When March Town reached their Wembley in 1955
Stephen Wallis looks back on a memorable FA Cup run for March Town...
When lowly ranked non-league clubs reach the First Round of the FA Cup (or the First Round Proper as I affectionately recall it being called in my youth), we often hear them say: “This is our Wembley.”
March Town United reached their Wembley in 1955 and again in 1978 and over the next two weeks I will recall the day in 1955 and the Hares’ route to Brentford, who they played on Saturday, November 19.
To give you some perspective of life in 1955, rationing had finally ended, in July 1954, Churchill had resigned as PM in the spring and Chelsea were the current Division 1 champions.
If you can imagine a Champions League in 1955, the other three qualifiers would have been Wolves, Portsmouth and Sunderland. The Busby Babes would have missed out, coming fifth. A very different world!
March, meanwhile, were in the Eastern Counties League where they had finished third in 1954/55 behind Colchester Reserves and champions, Arsenal A.
Their FA Cup journey began on Saturday, September 10 in the preliminary round against Cambridge City at Milton Road.
Although the journey had an early hiccup, the team bus broke down after only ten minutes. Luckily, the club’s supporters’ bus was following behind. A quick change of personnel in the supporters’ bus, well 11 at least, and the players were on their way to Cambridge.
In those days Cambridge City were an amateur team playing in Athenian League while March were a semi-professional outfit managed by Scottish left winger Tommy McCulloch, who had plenty of Scottish and Football League experience.
The match ended in a 2-2 draw, watched by a crowd of 4,945. The home side had taken the lead in the first 10 minutes before the Hares rallied and took the lead, only for Cambridge City to equalise with a penalty four minutes from time. March won the replay three days later at the GER Sports Ground 3-1.
No doubt many residents will now be putting faces to the names in the line ups. The names of centre forward Wally Beach, former West Ham star Terry Woodgate, Syd Garratt and Billy Dack from Doddington will be tripping of the tongues once again!
Note March’s colours were yellow and black with black knickers! Furthermore, there must have been no worries of fan abuse or GDPR in those days, McCulloch’s phone number was recorded on the front of the programme!
In the First Qualifying Round March won 3-1 against St Neots & District, who then played in the United Counties League.
The next two rounds would really test The Hares: local derbies against Midland League outfits King’s Lynn and Wisbech Town.
King’s Lynn were beaten after a replay. It was 1-1 at The Walks before The Hares triumphed 1-0 at home with a goal by Nat Brooksbank, recalled by local resident Mike Emery, who was14 at the time.
“I remember Nat Brooksbank going on a mazy run of about 30 yards before sliding home the winner,” said Mike. To put March’s achievement into perspective, King’s Lynn went on to finish fifth in the Midland League and applied unsuccessfully to be elected to the Football league at the end of that season.
There then followed two titanic struggles against The Fenman. The first on Saturday, October 22 in front of a local derby crowd of 4,458.
The Hares took the lead at Fenland Park after 30 minutes, against the run of play, when a free kick by Terry Woodgate was turned in by Wally Beach. Wisbech pressed hard for an equaliser which came three minutes from the end.
March were fortunate to get a draw in the first tie, but things changed at the GER on the following Tuesday where 2,500 supporters gathered. The Hares were the dominant side throughout and goals by Joe Campbell and Wally Beach (77 minutes) gave them the chance of reaching the First Round Proper. Only the season before, March had lost 5-2 in the Fourth Qualifying Round to Bedford Town.
After victories against two higher ranked sides, March’s next opponents were fellow ECL side Great Yarmouth at the GER. Having been the underdogs in the two previous rounds, March were favourites against a club who were mid table the previous season.
The home side were also undefeated at the GER after eight matches of the 1955/56 season, with only Tottenham A avoiding defeat.
The only goal of the game came after eight minutes when Syd Garratt scored from the penalty spot after Beach had been fouled. Reports indicate that March relied heavily on the defence, of George Ephgrave, their giant goalkeeper at 6ft 4in, Norman Rowe (right back), Bernard Lawson (left back), Billy Dack (right half), Wally Price (centre half) and Pat Comerford (left half), especially in the first half to keep out the Yarmouth attackers.
Indeed, the Yarmouth Mercury mentioned the visitors were denied a penalty in the first half, when they claimed Rowe had handled the ball in the penalty area.
“There was a moment of indecision by the referee, a linesman was consulted and to the general astonishment of most onlookers the ball was placed a few inches outside the area for a Yarmouth free kick.” Not much doubt where the paper’s loyalties lay there.
March fan Mike Emery also remembered the Great Yarmouth fans saying after the game that they could now concentrate on the league. The records show March went on to finish second behind champions Peterborough United Reserves, withYarmouth back in ninth.
March had reached the First Round Proper for the first time and in the draw on Monday their number came out of the velvet bag to play Third Division South side Brentford.
But that’s another story, coming up next week.
- I would like to thank Mike Emery, Gordon Smith (Wisbech Town FC) and Neil Harvey (Cambridge City FC) for their help with this article.