The Non-League 100: Wealdstone 1984-85, the first double winners

IN an age when former Football League clubs proliferate the top division of non-league, it is often forgotten that the first non-league team to perform the hallowed “double” of National League and FA Trophy was a relatively humble outfit from the Middlesex conurbation, Wealdstone.

Wealdstone, the club that nurtured the talents of players like Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones, were beneficiaries of a novel points system introduced by the Gola League (Conference/National League) in 1983 of three points for an away win, two for a home victory. If the conventional system had been applied to 1984-85, Wealdstone would have finished third, behind Bath City and Nuneaton. But as it was, 12 away wins gave the Stones an advantage over their rivals, even though they also lost a dozen games on the way.

Brian Hall had fashioned a hard-working team that had its share of characters. The skipper was Paul Bowgett, a swashbuckling figure who was adept at penalty-taking. Most of the team had experienced some form of involvement with a Football League club – goalkeeper Bob Iles and defender Steve Perkins had both been with Chelsea, Brian Greenaway started with Fulham, Mark Graves had played 34 league games with Plymouth Argyle and Robin Wainwright had played at Millwall and Luton Town. The Cordice brothers, Neil and Alan, had been involved with Northampton Town and Norwich City respectively.

The team that would make history in 1985 was largely built around the side that won the Southern League in 1982. When they arrived in the Gola League, they were remarkably consistent, finishing third in 1982-83 and fourth a year later. Like many teams in the London area, they were not especially well supported in terms of numbers, but they had a very passionate following. In their first season after promotion, they were averaging 828 per game at Lower mead, but this fell by 20% in 1983-84 and went up to 826 in their double year.

They started the season well, unbeaten in their first nine games before losing to Boston United. They experienced a bad patch in October/November before finding their form again by December, beating close rivals Altrincham 1-0 at Lower Mead before a 1,000 crowd.

The FA Trophy got underway with the Stones disposing of Harlow Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Welling United. With cup commitments and the weather, Wealdstone went from early January to the first week in March without playing a Gola League game, but five consecutive wins in March really underlined their league title credentials. Back to the Trophy, once Frickley Athletic were beaten in the quarter-finals, Wealdstone faced Enfield over two legs. They pulled off a sensational 2-0 away win in the first leg thanks to goals from Andy Graham and Neil Cordice and despite losing the second leg by a single goal at Lower Mead, they went through to the final at Wembley to face Boston United.

The title race was a close-run affair, but a five-game run, including impressive away wins at Kidderminster and Kettering – the deciding goal scored by Andy Graham – was enough to give Hall’s men a four-point advantage over second-placed Nuneaton in the final analysis. The Stones ended the season with a 7-0 defeat at Barnet as Wealdstone prepared for the second stage of their pursuit of an unprecedented haul of trophies.

At Wembley, Graham, a somewhat unorthodox striker, scored after just two minutes, receiving the ball from a corner and sending an overhead kick past Boston keeper Kevin Blackwell. After Dennis Byatt missed a penalty, another corner led to a second goal, headed home by Lee Holmes. Boston pulled a goal back in the 50thminute from Chris Cook, but Wealdstone hung on to clinch the double.

Sadly, the club declined after the spectacular success of 1984-85 and in 1988, they were relegated from non-league football’s top flight. It was not long before they had lost their home ground and became something of a nomadic club. Fortunately, the club retained its loyal support during some difficult times. The heroes of 1985 have never been forgotten.

 

The Non-League 100: Runcorn 1982

runcornIF Runcorn’s old Canal Street ground had been fit for the Football League, who knows what would have happened to a club that experienced unprecedented success in the 1980s but found itself dissolved in 2006.

Runcorn won the Alliance Premier League in 1981-82 in their first season in the top flight of non-league football. The previous season, 1980-81, had seen them win the Northern Premier League by an impressive margin. Led by John Williams, who took over as manager in 1979, Runcorn were an exciting team that scored 99 goals in 42 games in 1980-81 as they won 32 and drew seven, losing just three times. Mossley were 16 points behind the Linnets.

Not only did they win the NPL, but Runcorn pulled off a treble, securing the Northern Premier League Cup (beating Marine at Maine Road) and the NPL Shield.

Nobody expected Runcorn to be title challengers in the APL, but on the opening day of the season, they won 3-1 at Barnet. It set the tone for the campaign and Runcorn lost just five times in 1981-82 in the league.

In the end, they finished seven points ahead of fellow new-boys Enfield, on 93 points. But in the years before automatic promotion, clubs had to be voted into the Football League. Canal Street, the club’s rather limited stadium, was not up to FL standard, so they could not stand for election. Runcorn were far from being the best supported of APL clubs, though, with crowds averaging just over 1,000 for home games. But there were 5,500 people present when Burnley came to Canal Street in the FA Cup. Runcorn had disposed of Leek Town, Shifnal Town, Prescot Cables, and Spennymoor United before meeting Burnley, then of the old third division in the first round replay. Runcorn pulled off a 0-0 at Turf Moor, before narrowly losing 1-2 at home. They had done themselves proud.

The Runcorn team moulded by John Williams is still affectionately remembered by supporters of the club, the name of which still lives on: goalkeeper Brian Parker; the small but swift Stevie Joel;  local lad Tim Rutter; Bob Fraser, a versatile player from Liverpool; former Wigan midfielder Alan Crompton; the skilful Ossie Smith, a former Manchester United youth player; Liverpool-born Leo Skeete; former Bolton striker Gary Jones; central defender Elfyn Edwards; dependable players like Mike Scott and Mick Roberts; and the under-rated John Imrie. To name but a few!

In 1982-83, Runcorn finished fourth and a year later, fifth. In 1985-86, they reached the second round of the FA Cup and the final of the FA Trophy, losing to Altrincham. That was John Williams’ last game in charge, for that summer, he joined the team that had beaten his Runcorn at Wembley.

Calling in on….Dartford, fanfare for the wooden man!

Adriano heads for goal...
Adriano heads for goal…

The town of Dartford doesn’t mean a lot to most people. It lends its name to a tunnel, a crossing and, in 1943, it was the birthplace of one Michael Philip Jagger. It’s in the Kent hinterland and in many ways, mirrors Thurrock on the opposite side of the Thames Estuary. Other than Jagger, Dartford also has connections with a few notables: Malcolm Allison and pop artist Peter Blake (of Sgt. Pepper fame) were both born in Dartford. Margaret Thatcher unsuccessfully ran for parliament in the early 1950s from Dartford. And oh yes, Britain’s strongest man, Terry Morgans, hails from the Kent town of almost 90,000 people.

But there’s something really outstanding about Dartford from a footballing perspective that should act as a blueprint for stadiums the world over: Princes Park, the home of the “Darts”.

Around this very innovative ground are two advertising hoardings that make you think. “If only all councils were like Dartford” and “If only all football stadiums were like Princes Park”. What’s it all about, then?

P1050206They play under grass

From the outside, Princes Park looks very attractive, with sleek lines and tasteful facades. It doesn’t look like the average bolt-together ground comprises modern corrugation and slabs of concrete. Some thought has clearly gone into it. Furthermore, it is low level, which we are told is aimed at reducing noise and light pollution. And, most strikingly, although I didn’t notice it myself, the entire ground has a sedum roof blanket, which, for the uninitiated, is a grass roof. In fact, the entire stadium has been built in the name of ecology. Dartford may have had, in its time, may have given birth to some of the trend-setters of the 1960s, but Princes Park is certainly au courant and despite the plea of the hoarding, there are very few stadiums like Dartford Football Club’s impressive home.

No wonder the club speaks highly of its local authority. The ground was built and is owned by Dartford Borough Council. There’s also an all-weather pitch for community use and people are encouraged to use public transport to get to games. It works.

In most grounds, the huge wooden sculpture cemented into the touchline-length terracing, “The Wooden Man terrace” would be the biggest talking point, but the ground itself has so much to offer that it is merely a sideshow. Nevertheless, this structure is unique, reminding one of the cult film, “The Wicker Man”. I had visions of naked maidens dancing around this statue in the dead of the Dartford night, but perhaps that was the effect of the Youngs bitter I had in the clubhouse bar.

Dartford returned to their home town in 2006 after spending much of the 1990s and early 21st century on the road. Financial problems forced the club to sell its former home, Watling Street in 1992 and withdraw from the Southern League just four games into the 1992-93 season. The club joined the Kent League and became nomads, entering into ground-sharing schemes with Cray Wanderers, Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend. In 2004, Dartford Borough Council announced the funding and building of a new ground for the club. In November 2006, Princes Park opened, Dartford playing Horsham YMCA 4-2 in front of more than 4,000 people.

Since then, Dartford have been promoted three times: Isthmian One > Isthmian Premier > Conference South > to find themselves in the Conference National. In 2005-06, the club averaged 291 people per game, today crowds at Princes Park are four figures, with last season’s average 1,250.

How often to you get to watch a game through the legs of a big man...?
How often to you get to watch a game through the legs of a big man…?

They are in their third season at the top level of the non-league game, but it is not Dartford’s first stint at this level – they had three seasons in the old “Alliance Premier League” in the early 1980s – and finished third in 1984-85. Ten years earlier, they reached the FA Trophy final at Wembley, losing to Morecambe. There’s some pedigree.

But in 2014, Dartford are a relative minnow in the company they currently keep, despite their superb stadium and obvious momentum. The Vanarama Conference – I can’t help thinking of Roxy Music’s Pyjamarama – is laden with former Football League clubs that are desperately trying to get back to where they once belonged.

Last season, they finished 22nd in the Conference, but were reprieved from relegation after Salisbury City’s financial problems sent them down. The way the current campaign is going, Dartford may have another relegation fight on their hands.

Woodman, Silkmen

Before meeting Macclesfield Town, Dartford were in 19th place after 15 games. They had won just three league games. The visitors were in ninth and had lost just three times. They were only five points behind second place and eight behind early-season leaders, Barnet. A few days earlier, Dartford had lost 1-0 at Bristol Rovers and in their previous home game, they had held Grimsby Town to a 1-1 draw in front of 1,285 people. Macclesfield couldn’t have been in better shape after beating Barnet 2-1 in midweek.

I was interested to see that player-coach at Macclesfield js none other than Efetobor Sodje. I came across this delightful character in the mid-1990s when he was part of the Stevenage team that won the Conference in 1995-96. He was an outstanding player and instantly recognisable with his headscarf and tall, angular features. He also had amazing self-belief, evidenced by the post-match press conference at Birmingham City where he refused to take any blame for one of the home side’s goals as Stevenage were beaten 2-0 in a FA Cup tie. He could leap like a salmon and if he ever got pole-axed, his ear-piercing banshee-like scream left you in no doubt that he had been fouled!

Macclesfield, in their teal-coloured shirts, had the better of the first half, but it was a low-key 45 minutes on a very greasy surface. Danny Harris should have done better when he was set free inside the area and he successfully rounded Macclesfield goalkeeper Rhys Taylor, but then tripped. The home fans called for a penalty, but the incident owed more to Harris’ sense of balance.

P1050187The best chance of the half came from the visitors, however. A cross from Arthur Gnahoua – a player who stood out in the first half – was met by Paul Lewis and Dartford custodian Jason Brown tipped the ball over the bar.

Gnahoua didn’t reappear after the interval, but on came much-travelled striker Matthew Barnes-Homer, signed on loan from Whitehawk. His strength and pace caused Dartford a few problems.

But Dartford should have gone ahead in the 63rd minute when Nat Mitchel-King sent an excellent glancing header against the upright. Harris blasted the rebound over the bar.

The game seemed to come to life at this point and in the 70th minute, Macclesfield substitute Adriano [Moke] went on a long run, accelerated past two defenders and sent a low, somewhat tame shot against not one, but two posts!

Dartford took the lead five minutes from the end, Ryan Hayes controlling the ball well and sending a left-foot effort curling wide of Taylor. Dancing took place around the wooden man in celebration. But the lead didn’t last long, for within two minutes, a low cross was watched by a similarly statuesque Dartford defence and Barnes-Homer slotted into the net from six yards. And that was how it ended, a result that was fair, if not entirely satisfactory for the home side. Macclesfield made it seven draws from 16 games.

What was satisfactory was the trip to Princes Park. I doubt there’s no finer non-league ground in the country. It’s a benchmark for modern day stadium development….