Six Decades of Non League Football by Doug Palmer

AFCRD volunteer, member and supporter gives a great insight into his journey through Non league over the last 60 years.

PART ONE; MY UNITED YEARS

At age 14 I commenced a love affair that almost 60 years later is still going strong, albeit with some rough patches along the way, in fact my love is stronger now than it has ever been! .….. A love affair that at times consumed every moment of my day. This “love” has taken me to hundreds of destinations around England and Wales and involved more than one partner! 

My passion has been following non- league football, and the Southern League in particular. It is only now that as I look back I realize just how many grounds I have visited since my first visit to the Pilot Field, home of Hastings United. 

In almost 60 years I have travelled to some beautiful grounds and some not so beautiful in the Southern League, the Northern Premier League, The United Counties as well as the National League and Football League.

My “love affair” started as season 1962-3 commenced. My home town team, Hastings United, competing in the Southern league First Division, were embarking on a new chapter. Since experiencing some epic FA Cup ties in the mid- fifties, against principally Swindon, Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich, the club had spiraled into mediocrity. The appointment of Ted Ballard was to change all that! 

Up to that date I had no interest in local football, but Ballards’ son was to become a classmate at my school so along with several of my friends we began to go to the Pilot Field and like most young people wanted to support a winning team. And United very soon became just that. Playing in the Southern League First Division they began winning games and were soon well up near the top of the table and the dream of promotion was coming ever closer to reality. For us youngsters the stars were wingers Gordon Burden and Alan Back and the dashing Terry Marshall at inside forward alongside former Hungarian Youth international Bela Olah and the rumbustious Joe White…..five forwards in those days!

All was going well, with a 17 match unbeaten run up to Boxing Day. That night the snow started to fall and over the next few days the whole country was blanketed in what seemed like six feet of snow, and the icy conditions prevailed until mid-March before clubs were able to resume playing matches. (This current Covid 19 pandemic was not the first time that calls were made to curtail the season).

Being 58 years ago my memory is not so good as to remember exactly where United stood at the resumption of play but what I do recall is that they were immediately required to play away games on successive nights at Hinckley Athletic and Nuneaton Borough. Both were serious promotion rivals. At that time the only way to “get the result” was to look in the next mornings’ papers, if indeed they did publish non-league results at all! But my step fathers nephew was Joe White, United’s centre forward, and he phoned the results through to our local pub and subsequently on both evenings I was woken from my sleep to be told we had won on each occasion!

At the end of the season Margate were crowned Champions, Hinckley 2nd and Hastings United 3rdand promotion to the Premier Division was assured.

The season ’63-64 was to be United’s most successful league campaign in their 38 years history finishing in 6th place behind champions Yeovil Town. Journeys were made to far flung destinations such as Merthyr, Cambridge, Weymouth, Wisbech, Worcester and Hereford. If my memory serves me right it was this season that United beat Kettering Town 7-2 at the Pilot Field. I only mention this here because in much later years The Poppies were to become my “most hated” team. (To be fair to Kettering, their goalie broke his arm and was taken to hospital! And no subs in those days.)

The glory days were not to last! The following seasons were like the proverbial yo-yo as Hastings were relegated back to the First Division. But once more bounced back, two years later, (1966-67) scoring 127 goals in the process only yet again to be relegated the following season scoring a paltry 33 goals.!

The most exciting aspect of the mid- sixties was the signing of former England  centre forward Bobby Smith who only 3 years earlier had been playing for Tottenhams Double winning team in the First Division. His arrival made the back pages of all the national newspapers. I was present at his first game for Hastings, away on a Monday evening to Ashford Town. Over 3000 fans and the press packed into their Essella Park ground and witnessed his arrival with a glancing headed goal in a 3-1 victory. Sadly, his time at Hastings was mired in controversy as Smith continually failed to appear for training and he was finally sacked after less than a year at the club.

Over the next decade as I progressed from schoolboy to young adult my involvement with the club became more intense, almost every day of the week I had some connection, either watching matches home and away or working on ground improvements or canvassing what seemed like every house in Hastings to drum up support for the club lottery. we managed to recruit 15000 members each paying one shilling (5p) a week. For the season 1968-69 I even gave up my employment with the local council to work full time as a fund raiser for United.

When I bought my first car I no longer needed to travel to games on the supporters coach (much to the relief of some of our elder supporters as we were rather noisy and dare I say it, sang some “naughty” songs occupying the back seats of the coach). I embarked on many long journeys with my two companions. I particularly remember driving to Hereford on a Bank Holiday Saturday where John Charles the former Wales international was playing…we lost 0-7 and then camping for a couple of nights in the Wye Valley before moving on to Cheltenham two days later..again we lost!. 

Throughout the seventies fortunes continued to fluctuate with most seasons finishing mid table. The early seventies (or was it late sixties)  was most notable for the Chairmanship of Jim Humphries a notorious London “businessman” who brought Dave Underwood to the club as manager and some characters that were to go on to make their names elsewhere ,notably Ricky George and Billy Meadows as part of Herefords FA Cup giant killing of Newcastle in 1972.

By the eighties United were plying their trade in the Southern League South Division and it was at this time my job was responsible for my moving to Northamptonshire and onto the next stage of my football love affair. But not before a 10 year estrangement from my “love”.

Maybe it was meant to be. I departed Hastings in 1982 and my interest in my home town club waned at the same time as the club was beset by financial woes and finally ceased to exist in 1985. The current Hastings United playing in the Isthmian league are not a phoenix club, but were Hastings Town which was another local club who took United’s place in the Southern League and 15 years later renamed themselves Hastings United. Despite regular visits to my family in East Sussex, to this day I have never seen a match at the Pilot Field and have little or no affinity to the present club.

PART TWO; THE DIAMOND YEARS

From 1985 for the best part of a decade I took little interest in any level of football owing to my new employment taking over my life, not having any allegiance to any local team and the soccer hooliganism at the time causing me to despair of ever loving the beautiful game again.

But in the background an event of seismic proportions was unfolding.

In 1992 two local clubs Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds both faced severe financial difficulties and turned to local businessman Max Griggs for help. Griggs, the owner of the Dr Martens boot franchise, agreed to assist both clubs on condition that they merged to form one club. The new club to be known as Rushden and Diamonds FC very soon started to climb their way up the Southern League.   It is not my intention here to repeat what is already a very well documented story of the Diamonds rise to the Football League and back again, but to detail my personal involvement with what has become an obsession and a labour of love in my retirement years.  ­

In their first season, with Roger Ashby at the helm, R & D finished third in the Midlands Division of the Southern League. The following season they were crowned Champions.

It was at the very end of the 94-95 season that I entered Nene Park for the very first time. To be precise it was Sunday 23rd April. The opponents were none other than Hastings Town whose captain was Terry White, another of my step fathers nephews. The home team won 3-1. I have to be honest my support that day was predominately for Town! However, I was impressed enough with the set up at the club to decide to get to more games the following season.

True to my word I managed to get to about a dozen home matches in season 95-96 and claimed “my space” on the Peter De Banke Terrace. The highlight of that season was the final game. Diamonds needed to win at home against  Merthyr to claim the Championship once again, and promotion to the Football Conference in just  four years. A crowd of over 4000 packed into the ground, some fans were even on the roof of the main stand. Diamonds raced into a 3-0 lead through Carl Alford, their record £85k signing from Kettering Town, Gary Butterworth, who was to make a record 371  appearances and Darren Collins, who was to become the clubs all-time top goal scorer with 152 goals but then the nerves set in and Merthyr pulled back two goals. However, Diamonds were not to be denied and that day I became a truly committed fan.

The first season in the Conference was not going to plan and relegation was a real possibility undoing all the great work … and money …that had been ploughed into the club. The turning point was the appointment of Brian Talbot as manager. The first game I witnessed under his management was at Ketterings Rockingham Road. An incredible 5-1 victory. (The first of many wins between the local rivals over the next decade). Diamonds finished that season in 14th place.

The next three seasons were always exciting, it seemed that every game was vital, but finishing 4th,2nd and 2nd again Diamonds failed to secure their place in the promised land of the Football League.  One game in particular remains indelibly stamped in my memory. Alas for the wrong reasons. It was season 98-99 with Rushden and Cheltenham battling it out for promotion to the Football League. I was unable to get to the match so was listening to Radio Diamonds in my car. At 85minutes on the clock Rushden led 1-0, it was bad enough when Cheltenham equalized but then they scored the winner!!. How I did not crash the car I do not know.

What the club did achieve though were some fantastic FA Cup ties. Defeats of League Clubs Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe, both at Nene Park. January 2000 witnessed the most famous game in the clubs’ history. A third round 0-0 draw against Premier giants Leeds United and a ground record attendance of over 6000. In the replay, which I listened to on the radio, Diamonds scored first through Carl Heggs but Leeds ultimately ran out 3-1 winners. The following season Sheffield United were the 3rd round opponents. ( An odd occurrence here as Diamonds became the first non-league club to play twice in the third round of the FA Cup in the same calendar year, as the dates for each round that season were brought forward to allow the national team to finish the season early in time for the World Cup.) After a 0-0 draw at Bramall Lane where Billy Turley saved a penalty the replay went to extra time after captain Ray Warburton had cancelled out the United opener.   Ultimately it was to be the dreaded penalty shoot-out that decided the game. Both sides scored the perfect five but sadly Diamonds missed the their sixth and United moved into the next round.  

Promotion to the Football League was finally achieved in 2001. In a nerve wracking finale only Yeovil Town stood between Diamonds and their goal. An evening I will never forget. Yeovil’s penultimate game of the season was at Hereford on the Tuesday before the final day of the season. No twitter in those days, just Teletext updates. At 9.30 the score was 2-2 so it was going to go the wire on Saturday at Chester. But what happened next sent myself and my lodger into delirious joy. Hereford scored in the final moments and Diamonds were Champions. Out came the bubbly.

The next 5 years as a Football League club were again the proverbial “roller coaster”. Fourth Division Play Off finalists, losing at the Millenium Stadium to Cheltenham, Champions on the last day of the season pipping Hartlepool. Relegation in our only season as a Division Three club. Two more seasons and we were back in the Conference. One bright spot in those final seasons was the emergence of a young lad named Billy Sharp, on loan from Sheffield United. He was to go on to have a career scoring over 220 goals in all the top four levels of English football. I was fortunate to see his first ever senior goal in a defeat at Chester, a hat trick at home to Boston United and a last-minute winner against our local rivals Northampton Town.

PART 3  DIAMONDS BACK IN NON LEAGUE

Diamonds relegation back into the Conference was in part due to the withdrawal of funding from Max Griggs but by no means the only reason as he had continued to financially support the club on a lesser scale. The following three seasons were remarkably mediocre by the standards the fans had come to expect. Finishing no higher than 10th place and getting through four managers, two of whom, in the fan’s perception, Gary Hill and Graham Westley left “under a cloud” with their reputation in tatters.  Things started to improve when Justin Edinburgh replaced Gary Hill.  Two wins in particular stand out. An astonishing 9-0 win at a struggling Weymouth and the 8-0 demolition of Gateshead at Nene Park. In his first full season 2009-10 Diamonds reached the Play Offs only to be defeated by Oxford United. Edinburgh also introduced promising youngsters Lee Tomlin and Joe Day who today are still enjoying a career as EFL players at Cardiff and Bristol Rovers respectively.

2010-11 was to be the Diamonds “annus horribilis”.  On the field the results were not matching the previous seasons but Edinburgh retained the support of fans. On Dec 10th 2010 tragedy struck with the untimely death of goalkeeper Dale Roberts followed by some unsavoury press reports of problems within the team. Diamonds finished the season in 10th place.

At this time I was back residing in Sussex, for family reasons, so was not aware of the off field problems that had beset the club. Unpaid wages, players threatening to strike and continuing ownership problems were mounting, culminating in the club being expelled from the Conference and then being rejected for membership of the Southern League. Finally being wound up by HMRC owing a staggering £750,00. Supporters were shell shocked at the sudden turn of events and were given no chance to save the club.  

PART 4   THE PHOENIX CLUB AFC R & D 

In June 2011 a group of 170 of those shell shocked fans met and formed a “phoenix” club to be known as AFC Rushden and Diamonds. The new club was to be Supporter owned. No more would the club be ripped from under our feet by ruthless or incompetent owners. The ethos of the new club was to be “One fan, One vote, One community, One Club”. I quickly signed up and in a very short time it was to completely re- kindle my love affair with non- league football.

Because of the sudden demise of the former club it was to be 12 months before the new club were able to compete in “mens football”. But this delay gave fans the chance to raise much needed funds and for that inaugural season (2011-12) a team was entered into the Northants Senior Youth League for Under 18’s. playing home matches at Kiln Park, the home of Raunds Town

It was in November of that season that I returned to live in Northants and my first match watching the youngsters was at Cogenhoe on a wet Tuesday evening, they duly lost 0-7. However, the season was to end on a high as they went on to win the County Youth Cup.

For season 2012-13 the club were placed at Step 6 of the Pyramid in the United Counties First Division. The opening match saw 800 fans crowd into the Dog and Duck as the new AFC R & D were ground sharing with Wellingborough Town. 

I was privileged to be present as Alfie Taylor scored the phoenix clubs first ever goal in a 3-1 victory over Thrapston Town. With Mark Starmer in charge Diamonds eventually finished runners up to Northampton Sileby Rangers, but promotion was achieved on the final day of the season. 

Considering the amount of money that had been poured into the former Rushden and Diamonds it was somewhat ironic that the new club were beaten to the title by a club for whom at that time money was no object. 

The following season commenced with very high hopes that the club would continue their upward motion. However, it was not to be, eventually finishing in third place. The highlight of the season was their first foray into the FA Cup and they were not to be disappointed reaching the 3rd qualifying round after joining the competition at the extra preliminary round. Victories over London Colney, Northwood and Cockfosters scoring 19 goals in the process brought a home tie against Cambridge City then two leagues above Diamonds. A spectacular equalizer from Aaron King and a dramatic last minute winner from Taylor set up a 3rd round match at National League South Dover Athletic. Taylor was again on the scoresheet but the home team prevailed 3-1.

Towards the end of season manager Starmer stepped down to be replaced by his assistant Andy Peaks.

In Peaks first full season in charge (2014-15) the Diamonds were promoted from the UCL Premier Division completing the League and League Cup double. Before the season had commenced I became much more actively involved as a volunteer for the club. Initially just helping out during the close season with ground maintenance work at the Dog and Duck, such as weeding, painting, repairing fencing etc,. as the ground needed to be brought up to the required standards for the Step 4 football that the club hoped to reach that season. 

It was early on in that season that the club were seeking assistance with their in- house Radio Diamonds which was broadcast over the internet.  I had first made the acquaintance of Paul Judd and Adam Cocking when they were at ON Chenecks ground where they were covering the match pitchside on stools with a little wobbly table. I was more than happy to step forward firstly as a summarizer calling on my five decades of knowledge and experience and very soon after as a co—commentator. Over the years our team has changed in personnel but we are still dedicated to covering every match and our equipment has become more 21st century. Today we include “youngsters” Joe McCormack and Ollie Mortimer alongside Bruce Greenberg our American veteran from the original Radio Diamonds at Nene Park and guests include Phil Jenkins whenever the team are playing near his home in the West Midlands and special guests former player Duane Darby and current player Alex Collard.

Our aim has always been to broadcast live commentary for every game, home and away,and we have pretty much achieved that. Amongst our listeners are ex-pats and fans on holidays around the world. Everywhere from Thailand to Argentina.

On the pitch Peaks team lost only one of their first 18 games. Particularly satisfying, after being pipped to the title the previous season, they exacted revenge on Sileby with a whopping 8-1 victory­­­­­.  Despite a mid-season blip they only lost 3 games during the league campaign amassing 99 points and the icing on the cake was the League Cup victory against Potton United on the May Bank Holiday.

For the 2015-16 season AFC R & D embarked on their first season at Step 4 in the Southern League Division One Central. This brought the club, and myself, right back to its Southern League roots, as the former R & D had started out in 1992 in the old Southern League Midlands Division and for myself took me back to 1962. 

The first 12 games saw Diamonds win 8 and draw 4. A cracking start to life in the higher league. Although finally finishing in 5th place behind Champions Kings Langley a play-off place was secured and only an extra time goal at St Ives in the Play Off Final prevented successive promotions.

The season was to end on a high though, as only 4 days later came the final of the Northants Hillier Cup against Kettering Town. Played at Northampton Towns ground, Sixfields. At long last the two old rivals were to meet again. On this occasion it was the underdogs, Diamonds, who were to triumph in added time. Jack Ashton netting the winner in the 94th minute.

The following season, ‘16-17, Diamonds were inexplicably placed in the Northern Premier League Division One South. This would entail much longer journeys but we did get to several new grounds such as Shaw Lane in Barnsley , Witton Albion in Cheshire and the most famous of all clubs Sheffield FC the oldest football club in the world. For me the most beautiful ground was Stocksbridge Park Steels set into the side of a hill with fantastic panoramic views of the South Yorkshire Moors. Once again Diamonds finished in 5th place and a play- off semi- final at Witton was to end their season. 

In January of that season news came that Diamonds were to be made homeless at the end of the season. The owner of the Dog and Duck wanted to sell the land for development and gave the club notice to quit. This came as quite a shock as the club had invested a considerable amount of money improving the facilities at the ground, now they would have to start all over again. The Board had to rapidly embark on a quest to find a new home. Fortunately several clubs in the area came forward to offer us the chance to groundshare. A short list of four was put to the membership. It became a “no-brainer” when Hayden Road, the home of Rushden and Higham Utd, was one of those proposed. Once the home of Rushden Town. Football was truly coming home!.  

For season 2017-18 Diamonds were once more returned to the Southern League, this time known as the Division One East. But before a ball was kicked a tremendous amount of work was required to be done on the new ground. It was thought that the work would take until the autumn to complete, so arrangements were made to play home games at Hillgrounds the home of Kempston Rovers fifteen miles away. In the event following fantastic work by a group of dedicated volunteers, some of whom were well into their “senior years” (of which I was but one) the ground passed the FA Grading in time for the new season.

Once again Diamonds were to mount a serious promotion challenge, just as they had done in every one of their previous seasons. This time the great majority of opponents were to be in the Home Counties. Yet again plenty of new grounds to visit, especially around the M25. After leading the table for most of the season they fell away during the month of March allowing Beaconsfield to take over at the top of the league. A late recovery saw Diamonds win their final five matches only to be pipped at the post on the final day. However, promotion once more was achieved as two teams were to be promoted owing to the FA re-structuring of the Non-League Pyramid.

It was during this season that I was to take on yet another role. The Canon Roger Knight was the club Chaplain, as he had been for the former club.  Sports Chaplaincy is predominantly a Christian organization that caters for the pastoral needs of sportspersons and fans in all sports, not just football. In my conversations with Roger he got to know that I was active in my local church. Up to that time he was carrying out his duties on his own. His plan was to recruit a small team of like-minded people that could represent the interests of all fans and players. Thus, I was recruited along with two fellow fans, Bruce Greenberg and Chris Gregory and later by Zena Gregory (no relation) and very recently by Robin Croxon. Our multi faith, multi skilled team was to be unique in the world of Sports Chaplaincy. My role within the team has been to make myself available to visit or phone any fan who was hospitalized or housebound if they wanted any contact. Today we are known as the Pastoral Care Team. 

During the summer of 2018, with the club now at Step 3 further work was required on Hayden Road if the club were to seek promotion to the National League.  Once again much work was carried out by volunteers and much needed cash was raised to purchase a new Stand. It seemed as though every day myself and others were working at the ground.

Although the fund raising was eventually successful I did experience a personal disappointment when my own efforts yielded little response. At that time Nene Park was about to be demolished and a small group, including myself, were given a brief period of access to retrieve any items that we considered to be of value, either sentimentally or monetary. I recovered several shirts bearing the names of the players that had been part of the squad in that fateful final season. After doing some searches on the internet I was able to trace where they were now either playing or coaching. With a carefully worded letter I dispatched the shirts hopefully expecting some donations, alas only one cheque was forthcoming! 

2018-19 Diamonds were in the newly formed Southern League Premier Division Central. Once more we were to encounter new places to visit. Again they got off to a good start winning the first game 5-2 against Redditch Utd but then came a couple of away defeats by a single goal at Biggleswade and Stourbridge followed by a couple of drawn games, whilst no lasting winning sequence was achieved during the season they did nonetheless maintain a serious challenge for the play-off spots until March when they only claimed seven points from the final 10 games. But the pre-season target of consolidation had been achieved, in fact for many fans the idea of immediate promotion to the National League would have been a step too far at that time.

The highlight of the season was, strangely enough, two defeats. Because those defeats were against the old enemy Kettering Town, the first league encounters between the two clubs since their Conference days. On New Years Day more than 2400 fans crammed in to Latimer Park. Nathan Hicks stunned the league leaders by opening the scoring for Diamonds. The second half was a “backs to the wall” effort. The Poppies eventually equalized and sent their fans home ecstatic with a last-minute winner. The rematch was much more low key.  On Easter Monday by which time Diamonds challenge had evaporated and Kettering were virtually Champions. The away side completed the double with a single goal. In truth probably some compensation for the torrid years that the Poppies fans had suffered at the hands of the former R & D winning only two of 16 encounters. 

Season 2019-20 will only be remembered as the season that never ended owing to the Covid 19 pandemic. Once more Diamonds were always chasing a play- off spot but were cruelly undone when the season was curtailed with 12 games to play, seven of which were to be home matches that surely would have taken the club very close if not actually to the play offs.

There was one positive situation that for me made my season all the more exciting. I took on the role of PA announcer for several games. It started with the Needham Market League Cup match at Hayden Road in December.  I was asked would I like/be able to do the announcing for that match and I readily agreed as I had experience behind the mic with Radio Diamonds and thought “how difficult can it be”. Well it was certainly an experience! First up was reading the team sheets and Needham No.11 had the longest most difficult name to pronounce imaginable. I prayed that he neither scored nor was substituted. Fortunately neither event did occur and a helpful Needham official told me his abbreviated name. I really enjoyed my time behind the PA mic during further games, most notably declaring after “that I haven’t a clue” who scored Diamonds goal. I rearranged my schedule so that I would be available for six of the seasons final seven matches, sadly they were all cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Looking back on my journey over six decades is now at its conclusion. My love affair is fully rekindled and is now more passionate than it was in my youth. In just the past eight seasons alone AFCR&D have played more than 140 different teams and I have visited probably a 100 of them.

Just how many grounds following Non League I have visited in 60 years I do not know. But everyone has been a new experience. From Cogenhoe United to the Millenium Stadium Cardiff. 

During my time following AFC R & D I have experienced some great hospitality from clubs at the very lowest levels of the pyramid to those at Step 2. The dedication of their volunteers never ceases to amaze me. What I have learnt is, that no matter whatever level of Non-League clubs are playing there will always be a band of devoted volunteers, of which no club could survive without. It is to them that I dedicate this liturgy of my six decades.

The Covid-19 situation presents the Board, Management and fans with a tremendous challenge right now but all the signs are that we will get through this. I am confident we will survive and whenever we do get some football again the unity and spirit that has been shown over the past nine years by everyone connected to the club will see us through the next decade and hopefully on to our new ground.  

Doug Palmer with the Radio Diamonds team

AFC Rushden & Diamonds

One Fan, ONE vote, one community, one club

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