Ray Jest's Reliving Rovers: 1968/69 Part Five
In this brand new series, Rovers fan Ray Jest takes us back in time to relive classic seasons from the archives. First up, Ray tackles a memorable 1968-69 campaign with the club in the old Fourth Division, managed by Lawrie McMenemy and looking to gain their way out of the bottom tier.
Check out Part Four of the series, published last week, then read on to continue our journey through January and February, as the King leaves for Lincoln and Rovers bounce back in style.
Manager Lawrie McMenemy took most people by surprise when he re-signed former Rovers favourite Graham Watson from Rotherham. Watson in many people’s eyes had been the pretender to the crown worn for so long by Alick Jeffrey.
Another home game on Saturday 18th January gave Rovers the chance to bridge the gap to the leaders. Playing host to Southend United, Rovers seemed determined to put Tuesday’s game behind them.
McMenemy put Watson in the team ahead of Jeffrey who was dropped to the subs bench, and in midfield Gilfillan would feature against his former team.
It was Rovers who were the driving force of an entertaining first half and as so often happens when players face their former employers, it was Gilfillan who shot Rovers ahead after just eight minutes.
Usher, raiding down the right wing, sent over a pass for Watson who floated over a cross with pinpoint accuracy for Gilfillan to charge in and head the ball into the top corner of the net.
The goal seemed to spur on Rovers, but for all their attacking prowess and flair nothing more was forthcoming before half time.
Although Rovers had a majority of the ball in the second half, play was mainly restricted to midfield with neither side making headway against resolute defences.
With play stifled in midfield, there looked very little likelihood that either team would break the deadlock. However, with 68 minutes on the clock, Roberts in the Southend goal half flapped and half cleared an Usher effort. The ball fell to Regan who shot home from twelve yards. Southend had no answer and the game was won for Rovers.
With Workington and Darlington’s games both cancelled, and Lincoln dropping points at Brentford, Rovers leapfrogged all three into second spot. They were just two points behind Aldershot who were beaten 3-0 at Rochdale.
Rovers fans were full of promotion talk all the way home but nothing could have been further from their minds than the bombshell that shook the town on the following Monday when the headlines read ‘The End of an Era’ – Alick Jeffrey leaves Rovers for Lincoln City.
King Alick Departs
It was the most unexpected announcement that anyone could be party to and shook the whole town. His departure came after 16 years of ups and downs during which Doncaster Rovers and Alick Jeffrey had been linked worldwide with each other.
Rovers manager Lawrie McMenemy stated “This has come entirely out of the blue. Although Alick was dropped from the first team last Saturday he was not transfer listed nor had he asked to be placed on the transfer list.
“We got on very well together and there was no talk of his leaving here until we had an enquiry from Ron Gray yesterday afternoon.
“I sent for the player as is my custom in these circumstances and we discussed it together. I told him that in my opinion, joining Lincoln would be a good move for him at this stage of his career and that I certainly wouldn’t stand in his way.”
Jeffrey’s footballing career started at Rovers in 1953 when he joined the club on the ground staff straight from school and went into the Northern Intermediate League side.
A year later, at just 15 years of age, he made his Second Division debut against Fulham and followed this with 20 more first team appearances, scoring 6 goals.
1955 saw him play 41 first team games, scoring 15 goals and playing three times for the England amateur side in the pre-Olympics qualifying matches.
1956 saw the first of the tragic accidents that were to mar his career. Against France in an under-23 game at Bristol he broke his leg. After only nine minutes of the game he raced into a tackle with French defender Tylinski, a tackle that saw him left on the ground with a double fracture.
Up to that point in the season he had played 13 games for Rovers, scoring 15 goals in the process.
Three years later he was advised to give up the fight to play again. He received £4,000 and the club £15,000 in compensation.
Alick emigrated to Australia, and it was there that he started to kick a ball around again and discovered that his old ability was coming back.
Rovers’ chairman at the time was a Mr. J. S. Garnham, and it was he who did most of the spadework after contact with Jeffrey, reappearing in a Rovers shirt on 28th December 1963.
Part of the deal to get Jeffrey back was that any fee up to the £15,000 that Rovers received in transfer fees would be repaid to the FA (which was why Jeffrey left for Lincoln on a free transfer). Jeffrey didn’t score for three months but the following season he scored 39 goals.
In September 1966, Jeffrey was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of Rovers Captain, centre half John Nicholson.
Jeffrey was so severely injured that it was feared his footballing future was in jeopardy again. But back he came again, and his displays earned him the title of “King Alick” from local reporter Joe Slater.
It says a lot that Alick’s departure was in the January of 1969 and yet at the end of a Championship-winning campaign he was still the clubs leading scorer. Many fans even today remember Lawrie McMenemy for one reason only, and that is showing Alick the door at Belle Vue.
Watson To The Fore
With Jeffrey’s departure, McMenemy’s team choices were shortened for Rovers’ visit to Vetch Field – home of Swansea City – on Saturday 25th January.
Swansea were still holding on to faint hopes of promotion and Rovers knew they would be in for a tough afternoon.
Earlier in the week, two former Swansea players – Brian Purcell and Roy Evans – had been killed in a tragic car crash while on their way to a match with their new club Hereford.
The Rovers players gave generously to the fund that had been started and the referee blew just before kick-off for a minute’s silence.
It was a shame then that a few mindless fans should mar these proceedings by shouting throughout the minute.
Many Rovers fans moved away from them and apologised to the Swansea fans, but it could have been much worse.
Perhaps Swansea’s programme did not help the situation with a paragraph that said, “Finally in welcoming our friends from Doncaster may we wish them the very best of bad luck in the promotion race.”
Whether it did or not, many fans still thought their disruption of the minute’s silence was not called for.
Rovers set off at a fine pace and missed several early chances to put their noses in front. Regan, Webber and Watson were all guilty of squandering good chances, and it was down to Ogston that Rovers were still level as the game began to balance itself out.
With 21 minutes gone, Flowers moved down the wing with the ball, but his cross was cut out by the Swansea defence. From the resulting corner the ball fell to Watson who made no mistake this time as he happily hit the ball into the net.
Swansea now surged forward in search of an equaliser and Ogston had to be at his very best to keep them at bay. And at his very best he was, save after save he made to deny Swansea.
One save in particular summed up his afternoon: Mel Nurse, Swansea’s centre half, had come forward to join in the attack. On the edge of the area he received the ball, spun on a sixpence and hit a terrific shot that looked all the way a goal.
From nowhere Ogston flung himself across his goal to tip the ball around the post.
If Swansea had felt it was not their day, Ogston assured them of it with that save.
Rovers somehow hung on to take both points and travelled back home knowing that the win had assured them of second place in the table.
Gilfillan Goal Not Enough at County
On Saturday 1st February another tricky away fixture followed, as Rovers travelled the short distance to near neighbours Notts County and a game at their Meadow Lane ground.
County were not having a good season and were lying just above the re-election zone.
Fighting for every point to keep themselves out of the bottom four, Rovers knew County would be no pushovers.
It was to be a game of missed chances again for Rovers, who created many more than their lowly opponents.
With Watson and Gilfillan probing from midfield and Regan leading the front line well, Rovers created and spurned many opportunities to have tied the game up.
The breakthrough came after 27 minutes when Gilfillan received a ball on the edge of the area and sent a thunderbolt of a shot into the top corner of County’s goal.
It should have signaled the way to another away win and two more points in their fight for promotion, but Rovers let the lead slip.
Rovers had gone more than five hours of playing time without conceding a goal, but just six minutes later in a rare County attack, Farmer headed for goal. Clish cleared from just under the crossbar, but the ball found its way to Needham and his header back eluded everyone to pull County level.
The rest of the half swung from one end to the other but there were no more scores and the game reached half time at 1-1.
The second half it has to be said was a bit of a non-entity, with both teams packing their respective penalty areas and seemingly both happy with a point.
Rovers travelled the short journey home with a point under their belts, but they lost second place and dropped down to fourth in the table.
Old Problems Resurface
After two away games, Rovers now faced Newport County at Belle Vue. A win would put them on top of the table and on Tuesday 4th February, 8,321 fans turned up for the game hoping to see Rovers at their best.
For the most part they did. Rovers, playing attractive and exciting football, cracked open the Newport defence with the game just seconds old as Watson swept the ball into an empty goal.
It was Rovers’ season-old problem though that kept the score at 1-0 up to half time.
Newport had proved no threat to Rovers at all during the first half, but within seconds of the restart they were level as Rovers’ often solid defence was breached.
However, this only proved to spur Rovers on. Knowing that a win could put them top of the table they swarmed forward and were rewarded midway through the half with a goal from centre forward Regan.
That should have settled the game, but with just 30 seconds on the clock and many of the fans making their way to the exits, Newport hit Rovers with a sucker punch and scored to level matters.
It was hard to take but Rovers had once again created and squandered chance after chance.
So instead of leading the table by one point, Rovers were in third place on 35 points. Darlington and Aldershot were the teams above Rovers but only on goal average.
Winter came to England in February this year, and for the next three weeks Football League fixtures were decimated by postponements.
Barely a handful of games were played over that period, the only one of note being the game at Aldershot where the hosts beat Chesterfield 2-0 to climb to the head of the table, two points ahead of Darlington and Rovers.
Rovers’ games at home to Aldershot and Workington Town were postponed, along with their trip to Grimsby Town.
Rovers in Seventh Heaven
Rovers had not played for almost three weeks when the weather abated and their game against Aldershot on 25th February, rearranged due to the weather, was to be the next game at Belle Vue.
Rovers had a new man on show for the game. Steve Briggs, signed from Leeds United shortly before the game, would play up front alongside Regan.
Briggs and Regan would turn out to be a formidable force, not just for this game but for the rest of the season.
Aldershot were of course league leaders and the fans could be forgiven for having a little trepidation before the encounter. With Rovers’ recent ability to create chances and their inability to finish them, Aldershot could prove a major threat.
Rovers and their 9,312 attending fans knew that, although Aldershot’s goal average was much greater than theirs, two points would at least put them level at the top of the table.
Both teams made their intentions clear from the start, both playing open attacking football and both showing excellent touches of class.
Briggs and Regan linked together well up front, although they had never played together before.
Watson, Flowers, Gilfillan, Johnson and Usher were all impressive in their midfield roles, probing at the Aldershot defence.
Wilcockson, Robertson and Clish were towers in defence holding out Aldershot as they also probed for openings.
After 22 minutes Watson collected a pass and played a long ball through to Regan, who beat his man and from just inside the box lobbed the ball over Tony Godfrey in the Aldershot goal.
The fans went wild, Rovers in front and hopefully heading for a victory that would put them alongside Aldershot as league leaders.
But better was to come as Rovers, cheered on by their fans, went at Aldershot now.
With 34 minutes on the clock, a cross from Usher was headed down by Regan to Briggs, who made no mistake for his first goal for the club.
It got even better before half time as, after 43 minutes from a Rovers free kick, Watson rose head and shoulders above everyone to head home in grand style.
Aldershot seemed shell-shocked and so they should. A marvelous first half for Rovers and a half time 3-0 lead.
During the interval, Trainer Frank Marshall pointed out to the players that another three goals would be like five points for them as they would also leapfrog their opponents on goal average, and Manager McMenemy told them quite bluntly that he wanted no “taking it easy” in the second half.
As Rovers took the field for the second half, they knew exactly what was needed of them and they duly set about their task.
As in the first half Rovers pushed forward probing for openings, but now it was the defenders’ chance to show the way.
After 57 minutes Rovers were awarded a free kick. Robertson and Wilcockson made their way forward and from Usher’s delivery, Regan rose at the far post to head the ball back across goal where Robertson powered home a terrific headed goal.
4-0 – the magic total – seemed within their grasp providing they didn’t let Aldershot in.
In this the defence played their part, where Flowers and Haselden worked as hard as ever alongside Wilcockson, Clish and Robertson.
A word also for John Ogston who pulled off a couple of good saves early on but after the first 20-odd minutes had very little to do.
When Steve Briggs received the ball after 68 minutes, there looked little on the cards for him to do but a shimmy past a defender and a neat little ball through to Watson gave the midfielder the chance to make it 5-0.
Suddenly it all became possible, one more goal and Rovers would sit proudly at the top of the table.
Two minutes later it was done. Usher, racing through the middle, picked up a pass from Watson and coolly lobbed the ball over the stranded Godfrey and Rovers were 6-0 ahead.
Rovers' delirious fans could not believe what they were seeing, and many felt like pinching themselves to see if they were dreaming.
They weren’t, and to prove it on 76 minutes Colin Clish, raiding from defence, slid in to prod home from another Usher cross to make it 7-0.
Rovers were now proudly sitting on top of the table, something their fans could realistically not have seen at the beginning of the game.
Aldershot, who before the game had looked like giving Rovers a tough task, had been taken to the cleaners.
The question now for many Rovers fans was whether or not they could keep this form going into the final third of the season. With 30 games gone and 16 still to play, would Rovers bubble burst?
Stay tuned for Part Six of Ray's recounting of the 1968-69 season next week on ITEN. We would like to thank him for offering to help us with content during this difficult period for football and the wider world, and would be happy to field enquiries from other Rovers fans with an interest in writing about the club if they wish to join the growing ITEN community. Please get in touch with us via our website or social media pages, or else we can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images featured in this article come courtesy of Ray's personal scrapbook, collected from various contemporary news sources.