitors. Danny Johnson back-headed Jackett’s cross across the Maidstone box and Martell turned the ball past a stranded keeper. As he said later, “Just think – I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that I scored against Dickie Guy!” Chesham’s own goalkeeper, Billy Barber, was in inspired form to keep his side ahead at the interval. Having already kept five clean sheets in the competition, he somehow blocked four times in quick succession during an incredible goal mouth scramble ten minutes before half-time. Having weathered the storm, Chesham took the initiative from the re-start. Another scramble, this time in the Maidstone goal mouth, finally saw the ball come out Danny Johnson on the left corner of the box. He bent the ball through a crowd of bodies to beat Guy in the bottom right of the goal. Just three minutes into the second-half and Chesham were two up.
On 58 minutes a headed Maidstone goal halved the deficit but the underdogs were still on top and determined not to let this opportunity slip away. Just four minutes later Griffiths intercepted a through ball by heading out to Glenister on the right who raced down the touchline and crossed for Woolfrey to score from eight yards. And that was it. Final score Chesham United 3, Maidstone United 1, and just time for one more entry from Martin Watling’s Big Book, “Ninety-nine times out a hundred we would have beaten them 5-0 but on the day they got it together, we didn’t and they completely outplayed us.”
So, a cracking win but the day could have ended dreadfully. Just fifteen minutes after the final whistle sounded the floodlights at The Meadow fused. If that had happened earlier the game would have been abandoned and all the hard work wasted.
With United now in the hat for the 1st Round Proper all eyes were on the draw in hope of a lucrative tie with one of the big football names. Away to Minehead it was then! In a regionalised draw, the Southern League side was the furthest possible trip, but at least it gave Chesham a chance to progress to their furthest ever stage of the competition.
Part Four – teenage kicks as a little part of Bucks invades Somerset
With victory over Maidstone in the final qualifying match Chesham United moved into the 1st Round Proper of the FA Cup for only the fourth time in their history. The first appearance at this stage was as an Athenian League club in 1966. United went down 6-0 to an Enfield side who would go on to win the Amateur Cup later that season. It was Chesham’s own Wembley Amateur Cup appearance two years later that gave them exemption to the first round in 1968 when they travelled to fourth division Colchester United and suffered a 5-0 beating. The1976/77 season saw Chesham’s bravest attempt at getting beyond this stage when they gave Brentford a very good match at Griffin Park before finally going out by 2-0.
The reward for reaching this stage was a trip to Somerset to face Southern League side Minehead who had reached the 2nd Round Proper for the past two years. In 1976/77 Swansea were defeated 1-0 away from home in round one before a trip to Fratton Park ended with Portsmouth winning 2-1. The following season Wycombe Wanderers had travelled to Somerset in the first round only to be beaten 2-0 before Exeter City arrived in the second round and won by the same score.
The trip to Minehead was set for 24th November and it soon became clear that there would be a sizeable travelling support. The Supporters’ Club was running two coaches and another four were reported as being booked by pubs, schools and local companies so a couple of weeks before the game took place some 300 fans from Chesham were expected to make the 360 mile round trip.
Those Chesham folk not caught up in Cup Fever were busy negotiating the town’s twinning link up with Friedricksdorf in West Germany, along with their existing French twin town, Houilles – relations that still exist today. And, there was some great music around. The Who’s Quadrophenia had just been released and could be seen playing at the Embassy cinema whilst a short hop over to Hemel would have got you in to see another great Pavilion line up as The Specials were being supported by both Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Selector. If you couldn’t get a ticket for this sold out show, a couple of weeks later it was Talking Heads supported by Human League. And, in one of its earlier incarnations before becoming Stages and finally closing completely a few years ago, Gatsby’s, “Chesham’s own over 18s nightspot” was advertising their Christmas and New Year parties at £2 for members and £3 for guests with guest appearances by Radio Luxemburg DJ Chris Ryan.
On the field Chesham had a steady build up to the big game. A 0-0 draw with Bishops Stortford, who were without recent star signing John Radford of Arsenal and England fame, left them down in 15th place but with several games in hand due to the cup run. In the week before travelling west, goals from Martell and Woolfrey knocked Thatcham out of the Berks & Bucks Senior Cup to set up a quarter final with Slough Town. However, when United bosses Mike Hall and Pete Wright took their new side to former club Maidenhead United in the league, Chesham went down to a 2-1 defeat. Minehead prepared with a 0-0 draw away at Witney and for the first time in the cup run officials from Chesham went to check out the opposition as reserve manager Mick Taylor accompanied chairman, Don Flitney, to the game.
Off the field came bad news though, as leading striker Rene Glenister was advised he would miss the FA Cup match, and could be out for six months, with a slipped disc. In an effort to get fit he had been having treatment at Watford but the Hornet’s assistant manager, Bertie Mee, had warned that his career could be finished if he did not rest the injury completely.
The Chesham squad made their way down to Somerset on the Friday night. A donation of £100 from the Supporters’ Club had allowed them the unusual luxury of an overnight hotel stay to prepare for the match. We lesser mortals rose bright and early on the Saturday morning to walk down to The Broadway and board the bus to Minehead. I’m sure the official travel was organised impeccably, but yours truly was booked onto one of the independent coaches, no idea who organised it, full of spotty youths without a responsible adult in sight to see the contents of all those bulky plastic bags. We weren’t proud. Skol, Double Diamond, Number 6 ciggies from the street vending machine, zero supervision - all the essentials for a late 1970s teenage away trip. It was going to be a good day!
When we finally got to Irnham Road, the predictions about the crowd looked a little inaccurate. With an eventual nine coachloads travelling from Chesham, well over half the 820 strong crowd had travelled down from Bucks to turn this particular FA Cup first round game into pretty much a home fixture. There was a strong local media interest as well with Westward TV filming the game fro their Sunday football show and the Radio Bristol broadcasting live commentary.
Chesham lined up as: Barber, Griffiths, Smith, Horrastead, Dodd, Peter Johnson, Jackett, Watt, Martell, Danny Johnson and Woolfrey, with Wright on the bench.
In the third minute Minehead had a lucky escape as Bobby Horrastead’s header came back off their crossbar, but, for the next thirty minutes things looked ominous for the huge travelling support. Twice they forced Billy Barber to make fine saves in the Chesham goal but finally the home side went ahead on 20 minutes after a corner was not cleared completely. After surviving more pressure United at last managed to get into the game and a strong penalty claim for a push on Rob Martell was dismissed. However, on 38 minutes the visitors claimed their first ever goal in the FA Cup proper. Alan Jackett lobbed the home keeper only to see the ball bounce back off the bar. Steve Woolfrey, collecting a kick to the face in the process, was first to the rebound as his header found the top right hand corner to equalise.
Four minutes after the interval Chesham had their second penalty shout of the afternoon turned down and Minehead once more turned up the pressure. This half the breakthrough did not come for them and, against the run of play, United went ahead on 61 minutes as Norman Dodd headed home John Watt’s corner. The final half hour saw chances at both ends and four minutes of added time led to a nail-biting finale for the visiting fans. But their team held on, and seconds after the final whistle blew, the United team had to battle their way through a cheering mass of claret and blue fans as the pitch invasion began.
So, a very weary but happy band of supporters made the long trek home. With football coaches banned from most motorway service stations in those days the rather optimistic advice on our return journey stop off was, “Hide your scarves, if anyone asks we’re Amersham Methodist Youth Club!”
For the first time on the cup run the team moved form the sports page to the front page in the following week’s Examiner. “Watt a birthday present! Chesham United skipper John Watt – 25 on Friday – was given the birthday present of a lifetime on Saturday as Chesham beat Minehead 2-1 in Somerset to reach the Second Round of the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s history.” The travelling fans came in for plenty of praise as the captain thanked them for the support: “We could hear them singing from the dressing room before the match. It really did gee us up. They were fantastic.”
One piece of bad news in the aftermath of the win was that goalkeeper Billy Barber was definitely out of the next round as he had a pre-booked trip to Australia. Mike Hall would have to, “decide whether to throw 19 year old reserve keeper Martin Baguley in at the deep end for his first team debut or try and get someone more experienced – possibly from a league club.” When the draw came out, the hopes of a big name Football League side were once more dashed as Southern League Merthyr Tydfil were picked to visit The Meadow on Saturday 15th December 1979. Even though the hoped for League club had not come up, the game was still expected to attract Chesham’s biggest crowd since 4,500 saw the 1968 Amateur Cup quarter final win over Oxford City. At least a thousand were expected to make the trip from South Wales everything was set up for an enthralling encounter.
Part Five – It’s a washout in Chesham or “It never stops raining in Merthyr – this is like bloody summer!”
The FA Cup 1st Round Proper victory in Minehead had taken Chesham United into the 2nd Round for the first time ever and news of the Generals form was starting to spread. The Isthmian League game on the Tuesday following the trip to Somerset saw a second half Danny Johnson penalty beat Wokingham at The Meadow in front of the biggest midweek gate so far that season. Amongst the crowd were scouts from Portsmouth, Reading and Northampton Town.
The 2nd Round Proper was set to take place on Saturday 15th December 1979 when Southern League Merthyr Tydfil were due at The Meadow. With initial estimates of one thousand fans expected to travel from Wales in a fleet of coaches the town council made the decision not to allow any parking on the Moor. United chairman, Don Flitney, was reported as taking the news ‘calmly’ – “The police will now have to decide where the coaches are going to go.”
With Chesham goalkeeper Billy Barber flying out to Australia, manager Mike Hall had a selection headache. Right up until the deadline for signing players (1st December, two weks before the match), the former Arsenal and Scotland keeper, Bob Wilson, had been set to become a Chesham United player solely for the Merthyr game. Although Wilson wanted to play he had been unable to confirm details with his then bosses at BBC Grandstand in time so the deal fell through. Contact was also made with Watford, Brentford and Northampton but, despite making two loan signings as back up, Hall decided to put his faith in 19 year old reserve keeper, Martin Baguley. The youngster’s first team debut was to be a 3-2 midweek away win at Hertford Town on 5th December 1979 which made it six points for the week following a 2-0 win at Horsham the previous Saturday in Barber’s last game before his trip. That took Chesham to 12th in the league with 27 points from 16 games but the cup run meant they already had 5 games in hand on leaders Bromley, 7 in hand on Kingstonian and Bishops Stortford in second and third, and 9 games in hand over fourth placed Camberley.
Elsewhere in the area there were some remarkable results in the women’s FA Cup. In the days before our own Ladies side formed, Amersham Angels were the senior women’s team in the area and they were also through to the 2nd Round of the cup. It seemed unlikely that Merthyr would let Chesham replicate the 19-1 victory that the Angels gained against Launton. That was an even more striking result given that Launton had themselves won 28-0 in the first round!
Tickets for the Merthyr game went on sale priced at £1 with Children and OAPs charged 50p and, as the Examiner front page headline announced “Welsh hordes up for the Cup”, the council finally relented and allowed coaches to be parked on the Moor. The fact that the predicted travelling support had risen to 1,500 fans, who would otherwise have to walk right through the town, may well have concentrated their minds a little. The day before the game it looked a tough battle ahead for Chesham: “Merthyr are expected to field a full strength side – with full blooded support. Over 20 coaches are making the long trek.”
Local bookmakers were paying little attention to Chesham’s lower league standing as they made United 4/5 on for the win with Merthyr at 13/8 and the draw 2/1. Media interest was building as well. Both Harlech TV and BBC Wales were definitely covering the game, Thames TV was interested and most of the national press were sending reporters.
Off the pitch everything was coming together but there were still serious concerns on the playing side. Already without goalkeeper Billy Barber, United also had striker Rene Glenister out with a back injury, and midfielders Alan Jackett and Danny Johnson were both struggling to be fit – Jackett had three sessions of acupuncture on his knee leading up to the final selection whilst Johnson’s ankle was ‘black and blue’ but improving. Despite these problems, Chesham went into the game in good form having had five consecutive wins since beating Minehead in the First Round.
So, with the club and town all geared up for the biggest FA Cup day in their history everything that could be planned had been planned. And then the heavens opened. Refereee Dave Hutchinson left it until 11.50am but by then the pitch was totally waterlogged and he admitted afterwards: “It was the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make but the pitch was unplayable and there was too much at stake.” By the time it was called off most of the Welsh coaches had already reached Newbury. Whilst most turned straight back three coachloads carried on to Vicarage Road to see Watford vs Sunderland. Others who made it to The Meadow were not impressed with the decision, “It never stops raining in Merthyr – this is like bloody summer!” The re-arranged game was immediately set for the following Wednesday night, 19th December, with the only consolation being that it at least guaranteed both sides a place in Monday’s Third Round draw. The reward was to be a home tie against then Second Division (ie Championship today), Cambridge United.
Part Six - two games, 7,500 fans, and Ivor the Engine finally takes one hell of a beating!
The dreadful weather on Saturday 15th December 1979 had forced the referee to reluctantly postpone Chesham United’s FA Cup 2nd Round Proper tie with Merthyr Tydfil and the game was now scheduled for the following Wednesday evening at The Meadow. The change to midweek cut down the travelling support with the original 20+ coach loads of Welsh fans reduced by half but there was still a significant Merthyr presence in the ground come kick off time. With the draw having already been made there were even a few Cambridge United supporters present as they caught a preview of their potential 3rd Round opponents.
Despite the difficulties for travelling fans, 3,052 packed into The Meadow on an absolutely freezing evening as United lined up with: Baguley, Griffiths, Smith, Pete Johnson, Dodd, Horrastead, Jackett, Watt, Martell, Danny Johnson, and Woolfrey, with Maguire on the bench.
Struggling to find space on the Pop Side that evening I remember Chesham fans were in fine voice - even if the targets of the songs were not entirely original. Let’s just say that there was a certain amount of taunting of our visitors. “Down the pit tomorrow” made a few appearances only to be quickly changed to “On the dole tomorrow” as the economics of the day came into play. Ivor the Engine came in for loads of stick about what he got up to on his own and there was indeed a general agreement that we would all rather be muppetts than Taffs. Whereas nowadays everyone in the Midlands finds it hilarious to call us cockneys the Merthyr fans back then seemed to take equal glee in the carrot cruncher / tractor driver stereotype. It all made for a cracking atmosphere though.
Chesham started brightly and had the first clear chance on 14 minutes but the Merthyr keeper just beat Steve Woolfrey to a through ball. A minute later Martin Baguley in United’s goal cleared well from a Welsh cross and was to go on to have an outstanding game for the Generals. United captain John Watt had a thunderous free kick just kept out by the keeper in the 19th minute before, against the run of the early play, Watt conceded a penalty after 22 minutes. Merthyr’s former Albion Rovers midfielder, Ian Docherty (their only non-Welsh player) hit the underside of the bar before the ball crept past Martin Baguley to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Now coming more into the game Merthyr put Chesham on the back foot but, with Baguley in outstanding form, United held out until half time. It only took seven minutes after the break for Chesham to force themselves back on level terms. Rob Martell fought his way to the bye line and crossed past the keeper to find Steve Woolfrey who knocked in his third goal in three FA Cup matches.
Chesham now took control and, as the Examiner reported, “with an emotional Meadow crowd behind them, tore into the Welsh side. On such a fervent night it was hard to recall when Chesham have ever played better football.” Despite more chances at both ends the game ended as a 1-1 draw and it was all set to get underway again on Saturday 22nd December at Penydarren Park in Merthyr. United Chairman, Don Flitney, had not seen either of the goals – he was busy banking the £2,750 receipts from the game. Mike Hall, Chesham’s manager, came away happy if a little disappointed, “We murdered them in the second half.”
Immediately after the game at Chesham, Merthyr had anticipated a gate of 3,000 for the replay. As the teams took to the pitch in Wales there were 4,500 in the ground, the overwhelming majority backing the home side. United arrived to find a treacherously icy surface. The referee would only promise to start the game - he made it clear that it had the potential to be abandoned if conditions got any worse. But Chesham had greater problems. Lacking enough suitable rubber soled
boots, a couple of the party were sent out to join Merthyr’s Christmas shopping crowds and make an emergency purchase. Danny Johnson actually played the first half in normal studs before a second trip was made at half time to get more footwear!
Who knows what would have happened without the shopping trip but this was to turn into one of Chesham’s best ever away results. United lined up with the same squad who had drawn on Wednesday and they struggled to come to terms with the surface early on. In the 15th minute, with United’s defenders slipping in their own goal mouth, Derek Elliott put Merthyr ahead.
Two minutes later Chesham had their first chance of the game as Bobby Horrastead got on the end of a John Watt free kick but could not find goal. Another Watt free kick on 19 minutes brought Chesham level with a little help from Doug Rosser, Merthyr’s player-manager. The free kick was played out to Danny Johnson and his cross found Rosser who could only guide the ball into his own net.
For the remainder of the first half the hosts were still on top but as Chesham became more used to the surface after the interval, the game began to slide away from the Welsh team. On 53 minutes Martell and Dodd were inches away from converting a Griffiths free kick. Then a goal mouth scramble saw both Martell and Horrastead come close to turning in John Watt’s cross. Merthyr seemed to have been anticipating an easy win once they took Chesham back to Wales – leading scorer Ray Pratt had apparently told his team mates he would knock so many past Martin Baguley that the Chesham keeper wouldn’t know what time of day it was. So dominant were United in the second half that Paul Griffiths was able to ask afterwards, “Who was their number 11, was he playing?”
The breakthrough did not come until nine minutes from time though. Danny Johnson took the ball to the bye line and crossed to the edge of the box for BobbyHorrastead to finish in style. A minute later it was all but over. John Watt collected Danny Johnson’s free kick and let fly from distance. As the match reporter saw it: “It was his first goal of the season and it couldn’t have been a better one at a better time.” There may have been 4,500 in the ground at kick off but Penydarren Park was virtually empty before the final whistle blew!
Part Seven – 5,000 pack The Meadow for the visit of Cambridge United
Chesham United’s dramatic second round replay victory away at Merthyr Tydfil meant that for the first time ever a Football League side would be visiting The Meadow for a competitive fixture. Having already reached the furthest stage ever in the competition by reaching the second round proper, Chesham now entered the third round where the clubs from the old First and Second Divisions came into the FA Cup.
Cambridge United may now be a Conference side but back in 1979/1980 they were a Second Division outfit, the same as the current Championship, in a league that then contained Newcastle, Chelsea, Birmingham, West Ham, QPR, Watford, Burnley and Fulham. They had only been a Football League side for a decade having been elected from the Southern League to join the old Fourth Division in 1970 before there was any automatic promotion. That success had been achieved under Ron Atkinson before he left to go on to greater things starting at West Bromwich Albion. Despite this, they themselves had never gone beyond the 3rd Round of the FA Cup and, at the time, their Abbey Stadium was the smallest in the Football League with a 12,000 capacity. That was still 7,000 more than Chesham could boast but the win in Wales prompted an immediate ticket rush in Bucks and the game, set for Saturday 5th January 1980, was an all-ticket 5,000 club record gate. The previous record had been in 1968 when 4,500 saw the FA Amateur Cup quarter final match against Oxford City on the way to United’s appearance at Wembley.
The game would be the seventh round that Chesham had competed in during the cup run and, with replays, the tenth FA Cup match of their season. In the course of the previous nine games they had scored fifteen goals and conceded just four. General ground admission for the game was set at £1.50 (£1 concessions) with stand tickets at £2.50. In light of some trouble during the previous round, the Examiner reported that: “Boys will have to apply for tickets personally at the club . . . (and) fill in a detailed application form to buy a ticket.”
The capacity for the match was set at 5,000 on police advice but the ground was nothing like it appears today. There was no solid enclosure wall around The Meadow and what terracing that did exist was nowhere near as extensive as today. Indeed, a week before the game an appeal was issued for supporters to come along to clear the overgrown vegetation that covered the steps at the Meadow end. I’m sure I also remember a particularly embarrassing TV news report where they reported that we had “found” some terracing under what appeared to just be a grass bank! That might also have been the news report that claimed our secret weapon was the sun blinding the players as it appeared over the Chiltern hills. Cambridge United were clearly rattled by the potential eyesight problems. In fact, so concerned were they about the quality of the floodlights that they successfully demanded a 2.30pm kick off as they feared not be able to see anything in the second half.
Chesham went into the game on a run of just one defeat in thirteen league and cup matches with manager, Mike Hall, being confident but realistic: “Although the odds must favour Cambridge because they are a second division side, we’re looking forward to it and it’s going to be a marvellous day for the club and the town. We’ve got better and better during the Cup run and if we continue playing as we have been we could surprise them.”
On paper that upset looked a long way off. Cambridge’s leading scorer, Alan Biley, was rated as a £500,000 player after scoring 63 goals in 138 appearances. He was on a great run having scored seven times in the four matches leading up to their visit. Another striker, George Reilly, had just been signed from Northampton for a club record fee of £140,000. They came into the game 15th out of 22 clubs in the second division and their manager, John Docherty, recognised the importance of the tie for Chesham in a special Examiner supplement prepared for the game: “It’s what the Cup is all about. I’m delighted for Chesham because they would have been sick to have got this far in the Cup and not drawn a League team. A non-league club doesn’t worry me. If you’re going to have a Cup run you’ve got to do it home or away and it doesn’t matter if it’s at Chesham or Liverpool.”
Goalkeeper Billy Barber came back into the team on his return from Australia despite 19 year old Martin Baguley’s heroics during his absence and Chesham lined up as: Barber, Griffiths, Smith, Horrastead, Dodd, Peter Johnson, Jackett, Watt, Martell, Danny Johnson, Woolfrey, and Maguire on the bench.
In the opening minute Barber saved well from a sharp Reilly effort for Cambridge and, despite a number of efforts from the visitors, the nearest to a goal came after 14 minutes when Chesham captain, John Watt, crashed a 25 yard effort straight over Webster’s head in the Cambridge goal. Sadly the ball rattled the underside of the crossbar before being scrambled away. The Sunday Mirror reported the next day that: “ A muddy mark on the crossbar left Chesham with sad memories of what might have been . . . If the battling part-timers had scored then who knows what might have happened. Chesham were every bit as good as Cambridge during a fiercely fought first half and they were decidedly the better for most of the second period when the Second Division club had to battle like demons to keep them out.”
On 32 minutes Cambridge took advantage as a free kick from the right wing was followed up by Gibbins to give them a 0-1 lead. It stayed that way until half-time when the visiting Cambridge fans decided to show why there had needed to be a 100 strong police presence which resulted in 15 of the visitors remaining in Chesham to appear before the magistrates after an ‘incident’ in the clubhouse.
In the second half Chesham dominated play but were unable to get the vital equaliser. Steve Woolfrey came closest with an effort that Webster just parried with his legs but, after 78 minutes, Reilly was on the end of a Cambridge cross from the left and headed home to secure the victory.
So, after 10 matches, the FA Cup run was finally over for Chesham United. Mike Hall said after the game: “I was proud of them. We had our moments and I thought we were a bit unlucky at times.” His assistant, Pete Wright, was slightly less diplomatic: “If that’s one million pounds worth of talent then stuff it! They were only in it for five minutes in the second half but that second goal was the killer for us.”
It may have been the end but the Chesham team received great credit from the national press reporters at the game. The Sunday Telegraph called it “a defeat with honour for a brave side” whilst the Sunday Express reported that with, “the support of 5,000 fans and their undying determination, they reduced the gap between the Football League’s Second Division and the Berger Isthmian League to almost nothing.”