• Adam Stubbings

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

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.

Check out Part One of this series, published earlier in the week, then read on to continue our journey into September and October of 1968.

Port Vale was Rovers' next point of call with a visit to their Vale Park ground on Saturday 14th September, and Rovers duly sent their fans home smiling.

Port Vale Manager Gordon Lee bemoaned the gifts that his team were giving away, and it did seem that Christmas had come early for Rovers.

After just 15 minutes a loose pass from Asprey in the Vale defence was picked up by Gilfillan who moved to the edge of the penalty area before unleashing a shot to give Rovers the lead.

Vale had much more of the play after that but could not find a way through the Rovers’ defence.

After the break Vale again put the pressure on but four minutes into the half Vale goalkeeper Geoff Hickson allowed the ball to slip through his fingers for a Rovers corner.

When the corner came over it was none other than “King Alick” who rose to the ball to send a powerful header into the roof of the net.

The result pushed Rovers into third place in the table whilst Port Vale dropped to rock bottom.

Rovers were on a roll or so it seemed, and on Tuesday 17th September their next opponents Rochdale came to Belle Vue just two points behind in 10th place.

That was how tight the table was. Two points for Rovers could put them on top if other results went their way while two points for Rochdale could see them move up into a top six spot themselves.

Rover’s biggest gate of the season – 12,183 – was swelled by the ranks of Rochdale supporters.

In a tight and tense first half both teams cancelled out each other and it was no surprise that half time saw a 0-0 scoreline, not that either team had played negative football. Both teams had in fact shown flashes of brilliance without either hitting the back of the net.

So as the second half kicked off the game was still in the balance.

Rovers only showed any attacking flair in brief moments. Usher had been ruled out of the game and Aiken had taken his place which meant that Rabjohn had been playing on the left wing. Jeffrey rarely got forward into a scoring position preferring to stay deep and lay on chances for his team-mates.

The fans were not happy with this although the Rochdale players could not have been more pleased at the situation, but it was Jeffrey who had the last laugh, having a hand in both of Rovers goals.

With 54 minutes on the clock, Rabjohn on the left fed a ball through to Jeffrey who played his pass just in front of Johnson and the inside-man steered the ball home into the bottom corner.

A few minutes later Jeffrey again set up Johnson but this time his shot was way off target.

With Rovers fans biting their fingernails as Rochdale pushed forward it was Jeffrey who once again set up a colleague to ensure both points.

A little head tennis as a long ball was headed on by Jeffrey into the path of Gilfillan who headed the ball over the oncoming Rochdale keeper Harker to seal the win.

Regan Signs, But Still Jeffrey Shines

Rovers centre forward Keith Webber had sustained an injury that looked like keeping him on the sidelines for some time, but in unusual Rovers fashion they moved quickly for a replacement and an £8,000 fee was enough to secure the services of John Regan from Crewe Alexandra. Rovers manager George Raynor drove down to St Annes to register the player in time for the following day’s game against Peterborough United.

On Friday evening, September 20th, Rovers had another home game against Peterborough United with another large attendance, this time 12,965 crowded into Belle Vue hoping to see Rovers move top of the table.

Peterborough had earlier this season knocked Rovers out of the League Cup and for much of the game it looked as if the game would be a repeat of their first leg affair in that competition.

The evening was wet and windy, not at all conducive for good football.

Although both teams tried to play attractive possession football the weather and the ground conditions were against them.

John Regan making his Rovers debut looked sharp and quick off the mark, but was unable to make anything of the chances that came his way.

The referee blew for half time with the game scoreless.

From the start of the second half Rovers upped their play and after 63 minutes they were ahead.

For the second game on the trot Jeffrey set up Johnson for the easiest of goals.

Flowers in the centre of defence played a ball through to Jeffrey; he instantly sent it into the path of Johnson who shot low past Millington in the Peterborough goal.

It was all Rovers after this, and Peterborough had Millington to thank for keeping them in the game saving twice in quick succession from first Johnson then Jeffrey and later foiling Regan too.

It was sweet revenge for the League Cup exit they had endured at the hands of their opponents, but most fans were happier with the points.

There were some familiar faces in attendance at the game with Brian Clough, Manager of Derby County, Tommy Cummings, Manager of Aston Villa and representatives from Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Norwich, Rotherham, Scunthorpe and Mansfield in the crowd.

Rovers had been just behind Darlington in second spot. The win lifted them level on points with the league leaders, but they were kept in second spot due to Darlington’s 0-0 draw at Aldershot and their better goal average.

Leaders' Clash Goes Sour

Saturday 28th September saw Rovers on the road again, but they only had the short trip to Chesterfield for a game at Saltergate.

Chesterfield were lying in the bottom four of the league and were having a torrid season, so it was with much optimism that Rovers fans made the journey down to Derbyshire.

Lowly though they were, Chesterfield proved worthy opponents and could consider themselves unfortunate not to take anything from the game. In fact, it was late into the game when Humphreys in the Chesterfield goal, under pressure from Regan, could only palm out a cross from Wilcockson. The ball fell invitingly for Gilfillan who beat three defenders to calmly drive the ball into the corner of the net.

With Darlington beating Bradford City both they and Rovers were sharing top spot on sixteen points and it set up an intriguing top of the table clash on 4th October, a Friday Evening, as Rovers hosted their illustrious opponents in the next game at Belle Vue.

In front of Rovers’ biggest attendance for three years both teams played out an exciting game of cut and thrust football.

The game will probably be remembered for 3 reasons.

1) The record attendance of 22,268.

2) Rovers lost their undefeated home record.

3) The substitution of John Regan, who clearly showed his annoyance at the decision.

A goal after just 40 seconds of the second half meant Rovers would be defeated for the first time in six games and would also lose their second place in the table to Chester.

It began with a short pass by Les O’Neil to John Peverell, who charged down field to hit a tremendous shot that flew wildly off target, but only fell at the feet of Darlington’s Harry Kirk, who sprinted forward and hit an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. Doncaster fought tooth and nail to get back on terms but a combination of poor finishing and gallant defending saw Darlington home.

Just in case anyone should get the impression that it was all Rovers, Darlington created several chances of their own to increase their lead, but all were squandered.

On 70 minutes George Rayner took the step of replacing Regan with Gilfillan, a move that clearly upset the Rovers player and led to some serious exchanges as he came off the pitch.

On top of all this there were reports in the following day’s papers of outbreaks of violence after the match. Incidents were reported all the way across town from the Railway Station to the Southern Bus Station. One man had to be taken to hospital after a brick was thrown the window of a bar in town.

Manager George Raynor was due to meet Chairman Mr. Wilson on the Monday to discuss the concerns over Regan’s attitude to his substitution.

Mr. Wilson said the he would issue a statement after he had spoken to the player.

Regan Vindicated

It would appear that all issues were settled amicably as Regan was to feature in Rovers next game.

At Belle Vue again on Tuesday 8th October, Rovers’ game against Chester gave them the opportunity to bounce back from the defeat by Darlington.

Chester had moved above Rovers into second spot following their 3-0 victory over Swansea, so it also gave Rovers the chance to leapfrog back over their adversaries and regain second spot.

Many in the attendance of 10,171 thought that Regan not only owed an apology to the Manager but also to them, and he duly obliged.

After just twelve minutes Regan opened his account for Rovers as he elegantly slotted the ball home through the narrowest of spaces following Johnson’s free kick.

Six minutes later he had all the space in the world as Jeffrey and Carling had become entangled and he duly put Rovers 2-0 in front.

Rovers were dominant and after 28 minutes Johnson, full of running, crossed into the penalty area. Chester skipper Cliff Sear had a moment of panic and handled the ball. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Jeffrey confidently scored.

Half time arrived with Rovers 3-0 in front and you could be mistaken for thinking the game was all over after 55 minutes as Regan’s shot came off the crossbar only to fall kindly for Rabjohn who made no mistake with a neat header.

Through all this time Chester had also had their chances but it took till the 70th minute for them to grab what many thought was just a consolation goal.

Dearden scored from close in and two more quick fire goals from Metcalfe and Sutton had Rovers hanging on and their fans biting their fingernails for the last few minutes.

Rovers did hang on though to win 4-3 and leapfrogged their rivals to regain second spot in the table.

Wrexham Woes

With Rovers looking good in 2nd spot, the trip down to Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground on Saturday 12th October seemed an ideal place to perhaps put another couple of points in the bag towards promotion. Alas it was not to be, and Rovers had a dreadful afternoon in North Wales.

Apart from one notable effort from Rabjohn, Rovers never seriously tested Livsey in the Wrexham goal in open play all afternoon.

Rovers, although looking promising for the first ten minutes or so, fell to a sucker punch of a goal and to be honest it was all downhill from there.

From a perfect cross in the 18th minute, Kinsey scored with a fine header for Wrexham and Ray Charnley scored shortly afterwards to give the home team a 2-0 interval lead.

With an hour of the match gone, Regan in the Wrexham penalty area was pulled down from behind and Jeffrey stepped up to score his tenth goal of the season from the spot.

The way Doncaster had played all afternoon it would have been a travesty on Wrexham’s part had they taken anything from the game, but Charnley stepped up to score his second and Wrexham’s third just before the end to settle matters.

Rovers dropped back to fourth in the table.

Wilcockson, who missed the match through injury, was due to see a specialist on Monday to determine whether an operation was required on his injured knee.

The following Friday brought Rovers the opportunity to once again put a disastrous defeat behind them.

Stay tuned for Part Three 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.