Wednesday 30 December 2009
Allen Batsford - a Wimbledon football hero
Ray Armfield looks back at the footballing career of the manager who turned Wimbledon FC into a League club, Allen Batsford, who died on 28 December.
Allen’s football career began at Arsenal back in July 1949, when he signed professional forms at the age of 17. He spent six more years at Highbury, making over 200 appearances for the Gunners’ reserve, youth and A sides, and winning league and cup medals with each, but he was unable to break into the first team and moved into non-League football with Kent sides Folkestone, Ramsgate and Margate.
Always hard-working, organised and thoughtful as a player, Allen brought those qualities to his first coaching role as player-manager of Feltham. The Middlesex club attained senior amateur status during his three-year tenure, but it was during a seven-year association with Walton & Hersham, commencing in 1967, that his managerial reputation took shape.
The Swans won the Athenian League title in 1968/69 and finished runners-up in the next two seasons, during which they also lifted the Surrey Senior Cup. Election to the Isthmian League followed, with Allen leading Walton to third place in 1971/72, along with another county cup triumph. The following season was even better. A last-minute Roger Connell goal at Wembley Stadium saw Walton lift the coveted Amateur Cup by beating Slough Town, and the Swans had done it without conceding a goal – a feat unmatched in the competition’s history.
In 1973/74 Walton won both the London and Surrey Senior Cups, and Allen tasted glory in the FA Cup when Walton held Brian Clough’s Brighton to a draw before thumping them 4-0 in the replay. That result certainly silenced Clough, who before the game had described the pairing as “donkeys against thoroughbreds”. By now, amateurism was coming to an end, and Allen sought a new challenge – and it turned out to be a big one.
He applied for the vacant Wimbledon FC job in the summer of 1974 and landed it ahead of a raft of other candidates, among them David Pleat. But it was only after Dons chairman Jack Beavan installed Allen that he realised the full extent of the task that lay ahead. He’d inherited just seven contracted players, wages for any new recruits were capped at £15 per week, there were no transfer fees or signing-on funds available, and even his own salary would be less than he had received at Walton. But his masterstroke was to bring in five of his former Walton players – Dave Bassett, Dave Donaldson, Billy Edwards, Roger Connell and Keiron Somers – and he superbly grafted this new intake onto the talented nucleus of existing Plough Lane regulars such as Dickie Guy, Ian Cooke, Bob Stockley, Jeff Bryant, Mick Mahon and Selwyn Rice.
After an opening-day Southern League blip, Wimbledon went on a 26-game unbeaten run, including a nine-game FA Cup campaign that began at humble Bracknell Town. By the time that Stourbridge beat them 2-1 on 21 December, only a fixture backlog kept Allen’s Dons from the top of the league table. In the FA Cup they defeated Bath City and Kettering Town in the first two rounds proper, and were then handed an impossible-looking trip to Burnley – then seventh in Division One – in the Third Round.
But “impossible” wasn’t in Allen’s vocabulary, and he and his trusted lieutenant Brian Hall carefully plotted how to counter the Clarets’ threat. Flying Welsh international winger Leighton James was identified as the danger man, and he was double-marked, principally by Dave Bassett, who was detailed to “quieten” him at every opportunity. Mick Mahon drove a loose ball beyond Alan Stevenson for the only goal of the game. Allen had masterminded the first FA Cup away win at a top flight side by a non-League club since 1920.
What would the draw throw at Batsford’s brave part-timers? The answer was an even more daunting trip to Elland Road, the home of League champions Leeds United and their star-studded team of internationals recently managed by Don Revie. Once again, Allen and Brian were methodical and detailed with their planning. The Dons frustrated Leeds and held them to a goalless draw, with Dickie Guy saving a penalty, and lost the replay only by a deflected own goal, with over 46,000 witnessing each game.
After that, it was back to the grind of catching up with league fixtures. It would have been easy for Wimbledon’s season to tail away to an anticlimax, but that would not have been Allen’s way. The Southern League championship was secured in the penultimate game, and a double was achieved when the London Senior Cup was lifted. The following season Wimbledon repeated the trick, retaining the league title by an eight-point margin and winning the Southern League Cup for another double – and all with a tightly knit and well-drilled squad of just 16 players.
When Wimbledon secured a third successive Southern League championship in 1976/77, there was only one place left to go – the Football League. Allen would later envy the off-the-field organisation and resources that AFC Wimbledon now enjoy, as superior to what was available to his Dons of 1977, and these shortcomings would soon cause friction between him and chairman Ron Noades. Eventually he could take no more, and left just halfway through the Dons’ inaugural Division Four season.
Allen had short spells with Dulwich Hamlet and Hillingdon Borough before the challenge of Wealdstone presented itself. Once again, he brought in several of his former players to add to the likes of Stuart Pearce, and Wealdstone won a league and cup double in 1981/82. During 1983 Allen underwent heart surgery and handed over the reins to assistant Brian Hall, who piloted the Stones to a Conference/FA Trophy double two years later, but Allen’s contribution to the club’s success wasn’t forgotten. He was able to return to football and spent six years as youth development manager at Millwall before scouting for Dave Bassett on behalf of several clubs, and his shrewd analysis and keen eye for a player never diminished.
Happily, Allen could be welcomed back into the Dons fold once AFC Wimbledon were established, and he was made the club’s first president. He was a frequent visitor on matchdays, and was delighted to meet up once more with most of his Wimbledon players from the 1970s at the “Dinner with Dickie” evening in February 2009.
Liverpool had Bill Shankly, Manchester United had Sir Matt Busby. It’s fair to say that Allen Batsford deserves the same reverence among Wimbledon supporters, whatever their age.
Farewell, Allen – and thank you.
Fans who would like to see and hear the man himself, can watch a recent interview with Allen by clicking on Allen Batsford interview.