4000 Holes


Wednesday, 8 March 2023

In the midst of the Norfolk Broads is a market town called Wroxham; often referred to as "the capital of the Broads"; it is something of a hub for those enjoying a boating holiday in the vicinity.  Almost every retail outlet in the place is owned and operated by a company called "Roys", as if in tribute to Mr Hodgson himself.

It was Wroxham FC that in 2012 generated a pub quiz staple by persuading a then 39-year-old Chris Sutton to come out of retirement to feature in a solitary game, coming on as a substitute to play alongside his son, himself a goalkeeping substitute.

It was also in Wroxham, back in the fledgling summer of 1975, that a then 11-year-old boy first learned that the manager of his beloved team had quit to join Newcastle United. This would not be the last time that such an eventuality would occur in his lifetime, but it was a shock and a massive disappointment all the same. The predicament would deteriorate even further as the manager soon returned to Ewood and signed two of Rovers' best players for his new club.

The memory of Gordon Lee is inevitably tarnished by the haste at which he departed after winning a divisional title but if we can forgive Kenny, then Gordon is also due some latitude.

The 1974/75 side was the first whiff of success that Rovers had given me. Almost as soon as I'd started supporting Rovers a relegation to the third tier ensued and despite the revolutionary approach of Ken Furphy, the road back to the second division was proving to be troublesome, laden as it was with potholes and diversions. 

Lee had been recruited from Port Vale in January 1974 and he used the rest of the 1973/74 season to assess the resources at his disposal. The subsequent flurry of transfer activity demonstrated that he had quickly formed a view of what was required and doubtless Bill Bancroft was equally forthright about the need to trade within a challenging budget.

The cliche has it that great teams are founded upon a strong spine. Whether or not you subscribe to that theory, Lee already had an excellent keeper in the shape of Roger Jones and he soon added Graham Hawkins in central defence, Graham Oates in central midfield and the man who spawned the best ironic Ewood chant of all time, Ken Beamish, up front. Further signings would be added during the season – no transfer windows as such back then kids – and the likes of Andy Burgin, Mick Hickman, Jimmy Mullen and Bobby Hoy would all have important roles to play.

This was soon Lee's side and the omens were good. A single defeat in the opening 12 league games indicated that Rovers were finally a force to be reckoned with at this level.

It was during the 1974/75 season that Rovers played what many of my generation would argue is the greatest game they've ever seen at Ewood. Due to a quirk in the fixture schedules, Rovers would meet Plymouth Argyle twice in less than a fortnight in February. The first game at Home Park saw Plymouth take the points in a 2-1 victory. The return at Ewood would prove to be a milestone fixture in the club's history.

Plymouth travelled to Ewood as league leaders. Just two points for a win back then of course, but a victory would return Rovers to the summit of a tightly congested table. 

My vantage point for this game was in the front row of the Nuttall Street stand just behind the visiting directors’ box and the then England manager Don Revie was an interested spectator. Kit nerds out there would also recall that Rovers wore white shorts with red & blue stripes for the first time that season. 

Plymouth raced into a two-goal lead and the expectant crowd was shuffling restlessly. A potential route back into the game via a penalty was spurned by Don Martin and the traditional "rumbles" in the home support were starting to proliferate.

A lifeline just before half-time saw Martin make amends with what would now be classed as an assist as Beamo pulled one back. This was just an aperitif for what would follow in the second half. In a power display of total football, two goals each from Don Martin and Mike Hickman completed what was in effect a 45-minute rout. Rovers ran Argyle ragged. 

In the Argyle line-up that afternoon was Jim Furnell, later a coach at Rovers; Bobby Saxton, later a manager; Colin Randell, signed by Saxton for Rovers in 1982 and Chorley-born Paul Mariner, who would later win the cup with Ipswich and play for England amongst his many accomplishments.

Rovers would eventually seal promotion with a home victory against Chesterfield on 19th April and the title was confirmed with a goalless draw under the Ewood floodlights on Monday 28th, in front of more than 21,000 spectators. 

Gordon Lee had transformed the team, building a side with a strong work ethic but no little skill to take the divisional title – that comeback win over Argyle proving ultimately to be vital.

Within two months, Lee was gone, so were Jones and Oates and a short but memorable era was over. Gordon Lee's divisional title would be the last that Rovers would win for twenty years.

Lee's death in early March last year rekindled those memories of a wonderful season and a short, albeit sweet managerial interlude in Rovers' history. But it also took me back to Wroxham, on a sunny day back in 1975. 

Thanks for the memories Gordon, RIP.

Gordon Lee (3rd July 1934 – 8th March 2022)


*This article was originally published in Issue 104 of 4,000 Holes in April 2022. Please support the continued existence of the fanzine by considering a subscription via this link or buying the occasional copy. It is really appreciated by all of the contributors. Thank you.

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