It may sound unlikely for a team which was top of the league and had scored 53 league goals by the end of November to be in need of a confidence booster, but that’s how Rangers took the field on Saturday 3rd December against Bristol Rovers. A home defeat against Oldham, followed by a decidedly shaky win over non-league Poole Town in the FA Cup, had brought the R’s ever so slightly down to earth. Alec Stock made one change, bringing in Ian Watson at right-back for Tony Hazell, a position he would keep for the next two months until he was unfortunate enough to suffer one of Rangers’ rare injuries that season.
Rovers were one of the better sides in the division, and started brightly in an entertaining game that looked as though it could go either way, until Les Allen put us ahead with his 15th goal of the season. From then on it was business as usual, though it was significant that it was the older heads who steadied the ship, Les’s goal being added to by Mark Lazarus and Keith Sanderson in a much better performance that resulted in a fairly comfortable 3-0 victory.
League nerves settled, it was now time to consider other matters. For the first time ever Queens Park Rangers were in the last eight of a major cup competition. Please don’t tell me we played Royal Engineers at Trent Bridge in front of 200,000 people in 1642 or some such nonsense; although I do note - and this is true - that we played London Welsh, no less, in the FA Cup in 1899. Whether they were allowed to field 15 players and pick the ball up and run with it is unrecorded - but whatever they did, Rangers won 2-0.
Anyway I digress. In 1966 the League Cup was a big deal, with the carrot of the final being held at Wembley for the first time really bringing the competition to the fore. Not only had Rangers reached this stage, but they definitely fancied the job at hand, a home tie against Carlisle United. It was never going to be easy, though. Carlisle were a division higher, and had been consistently near the top of it all season.
Most of their play revolved around a diminutive Scottish inside-forward by the name of Willie Carlin, who was later to excel for Derby County, where he was something of a predecessor of Archie Gemmill, a very similar sort of player. Most teams worth their salt had a tricky Scottish inside-forward and/or winger in those days - although we didn’t, never being big on Scots. The tanner ball player of legend is now long disappeared, a whole generation seemingly lost to computer games, skag and deep fried Mars Bars.
Nineteen thousand expectant souls turned out on a cold but dry night to witness one of the most competitive games of the whole season. Carlisle were quite possibly the best footballing side Rangers had encountered and gave as good as they got throughout. Marsh put the R’s in front but a piece of opportunism from Carlin quickly levelled matters. Rodney got another in the second-half of what turned out to be a nailbiter, before the whistle blew on a gallant effort from Carlisle. It was the closest they ever got to Wembley. Queens Park Rangers, geographically the closest league club to Wembley - we were going to read that many times in the next few months - were now just one two-legged tie away from the real thing.
Into the semi-final hat with us went West Ham, World Cup trio and all, First Division West Brom, and the team we wanted and got, Second Division Birmingham. This gave us a fighting chance of getting to a possible dream all-London final. We had a tantalising six weeks to dream the dream, the first-leg not scheduled until January 17th.
The next two Saturdays saw Rangers back down to earth and back on the road with fairly routine fixtures, the first at Colchester. Away games were still off-limits for me, but the boys gave me a welcome 12th birthday present with a 3-1 win, courtesy of two goals from Roger Morgan, bringing him into double figures for the season, and one from Rodney, his 29th in all competitions - and still three weeks left of December.
The last footballing Saturday before Christmas saw us at Shrewsbury. The lower league was very much a mixture of the familiar and the mysterious back then. The familiar were the local sides, Orient, Watford, Reading, Gillingham, etc; and the seaside teams, Brighton, Bournemouth, Torquay. These were places that we might have actually been, though maybe not Torquay, then much too far and too glamourous for the workers. Nobody went up North unless they were a lorry driver or some such.
I had been to Norfolk with the family once and that was about it. The rest of the lower leagues was made up of names which seemed strangely romantic to the latent poet in me: Walsall, Bury, Oldham, Hull, Mansfield, Chesterfield. I had very little idea of where any of these places actually were, or how big the actual towns were, much less what the local industry was. I imagined them all as self-contained entities with their own distinctive way of life unchanged for many years - and in that aspect I was probably not far wrong. For example, Oldham in those days would certainly not have been a rundown suburb of Greater Manchester, but a town with its own economy based around the mill trade, and even its own dialect, celebrated in song by 60s folk group, the Oldham Tinkers. The world is a smaller place now, and in many ways a much less interesting one.
Like the poor, the Welsh were always with us of course. And then there was Shrewsbury. Where was it? Did we know or care? What we did know was that it wasn’t a particularly easy place to get a result, so in the circumstances a goalless draw, the first of the season, drew few complaints. I finally had cause to visit Shrewsbury about three or four years back, and found a charming town of great historical interest on the River Severn. Turn left at Birmingham and stop a few miles short of the Welsh border. I have still never seen a game at Gay Meadow and I fervently hope it survives long enough for me to do so.
I couldn’t have gone to Shrewsbury anyway, but on this particular day, 17th December 1966, I got taken to Stamford Bridge. I have to declare an interest here. It may cause a few jaws to drop among some of my compadres, but as a boy I had quite a lot of time for... Chelsea. There, I’ve said it. I’ve come out.
As I have said before in these pages our local rivalry was played out more against Watford and even Reading than our nearer neighbours. We never played any of the bigger teams. In the division above us were Charlton, who seemed to have been there for ever, and was another place I had scant geographical knowledge of, Palace, who had made good progress from the fourth just a few years before - and Millwall, who had just beaten us to a promotion place the previous season, despite being walloped 6-1 at our place. In the top flight were four teams who had been there for years. Arsenal were perennial mid-table non-entities, still trading on old glories. West Ham had much more recent glory to celebrate. FA Cup winners in 1964, Cup-Winners Cup victors famously at Wembley in 1965, and as some of their fans liked to claim, World Cup winners in 1966.
Stretching a point they undoubtedly were, but Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters were of course instrumental in English football’s finest hour, and the same man had ascended the Wembley steps to collect a trophy for the past three seasons, the great Robert Moore. At this stage he still had his eye on a unique record of picking up a fourth different trophy this season as well - the bauble we were gunning for, the League Cup. The Hammers never showed the consistency away from home to mount a serious league challenge, but on their day they could play football that few other teams could even dream about.
Tottenham were still London’s real glamour team, though it was now six seasons since they became the first in the 20th Century to do the League and Cup double with a team that included our own Les Allen, and they hadn’t won anything for four. They were still a formidable cup side, based around the talents of Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean, Dave Mackay, and the young Pat Jennings in goal. They had a very enthusiastic attacking wing-half newly signed from Fulham by the name of Alan Mullery, and I also remember a teenage full-back called Joe Kinnear getting into their team around this time.
Fulham were universally regarded as something of a joke, but this was probably unfair. They did seem to struggle season after season, but they always somehow managed to pull through. They had a World Cup hero of their own in George Cohen, and they had former England captain Johnny Haynes, now slightly past his best but still one of the best passers of a football you could ever see. In goal was the only native of Gibraltar ever to make his mark in professional football, one Tony Macedo, who was rather erratic and decidedly unrocklike.
There were a couple of bright young local lads on the wings, Steve Earle and Les Barrett, both of whom played for them for years, a talented Irish midfield player by the name of Jimmy Conway, and last but not least a young striker signed from Walsall, name of Allan Clarke, later of Leeds and England. Craven Cottage had terracing on three sides just as we did, and they could pull in almost 40,000 for a big game, most of them local as it was still very much a working class area at this time. It was a delightful sporting venue, and was of course largely unchanged until the evil Emir got his grubby hands on them. I went to the occasional game, and I’m surprising myself by how nostalgic I feel for them as I write this. And then there was Chelsea.
Chelsea had also been a joke team for many years, but things were changing thanks to a young, ambitious and ruthless manager by the name of Tommy Docherty, and the fruition of an excellent youth policy. What’s more, the new phenomenon of swinging London, largely centred around the King’s Road, meant that Chelsea the place was hip. I was actually going to school in Chelsea at this time, and a favourite pastime was to take the long way home carrying a small mirror, to be used for surreptitiously looking up the miniskirts of the many dolly birds (as they were quaintly known) that we would invariably encounter on our innocent way. Another favourite pastime was watching Chelsea FC.
Their rivalry was with Fulham, although a few tasty cup battles in recent years meant that the simmering hatred of Tottenham was just beginning to develop. They had little knowledge of or interest in QPR, although some of my classmates did express some grudging praise for our goalscoring exploits. They would hardly feel threatened by us, so they could allow themselves to be patronising. Our all-boys school of 500 pupils contained about 350 Chelsea supporters, 145 Fulham fans, exactly three QPR fans - and two who pressed wild flowers. I looked up one of the daisy pressers on Friends Reunited recently, strictly out of curiosity you understand, and he’s now got five kids - so it goes to show you never can tell, as Chuck Berry once said.
The truth was that Chelsea had some fantastic footballers. They had a goal machine in the great Bobby Tambling, who would surely have been an England regular in any other era, Peter Bonetti in goal, Scottish wizard of the dribble Charlie Cooke on the wing, and a slim, lithe, elegant centre-forward called Peter Osgood. Ever seen a tired looking arthritic prematurely aged piss-artist, dragged out occasionally to give an opinion when something’s been happening at Chelsea? Yes, one and the same. Oh and before we get carried away they also had Chopper Harris, whereas I can put my hand on my heart and state that QPR had no dirty players at this time.
Stamford Bridge was also a greyhound stadium. One of the prerequisites of a greyhound stadium is a dog track, which duly meant that one was never closer than 20 yards away from the action. I am extremely grateful for said dog track, because any chance of my head being swayed by the excellent football on offer was more than countered by the lack of atmosphere there was for all but the biggest games, which meant that whenever I did venture down there, I was always glad to be back at Loftus Road the following week, earwigging the banter between crowd, Les and Mark, and pretending I was playing on the wing.
Anyway, on this particular day I saw one of the greatest games I have ever seen - Chelsea 5 West Ham 5. This is still the only 5-5 draw I have ever witnessed. Eighteen years later, I missed one QPR home game all season. So you now know which one...
I was indeed privileged to be able to watch two such outstanding teams as the QPR and Chelsea teams of 66/67 on a regular basis as a pre-teen. I do hasten to add that the rather eccentric and loveable club that I had some affection for ceased to exist a long time ago. In 2002, Chelsea, with their rampant greed, their short-sighted and gleeful embrace of corporate capitalism and their shameless exploitation of their clueless supporters represent everything I despise in modern life in general and football in particular. RIP.
Christmas 1966. For the first time since the Beatles had been around, there was no new album out, the lads being ensconced in Abbey Road studios ingesting mind-expanding substances and working on their meisterwork to be released next summer. Sergeant Pepper is still regarded as a classic and is still bringing in the millions.
Tom Jones had been at number one for what seemed like an eternity with The Green Green Grass of Home. Now, I’m quite well disposed towards the old singing pit pony these days, very professional, doesn’t take himself too seriously - but I didn’t take such a mellow attitude back then. The charts and the radio were almost schizophrenic in those days, with classic pop and soul records having to compete with the likes of Ken Dodd, Des O’Connor and Engelbert for airplay.
I don’t recall what I got for Christmas - probably a tangerine and a clip round the ear - but I do remember being not at all happy, as we went to stay with relatives, which meant I missed the Boxing Day game against Brighton - 17,875 were able to go, and they witnessed what sounded like a fairly routine 3-0 win, goals courtesy of Sanderson, Lazarus and Marsh. As was the Yuletide custom back then the return fixture took place the very next day, an arrangement which often produced quite bizarre results and also meant that the spirit of good cheer was extremely likely to be conspicuous by its absence in the second game.
Just under 23,000 turned out, and there must surely have been a sizeable R’s contingent among them. Like the Cottage, the Goldstone was a fantastic place to watch football and is one of the great losses to the game in recent years. (REMEMBER: LOSE YOUR GROUND, LOSE YOUR IDENTITY, LOSE EVERYTHING.) The game itself was notable for the debut of young striker Alan Wilks, Les Allen sitting this one out. Brighton were a poor team, who spent all season hovering just above the relegation zone - but they made a fair game of this one, and Rangers came away with a 2-2 draw, goals from Roger Morgan and a debut goal from Wilks.
Four days later, New Years Eve, and one of the big games of the season, Watford at home. A profusion of new scarfs and bobble hats among the younger contingent, all of which would have been bought at local sport shops, as the concept of club shops and commercial departments had yet to take hold. Once again a crowd of almost 18,000 arrived with great expectations.
I would be a liar if I said I remembered exactly, but legend has it that it was at this game that an eerie cry was first heard at Loftus Road. The story goes that it was first heard anywhere four days previously at the Goldstone from the throats of a few R’s fans who had enjoyed rather a good Christmas. “RODDDDDDD- NEEEEEEEEEE, RODDDDDDD-NEEEEEEEE!”
This was soon taken up enthusiastically by the faithful, and would echo around every ground where Rangers played for years to come. Other clubs soon tried to copy it, slotting in the name of their own particular favourite, but it sounded as convincing as Palace supporters singing Blaydon Races. Our vocal tribute to our hero never sounded so inspiring as it did in its earliest days, a sound so pure that it signified an almost religious devotion, like a Gregorian chant or a song of devotion from a Tibetan monastery carried on the wind far across the Himalayas.
And so back to Watford. They had a useful team made up of bright forwards and experienced no-nonsense defenders, and were featuring strongly in the chasing pack. Only two promotion spots in those days, and they finished up missing out by one point to Middlesbrough. On this day they had no chance to compete, being outclassed from start to finish - 4-1 to the QPR, goals from Marsh (2), Lazarus, and most unexpectedly arriving at the far post to sweep a cross first time into the roof of the net, a joyous Frank Sibley.
Still only 19, Frank had become the youngest-ever QPR player when he appeared against Aldershot at the age of 15, a record he will surely always keep. He had established himself as a regular first teamer in 65/66 and had been the captain of the England Youth team. He was a very mature defender with an excellent positional sense sometimes let down by poor distribution, and it is difficult to speculate how far he might have gone in the game if his career hadn’t been cut short by injury. He played a full part this season, though, enjoying every minute of it. He later, of course, gave great service to the club in various capacities - a true R’s man if ever there was one.
Next week saw FA Cup second round day, for some reason being played when the third round should have been. There was a definite feeling among the supporters, and probably within the club as well, that this was a competition we didn’t really need, and this was reflected by a crowd of 12,000 which was below that of recent games but still 50 per cent up on last season’s average. A fairly routine performance - Rangers hardly needing to get out of second gear to win 2-0, goals from Mark Lazarus and a Jim Langley penalty.
January 14th brought Reading to Shepherds Bush for another clash against a club perceived to be our rivals and promotion candidates. They made a better fist of it than Watford, goals from Marsh and Roger Morgan giving Rangers a close 2-1 victory. Reading ended up fourth, one point behind Watford, which won no prizes back then.
If the R’s performance had been a little below par, it could be forgiven as they were three days away from probably the biggest game in the club’s history to that point - Birmingham City away in the semi-final of the Football League Cup. January 1967 saw Monkeemania sweeping the country, with the ersatz moptops at no.1 with I’m a Believer. We were. We most certainly were.
If the R’s performance had been a little below par, it could be forgiven as they were three days away from probably the biggest game in the club’s history to that point - Birmingham City away in the semi-final of the Football League Cup. January 1967 saw Monkeemania sweeping the country, with the ersatz moptops at number one with I’m a Believer. We were. We most certainly were.
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