TO THE outside world, Leatherhead’s FA Cup run of 1974/75 might have looked like an ‘overnight success’. Indeed, the club had never previously reached the first round proper of the competition, much less the heights of the fourth round and the “Leicester game”. In our latest Guest Slot, Kevin Parrott recalls one of the mid-1970s great stories from non-league football.
Leatherhead’s run wasn’t a case of ‘overnight success’ at all! Events and developments played their part in Leatherhead’s rise. In 1972-73, the Isthmian League expanded and Leatherhead moved over to the Isthmian from the Athenian League. The Athenian League was a good standard of football, but the Isthmian had some long-standing major amateur clubs of the South – such as Wycombe Wanderers, Sutton United, Hitchin Town and Dulwich Hamlet. It was a higher standard of football – and a different world. It felt like a ‘closed society’ – in which, for example, you couldn’t enter a boardroom unless you were wearing a tie.
Leatherhead (“the Tanners”) came third in that first season in the Isthmian League. Manager Billy Miller had, with hindsight, already assembled several of the ‘Leicester’ team. Chief amongst them, in terms of later fame, was Chris (“the Leatherhead Lip”) Kelly who had been signed from Sutton. His partner up front, Pete “the Meat” Lavers was in place. The defender and midfielder John Cooper had arrived from Fulham. Dave Reid was at centre half. Another stalwart, Barry Webb had first played for the club in 1964-65. Derek Wells was already a regular.
1973-74 and another member of the ‘Leicester’ team arrived – Peter McGillicuddy. Leatherhead had a run in the last FA Amateur Cup. The Tanners reached the semi-finals against Ilford at Millwall – only to suffer the heartbreak of a 1-0 loss. The biggest development came in the summer of 1974. This was the abolition of the ‘amateur’ status by the Football Association. Apart from the semi-professional Southern League, all non-league footballers were ‘amateur’ – able to play for expenses only. There was rumour that some clubs were paying ‘under the counter’ – so-called ‘shamateurism’. From 1974, players could legitimately be paid.
For the chairman of Leatherhead, Chris Luff (a local garage owner) and Billy Miller, this represented an opportunity. The previous season, Walton & Hersham of the Isthmian League had completed a great FA Cup run. Famously, they had gone to the Brighton of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor and won 4-0 in a replay after a 0-0 draw at Stompond Lane. This went against the received wisdom that non-league clubs have their best chance of beating League opposition at home and are unlikely to survive an away replay.
In the summer, Walton lost manager Allen Batsford to Wimbledon of the Southern League and he took with him some players – Dave “Harry” Bassett, Dave Donaldson, Billy Edwards, Keiron Somers and Roger Connell. And Miller pounced and signed Willie Smith, Dave Sargent and Colin Woffinden from the club.
In addition, the Tanners brought in John Swannell, Hendon’s 35 year-old England Amateur international goalkeeper, and John Doyle from Kingstonian. Concerns about whether the team would gel were quickly allayed as Leatherhead started the season well – with eight wins and two draws in their first 10 Isthmian League first division (the word ‘Premier’ wasn’t yet in vogue) games. The results were good – and the style and panache of the team made them joy to watch.
The fabled FA Cup run started with a 2-0 (Lavers, Kelly) first qualifying round win at Croydon Amateurs (Croydon nobly retaining the second half of their name). In the second qualifying round, Leatherhead beat Hornchurch 5-0 at Fetcham Grove (Lavers 2, Cooper, Doyle, Webb – pen). The third qualifying round proved more problematic – Leatherhead hosted Dagenham and the game ended goalless. But the Tanners went to Victoria Road and won 3-1 (Kelly 2, Doyle). There was irony in the fourth qualifying round as Leatherhead were drawn at Walton & Hersham – and no mercy was shown as the Tanners won 7-1 (Sargent 2, McGillicuddy 2, Lavers, Doyle, Woffinden).
An away tie at Bishops Stortford in the first round proper was the less than ideal reward – but Leatherhead went there and came away with a 0-0 draw. The replay would see the winners play Colchester United at home in the second round. The Tanners won 2-0 (Lavers, Doyle) to set up one of the biggest games in the club’s history (to that point).
The opening line of my diary entry for December 14 1974 reads “The day in a million”. Leatherhead beat Colchester United (managed by Jim Smith) of the Third Division 1-0 with a John Doyle goal in the 20th minute! It was a brilliant performance. And it was without Kelly – who was recovering from a cartilage operation. The third round draw was made that night on Match of the Day – Brighton away. My diary’s verdict on the draw? “A little disappointing but could have been worse”.
Leatherhead’s win at Brighton (managed by Peter Taylor) was remarkable. “Players tackled, covered, harried like demons” and the game was won by the returning Kelly’s brilliant individual goal. “I can remember few better days”. The fourth round draw was made while we waited outside the ground for our coaches – Leicester City of the First Division at home! That night, Kelly was in the MOTD studio – “mouthing”.
The tie was switched to Filbert Street. A dramatic game saw the Tanners go 2-0 (McGillicuddy, Kelly) up at half-time and the ‘what if’ of Kelly’s shot that was cleared by Malcolm Munro to deny a 3-0 lead. Leicester (managed by Jimmy Bloomfield) came back and won 3-2 (Earle, Sammels, Weller). Let’s leave further description to my diary…”Team were magnificent in the firstt half. As good as Leicester”…”Will never forget the feeling when we were two goals up. Out of this world”… and at the end of the day…“Went to sleep, very happy and sad”.
The FA Cup run was over. But the season was not. Kelly left for Millwall (returning for the following season) thus weakening the Leatherhead team. The Tanners reached the London Senior Cup Final at Dulwich – losing 2-0 to a powerful, no nonsense, Wimbledon. And also the Surrey Senior Cup Final at Walton & Hersham – losing 2-0 to Dulwich Hamlet. In the Isthmian League, Leatherhead finished in sixth place – disappointing after such a good start. Weight of fixtures did not help. All told, the Tanners played 68 games that season – 42 in the league and a mammoth 26 in the various cups. When the history of Leatherhead Football Club is written, it will be the 1974-75 FA Cup run that will feature highly. Beating two Football League clubs and pushing a First Division side to the limit – and the way they did it – will live long in the memory!
Leatherhead’s FA Cup heroes
John Swannell – goalkeeper. Debut 1974. Capped 61 times at England Amateur level, Swannell was a great shot stopper and a calm presence between the sticks. Dave Reid – centre half. Debut 1970. Son of Portsmouth’s Duggie Reid (twice a First Division winner). Dominant in the air, Reid played a record 523 times for Leatherhead. Barry Webb – full back, midfield. Debut 1965. A player you could trust. Unflappable, he took the penalties and was usually at full back . Derek Wells – defender. Debut 1971. A utility player, primarily in the back four. Left-footed, a consistent performer – Wells was popular. He loved playing football. Dave Sargent – right back. Debut 1974. A fearsome, highly competent performer – his ‘will to win’ almost tangible. Colin Woffinden – midfield. Debut 1974. A clinical passer of the ball – and a bluff and cheery presence off the pitch. John Cooper – midfield, defender. Debut 1970. Previously with Fulham, the versatile Cooper could play right side midfield or in the ‘back four’. Tremendous servant. Willie Smith – midfield. Debut 1974. Lovely left foot – highly skilled. I remember a goal at Southall & Ealing Borough in ‘76 where Smith audaciously chipped from distance after a corner – the defender on the line was caught by surprise and could only head into his own net. Peter McGillicuddy – midfield. Debut 1973. Left-footed, attacking midfielder. Affable, popular. Pete Lavers – centre forward. Debut 1970. A superb header of the ball. I particularly recall a goal at the cavernous Champion Hill of Dulwich Hamlet in 1974 when Cooper took on a pass down the line from Sargent and centred for Lavers to rise and arrow a header under the bar. Chris Kelly – forward. Debut 1972. Kelly was useful at Sutton but blossomed at Leatherhead. Highly skilled – it was hard to tell whether he was left or right footed – Kelly (also nicknamed “Budgie” or “Budge”) benefitted from being in an environment where he was central to the team. The “Kelly shuffle” became well-known during the FA Cup run. He was particularly good at taking the ball to the touchline with his back to the defender, turning around, squaring the player up and then beating him for skill and he was away. Leatherhead’s best player ever (yes, yes – it’s an opinion!). John Doyle – winger. Debut 1974. Low centre of gravity – a darting runner with the ball – scorer of vital goals. Corner routines centred around Doyle – he would run to the near post and head the ball on for colleagues to come in and score. Billy Miller – manager. A former Leatherhead player, he was manager from 1965 to 1980. The players in the FA Cup run have been lauded to the skies – but Miller’s role in the run should not be underestimated. Miller (and his assistants Dave Wall and John Phipps and physio John Deary) had this team playing well from the off – no mean feat. There were strong personalities in the team – but Miller was definitely in charge. Early in the ‘Leicester’ season, Leatherhead beat Slough Town 4-0 (4-0 at half-time) at home. I happened to be walking past the changing rooms after the game. I could hear one voice – that of Billy Miller – laying into the team in unambiguous and emphatic terms. He was not happy with the second half performance! Yes, Miller was in charge.
Sources: Leatherhead FC – Complete Competitive Playing Record, 1946 – 2006 by Dave Johnston and Graham Mitchell; ‘Up The Tanners’ – From The Past To The Present And Looking To The Future by Goff Powell, 1997; Rothmans Football Yearbook 1975/76 compiled by Leslie Vernon and Jack Rollin.