Tuesday 17th January 1967. Almost six months had passed since the season kicked off with a 2-2 draw against Shrewsbury. Even the wildest of optimists could not have predicted the giant strides the R’s, as a team, and QPR, as a club, had made in this short time. Miles clear at the top of Division Three, with a staggering goals tally of 72; our young players the target for top teams - and, even more unbelievably, all offers rejected; safely through to the FA Cup third round, albeit almost an afterthought; and now, first and foremost in our minds, in the Football League Cup semi-final.
If the fourth round tie against Leicester was the game when R’s fans realised something rather special was occurring in Shepherd’s Bush, the game against Birmingham at St Andrews was the one when football fans all over the country began to take notice of a club that plenty of people in London still vaguely thought might be somewhere in the Scottish League. The game was televised for one thing. Not live, of course. You had to be in the FA Cup Final or European Cup Final for that honour back then, but highlights on BBC.
Like just about everything in our sport, TV football was very different back then. Cup Finals were shown live and maybe a very occasional international - but not England home games. The rest was highlights. Match of the Day on Saturday night was one game and one game only - tough luck if it was 0-0. There were no cameras at any other grounds, and there was a strict rota system ensuring that all teams got a share of the exposure, including Division Two, though not usually Divisions Three or Four. (I must admit that I do remember Chelsea being on rather a lot, though). ITV’s offering was Star Soccer, which was the regular Sunday lunch ritual. This was a regional affair - and just as likely to show Palace as they were Tottenham.
They also had a slight advantage over BBC as they had access to brief highlights from Granada, so you would see goals from Manchester United and Manchester City fairly regularly, and maybe some European highlights in midweek - eagerly awaited as it was easy to avoid the score. And that was about your lot. And do you know what? It was so much better like that. For any regular supporter - i.e. someone who actually gets off their arse and goes to games - that should be enough. Kick-off times were sacrosanct. A pox on the houses of armchair experts who see - or rather think they see - six or seven games a week, and try to tell us what’s going on. Notice the running off the ball? No, you wouldn’t, would you.
Actually, never mind avoiding the score, back then it was a task to actually find out the score if you weren’t actually there, Teletext being a good 10 years away. So come 10.00pm, I was in happy ignorance as I watched my Hoops appear on the small screen for the first time ever. I remember it as being foggy - or maybe the lights weren’t up to scratch. A crowd of 34,000, including a large contingent of R’s fans, made up the biggest attendance at any QPR game since relegation 15 years previously.
Rangers couldn’t really have made a worse start, Barry Bridges, formerly of Chelsea and later to be a Hoop, scoring from a corner after only four minutes. I was certainly filled with a sense of foreboding, as were most of us. This was a game that never promised to be a picnic. Birmingham were top six in Division Two, with a good home record, and several name players in addition to Bridges. I particularly remember bearded Welsh winger Trevor Hockey and dangerous striker Geoff Vowden.
Had Rangers finally wandered out of their depth? Well, no actually. It soon become apparent that Birmingham were not really all they had been cracked up to be - and they huffed and puffed to no great effect for the rest of the first-half against a Rangers team that did not remotely begin to settle.
So, 0-1 at half-time, another Alec Stock and Bill Dodgin magical team talk. Rangers came out for the second-half with a real sense of belief and purpose. Within minutes, Rodney Marsh rose magnificently to power home a corner at the near post. Rod’s ability in the air wasn’t the most noted part of his game, but he did get his share. From then on there was only one team in it. I really can’t remember the goals. I just remember a blur of sheer excitement. But history tells us that Roger Morgan, Mark Lazarus and Les Allen all scored as Birmingham were ripped apart - 4-1 to the QPR.
Being on television for the first time was rapidly followed by being next morning’s back-page headlines for the first time in many a long year. The country woke up to find that, barring a disaster in the second-leg, a Third Division team had made it to Wembley. It was also fairly clear who our opponents would be, as West Ham, complete with Hurst, Moore and Peters, had once again shown their achilles heel of woeful away form, and got a right tonking at West Brom, 4-0. So a London-Midlands clash was more or less guaranteed on March 4, though not the one that most experts had predicted.
We had three weeks to wait before the second-leg. Three very long weeks in which we had three league games to play and the irrelevance of a third round FA Cup tie. It was only when I came to research this article, I discovered that these four games rendered the sum total of two goals and no wins - quite a shock when the initial memory is always of a constant stream of four-, five- and six-goal feasts.
Six goals we had indeed witnessed earlier in the season in one of my most fondly remembered games, against Doncaster. No repeat in the away fixture, however. In our last visit to Belle Vue for 18 years - I was to stand on the sorry, freezing terraces and sample the worst pie of all time (filling: pork jelly and water), and watch our ritual mid-80s’ meek third round surrender to lower league opposition - we got a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Mike Keen goal.
Seven days on and it was a third round surrender to higher league opposition. Sheffield Wednesday were one of the leading clubs in the land throughout the 60s. They regularly finished in the top six without ever really threatening to win the league, and were a renowned cup team. Their last FA Cup tie had, in fact, been at Wembley, where they conceded a 2-0 lead to Everton in a dramatic final. There was to be an even more dramatic final at Wembley in five weeks’ time - but more of that later.
The main... well, only talking point of this game was that it featured two brothers in the opposing goals. Ron Springett, for it was he, was something of a legend at Loftus Road, which he had left eight years previously to join Wednesday. He was one of the very few QPR players who had not only made it in the big time, but had become an established international, being England’s number one for several years at a stretch in the early 60s, including the 1962 World Cup in Chile. By now he was down to three in the pecking order - but this was still good enough to have earned him a place in the World Cup winning squad, though needless to say he didn’t get a game.
Brother Peter was nine years Ron’s junior and had made his QPR debut two weeks after his 17th birthday, in 1963. Of all the players in the R’s team of 1966/67, Peter Springett is the one of whom it is really impossible for me to assess his ability. Too young to go away, I never really saw him under any pressure at home games. I can’t remember any real howlers, or blinding saves either.
There were 40,000 spectators at Hillsborough, then possibly the most modern stadium in the country and home to West Germany in the 1966 World Cup. I think there was a general feeling amongst management, players and supporters that this really was a bridge too far for Rangers, and I don’t remember anyone being too bothered about the end result - 3-0 to the Owls.
The one weakness we had at this time was that there was no height at all in the central defence. Ron Hunt was no more than 5’ 9” - and Frank Sibley was about the same. It didn’t really matter in Division Three, as the opposition rarely got the ball - but Wednesday had just the centre-forward to exploit the situation. John Ritchie was big, slow and deadly in the air, and duly helped himself to a hat-trick. Wednesday went on to the quarter-final, where they lost to Chelsea. Queens Park Rangers had other fish to fry.
At least Peter Springett must have done something to impress the Wednesday management, as it was to be only four months later that the celebrated ‘brother ‘keepers transfer swap’ took place, with big brother Ron, by then slightly shopworn if the truth be known, returning to his spiritual home. Peter played up there for years. Having said how difficult it is for me to judge his ability as a QPR player, I can tell you most emphatically that on 6th November 1973 he was awful, letting in eight at Loftus Road in a League Cup tie against the team of Bowles, Francis, Givens et al. He certainly liked the South Yorkshire area, moving on to Barnsley for a spell before giving up the game to pound the beat as one of Sheffield’s finest.
The following Saturday, Mansfield Town provided the opposition at Loftus Road. Seven goals had gone into their net at Field Mill, so it was with some astonishment that we witnessed what was in those days the rarity of a goalless draw, quite possibly the first one I had ever seen. Determined to avoid another humiliation, the Stags packed their penalty-box for the 90 minutes - and the R’s, with a massive cushion at the top of the table, and their minds understandably on the second-leg against Brum, didn’t exactly bust a gut to break them down. Highly irregular.
So to Tuesday 7th February, the one we had been waiting for - the second-leg. A crowd of 24,000, BBC cameras present, giddy excitement all round. Birmingham must have known they had precious little chance of getting three goals back but to their credit they made a game of it - and half-time came with no goals and few chances. Rangers seemed noticeably more relaxed after the break, particularly Rodney, who seemed to realise he had an audience ripe for impressing.
He duly put us ahead with a snap shot from the edge of the area, and from then on it was exhibition time. Birmingham still continued to press, only to leave themselves open to a long ball from the back, finding Marsh with a clear run on goal from the halfway line - 2-0. They did get one back, but a trademark header from Mike Keen made it 3-1 at the close. Then it started to sink in. We were going to Wembley. In less than four weeks’ time a QPR team would walk out to play West Brom, emphatic winners over West Ham, 6-2 on aggregate.
Next day saw more headlines, radio interviews, the lot. For long-time fans it must have taken an age to sink in. Not that the team didn’t deserve it, far from it. But Wembley? A Cup Final? It just wasn’t a QPR thing, you dig. Away games at Grimsby, on the other hand, were very much a QPR thing, and so it was back to earth on Saturday - if Cleethorpes is of this earth. The goal blight in the league continued. The Mariners had conceded five at the Bush, but Blundell Park was no easier place to get a result from then than it is now - and the R’s were glad to come away with a 1-1 draw, the scorer Ian Morgan, who was in for Keith Sanderson. So, three teams who we had scored no less than 18 goals against earlier in the season kept us down to a total of two.
In fact no more home games were scheduled between the semi-final and final. Under normal circumstances, three away games on the spin would seem a bit much, but it was probably something of a blessing that the almost unbelievable excitement building up in Shepherds Bush and the surrounding area wasn’t given the opportunity to create too much tension at a home game.
Next on the tour was Peterborough, where an own-goal and one from Mark Lazarus gave us a fairly routine 2-0 victory. The last Saturday of February, and the last fixture before the game, took the R’s down to Swansea. Les Allen had a slight knock, so no chances were taken and Alan Wilks played alongside Rodney up front. The Swans had given us two hard games at the Bush in the league and League Cup, but they were now in a slump which would see them relegated at the end of the season, and were brushed aside fairly easily, courtesy of a Mark Lazarus hat-trick.
For a Third Division team, we didn’t half have some personalities in our side. They fell into two quite separate types, as did all working men and women at that time (the Division Three professional still being very much a working man back then). There were those born before World War Two, and those born at the tail end, or after. Those born before, such as Jimmy Langley (born 1929) and Les Allen (1937), couldn’t have avoided knowing something about hardship.
They would have known evacuation, forced separation from their parents; and they would almost certainly have witnessed large-scale destruction - and more than likely have experienced personal loss. They would certainly remember food rationing, which lingered on into the 50s. It is also fairly certain that they would have been copped for National Service themselves before it was abolished about 10 years previously. Your average 30-year-old looked and probably felt a much older man back then.
Those born later, Rodney Marsh (1944), the Morgan twins (1946), Peter Springett (1946), Tony Hazell and Frank Sibley (both 1947), grew up in a different world. They certainly wouldn’t have had the material possessions that kids have now - but they would have known a security alien to their older colleagues. The generation gap was very real back then, and a 28-year-old would usually have more in common with his parents than he would with a teenager. A streetwise Cockney such as Les Allen was a world away from the Beatle-browed twins, though separated by only nine years.
Mark Lazarus (born 1938) was very much of the former category but still very much his own man at the same time. Lower league pros were a conventional breed when he signed on for Leyton Orient in the 1950s. Short back and sides, 15 quid a week if you were lucky (and very grateful for it too, guv), 12 laps of the pitch in what appeared to be army boots for training, and a cup of tea in the cafe on the way home. No sponsorship, very little television, no overseas players.
Part of a well-known East End Jewish family, with an elder brother who was at one time a rated middleweight fighting under the name of Lew Lazar, Mark was always going to be a personality in this environment. Alec Stock first signed him for Rangers in 1960 for three grand. He had pace, aggression, scored goals with both feet, and was good in the air too. Averaging a goal every other game, he quickly proved himself the best winger in the Third Division - which meant that, as a QPR player, he had to be sold. He went to mighty First Division Wolves for a then massive £27,500.
But not for long. In those pre-motorway days, Wolverhampton was a long, long way away and Mark, who was an East End boy if ever there was one, predictably couldn’t settle. Five months later, after a handful of games which would turn out to be the sum total of First Division appearances in his career, and one goal, he came back to Rangers for little more than half the fee.
It wasn’t to be the first time. Warmly welcomed back by the supporters, who were hardly used to good players actually coming back to the club, Mark picked up where he had left off. The QPR team of that era was nothing if not prolific. Incredibly, in the two seasons 1961/62 and 1962/63 they managed to score 196 league goals without getting promoted, Mark getting his share with 30. The next season an ageing team began to fall apart and Mark seemed to lose his way. He was transferred to Brentford in early 1964.
Eighteen months later, Alec Stock decided he needed an experienced wing-man to play alongside the promising youngsters who were fast emerging. Welcome back Mark Lazarus. He had hardly pulled up any trees as a Brentford player but a hooped shirt seemed to bring out the best in him. He obliged with 11 goals in 28 games from the right-wing. Third place again, not good enough. But that was last season and this was this. The greatest day in Mark Lazarus’s career was just seven days away.
A long week it was too. My schoolmates were now getting curious and a little bit resentful of the attention Rangers were getting. But the main talking point in our class was the Chelsea v Fulham derby to be played on the same day as the Final, so I escaped most of the heat.
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