Fifty years on

Cod Almighty | Article

by Neville Butt

7 November 2009

News of the first round tie with Bath City has sent me trawling through The Mariner programmes, which I and many others avidly collected at that time, for that first FA Cup meeting of these two sides back in 1952. I had sheer delight in finding the programme, which really is a mine of information.

Without living too much in the past, the game was a typical cup tie against a non-League side managed by former pre-war Arsenal and England left-back Eddie Hapgood. I understand the Evening Telegraph republished a report on the first cup tie between the sides in the build-up to the recent encounter.

I was at that original game. Bath City played out of their skins in the first half but the Mariners' "it'll be alright on the night" attitude prevailed.

As the second half progressed the crowd became more and more agitated despite Town's dominance. High crosses and optimistic long shots were hurled at Bath's massive six-foot-four keeper Harry 'Garth' Liley. Surely a little clear thinking was required as the groans grew louder. This was provided by the great Paddy Johnston with a snap shot from just inside the area which the tall Bath keeper should have probably saved as it rolled in at his left-hand post, at the Pontoon end.

Here are some various fascinating points from the programme. Bath were one of the few clubs to benefit from the Second World War. They had so many well-known players in the side at that time that they made sufficient income to purchase Twerton Park (where Bristol Rovers played for a few years in the 1990s).

Two Town players mentioned in the programme were Dick Connor and Ken Jenkin. The former had allegedly put on weight (he needed to) since joining up for his National Service, while Jenkin was due to depart for his 18 months of service the Thursday after the Bath game. I also noted that one Mr W Shankley presented prizes at the Winter Gardens for a well-attended supporters' club dance, for which the entrance fee was 25p.

"The side that currently represents Town is the worst I have ever seen in Town colours. That includes the one that had to seek re-election in 1954-55"

Talking of Bill Shankly, his magnificent side of '51-52 was breaking up by the time of the Bath game. Gone were legendary keeper George Tweedy, winger Stan Lloyd (replaced by Alec McCue), inside-right Jim Bloomer, laid low with a broken leg, and the man with surely the original centre parting, Billy Cairns, replaced by Fred Smith. As the team broke up the form slumped and the signing of Harry Hart for the Christmas Day fixture, supposedly to liven up the attack, was one of the most astonishing of many astonishingly poor signings we have made over the years - the recent acquisition of Mendy included.

The most disturbing section of the programme is simply headed 'League Table'. A brief analysis comparing then and now is revealing. From those teams only Scunthorpe Utd are in the current second division. A mere five clubs are in third division, while eight are in the bottom flight. Six reside in the Conference and four in the Unibond. Frightening stats really and after having seen Grimsby in the old first division in the two seasons after the war I wonder if we will ever get anywhere near again.

There are a myriad of reasons as to why we have failed over the past ten years, but to me the problems started when we were unable to prevent Jack Lester leaving us to go to Forest. We were never in with a realistic chance of keeping quality players like Jack and Danny Butterfield.

Of the teams in the Third North in '52-53 only two - Carlisle United and Bradford City - have tasted the top flight. York City, Wrexham, Crewe, Stockport, Tranmere, and Chesterfield have all had their moments in the sun in the now-called Championship, with probably Town and Port Vale the only two teams enjoying prolonged spells in the old second division.

The side that currently represents Town is the worst I have ever seen in Town colours. That includes the one that had to seek re-election in 1954-55. For many campaigns since, I still feel the game with Bradford City at home that season (when we lost 4-1) was the worst ever.

This season the games I have been able to see include those at home against Rotherham and one away at Chesterfield. At best we were poor and at worst we were clueless, and those two fixtures must vie with the game all those 50 seasons ago as the worst ever.

Friends and colleagues of mine often try to put together the best team ever to represent the Mariners and the worst team ever to play in the black and white striped shirts. Sadly there are no current contenders for the former but real selection problems for the latter.

At least currently there's a chance for Neil Woods to look after his players promoted from the youth team. It cannot be a coincidence that after promising starts in the first team, most of the previous youngsters have never gone on to make any perceptible progress under recent management.

A flurry of interesting thoughts there from Neville. How does now compare with 'back in the day' for you? Do Neville's reminiscences have you thinking about anything else? Get in touch and we'll print your thoughts