|Guest Columnist - Ron Fosker|
|AT around 2pm on a midwinter Saturday afternoon in the 50s or 60s a stranger asking his way to Clacton Town's Old Road ground was likely to be told: "Follow the crowd."
The direction, familiar to Football League supporters, was a genuine one in immediate post war Clacton. It was the time when all sides of the ground were packed and the East Essex Gazette of the time remarked on the disappointment of a crowd that fell below 2,000 for a big game.
One of the saddest sights for a Clactophile of a certain vintage is to pass the nest of supermarkets and DIY stores that now occupies the field that was once an irresistible magnet to a large proportion of the town. The bulldozers may have swept away the terracing but the memories remain.
Memories, not just of events on the pitch, but the atmosphere off it. A sense to a child of belonging to some as yet not quite understood adult world.
The mystery, for instance, of why the team brought about six footballs on the field and kicked them into the goal, but then ended up playing with only one. As a six-year-old I found this very confusing. So much so that when I was asked if I was going to play football when I grew up, I answered gravely that I didn't think I would be able to. "I don't know when to kick all those other balls off the field," I explained.
Whenever a certain brand of pipe tobacco wafts in front of my nose, I am instantly transported back to the 'popular side' of the Town Ground. I always stood in the same place, with my rattle and black and white bobble hat, accompanied by my mother, Ann, a keen and regular fan, and my uncle, Harry 'Nobby' Clarke, a stalwart of the Town's Supporters Club and for many years Clacton's 'weather man'.
The man with the pipe stood in the same place. It is said that smell is the closest of the senses to the memory cells in the brain. That's why the smell of stale milk immediately reminds me of school and pipe tobacco of football.
We stood next to the hut set aside for disabled people, or the invalid hut, as it was known. As a weekly ritual my mother used to trot round to the tea hut at half-time to get the 'invalids'' tea. 'Peggy' Moore and Peter Cooley were two of its occupants, as I recall.
The grandstand opposite, sheltered by two large gasholders and a water tower, was a mysterious place. Not for the likes of us the luxury of a seat and cushion. Instead we watched the curious flickering of lights emerging from the gloom as cigarettes or pipes were lit up.
We had some shelter from the rain though, until the roof fell down, or was blown down, I can't remember which.
We also witnessed some wonderful football.
My earliest memory is of the team that many considered to be the finest to represent the town. As with a lot of one's first memories, I can still recite the team - not something I can do with any line-up since. And if I need a prompt I still have an almost complete set of 1953-54 programmes, one of my most treasured possessions.
Ken Starling, a somewhat eccentric character, was in goal. He had a curious habit of moving across the goal with a stiff back leg whenever the ball came over from the wing. Great was our delight and amazement one day when he dribbled the ball out of his goal and set off upfield. He ventured beyond the halfway line before he was dispossessed but took the resulting throw-in himself and carried on before passing to a colleague just outside the penalty area and looking quite disgusted when he didn't get a return pass.
At the back were Albert Young and Dennis Maffey. The halfback line was McKenna, Wicks and Pollock. The effervescent Johnny Andrews (Andy) was usually on the right wing, Bob Curry, the player-manager, at inside right, the burly Albert Wakefield at centre forward, with Dennis Yeomans and Len Cater on the left.
It was a team that finished second, to King's Lynn, in the Eastern Counties League in 1954, the highest position they had ever achieved.
There were a number of departures at the end of the season and subsequent teams (at least until 1960) were never quite so successful. But they still threw up some exciting and colourful characters.
None was surely of a higher standard than the wonderful left wing partnership of Johnny McKim and Terry Ledgerton. Their interpassing drew gasps of pure joy from the spectators and totally bamboozled the opposition. Ledgerton also had an uncanny knack of winning penalties. The defender's leg always seemed to be in the right place for him to fall over!
Then came Willie Devlin, scorer of an amazing goal when he dribbled through almost the entire defence, stylish Willie Clark and inside right Bob Thomas, the player who gave us great satisfaction in a local derby against Chelmsford in those pre-hooligan days when banter between rival supporters didn't lead to a brawl.
The crowd had spotted Thomas in a good position in midfield. "Give it to Bob" yelled several voices in increasing urgency to the player in possession. Eventually he got the message and slid through a pass about 30 yards out.
"Yeah, now he's got it but what will he do with it?" yelled the contingent from Chelmsford, Thomas's former club.
His answer was to unleash an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.
Before Chelmsford local derbies generally meant trips to Harwich, often on a Boxing Day or, unthinkable these days, Christmas morning. A flotilla of coaches and cars would make their way to the Royal Oak ground, just as a similar convoy headed in the opposite direction when it was Old Road's turn to host the fixture.
Harwich were a strong side in the early 50s, and Amateur Cup finalists in 1953. But they were beatable - and beaten on several occasions.
The visits to Chelmsford came in Clacton's heady days in the Southern League, which at the time shared the distinction with the Northern League of being an unofficial Fifth Division of the Football League.
That period produced two milestones untouched before or since.
After a fairly unhappy first season, the Town surprised their supporters by winning their first game of the 1959-60 season 2-1 away from home. The excitement this engendered was multiplied several times when they won the first home match 6-0.
Such a start produced a spurt of confidence in the team and they surged through the season to finish as champions of the first division to win promotion to the premier.
It was a season not to miss, even the occasion when a match was played in a blizzard and we treated ourselves to a seat in the stand, plus blankets and a hot water bottle! Sadly it was a game when form deserted them and they lost 4-1.
The following season provided even greater excitement: the first round proper of the FA Cup and a home tie with Third Division Southend United.
But before that came the drama of the final qualifying round: a draw at Cambridge United and a replay back at the Town Ground the following Wednesday.
It was a mid afternoon kick-off (no floodlights in those days), which meant for those of us at school a mad dash on our bikes to catch the last few minutes. I must have been madder than most. I got there before my friends, threw my bike on a heap of others outside and dashed in. I was still walking round the ground when Clacton scored, a fine goal from Willie Clark. That made it 2-1, the final score.
My schoolmates were still dashing across the car park. "We heard the roar and knew what had happened. But you actually saw it!" Such was my claim to fame over the next few days.
The Southend game drew a crowd of 3,213, not a figure from my memory this time - I kept a scrapbook of that season, another treasured possession.
It was a typical David and Goliath blood and guts battle. Southend were thrown out of their stride by the hustle and bustle of the part-timers. Class told in the end but not before the home side had put up an almighty fight.
The next day my Uncle Nobby reported back to me with great pride the conversation he had overheard between two Southend supporters after the game: "Cor, mate, weren't we lucky!"
"Rough justice was meted out to Clacton in this epic FA Cup tie at Old Road," wrote Eric Rice in the East Essex Gazette. "Pulling out all the stops in a memorably exciting second half, they came within an ace of creating a giant-killing first round act."
Clacton's team on that historic day was: Dalziel, Lock, Light, Beattie, Leach, Myles, Elms, Thomas, Clark, Ledgerton, Devlin.
After that it was all downhill. The team finished halfway up the premier division of the Southern League that season, a fine achievement against teams of the calibre of Oxford and Hereford, both soon to be elected to the Football League.
But it was the end of the dream. The next season they were relegated. No scrapbook of that season but a lasting memory of a horrifying 9-1 home defeat by Oxford United - and a similar score away.
The following season was no better. They slipped to the bottom of the first division and it was only the Herculean efforts of centre half Paddy Phelan, the Essex cricketer, that avoided ignominy on a number of occasions.
Finance was also a problem. Journeys to Merthyr Tydfil, Yeovil and Barry took their toll and the club decided to return meekly to the Eastern Counties League. It was also around this time that they adopted a 'home-town' policy. They could no longer afford to attract the ex-professionals - like Les Bennett, of Spurs' 1951 League-winning team, or Frank Lock, the former England B international - so they turned to local players, something their supporters had long called for.
"If you have more local players, more people will come and watch," they said. Fine theory, but it didn't work.
The team wasn't bad though. Steve Constant, probably the best of the local finds, joined from Clacton Monarchs, and then a clutch of players came in from North End, the Great Clacton team who had had a run of success in the Tendring Hundred League. Albert Dale, Gerry Atkinson, Ron Cooledge and Clive Brock were all now in the town's colours, which changed around this time from white and black to all blue.
Cooledge was an amazing goalscorer. A small man without the traditional bustle of an old-fashioned centre forward, he somehow had the knack of popping up in the right place at the right time and putting the ball in the net. As one of my friends said at the time: "He's like one of those cartoon characters who dribbles into a knot of players and emerges out the other side still with the ball - then you discover it's tied to his boot."
A few years later came the last peak: A team captained by Andy Hillier won the Eastern Counties League Cup. He and Chris Hazelton had been twin strikers at Thorpe Social - where I also spent four happy seasons - and were now the Town's full backs.
By then I had left the town and was living in Witham where I made sure my duties as sports editor of the Braintree and Witham Times included watching Braintree's matches with Clacton.I have seen them once or twice since. I even went up to Rush Green once. Somehow I can't imagine Southend United playing there - and it's an awfully long way to cycle from Clacton County High School.
Written by: Ron Fosker
Article date: 1 December 2006