Modern Non-League History
1977-78 Non-League Season
After discussing football publications throughout ‘The Seventies’ with Alan Smith, Chairman of the publishers Queen Anne Press, we had come to the conclusion that non-league football deserved and would be able to support, an annual publication of its own.
Non-League football had enjoyed a number of monthly magazines, including Greg Tesser’s Amateur Footballer and our efforts at Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly, but the title that had become very popular during ‘The Seventies’ was ‘Netstretcher’ edited by Jim Voiels and Barry Lenton (of Marine fame) - but there were no annuals.
I was working closely with Ted Croker, I knew the popular Secretary of The Football Association was in favour of the idea. He was a real football person, an ex-player himself, with Football League experience and a wide knowledge of the non-league game, which certainly made up 95% of all football in the country. It was undoubtedly the national sport and was generally attracting good support throughout the country.
It was decided we should start with a pocket book size publication, but it was pleasing to be labelled a ‘Playfair Annual’ as the well established publishers had a good reputation. With Rothmans retiring from Sports Sponsorship I had appreciated their offer of a marketing position with them, but had decided to become independent and launched ‘Tony Williams (Football Promotions) Ltd. on 1st August 1977. I was lucky to have some good friends at the tobacco company who gave me encouragement and support as I started out on my own.
In 1978, officials of the major leagues featuring senior clubs outside The Football League, were negotiating to form an alliance to provide an official non-league top club at the top of the non-league pyramid.
At the time, clubs with ambitions of Football League membership could apply at the end of a season. However, they would be competing against the two clubs at the foot of the old Division Four and they felt it was usually a ‘closed shop with the Football league clubs deciding membership by voting. It was hoped that if just the champions of a national senior non-league competition applied for promotion, they would have a better chance of election or possibly even an automatic promotion linked with relegation.
Although it was generally known as a ‘closed shop’, with Football League clubs rallying round their colleagues, in this particular close season Wigan Athletic, runners -up in the Northern Premier league, were voted in to take the place of Southport.
The Southern League had produced some powerful semi-professional clubs in recent seasons with Bedford Town, Kettering Town, Weymouth and Yeovil Town the big attractions, but in 1977-1978 it was Bath City who took the championship under the guidance of Brian Godfrey and Bert Head. Another West Country success story was provided by Minehead’s tall striker Andy Leitch, who scored in six consecutive FA Cup ties before the Somerset club lost to Exeter City in the First Round Proper.
The Southern League clubs’ rivals in the South of England were the amateurs of the Isthmian League who also had a number of ’big clubs’ who were expected to dominate. In fact Enfield, who retained their championship, Dagenham and Wycombe Wanderers finished in the top three for the third consecutive season. Enfield also possessed a form striker in Keith Searle. who completed his fifth consecutive Isthmian championship season out of a total of seven- four with Wycombe Wanderers and three with Enfield! What a record!
With many ‘amateur’ clubs covering their players expenses generously, it was good to see two traditionally strict clubs, Dulwich Hamlet and Oxford City, who had lost their senior status, promoted back to the Isthmian Premier Division. Epsom & Ewell and Metropolitan Police also celebrated promotion and it was encouraging to see the Isthmians three divisions providing exciting promotion and relegation battles.
The Cheshire County League also had plans to expand and regional pyramid systems were being considered in many areas with the knowledge that a national ‘Football Alliance’ was likely to be in place by 1979-1980 campaign.
With the abolition of ‘the Amateur’ and The FA Amateur Cup in 1974, footballers outside the Football League were left without any representative football and no chance to represent their country. This was obviously not good for English football and the Football Association were aware that representative honours were very important at all levels. Especially for our best players who had not become full time professionals.
I knew that at my very ordinary level of the game, I had been thrilled to have been selected for F.A.XI’s against London University and The Royal Navy and being told that these games were ‘trials’ for The Amateur International side. Although I never moved on up to the full team, at least I felt I had been considered and I was very proud to have played in an FA shirt. In the new football structure where was the International team for non-league players ?
I had enjoyed my time as Rothmans special events manager for football. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect job. When England had joined the Common Market, a competitive price for King Size cigarettes was extremely important, so the company had pulled out of all sports sponsorship to save money and challenge in Europe with competitive prices for the Rothmans Kingsize, Piccadilly, Dunhill and Peter Styvescent brands.
Consequently the 1977-1978 season was the last for the Rothmans sponsorship of the Isthmian, Northern, Western and Hellenic Leagues. But inter league representative matches had been taken seriously by the players and of course the League Officials, who considered success in these games important when stressing the ‘pecking order’ of their individual leagues. If the Western or Hellenic ever beat the Northern or Isthmian league the banter would last at least a season!
The Rothmans News and Annuals were fun to publish and all helped to promote Non-League football. As the first serious sponsors, Rothmans showed the football world the possibilities of sponsorship, they were the pioneers and a look at the amounts of money received by clubs, cup and league competitions since those days, shows how important the Rothmans example was to modern football.
Much emphasis was put on rewarding disciplined football, with poor sportsmanship seen to be losing the club money. Consequently clubs in the sponsored leagues were the best behaved and in cup football very successful. Perhaps match officials appreciated the lack of abuse and arguing!
The Rothmans sponsorship had sent the message throughout football that sponsors can benefit the game in general, its leagues and its clubs at practically all levels. In fact in The Isthmian’s League’s Centenary book they recorded that their decision to accept Rothmans sponsorship had made ‘football in the four sponsored leagues more enjoyable to play and to watch’.
The ideas presented by Jimmy Hill and Doug Insole had been ideal to promote positive and sporting football. Three points instead of two for a victory and goal difference instead of goal average were two innovations that were soon to be copied nationally. To qualify for any prize money at the end of season, clubs had to retain at least one of their eight sportsmanship points, one of which was deducted for a booking and four for a sending off. When you realize that 60% of clubs in the four competitions qualified for the end of season awards in each year of sponsorship, one wonders how the game has changed to to-day’s sad situation where some clubs lose eight points in a single match.
The Isthmian League quickly signed up separate companies to provide different awards but Berger Paints emerged as their main sponsor and The Eastern Counties League became the first senior competition to announce a sponsor with Magnet & Planet (later to be known as The‘Town & Country’ Eastern League).
All Leagues were now fully aware of sponsorship possibilities and all regions realized that a new national non-league competition, possibly feeding The Football League, might well appreciate and welcome an extension of the pyramid at lower levels.
It was an exciting time and one where changes were obviously going to be considered.
Publications & Articles
We felt our publication could give the thousands of television viewers a useful and attractive magazine acting as a 96 page programme. The Football Association gave it official backing and once again Ted Croker was most helpful and we were all very pleased with the reaction to ‘The Official FA Cup Review 1978’ (pictured above). In fact future matchday programmes at Wembley developed in a similar fashion!
THE FA CUP
FA Cup Last 32 1977-78
The highlight of the season for the non-league enthusiasts was the wonderful FA Cup run by Blyth Spartans, another Northern League club, whose battling cup spirit saw them through ten games before losing to Wrexham (who had already beaten Newcastle United 4-1) by the odd goal in three, in front of 42,157 at Newcastle. Chesterfield and Stoke City were their famous League scalps, with the little North Eastern club actually featuring in the FA Cup Sixth Round draw and if chances had been taken against Wrexham, The Spartans might even have qualified to play Arsenal in The Quarter Final.
There was another FA Cup bonus in the 1977-1978 season, as Debenhams had offered a sponsored trophy to be contested by the last two clubs outside Divisions One and Two to survive in the FA Cup competition. Ironically, they turned out to be Blyth Spartans and Wrexham, with the Northern League club winning the two legged final 3-2 and Spartans collecting over £40,000 profit through all their cup exploits in a memorable season.
Stoke City’s Jeff Cook crashes his shot into the top of the net with the Tilbury defence in a tangle.
A wonderful action shot of the Bideford Town keeper’s vain attempt to stop Portsmouth scoring.
THE FA TROPHY
Northern Dominance of The FA Trophy
The FA Challenge Trophy had been introduced in 1970 for the Semi-Professional clubs to have their own national knockout competition with a Wembley Final. The Southern and Northern Premier Leagues being the senior semi-professional competitions were supposedly of equal strength, but in the first nine Finals, eight had been won by N.P.L. clubs!
This year had been no exception, as Altrincham had beaten Leatherhead 2-1 with two real characters gracing the Wembley stage. Chris Kelly had been featured on television as an outspoken genius and speedy ball playing striker who had inspired the Leatherhead F.A. Cup run in 1974-75, but was faced by Alty’s John King, a captain in the Ron Harris mode.
Kelly’s early wonder strike hit the crossbar but Altrincham’s experience was eventually too much for the ’Leatherhead Lip, so ‘The Trophy winners challenge’ read North 8 South 1. The Surrey club also lost their Surrey and London Senior Cup Finals, so it was a bitter sweet season for their excellent manager Billy Miller.
THE FA VASE
The FA Vase proved to be extremely emotional for me as Hungerford Town’s General Manager. We had built a good cup reputation during the Rothmans Hellenic League’s sponsored years and one of my best days in football was Hungerford‘s Vase victory away at Billericay Town in 1978, the Essex club who had won the competition in the two previous seasons.
A famous victory made Hungerford the new favourites and sadly, on reflection, we became over confident and lost to Barton Rovers in a semi-final replay after winning the first leg away. Unfortunately, Hungerford were to lose twice more at the Semi-Final stage in 1980
and 1989. It’s the very worst time to lose a cup tie but the memories of The Billericay victory will always be very positive!
Newcastle Blue Star beat Barton Rovers 2-1 to win The FA Vase at Wembley and brought their goals tally in the competition to thirty. They enjoyed a wonderful season, also finishing second in the Wearside League with their main striker Ian Crumplin scoring 50 goals in the campaign.
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