A Miracle on Lodge Avenue
Monday May 11th 2020
Do miracles happen? Well in footballing terms they do. Mark Harris provides an in-depth look at season 1984/85 and Barking FC's own version of the Great Escape.
If ever Barking enjoyed a season of two halves, it was during the remarkable 1984/85 season. Up until the new year, Barking’s struggle for points was so great that we came out of the festive period as certainties for relegation. But the new year saw a change of management and a change of form that brought about remarkable results.
Blues went into the season managed by Ernie Walley, one-time Caretaker Manager of Crystal Palace, having finished 16th in the Isthmian Premier Division the previous season. Let’s have a look at the squad that started that rollercoaster season; In goal we had Dave Root, a very dependable keeper who had been ever present the season before. In central defence we had Robbie Waterfall, one of three signings over the summer from the very successful Clapton side and Andy Groom who had been with the club for a couple of years already but had missed much of the previous season with a bad injury. The full-backs were John McFarlane, signed from East Ham United and that absolute Rolls Royce of a footballer, Paul Watts, a product of our successful youth team a few years previous and who many league scouts were following closely. In midfield we had the pocket rocket Johnny Harrison who was surprisingly good in the air considering he was 5’2”. We also had Jimmy Hallybone who’d joined from Dagenham halfway through the previous season and Nicky Phillips who joined us from East Ham at the same time. We’d sadly lost a Mayesbrook legend over the summer with the wing wizard Nicky Crown being sold to Dartford. But we had high hopes for his replacement, Dennis Bailey, who had been captured straight from Watford’s youth set-up. Up front we had Nigel McNeil and Jon Bolle who were two more signings from Clapton having scored 26 and 16 goals respectively the previous season.
Our club and matchday secretaries; John and Les Wilson had done us proud and we had a very impressive line-up of home friendlies as Charlton Athletic, Arsenal, West Ham and Chelsea all brought strong teams to Mayesbrook and we even managed single goal victories over Charlton and Chelsea, as well as beating Dorking 4-1.
Our season opened in the August sunshine at home to Dulwich Hamlet, managed by former Barking and Dagenham player Billy Smith who had recently joined from Corinthian Casuals, bringing nine players with him including future Palace players Alan Pardew and Andy Gray. Blues actually acquitted themselves fairly well in this game and led for most of the match through a Dennis Bailey goal.
Bailey was one of the bright points of this period for the Mayesbrook faithful and went on to make a name for himself a few years later by scoring a hat-trick for QPR at Old Trafford in a game shown live on ITV. However, relentless pressure from Hamlet brought about a very late equalizer from Conrad Kane - but we at least had a point on the board.
Blues then had three away games on the spin and lost all three by the odd goal at Leytonstone & Ilford, Windsor & Eton and then at Bognor Regis Town. After the four games the league table could almost have been upside down as the mighty Wycombe Wanderers were bottom of the table with no points and reigning champions Harrow Borough were just above them. And Barking were third from bottom with one point. Another point was added at home to a Harlow side managed by former Blue Gwyn Walters but we then went on the road again and returned pointless from trips to Carshalton Athletic and Wycombe. The game at Loakes park not only ended in a 3-0 reverse but also saw probably our best player, Paul Watts, stretchered off in the second half with a broken ankle that would keep him out of the side until the new year. Odd goal defeats at home to both Bishop’s Stortford and Croydon followed but worse was yet to come as the wheels fell off Barking’s season in spectacular fashion.
At the end of September we travelled to Harrow and no-one among the Mayesbrook faithful could have predicted what would follow, especially after we went in only 1-0 down at half-time. The second-half got gradually worse as it went on and we conceded another seven goals without reply for an 8-0 drubbing.
At this point, I have to admit I missed the next match, a Tuesday evening home game against Carshalton Athletic. Not because of the embarrassment of the previous Saturday, but because my Dad and I had tickets to see Frank Bruno fight Canadian Ken Lakusta at Wembley Arena. In the days before the internet we had to wait until the next morning’s paper to see that Barking had won 3-1 with goals from Nigel McNeil, Andy Groom and Jon Bolle to give us our first win of the season. Bruno knocked out Lacusta in the second round.
Sadly for us, normal service was resumed the following Saturday when we went to Hayes and got well beaten 4-1 before bowing out of the league cup at Bishop’s Stortford 1-0 the following Tuesday.
Unbelievably, we then managed to have a repeat of the Harrow debacle as we lost 8-0 at Dulwich. This time however, the goals were more evenly spaced out as we went behind early on and were 5-0 down at half-time. Dulwich took their foot off the gas slightly in the second period but still managed to notch another three goals. The irony was not lost on me or my Dad when, towards the end of the game, a Dulwich fan drifting towards the exit commented to us: “Your keeper’s not actually that bad”.
By this stage Barking were third from bottom of the league with 5 points from 13 games and supporters were calling for Walley to go at every match. Below us were Harlow Town and Epsom & Ewell, both on four points having played less games. Thankfully we had a break from league football the following Tuesday as we had a plum draw at home to friends and neighbours Dagenham in the Essex Senior Cup. A bumper crowd saw us take the lead as Dennis Bailey poked home from close range early on. But Dagenham enjoyed the lion's share of possession and scored twice before half-time to end our interest in the competition.
The following Saturday we went to Slough and lost 2-1 but the real low point of the season was to follow one week later as we travelled to Buckingham Town in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup. At this stage Barking had a decent record in the competition having reached the second round proper four times in recent years. This had happened most recently the season before when we had travelled to Plymouth Argyle and played really well, hitting the woodwork twice before bowing out 2-1 to a goal just three minutes from time. Argyle went on to the semi-finals where they were beaten by Watford. The game at Buckingham will be remembered by any Barking supporter that made the journey for all the wrong reasons. Blues were second best to their United Counties League opponents throughout the game and two goals down after an hour. Bailey produced another moment of magic to reduce the arrears but as the game reached its closing stages Barking completely lost all composure and we had Nicky Phillips, John McFarlane and Jimmy Hallybone sent off and finished the game with eight men. Buckingham scored a third late on and received a plum first round draw at home to Leyton Orient. I imagine the coach home from the game would have been quite quiet.
With only Epsom keeping Barking off the foot of the table, we lost 1-0 at home to Tooting & Mitcham and 2-1 away at Hendon. On Tuesday 13 November, Barking arranged a home friendly with East Ham United. Tragically, this evening is only memorable for the fact that after the game, the clubs long-serving Vice Chairman, Ron Murrant, suffered a heart attack and died at the ground. Ron was well-known to anyone who visited Mayesbrook regularly and had taken up many posts over a very long period of service to Barking FC. He is much missed.
December kicked off with a visit from table topping Sutton United. The visitors complained bitterly about the heavily sanded Mayesbrook pitch but Barking dug in and really raised their game. Goals from Jon Bolle and Dave Jones, recently signed from Crystal Palace, helped us to another valuable point in a 2-2 draw. Blues problems on the road continued with a 2-0 defeat at Hitchin Town before we entertained Gravesend & Northfleet in the third qualifying round of the FA Trophy. Gravesend featured former pro stars Terry Naylor and Alan Whittle but were surprisingly bundled out of the competition as two Nigel McNeil goals gave us a 2-1 win. Christmas came and went and on Boxing day we traipsed over to Mayesbrook only to be told that our game at home to Billericay was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. Then, on the 29th we hosted a Leytonstone & Ilford team who were now managed by former Blues boss Peter Carey. A Johnny Harrison goal couldn’t stop a 3-1 defeat. And so, 1984 closed with Barking rock bottom of the Premier Division with six points from 19 games and eight points behind second from bottom Harlow Town.
1985 started with a trip to New Lodge to take on Billericay, now managed by former Blues goalscoring legend Peter Burton. Unbelievably, a second-half Nicky Phillips strike turned out to be the only goal of the game and Barking had registered their first away points of the season.
The league table as at January 1st 1985
1985 started with a trip to New Lodge to take on Billericay, now managed by former Blues goalscoring legend Peter Burton. Unbelievably, a second-half Nicky Phillips strike turned out to be the only goal of the game and Barking had registered their first away points of the season. More drama was to follow as the news emerged the next day that Ernie Walley had left the club, to be replaced by Bobby Arber. Now Arber was a bit of a Barking legend himself as he’d been a key figure in Eddie McCluskey’s ‘Golden Team’ from the 1978/79 season when Barking were Isthmian League champions, won the London Senior Cup and reached the second-round proper of the FA Cup.
Bobby Arber during his NASL days
As a central defender, Arber was a class act. A brilliant reader of the game with great positional sense and seemingly eyes in the back of his head at times. He’d also played for Arsenal and Orient and had successful spells playing ‘soccer’ in both north America and South Africa. Bobby joined us as Player-Manager from Woodford Town where he’d undertaken that role from the start of the season. He brought with him another very experienced central defender in Derek Wells who joined as Player-Coach, also from Woodford. Wells had recently won the Isthmian league with Leytonstone & Ilford and was part of the FA Cup giant killing Leatherhead team of the mid-70s. Arber wasted no time in bringing in new recruits, immediately signing experienced goalkeeper John Holmes, winger Peter Berwick from Clapton and Steve Page from Dagenham (both for their second spells with the club) and Henry Clark, a very handy utility player from Woodford.
Arber didn’t have much time to get to know his players as the very next day we had a tough London Senior Cup tie away at Fisher Athletic. The Docklands club were on a successful run that would see them promoted to the national league a couple of years later. And they had too much for Barking on the night but the 3-0 score line doesn’t begin to tell the story as Barking looked more organised and in much better shape than they had done in a long time. Blues fans left Docklands feeling just a tinge of optimism.
The weather then intervened and a couple of weeks of sleet and snow meant we didn’t play again until Monday 21 January when we met Staines Town in the first round proper of the FA Trophy. There was good news before the game for Blues fans as Paul Watts had recovered fully from his ankle injury and was in the starting team. He celebrated by scoring our opening goal. He was joined on the scoresheet by Johnny Harrison and Tony Bass. The veteran striker had been brought in by Arber to look after the reserves and came off the bench to score but it wasn’t enough as Staines scored four and we could now concentrate fully on league survival.
When Barking visited Gander Green Lane the following Saturday, we met a Sutton United side that were in fine form, five points clear at the top of the table and on their way to winning the league. We were well beaten 4-0. In February we lost 3-1 at home to Worthing and were narrowly beaten 1-0 at Tooting & Mitcham. So, by the time March came around Barking had played 23 games, won 2 of them, drawn 3 and had 9 points. We were nine points adrift of the second from bottom team, Harlow Town and ten points adrift of the third from bottom space which signified safety from relegation. The joke on the terraces at the time was that we needed snookers to survive and Blues fans were checking out the first division table to see where we’d be travelling to the following season.
But Arber and his team still had fight in them and the fightback started on Saturday 2nd March at home to Hitchin Town, the turning point of the season. We started in fairly ignominious fashion and conceded a goal after just three minutes. But, thanks to the confidence that Arber and Wells instilled in the team, we didn’t capitulate as we had done so many times before. Instead we dug in and fought for every ball. Geoff Craig made his debut for Barking up front and pulled the Hitchin defenders all over the shop. When Bolle equalised and then Harrison hit the winner there was great relief around Mayesbrook and a sense that we couldn’t be written off just yet. The following Tuesday evening we gained another valuable point at home to Wokingham Town and could have had two more as Craig and Bolle both scored in the first half, but nervousness crept in as the high-flying visitors threw the kitchen sink at us late in the game and we conceded twice.
On to the once magnificent Green Pond Road to play Walthamstow Avenue. There was a bit of traffic on the way to the game and as we entered the guy on the turnstile told us the game had just kicked off. We got in to the ground just in time to see Johnny Harrison, some 40 yards from goal with the ball at his feet, notice the Avenue keeper on the edge of his box and send a delightful chip over his head and into the net to the delight of the Blues fans clustered behind the goal. From then on it was backs to the wall all the way as we set up two lines of four and defended as if our lives depended on it. And try as they might, Avenue couldn’t find a way through and all of a sudden Barking had collected seven points in a week. Harlow Town were now in sight and the other teams above us were starting to look over their shoulders at what was coming up on the rails.
The wheels fell off a wee bit the following Tuesday as Bognor Regis came to Barking and won easily by four goals to nil. But ‘the Rocks’ were something of a bogey side for us back then, especially at home, and so the result was quickly forgotten about. A 2-0 win at home to Epsom & Ewell the following Saturday certainly helped as Harrison scored again and Jimmy Sheringham (brother of Teddy) notched his first goal for the club. The games were coming thick and fast now and on the Monday evening we conceded a goal in each half to lose 2-0 at Croydon but on the Thursday, evening earned another three points as second-half goals from Bolle and Harrison saw us defeat Hendon at Mayesbrook and move level on points with Harlow.
The following Saturday we made the trip down to the south coast to face Worthing on a very heavy surface. Blues played the better football on the day and created more chances, but failure to take them cost us dear and we were 3-0 down before Nigel McNeil finished off the best move of the whole match late in the game. The following Monday evening Blues huffed and puffed against a resolute Billericay team but couldn’t do any better than a 1-1 draw.
The following Saturday, 30th March, just happened to be my 14th birthday and what better way to spend it than by getting on the first team coach for the trip to Wokingham Town. Our hosts were riding high in fifth place in the league but were about to be well beaten by one of our best performances of the season. Adapting better to the heavy surface, Blues started on the attack and Bolle produced a moment of magic in the 12th minute when he drew and chipped the keeper. Blues had the lion share of possession throughout the game, never really looked troubled by the hosts and Bolle almost scored a second but his header hit the underside of the bar and bounced clear. Three more points.
And so, we moved into April, the final month of the season and Barking faced nine games in 28 days that would decide our footballing fate. By now we had climbed above Harlow into 21st position but we still had some way to go to catch up with the teams above us and safety. On Tuesday 2nd April we played host to Windsor & Eton and a nervy affair was settled by an own goal from the visitors, giving us another valuable three points. The following Saturday Barking’s travelling support gathered in the wide-open spaces of Harlow’s sports centre and, this time on a very dry pitch, the same thing happened as a Bolle cross was headed home by a Harlow defender with 15 minutes to go for another 1-0 victory and another three points.
The following Tuesday Harrow visited Mayesbrook and the players had the opportunity to avenge the awful 8-0 defeat from earlier in the season. But we were a different team by now and never looked like losing as goals from Phillips and Harrison gave us the points. We were now in touching distance of Hitchin, Hendon and Carshalton above us. But they all had games in hand on us. Optimism was in the air but we still had a very steep hill to climb.
Saturday 13th April saw the visit of Wycombe Wanderers to Mayesbrook and an epic tussle ensued. Wanderers were in second place in the table and looking to catch up to Sutton and gain promotion to the National League. They did this thanks ultimately to Sutton’s inability to meet the ground grading criteria in time. The Mayesbrook surface was still heavy and pretty much untroubled by grass through the centre of the pitch and a gale force wind blowing throughout the afternoon didn’t really help matters. Wanderers, as always, brought a good following with them. But when they took the lead, we didn’t let our heads go down and instead played good football, looking for an equaliser. It came late in the game from a most unlikely source. Johnny Harrison fired a cross low and hard across the face of goal that seemed to be eluding everyone and drifting just past the post. But then, from out of nowhere, giant Geoff Spooner came crashing in at the far post to send the Blues fans behind the goal delirious. Barking could have won it shortly after when McNeil’s shot struck the upright but our hopes were dashed when Wycombe went straight up the other end and notched the winner.
The players didn’t have time to dwell on the result as Slough Town came to Mayesbrook on the following Tuesday and were soon 2-0 up. However, there was now a confidence about this Barking team and goals from Berwick and Harrison earned us another point.
Barking now had four games to save their season. Bobby Arber had already worked a minor miracle but realistically, another four wins would be needed if we were to stay up. Arber’s feat was noted by the Daily Telegraph of Saturday 6 April in an article that noted he was “poised to pull off a remarkable escape act”.
And so, the Mayesbrook faithful travelled in numbers to Epsom & Ewell. On another very heavy pitch and in an incessant downpour, Blues again played the better football and just edged a very tight game. Towards the end of the first half Dennis Bailey worked his magic down the right-hand side and sent a looping cross into the box where Steve Page was lurking near the penalty spot to send a firm header into the top corner for the only goal of the game.
Three games to go and a tough midweek trip to fellow strugglers Bishop’s Stortford. In complete contrast to the previous Saturday, the game was played on a bone hard pitch. Barking were missing several players through injury. Both teams struggled to get used to the surface and the tension was palpable. McNeil created a decent opportunity for himself, making some space and lobbing the keeper, but the ball drifted agonisingly wide and the game ended 0-0. We had dropped two valuable points and we now knew that we had to win our two remaining home games to have any chance of staying up.
The final dénouement to the season would come at Mayesbrook, firstly on Saturday 27th April against Hayes and the following Monday evening against Walthamstow Avenue. Nobody could deny the incredible job that Arber had done, but to falter now would be more agonising than any football fan should bear.
Firstly, the visit of Hayes. By now the Mayesbrook pitch had dried out and with no grass down the centre it had started to resemble a dust bowl. This did not bother Barking one bit and on the day, they were magnificent, giving probably their best home performance of the season. Paul Watts, Peter Berwick and Jon Bolle all came back in to the side after injury and in truth we ran Hayes ragged. McNeil could have given us the lead just before the half hour mark but hit the post. But 10 minutes later we were ahead as Nicky Lane crossed from the left and Bolle powered in a header. A minute before half-time McNeil was wrestled to the ground by the Hayes keeper but Berwick’s penalty struck the post and was cleared. Shooting towards the clubhouse end and with the wind at our backs we totally dominated the second half. Nicky Phillips hit a cracker from just outside the box and McNeil wrapped it up with ten minutes left for a fine 3-0 win. The Barking supporters didn’t want to leave after the game and were instead busy trying to get the other results. And the news was good, for the first time in many months Barking were outside the relegation places and a win on Monday night would guarantee our place in the Premier Division.
And so, to Monday 29th April, a lovely spring evening and the visit of old friends Walthamstow Avenue. Our team was unrecognisable in character and effort from the team that had mustered only nine points as we went into March. Since then we had played 18, winning 10 and drawing 4 taking us to a remarkable 43 points. At the bottom of the table, Harlow were already relegated with 26 points. Above them were now Hitchin Town on 41 points and then came ourselves and Leytonstone & Ilford tied on 43 points. Going into our final game of the season, Leytonstone also had one game to play while Hitchin still had two matches left, giving them an advantage, on paper at least.
There was a larger crowd than usual for the Avenue game as news of Arber’s success reached long lapsed members of the Mayesbrook faithful. If anything, this only increased the tension in the air which seemed to be affecting both sets of players. A very nervy goalless first half was played out with very few chances created by either side. That Avenue side featured future Barking players, Roy Drake in goal, Jesse Roast and Liam Gallagher in defence and Brian Kelly in midfield. And, ensconced as they were slap bang in the middle of the table, they were very happy indeed to play for a point. But a point was no good to Barking.
Attacking the clubhouse end in the second half, with a large and vociferous crowd camped behind the goal, Blues tried to overcome their nerves and get some flowing football going. But the game wore on and Avenue held resolute – the goal would not come. McNeil and Bolle both had half chances and Bailey came off the bench to try and work his magic. Time ticked on all too fast for the Barking fans and soon 90 minutes was up on the clock. It was desperate stuff. Barking now poured forward in numbers and the Blues fans tried to will the ball in to the net. In stoppage time Barking won a corner but after a desperate goalmouth scramble the ball was hacked clear. Again, Barking poured forward, it was truly all or nothing by now. Injury time was played out almost entirely in the Avenue penalty area. When the visiting defence could clear the ball they just stayed where they were awaiting the next onslaught. On 92 minutes Barking won another corner, on the right-hand side, and it was only partially cleared. That wily old Avenue fox, Alan Hunter, in his tenth season with the club, tried to usher the ball out for another corner – or maybe even the final whistle - but Clark was having none of it, won the ball and fired low and hard across goal. This was Nigel McNeil’s finest moment. He powered through a cluster of players and crashed the ball hard into the roof of the net. Barking players and supporters celebrated like we’d won the league. It was one of those moments that will never be forgotten by anyone that was there. Avenue barely had the time and energy to restart the game before the referee blew the final whistle and the end of a remarkable season.
Barking’s players looked every bit as exhausted as I felt! They left the field to rapturous applause from the overjoyed Barking supporters. A remarkable story was complete and finished in perfect fashion with a last-minute goal to seal the deal. Barking ended the season in 19th place on 46 points, a feat that seemed all but impossible going in to the last two months of the season. Hitchin Town also did just enough to stay up meaning it was Leytonstone & Ilford who were ultimately the victims of Barking’s remarkable resurgence under Bobby Arber.