Let’s start with the 6-0, as it’s fairly topical, and we have all had a couple of weeks to get over it. All you can do is move on from such a shocker, and I am sure most would agree that we have moved on pretty well!
In a similar vein, and looking back to 16th August 1980, we were coming off the back of a disappointing fifth-from-bottom finish in John Maggs’s first season as manager, and were looking for improvement in the season to come. Optimism was rife as we entertained Dorchester Town at Town Meadow in our opening Southern League game.
Maybe I exaggerate when I say “optimism”. “Hope” (with fingers crossed on both hands) would have been more accurate. However, by 5pm that sunny Saturday afternoon, optimism and hope had evaporated after enduring a 6-0 thrashing. Having said that, in his programme notes for a Southern League Cup match against Tonbridge 10 days later, Maggs himself was apparently optimistic, as he saw enough “to suggest we are travelling in the right direction” (this in the days before the dreaded “taking the positives” was routinely spouted by managers and media staff after their respective clubs have been stuffed!). Maggs’s views were not shared by the crowd of 305, but he was proven right: we would win the first leg of the League Cup tie at Tonbridge 2-1 (Trevor Smith and David Gates scorers) just two days after the Dorchester defeat, and would gain a fine win 3-2 win at Dover in the league on 23rd August.
For the first Tonbridge game, we were the first visitors (and victors!) at their new Longmead ground after their move from the Angel Ground that summer. The second leg (the one for which Maggs retained his optimism), on 26th August, would see fans asking Maggs for the winner of the 4.05 horse race at Haydock, as once more his “vision” was proven correct when we thumped Tonbridge 4-0 to progress to the second round 6-1 on aggregate.
On the following Saturday, 30th August, we would begin our FA Cup journey (often a quick pop round the corner!) with a routine-looking home tie against Kent League Deal Town. It got harder after just 45 seconds as our keeper, Steve Burton, was still sorting out his area, and with the defence also napping, we went one behind. Chances to equalise were wasted by top scorer Tony Mulhern, Brian Roberts and new signing Tim Newby (see pictured, having a shot), and as reported by Robin Williams in the Observer, “It took a half-time roasting from Maggs to send the team out with more purpose.”
This seemed to work when Mulhern headed home the equaliser in the first minute of the second half. Crawley then piled on the pressure, only for Deal keeper, Brian Curtis, to deny them on several occasions before a cross from long-serving left midfielder Vic Bragg was finished again by Mulhern to send us into the next round to face Haywards Heath. We won that match 1-0 but our “journey” would end at Ashford in the next round in a 3-0 defeat.
I have included a team line-up prior to the Haywards Heath first qualifying round match showing our players and management in the smart new club blazers, this being another Maggs innovation to try to instil more professionalism into the squad. Not sure it worked that well, but they look nice!
To illustrate the bizarre and unpredictable nature of football, a buoyant Dorchester Town would follow up their thrashing of Crawley by themselves being trounced 5-0 at home to Bognor in their next league match. This meant that when we faced Bognor ourselves at Town Meadow on 2nd September, we could reasonably expect to suffer a heavy defeat. However, once more the Maggs optimism shone through, and we came out 4-3 winners in an entertaining match with goals from David Gates, Newby and two from Mulhern, who would end the season with over 20 league goals.
That two-week period summed up our season of inconsistency, which yielded only four draws along with 18 wins and 24 losses and a 15th-place finish. There were highlights, though, such as back-to-back large home wins in January 1981. A 5-1 win against Chelmsford City (scorers Mulhern (2), Dave Easton, Brian Roberts and Newby) on 17th January was followed the next Saturday by a fine 5-2 win over rivals Dover (Mulhern with two more, Newby, Peter Ransom and Keith Perkins the other scorers). I include an action shot from the Chelmsford game, with Colin Poplett looking on as Barry Richardson (I think?) battles for the ball in the mud. You also have to admire those three hardy souls braving a wild and wet grass bank on a cold January day!
Another highlight was a massive 8-1 win over Margate on 28th April, avenging a 2-1 loss at Margate in September. This was our biggest win for 15 years. An electrifying start saw us 4-0 up after 14 minutes and 5-0 up by half-time, with goals from Keith Perkins, Terry Graves and a hat-trick from Newby. After Margate pulled one back early in the second half, Brian Roberts scored number six before Tony Mulhern turned provider in this game to lay on two goals for David Gates.
We followed this up with a fine 3-0 win at Salisbury in our last game of the season (Mulhern, Dave Sargent and an OG) to offer hope of better things to come the next season.
In Retro Red Devils number 3, I documented some of the 1981/2 season and, suffice to say, any optimism carried over from those wins didn’t survive another 6-0 home defeat on opening day, 15th August, this time to Addlestone. Unlike 1980/81, there were no big wins later in the season to console us as we finished fourth from bottom.
In fact, another ignominious 6-0 defeat at the hands of Lewes in a Sussex Senior Cup replay on 16th February 1982 only compounded the misery, as not only did it end our chances of silverware, but four of the goals were scored by Tony Mulhern who had left us to join Lewes in the summer.
Talk of big scores brings me to this week’s opponents, Tranmere, who we met at Broadfield almost exactly 11 years ago on 22nd September 2012 in our first season in League One. We had started the season well under new manager Richie Barker, with two fine wins in the League Cup. The first, on 14th August 2012, at Millwall, winning on penalties after a 2-2 draw (Hope Akpan and Nicky Adams), then following this in round two by beating a Bolton Wanderers side just relegated from the Premier League 2-1, with goals from Billy Clarke and a late winner from Nicky Ajose. Our league form had also included stand-out wins at Doncaster and Preston, although an undeserved 3-0 home defeat by Portsmouth in front of the TV cameras – thank you referee Darren Deadman for reducing us to nine men – was hard to take.
However, as that Portsmouth defeat was followed by the 2-1 win at Preston (two goals from Gary Alexander) and a solid 1-1 draw at Colchester (a Kyle McFadzean goal), we were sitting in fourth place and optimism was high for the visit of unbeaten top-of-the-table Tranmere. We got off to the worst possible start, conceding after one minute, but Josh Simpson equalised on 12 minutes, with McFadzean volleying home (see picture in programme centre-spread from next home game) to put us in front four minutes later. Sadly, we conceded a soft goal just before half-time and another just after half-time, and then compounded it with another error to gift Tranmere a 4-2 lead. We played some fine football and created many chances but couldn’t beat Fon Williams in the Tranmere goal and conceded yet another goal in the last minute to cap a very disappointing afternoon.
That first season in League One was, though, a fantastic achievement for our small club. Winning nine away games, including one of my all-time favourite away-days, a 2-0 win at Sheffield United, took us all the way to a 10th-place finish.
Doncaster would finish as champions that season, ahead of Bournemouth, with, amazingly, Yeovil overcoming both Brentford and Sheffield United to win the play-offs and reach the Championship. Relegated to League Two were Scunthorpe United, Hartlepool, Bury and Portsmouth.
If you have any memories or items to share for these articles, please let me know!