Bedford is a rugby town. Ask anyone to name a sporting entity from the county town and they will not refer to its football club, but more likely the Blues. The rugby club has a huge advantage over its association neighbour in that it is located close to the town in Goldington Road. The football club ranks among the hardest to find and takes you out beyond the town and heading towards those giant R101 aircraft hangers in Cardington. The New Eyrie is beyond a casual walk to the match. In fact, it can be pretty precarious walking to Bedford Town FC.
If there was ever a bubble at the New Eyrie it seems to have burst. The 2013-14 season has been the Eagles’ annus horribilis and looks set to end with relegation. It’s not quite the sort of crisis that ended with the first incarnation of the club becoming extinct in the early 1980s, but it comes at a time when other local rivals such as Biggleswade, St.Neots, Hitchin and Arlesey seem to be in better shape. And to rub salt in the wound, the club has had problems with local “residents” who trashed their ground.
Bedford, with 80,000 people, is somewhat bigger than all of these surrounding towns. Furthermore, given it is only marginally smaller than Stevenage, which is now the home of a Football League club, it underlines that Bedford Town is not really leveraging its population.
“It’s all about money…or lack of it,” said one Bedford fan when the Eagles travelled down to Hitchin for a local derby that would, in better times, attract 500-plus people. But on a night when many people would have assumed the game was unlikely to be played and with Bedford already having one muddy foot in Southern League Central, the crowd was struggling to get above 200.
Bedford went into the season with a much reduced playing budget and low hopes. The club’s chairman, David Howell, had been the driving force behind the club’s finances for a long time. He reduced his financial commitment to the club in the summer, prompting a mass departure of players and officials.
Howell doesn’t look like a football empresario. In his long black coat, gold-rimmed spectacles and disciplined grooming, he resembles a village pastor on a night off rather than the sort of football folk who wander around non-league grounds. By all accounts, though, he has very decent values and believes in doing things the right way. He looks trustworthy and these days that has genuine currency. Qualities that should be applauded – and hopefully, the Bedford faithful will thank him for his significant commitment over the years.
As a result of Howell’s diluted financial influence, however, Bedford have been in freefall. They’ve already seen one manager, Lee Bearman, take flight and now Danny Nicholls, who was once with Aylesbury United, is in charge. He’s assisted by none other than Alan Biley, the former Derby, Everton and Cambridge United striker. In his playing days, Biley made no secret of his admiration for Rod Stewart and Denis Law and he still sports the sort of haircut that accompanied a rendition of Maggie May or the Faces’ Stay with me in the early 1970s.
Biley joined Bedford in January, but he can only be doing it for a love of the game – it’s a far cry from his rock and roll footballing career. You don’t play the part of the B-B-C man (Bibs, Balls and Cones) on a miserable night in Hitchin unless you have a passion for the game.
Likewise, the couple of dozen Bedford fans cheering on a team on that would do well to compete at Step five or six. “We all follow the Bedford….over land and sea….”, they throatily sang as if they were trying to convince the anonymous bunch in white shirts. Now, it has been said on more than one occasion that non-league supporters can be parochial at times, but the last time I looked, Bedford hadn’t appeared in European competition for some time. But with most of Britain seemingly under water, perhaps the reference to maritime adventures was a nod in the direction of the current state of the home counties?
Bedford took the lead at Hitchin, but it was short-lived. By half-time, the home side were 4-1 ahead and at the final whistle, it was 6-1. “You know, Bedford could be saved,” said one Hitchin wag. “The way teams are falling each season, they could stay up yet.”
The question is whether they want to stay up. What would it mean? Another tortuous nine months and inevitable relegation. No, Bedford would be better off biting the bullet, dropping down and maybe, just maybe, enjoying a promotion campaign and increased crowds. At present, they average 241 per game, the lowest in years and 30% down on last season. Six or seven years ago, they were attracting 100 more per game.
Football in Bedfordshire and surrounding counties benefits from a successful Bedford Town, witness the paltry turnout at Hitchin for what has been, in the past, an action-packed and tense local derby. Although all football fans revel in a bit of schadenfreude, the truth is, City need United, Arsenal need Spurs, Celtic need Rangers and all said and done, Hitchin need Bedford.