Ray Jest's Reliving Rovers: 1968-69 Part One
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 George Raynor and still boasting the legendary Alick Jeffrey amongst the ranks.
Rovers call in the guardsman McMenemy...
...Jeffrey departs -- End of an era...
...And Liverpool get rattled
1968/1969 was a season when many fans hoped for promotion, and the Rovers were not about to disappoint their fans.
Rovers' first game of the new campaign was against West Yorkshire rivals Bradford City on August 10th at Belle Vue. A disputed goal after just 17 minutes saw Rovers take the lead, Usher on the left took control of the ball and slid a pass through to Gilfillan who gratefully slotted the ball home, although he appeared to be well offside. Still the goal stood and Rovers entered the break a goal to the good.
City, who had only missed out on promotion by a single point the previous season, showed slightly more intent after the break and Morritt in the Rovers goal was the first to have to be alert as he tipped a Leighton header over the bar.
For all Rovers pressure it was City who equalised in the 61stminute.
City were awarded a free kick just outside the area although they protested manfully that the foul had taken place inside the box. Rackstraw took the kick and Swallow rose above everyone to place a header over Morritt and into the net.
Both teams strived manfully for a winner but none was forthcoming and the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
The following Saturday, August 17th, saw Rovers travelling to North Yorkshire this time to face York City at Bootham Crescent. Once again Rovers took a 1-0 lead into the interval but it was a fortunate lead. York had been the better side by far and the only thing between them and a bigger scoreline was Rovers goalkeeper John Gavin, as he pulled off tremendous saves to keep the York strikers at bay.
Rovers took the lead after 19 minutes when the York full back Kelly slipped in the penalty area and Jeffrey was on hand to slot the ball home. Seldom can Rovers have done so little and yet still been in the lead.
York were missing a cool head in attack and time after time they squandered chances. Then in the 73rd minute Ross, collecting a through ball from Burrows, outpaced the whole of the Rovers defence before crashing an unstoppable shot past the helpless Gavin. From then one man stood alone against the City attack as Gavin pulled off more fine saves.
Two points from their first two games left Rovers lying in mid table.
An Iron Enemy
Rovers' next game on the following Friday evening, August 23rd, saw them entertain old rivals Scunthorpe at Belle Vue. It was a cracker of a game.
Both teams were intent on kick starting their seasons and they produced a match that was exciting and pulsating.
Rovers fielded their top line strikers with Jeffrey, Webber and Johnson whilst John Ogston made his debut in the Rovers goal.
The pre-occupation with defence that had been apparent so far was forgotten as Rovers swept forward looking for goals, but it would be Scunthorpe who struck first.
Ogston only touched the ball twice in the first seven minutes and that was to pick the ball out of the net as Terry Heath netted twice to put Scunthorpe 2-0 up.
It needed something magical to get Rovers back into the game and it was Alick Jeffrey, striker supreme, who produced just that.
Rovers were awarded a free kick almost on the byline between goal and corner.
Jeffrey took the kick and swerved it into the net over the helpless Barnard in the Scunthorpe goal.
Rovers were right back in the game and were level after 33 minutes. Jeffrey shook himself free as two defenders converged on him and hit a low shot at goal. Barnard in the Scunthorpe goal could only parry his shot and Rabjohn raced in to level the scores.
The scores remained that way until half time and both teams were roundly applauded off the field.
After the interval both teams kept up their relentless attacking football, but in the 66th minute Brian Usher combined with Johnson to lay on a chance for Webber who made no mistake with a low shot into the corner of the net. Webber’s first goal since the 8th of April had put Rovers in front for the first time in the match.
The lead lasted just 60 seconds however as Scunthorpe were level again, George Kerr driving the ball home from the edge of the penalty area.
Most fans would have been happy to go home with honours even after a great game, but Jeffrey had other ideas and with just five minutes left he pounced on a pass from Usher. A swerve, a shuffle, a side step and a little jink left three defenders helpless as he hammered home the winner.
Rovers moved to tenth spot in the league and Jeffrey was hailed as “King Alick” by Joe Slater in the evening paper the next night.
Battle of Wills for Ogston
On Saturday August 31st Rovers were on the road again for their next game and a trip Layer Road, home of Colchester United.
Colchester had begun the season badly and were bottom of the league with just one point to their name, so Rovers fans were hopeful of a good result.
Rovers began the brighter but all the clever play and neat passing gained them nothing. Chances were there though but Jeffrey and Rabjohn were the main culprits, both missing open goals.
At half time the scores were level with Rovers defence blotting out any threats the Colchester attack had mounted; still they could have been ahead at the break.
Wilcockson, seeing Ogston on the floor and out of position, stopped a shot from Dyson with his hand and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a spot kick.
Light stepped up to take the penalty but Ogston made a great save diving to his right.
With seven minutes of the second half gone Rovers were in front when Webber stabbed the ball home. In a tedious and scrappy second half, chances were now few and far between with most of the play being limited to the middle of the field.
On 87 minutes the following Rovers faithful were rewarded with a goal from Johnson and it seemed the game was won but in the last minute, Hall through on goal was brought down by Robertson and this time there was no saving the spot kick as Simpson gave Ogston no chance.
But Rovers travelled home with both points and moved to 8th place in the table, only two points behind the leaders.
Seals Put Rovers in Murky Waters
On September 3rd Rovers travelled to Sealand Road, home of Chester who were just below them in the league on six points. With no other games scheduled for that evening Rovers knew that a win would put them level with the league leaders Lincoln City.
The match was notable for its incredulity and errors.
Rovers played a brand of football that was worthy of a division above, if not two. Every one of the team was outstanding which made it even harder to stomach defeat.
Ogston showing match upon match his improvement proved that manager George Raynor's decision to play him was the correct one.
Wilcockson was a tower in defence while up front Jeffrey, Webber, Johnson and Usher proved more than a handful for the Chester defence.
Ogston was beaten after just nine minutes when a free kick by Ashworth deflected off Jeffrey, helping out in defence, somehow finding its way into the back of the net. He was beaten again after thirty three minutes when Provan sneaked in to head powerfully home although the ball should have been cleared by a static defence.
So how come Rovers lost?
Three minutes: a run and centre by Rabjohn, Jeffrey headed over the bar. 36 minutes: Webber beat goalkeeper Carling in a race for the ball, centered, and Rabjohn miscontrolled the ball wide in front of an open goal. 41 minutes: an Ogston goal kick was headed sideways by Webber for Jeffrey whose shot was deflected for a corner. 53 minutes: Jeffrey missed a sitter in front of an open goal. 84 minutes: after a great run Usher hammered a shot that looked a goal all over but came back off the crossbar.
Those were just some of the reasons that Rovers lost. Then put them together with some of the most comical refereeing decisions that you could think of.
Imagine this: referee Mr. I. P. Jones of Trelewis in Wales, assisted by his linesmen Mr. R. Jones and E. Blunstone, whistled Webber offside in his own half, whistled Rabjohn offside when there was a defender next to the goalkeeper on his goal line, and disallowed a last minute goal by Jeffrey following a backward pass from Johnson for offside. Johnson angrily protested about the decision and was promptly booked for dissent.
In between all this, Rovers reduced the arrears just before half time when Johnson took the ball down the wing and put over a pinpoint cross for Jeffrey to head home.
The trip home to South Yorkshire gave neither Rovers nor their fans any comfort in the result. Rovers dropped to 4th in the table and Chester moved above Rovers into 4th spot.
When September Comes
The rest of that month saw Rovers go on an impressive run of 5 wins from 5 games, starting with Exeter at Belle Vue.
With the disappointment of Chester still strong Rovers wanted to put it all behind them and they got the best result they could have wished for although for a time it looked as if they may not.
In front of 8,590 spectators on Saturday 7th September, Rovers came out firing from all barrels but could not find a way through the Exeter defence. Chance upon chance went missing either through stubborn defending or a forward line intent on missing every chance made for them.
It was Exeter that stung the hosts in the 31st minute when Flowers, usually so dependent boobed in attempting a back pass to his keeper and only managed to play the ball into the path of Blain. It left him with a clear run on goal and as Gavin came out to narrow the gap Blain calmly lifted the ball over him and into the net.
Once again Rovers had an uphill struggle on their hands, and once again it was that man Jeffrey who dug them out of the mire.
In the 48th minute Rovers were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box. Johnson teed it up for Jeffrey to beat the wall and the keeper with a low hard shot.
Four minutes later Jeffrey accepted a pass from Usher and, taking two or three strides further, he hit an unstoppable shot from 20 yards out to put Rovers in front for the first time in the game.
Even so Exeter refused to give up and set off after an equaliser, but Rovers defence this time held fast.
With 72 minute on the clock Jeffrey completed his hat trick. Again he was set up by Usher, and his header looked all the way a goal but Smyth on the goal line blocked it by the upright of the goal. He could not stop it from rebounding to Jeffrey however, who promptly slammed the ball home.
It was the result Rovers had wanted; it also moved them up to 5th place in the table.
The next day’s headlines were all about Alick Jeffrey and Joe Slater, and the Evening Post led the way with “Everyone cheers smart Alick”.
Rovers' most famous son was deemed to have had a new lease of life after his exploits of the last few weeks. Just a few weeks ago he was hailed as “King Alick” by the reporter and now he extolled him even further.
At the age of 29 Jeffrey seemed to be reveling in his football again and it was hoped by many that this would be long term rather than short term.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Ray's recounting of the 1968-69 season later this 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.