imageWE ALL identify the Reliant Robin with the BBC TV series Only Fools & Horses, but back in 1969, a blue three-wheeled car acted as an improvised team coach for Benyon County Primary School in South Ockendon.

It belonged to Mr C.E. Heath, the only male teacher at the school (headmaster excepted) and the man responsible for masterminding the village school’s attempt at winning the Thurrock Western Area League.

Actually, winning was something quite rare for Benyon. We were lucky if we came off the field with 11 fit and able boys. Benyon was a small school in 1969 and across the four years, barely able to put out a credible football team.

In the summer of 1969, Mr Heath, known as “Ethel”, decided that Benyon would compete in the football league. The 1969-70 season would be the last chance for the “golden generation” of 1966-69” to show its worth.

Ethel had a strange way about him. He was a diabetic and his limbs seemed to lack coordination. On Friday afternoons, when we had games lessons, he would wear plus fours, Stanley Matthews boots and a tweed cap – he resembled a pre-war golfer rather than a football coach. And his half-time treat for the team was a barley sugar sweet, rather than the segments of orange favoured by opponents.

The Reliant Robin used to ferry the team to away games, which were all in close proximity. Benyon represented “old South Ockendon” as it was, essentially, a Victorian village school. Over the railway line, via the urine-soaked “Zig-Zag” bridge, you had Belhus which had a number of schools: Bonnygate, Shaw, Dilkes, the Catholics at Holy Cross and Somers Heath. Further on you had Aveley village and a school that served the Kennington estate. The other outlier was Mardyke, which sat on the edge of Ockendon.

Benyon was “old Ockendon”, Belhus schools had a harder edge

imageAveley and Kennington were the favourites for the league. They had a lot of young kids and the latter benefitted from an influx of London-raised children, tougher and more energetic than most of the other schools. Holy Cross were also contenders, largely thanks to the big emphasis the school had on fresh air and exercise. The Belhus Estate, generally, was more rough than Ockendon village due to the London refugees. That started to change in the 1970s when a huge GLC estate brought more urban children to Ockendon.

Ethel summoned up his resources and made Glyn Petrucci, aka Gink, his skipper. Gink was a superb footballer and should have gone on to great things. He had everything: speed, strength, shooting power, skill, audacity and that little air of “fantasy” about him. He was a Manchester United fan and even had the George best hair-do to match. I was generally regarded as one of the better players, but I was no Gink. Nevertheless, I was often involved in team discussions with Ethel and his captain.

We started badly, losing 0-5 at home to Aveley, then let in seven against Kennington. We faced Dilkes in game three. We were two-down and I managed to net twice, almost identical “poachers goals” to level the scores. Ethel compared them to “typical Jimmy Greaves goals”. In the final minute, I latched onto a bad back pass and stroked the ball into the net for the winner. A hat-trick and a 3-2 win. I was chaired off the pitch and then spent the evening convincing my Father that I had been the hero of the hour. Ethel was beside himself as Benyon had not won a game in years!

A week later, I scored again, but we lost at Somers Heath. Wins were scarce, but I kept scoring the odd goal. At the turn of the year, we were eighth in the nine-team league, with poor old Mardyke, heavily reliant on a new-found pal, Clifford May, on the bottom.

Things went a little blurry for me, quite literally, when in January 1970 I was diagnosed with myopia. I had to wear glasses, a disaster for an 11 year old. I was also confined to bed during the Christmas holidays after bursting a blood vessel in my groin area.

I returned after the winter break ready to go, but as we faced Mardyke at home, my first game without my specs, I had a disastrous first half and was subbed – right in front of my mate Cliff. We won 3-1, but my replacement, Michael Goss, scored twice. Despite being top scorer and a pivotal member of the team, my place was now under threat.

Fortunately, I was back in the starting line-up for the next game, and that 45 minutes was the only play I missed all season. I ended up as top scorer with 10 goals.

Gink outpaced the defence and hit an unstoppable 25-yarder…some player

Towards the end of the season, we were beaten 5-2 at Shaw, but it was a goal by the irrepressible Gink that I will always remember. He pushed the ball down the flank, outpaced two, three, four blue and white striped shirts and then hit a chest-high shot on the run from 25 yards past the hapless keeper. I still picture it today. He was some player.

I can also still recall our team, which had a curious mix of boys that pretty much resembled the Bash Street Kids from the Beano. There was Mitchell “Buzz” Cleasby in goal, a small, fast and tenacious individual. The bespectacled Robert Fillery (always with sticking plaster on his glasses) was at right back, with Adrian Clarke on the left. Geoffrey Kimber, Gink and David Dowsett were the half-backs – the strong core of the side. And the front line comprised Michael Goss, myself, Paul Martin, Kevin Ramon and the Anglo-Australian Tony Benton.

Aveley won the league and completed the “double” by winning the Roden Shield, Thurrock ‘s equivalent of the FA Cup. We all went down to Grays Athletic’s ground to see the final between Aveley and (I think) Stifford Clays. Benyon finished eighth.

There was a blow to my self-esteem in the closing weeks at school. The Western Area five-a-side competition, played annually for the George Mordecai Cup, was a prestigious affair and I expected to be selected. The competition was invariably played on FA Cup final morning and comprised two groups and then the semi-finals and final. I was, to my horror, not included in the squad. “Since you started wearing glasses, you seem to have lost something,” said Ethel, putting his arm around me to ease my pain. I was inconsolable, but still went along to cheer the lads. I remember saying to Gink: “Now I know how Jimmy Greaves felt in 1966”.

To the lads from Benyon 1969-70, I hope you’ve had a good life…

Where are they now? Mitch Cleasby was last heard of living in in Australia. David Dowsett, sadly, died at a very young age in a car accident. Glyn Petrucci lives in Cornwall, where he defected to in the mid-1970s. As for the rest, who knows…
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