• Adam Stubbings

Ray Jest's Reliving Rovers: 1968/69 Part Four

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 which began with the club in the old Fourth Division, managed by Lawrie McMenemy and still boasting the legendary Alick Jeffrey amongst the ranks.

Check out Part Three of the series, published last week, then read on to continue our journey through December into January as the new manager beds in and Liverpool come to Belle Vue in the FA Cup.

8,935 fans attended the game against Grimsby Town, many hoping for another Rovers victory and some hoping to catch a glimpse of the new man at the helm.

After 40 minutes it looked as if it would be a baptism of fire for the new man as Stuart Brace shot Grimsby into the lead. Rovers’ failings were there again for all to see as Rovers never seemed to get out of the blocks in a lethargic display.

The goal that put Grimsby ahead seemed to spur the Rovers into action and within two minutes they were level. A quick period of passing football saw Regan’s shot come back off the bar for Johnson who slammed in the equaliser.

With the score at half time 1-1, Rovers came out for the second half with the clear intent of pressurising Grimsby’s defence and with 53 minutes on the clock they got their breakthrough.

Johnson – one of the hardest working Rovers men on the night – played a neat little ball into the path of Rabjohn, who made no mistake from close in.

Rovers were in front, but they were made to fight hard for their victory by a dogged and determined Grimsby side who pushed forward relentlessly in the second half for a leveller, to no avail.

Rovers Meet Sandgrounders in FA Cup

On Saturday 7th December, Rovers had a respite from the league as the FA Cup 2nd Round came along.

After disposing of Notts County in the previous round, Rovers again had a favorable draw and would entertain Southport of the Third Division at Belle Vue.

It was the first game under new manager Lawrie McMenemy and 9,785 fans turned up for the game, most of whom were hoping to see Rovers progress through to the next round and it looked as though they would get their wish as Regan put the home team ahead after 37 minutes.

Trainer Frank Marshall was called into action in just the first minute as Jeffrey was hurt in a strong tackle by Alex Russell, and just two minutes later Jeffrey was fouled again, this time by Alty. The free kick by Flowers rebounded off the wall to gain Rovers a corner which was cleared by Southport’s strong rearguard.

Both teams served up some neat attacking football, but only an Alick Jeffrey attempt which Southport’s Armstrong smothered and a fine left-foot shot from Harker for Southport were notable efforts.

After 30 minutes the game came alive with both teams spurning excellent chances.

Regan, Gilfillan, Rabjohn and Robertson all missed or saw efforts cleared, and for Southport, Harkin fired across goal when it looked easier to score.

After 37 minutes Rovers took the lead: Gilfillan teed up the ball for Aiken, who was standing on his own in the penalty area, but instead of shooting for goal he floated the ball to Regan. Groans from the crowd greeted his pass but they were quieted as Regan headed home the opening goal.

As the second half got underway it was Southport who were in the ascendancy and they put the Rovers defence under extreme pressure. Although Rovers had one or two breakaways, it was Southport doing all the pressing; a goal had to come, and it duly arrived when Southport were awarded a free kick on the edge of the area.

The kick was taken by Alex Russell, who floated over a pinpoint cross for George Andrews to climb above everyone and send a fine header into the net.

The game opened up, as both Rovers and Southport strived for a winner, and both defences had to be at their best to thwart the attacking forwards.

With 20 minutes to go Keith Webber replaced Aiken for Webber’s first game since his cartilage operation.

Still the game flowed from end to end, but with three minutes left, after a smart passing movement, the ball was played over the Southport defence and Regan rose at the back post to head home Rovers’ second and winning goal.

It was as good a start to his management of Rovers as Lawrie McMenemy could have asked for.

It was a good feeling that Rovers had reached the third round of the FA Cup, but the manager wanted to concentrate on the league and promotion to the Third Division.

Stage Fright for Rovers in Front of Cameras

Next up for Rovers on Saturday 14th December was a visit to Belle Vue from Wrexham, who were comfortably placed in mid-table.

Rovers fielded an unchanged side for the fifth successive game, although they looked throughout as if they had all just met that morning. In a drab and unexciting first half, neither Rovers nor Wrexham threatened their opponent’s goal.

Things did not improve in the second half although both keepers at least had saves to make.

The result was a 0-0 stalemate, but the point kept Rovers in a top four spot.

Travelling to struggling Bradford Park Avenue on Saturday 21st December held hope for Rovers that they could establish themselves in the top two of the league, but as mostly happens a team at the bottom with nothing to lose has aspirations of showing what they can do, and so it proved at Park Avenue.

Once again Rovers were to feature in front of the cameras – this time it was Yorkshire Television’s turn.

Neither team would disappoint the watching audience the following day…unless of course you were a Doncaster fan.

A fast and furious first half ended 0-0 although both teams had fashioned several opportunities. Gavan and Hardie had both had good games, saving on many occasions when it looked likely for either side to score.

Thirty seconds into the second half the game changed, and it was Bradford who drew first blood.

A ball through the middle found Andrews, who stumbled over the ball but still managed to poke the ball forward towards goal. Gavan – at full stretch – palmed the ball away but it fell to the feet of Draper who cleverly flicked it into the net.

The goal brought out a period of sustained pressure for Rovers on Bradford’s goal but to no avail.

Just when it looked as though Bradford had weathered the storm, in the 72nd minute Webber was on hand after a defensive mix up to prod the ball home for Rovers’ equaliser.

As the game petered out it looked as though Rovers had done enough to salvage a point but in the 85th minute Andrews took advantage of some sloppy Rovers play to race clear and score the winner. It was too late for Rovers to rally and they travelled back to South Yorkshire empty handed.

A sickening blow to Rovers and their supporters, still they could at least take solace that they were in the next round of the cup.

Might on the Horizon

All Rovers fans, as well as the staff, were eagerly awaiting Monday’s draw for Round Three of the FA Cup in the hope of a game against one of the big clubs. They were not to be disappointed.

It really did not come any bigger than the mighty Liverpool, top of the First Division, three points clear of their nearest rivals and in the middle of an impressive run of form.

It would be a real test of character as Rovers were drawn away at Anfield.

There was the small matter of a league meeting at Feethams with Darlington to concentrate on firstly though and on Boxing Day, a few steadfast fans made their way up the A1 hoping for a little bit of revenge for Darlington inflicting Rovers’ first home defeat of the season back in October.

The weather had turned decidedly bad, snow and ice affected many fixtures, but Rovers’ game at Darlington went ahead despite the icy conditions.

Rovers went for a point and got it, but it didn’t exactly make an entertaining afternoon for the faithful who travelled up the A1. For almost the whole of the game Rovers fought a rearguard action. The forward line was nonexistent as Rovers repelled all that Darlington could throw at them in search of the elusive point.

With exception Alick Jeffrey, although not often in the game, made the only forward impact for Rovers, forcing Peverell in the Darlington goal into several good saves.

The point from the 0-0 draw kept Rovers in fourth spot in the table and set up another game with Halifax Town where Rovers would be looking for revenge for their 4-1 drubbing at The Shay in October.

With the weather worsening day on day, Rovers were among the first to call off the game against Halifax for safety reasons. The Belle Vue ground was covered with hard packed snow and ice and after a 10 o’clock inspection, referee Mr. D. Laing had no option but to call the game off.

Eight games in all were called off, but one that did go ahead was the game at Bradford where Workington Town were the visitors. Workington won 1-0 and leapfrogged Rovers into fourth spot.

It was disappointing as Rovers had hoped to play the game as a prequel to the following Saturday’s game against Liverpool.

Rovers Valiant at Anfield

So on Saturday 4th January, Rovers’ big day out arrived and along with many of their faithful, they travelled over the Pennines for their biggest day for many a season.

If many were expecting the inevitable to happen, they were probably wondering when as a first half of attacking football from both sides and a dogged defence from Rovers produced a pulsating game. Not that Rovers were playing defensively – not for one moment did they give that a thought – as they went at Liverpool with a vengeance.

Pick of the forwards was John Regan and his battle with Ron Yeates kept the 48,330 crowd on their feet, and when Tommy Smith took over as his marker, he fared no better.

In defence Robertson, Wilcockson and Flowers were immense and kept Ian St. John and Alun Evans in fine check.

Rovers to their credit had as much a share of the game as their illustrious opponents and had some very good chances.

Jeffrey in particular bent one free kick around the Liverpool defence; it beat Lawrence all ends up but Hughes on the goal line cleared.

Ogston in Rovers goal acquitted himself in fine style as well, and he brought off several fine saves.

The second half was a repeat of the first with both teams pressing. As Liverpool became more and more desperate against a determined Rovers, it was left to Chris Lawler to set up the first Liverpool goal.

Moving upfield, Lawler took a shot at goal that rebounded into the path of Roger Hunt, who drove it low past the diving Ogston. Rovers’ defence had been breached for the first time and it had taken the mighty Liverpool 70 minutes to do it.

To their credit, Rovers heads did not droop, and they went in search of a goal to level the scores. Regan and Jeffrey had chances, but only half chances, and with five minutes left Liverpool secured their victory.

Emlyn Hughes moved the ball cleverly to the feet of Thompson, and when his pass fell to Ian Callaghan the forward made no mistake from 20 yards out.

A defeat yes, but there was no disgrace in this. Manager McMenemy said after the game, “the Doncaster supporters at Anfield really lifted the players with their cheers. Give us that in the league and we can’t go wrong”.

Cup Hangover

With their cup exploits over, Rovers could now concentrate on the league and promotion.

With the bad weather abating it was time to catch up on postponed matches, but the first point of call before that happened was a trip to Sincil Bank and Lincoln City on Saturday 11th January.

Lincoln were lying just above Rovers in the table and a difficult match was foreseen. To their credit Rovers were not about to be overawed and on a damp and foggy afternoon they played a spirited game.

Foggy, rainy, windy – it had it all this day, and the fact that there were no floodlights only compounded conditions.

It was difficult in a drab first half to see play at one end of the pitch from the other.

Unsurprising then that there were no goals and the half drew to a close with most fans not knowing which team had been on top. The answer to that was neither as both had nullified the other.

Conditions did not improve for the second half and it was a very strange effort that gave Lincoln the lead after 57 minutes. Dave Smith started it. picking up a loose ball after some sloppy Rovers play.

He squared the ball across goal where Bobby Svarc hit it goalwards. Colin Clish, stood on the goal-line, cleared the ball but it rebounded off the body of Ogston. Clish, now down on the ground on all fours, tried desperately to get to the ball even attempting to scoop it away with his hand but it was out of reach and Kearns just touched it as it dribbled over the line.

For a time, it looked as if Lincoln had done enough to secure a victory, but just as suddenly Rovers found their form again and pushed forward.

With darkness descending and visibility becoming more and more difficult, out of the gloom and mist strode Bobby Gilfillan to strike a shot that no one saw coming.

Lincoln’s goalkeeper saw the ball only at the last moment and then he was picking it out of the net.

The goal, coming with just fifteen minutes left, was no more than Rovers deserved and they could have won it as they made known their intentions that one point was not enough.

Still, a point away at one of Rovers fiercest rivals was not to be sniffed at even if it did mean that Rovers slipped down the table to seventh place.

The following Tuesday, on the 14th January, Rovers entertained Halifax Town at Belle Vue. A win would put them level with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams in the table: namely Darlington, Workington and Lincoln who were all on 30 points. Top of the table Aldershot were three points clear on 33.

8,656 fans turned up to see this Yorkshire Derby, which turned out to be a drab affair with both defences on top. Very few chances were created by either side, indeed the only efforts of note for Rovers came from John Flowers and Harold Wilcockson, stalwarts of the defence.

The game petered out long before the final whistle went and both teams seemed happy to settle for a point. In Rovers case the point lifted them into 5th place, one point behind the promotion places.

Stay tuned for Part Five 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 intotheemptynet@gmail.com.

All images featured in this article come courtesy of Ray's personal scrapbook, collected from various contemporary news sources.