Once Upon A Time in the West Country

Yeovil_2567071bGreat days for Yeovil Town FC. Gary Johnson’s green and white army walked the Wembley way on Sunday, sent Brentford packing and so booked their place in next season’s Championship – in old money that is the English second division, just one league below the new money of the Premier League.

I don’t know whether to be pleased or not. It is, of course, a great achievement for a club that only joined the Football League in 2002 after 112 years as a non-league club. But success of this nature can bring its problems, most of them financial.

And there is something just not quite right about Yeovil holding hands with the big boys. Back in the day, they were a club of largely local talent, part-timers mostly, who played on a sloping pitch against their big rivals Weymouth or Frome, Bath City or Minehead, occasionally snapping the ankles of the fat cats.

Yeovil v Sunderland
Player-manager Alex Stock scores the late winner as Yeovil beat mighty Sunderland 2-1 on the sloping pitch

That status came about when Alex Stock’s side knocked off high-flying Sunderland in the fourth round of the FA Cup back in 1948-49. They lost in the next round 8-0 to Manchester United but that didn’t halt their status as the great Cup giant-killers.

The first time I went to watch Yeovil was during the 1976-77 season. I saw them a few times that year, usually taken by my mother who was pretty game about going to the footie. Her father, Reginald Cookson, had been a doctor in Bristol through the 1930s and she would often go with him to Ashton Gate or Eastville to watch City or Rovers if he was the medic on call.

He also used to do duty at the County Ground in Bristol when Gloucestershire were playing cricket. I still have some of his old scorecards, featuring his favourite, the great Wally Hammond. My mother told me that she would go with him and take her homework, often being left alone on the bleechers while he went for a pork pie.

She must have been well into 70s when I explained that while pork pies were indeed popular at cricket grounds – often referred to as growlers – the phrase was also a euphemism for going for a pint.

“Ah,” she said. “Yes, come to think of it, he did seem to go for rather a lot of pork pies.”

I would like to say that Yeovil during that 1976-77 season were wonderful but you cannot get away with anything in these Google days. The truth though is that, having missed out by a whisker on election to the Football League at the end of the previous season when they finished second behind Wimbledon, it was midtable mediocrity.

But I don’t really remember the results, just the atmosphere inside the old Huish Park, the ground with the sloping pitch.

There were always two or three thousand there, this in the days when fourth division clubs would be happy to hit four figures.

My mother and I would pay our three quid for a seat in the hard flip-up seats behind the dug-outs. We could have paid a pound to stand behind the goal but that was never quite my mother’s cup of tea. To be in the seats though was hardly to be among the prawn cocktail brigade. Definitely more the pork pie patrol with an army of septuagenarians; presumably they had gravitated from the terraces with the onset of the walking stick, high on cider, adrenalin and a mutual hatred for the man in black.

Back in the day this would have read “Yeovil til the Ref dies”

“They were rather beastly to the referee, weren’t they,” my mother would later explain to bemused friends relatives.

“These funny old men, you wouldn’t think they would say boo to a goose until it started. Then they were hammering their sticks and screaming for them to kill the referee. I really did feel rather sorry for him.”

As she said, their language turned blue and their strategic position at the front of the stand enabled them to batter their walking sticks against the metal safety bars. Every now and then, usually after a mild blasphemy, one or other would turn around, smile at my mother and doff his flat hat in apology. Then turn once more to hurl further abuse at the ref.

Stan Harland was the fans’ favourite at the start of that season. He had come from Swindon as player-manager and almost got them promoted. As a hard-tackling full-back with a worse disciplinary record than Jackie Charlton, Norman Hunter and Chopper Harris combined, he spent more time off the pitch than on it. But the fans were still behind him.

The man with the tan: Stan Harland, once of Swindon, then of Yeovil
The man with the tan: Stan Harland, once of Swindon, then of Yeovil

“Oooooooh, Stan’s got a noice tan,” I remember one woman saying as he led his team out.

“Been out to Spain darlin’, en’t ‘e, for pre-season trainin’,” came her man’s reply.

“Spain? Thassa bit posh ain’t it? Waz wrong wiv a sunbed?”

Stan managed a handy scoop, or so we thought, because he persuaded his old Swindon chum Don Rogers to come to the Town on loan.

I think that was one of the reasons I wanted to go along, to see the ageing Rogers in action. He was a Somerset boy, born in Paulton, and had earned genuine respect for what he had done on the left wing at Swindon, especially when he scored twice in extra-time of the 1969 League Cup final to give them victory over Arsenal (Harland also played in that final). Rogers later went to Crystal Palace and then QPR who were emerging as the most exciting team in the country.

It didn’t last long, just a couple of months, a hip injury and he was back at Swindon, retiring from the game at the end of the season.

The man with the moustache: Don Rogers in his Crystal Palace days
The man with the moustache: Don Rogers in his Crystal Palace days

But there were other big names to savour as well. Jimmy Greaves was one of my heroes but the only time I saw him in the flesh was when he turned out for Barnet on the sloping pitch in Yeovil. Geoff Hurst was another, player manager at Telford United. Greaves and Hurst both did me the honour of scoring although Yeovil won the two games – at least so my memory insists.

Stan’s management style in the end didn’t win him too many friends in the boardroom or the training ground and he was gone within a couple of years.

“Harland was seen by many as a difficult man to work with and the skills he possesses did not always appear to include tact and diplomacy,” wrote Yeovil’s independent supporters’ club after his untimely death at the age of 61 in 2001.

I went to a couple of FA Cup matches with my brother Henry, first a 3-0 defeat by QPR in the late 1980s then, after the club had sacriligeously flogged the sloping pitch to a supermarket chain, another defeat this time by Arsenal at the new ground.

That must be some 20 years ago now, when the Glovers were still a team of part-timers dreaming of the glory days ahead.

Perhaps it is time to return home and catch a glimpse of this new glory. Maybe I will bring my mother, now in her 90s. She doesn’t use a stick but perhaps she could take one anyway so she can rattle the railings and scream bloody murder at the referee.

And maybe, just maybe, we will have a pork pie.

©Barney Spender 2013