5 - Gold Reserves
Roy spent two full seasons in the Reserves after his 1953 Cup Final disappointment; a career setback most certainly, yet they were anything but wilderness years. During that time he met and played alongside most of the £110 team which returned to Wembley in 1958 and came away victorious. Their collaboration culminated in Wanderers winning the Central League title, the first time the club had ever been Reserve team champions and a feat it has repeated only once, in 1994-95.
It’s worth looking at the make-up of the 1954-55 Reserves in a bit more detail to pick up clues to how the greater success was achieved three years later. Of the twelve who won the FA Cup in 1958 (and here it would be churlish not to include the two-goal semi-final hero Ralph Gubbins), eight played in that Reserve side with half a dozen clocking up twenty-five appearances or more. The only cup heroes who did not make a Central League appearance that season were established first-teamers Nat Lofthouse, Doug Holden and Bryan Edwards, plus goalkeeper Eddie Hopkinson who was still fourth in the pecking order behind Stan Hanson, Ken Grieves and Arthur Barnard.
Of the others, Tommy Banks and Ray Parry played more first team than Reserve matches; Roy was an ever-present, playing forty-two games, closely followed by Reserve team skipper and centre-half John Higgins (40 games); the other four members of the Cup Final team to play significant Central League roles were Derek Hennin (31 games), Gubbins (31), Dennis Stevens (29) and Brian Birch (25).
In addition two former playing stalwarts were in charge of the team. The coach was former Spurs and England forward George Hunt, who’d signed for Bolton in 1938 after a short and relatively unsuccessful spell with Arsenal. Hunt’s form had returned with a bang when he arrived at Burnden and he’d scored twenty-three goals in the 1938-39 season before his career, like many others, fell victim to the war, although he made a number of wartime appearances for Bolton. Hunt rejoined Wanderers as a coach in 1948 after a short spell as a player with Sheffield Wednesday.
The Reserve team’s trainer was an even more illustrious part of the Burnden story – he’d even lived at the ground! Harry Nuttall’s dad Jack had been trainer and groundsman whose home was a cottage stuck on the corner of the railway embankment terrace, and Harry made his debut for the Wanderers in 1921. A right half, he’d played in each of the three Cup Final wins of the 1920s and like George Hunt, won three England caps. He’d become Reserve team trainer in 1935.
Under their guidance the 1954-55 Reserves won twenty-six, drew seven and lost just nine of their games to claim the Central League trophy. Most satisfyingly they achieved a convincing double over another team whose own youth policy was already attracting national attention – Manchester United, with Bolton winning 3-0 at Old Trafford and 3-1 at Burnden. Moreover, the team was allowed to express itself.
Of Hunt and Nuttall, Brian Birch, then a sixteen-year-oldsaid: “They didn’t really restrict you. They let you play to your own style and strengths. The good players in the team were Dennis Stevens, John Higgins and Roy. Roy was one of the mainstays. He wasn’t frightened of anyone.”
Birch also recalled that the side had an excellent team spirit; a theme taken up by Roy as well. Describing his two seasons in the Reserves as among the happiest of his career, Roy said: “That was the start of the ’58 side coming through. Six or seven of that side went into the first team over the space of six or twelve months. That was when everybody worked for each other and the atmosphere and the craic in the dressing room was absolutely incredible.”
He added: “If someone wasn’t doing particularly well the other lads would get round him and pull through. It was a case if X wasn’t having a good game then Y and Z would cover for him.”
Of course that kind of spirit is not at all unusual in football dressing rooms. What singles this Bolton side out as rather special, however, is that the great spirit of togetherness persisted long after the 1958 squad had broken up. Eleven of its members (Derek Hennin died tragically early, aged fifty-seven, in 1989) continued to have regular social gatherings well after the turn of the century, when most of them were approaching or were over seventy years old. As Roy said in 2002: “We still have the same passion for one another and I think that’s incredible. The respect we had for each other has continued to this day.”
That season saw Roy score his first goal for the club, a thirty-yard special in an otherwise mediocre 2-0 home win against Aston Villa Reserves. The Central League title was clinched on the final day of April 1955 with a 1-0 win against Preston at Deepdale and the triumph was given added emphasis the following Monday with a similar victory at Molineux over Wolves. A 23rd-minute goal from seventeen-year-old Jack Pollitt gave Wanderers Reserves their ninth away victory of a season in which they had conceded just twenty-eight goals. For good measure Roy completely snuffed out the threat from left-winger Jimmy Mullen, already an established England international and set to become a key force in Wolves’ championship-dominating side later in the decade.
On the way back home from the Midlands the team bus stopped in Staffordshire, at the Crown Hotel, Stone, for a celebration meal and drinks, during which the happy young footballers were congratulated on their achievement by club vice-chairman Ted Gerrard.
However, while a good spirit especially among the up-and-coming youngsters is a real bonus, any Reserve team’s prime function is to feed promising talent into the first eleven. Birch and Gubbins were handed their first team debuts in 1954-55 and, of the previous season’s debutants, Stevens and Hennin were each given significant roles with the seniors. The skipper, John Higgins, also made the first team for a couple of matches. The only regular player in that Reserve side not to make it into the first team that season was Roy Hartle. But he would not have long to wait.
Roy made his second first-team debut, if you can call it that, after two games of the following season in a 1-0 defeat at Cardiff. From that day, August 31st 1955, until March 16th 1966 when he pulled on a Bolton first team shirt for the final time, Roy missed just twenty league and cup games. The match also marked the real start of the fearsome and feared Hartle-Banks combination which lasted until the beginning of the 1960-61 season. But, while Roy was absent for just twelve games in that time, Tommy struggled with a series of injuries and missed the equivalent of a season-and-a-half (sixty-five games). “I had a lot of trouble with my legs,” he explained, “or we’d have played a lot more together.” Tommy also blames injuries for shortening hispromising international career.
In popular folklore Hartle and Banks can hardly be separated - uncompromising gravel rash merchants who’d dump you on the track around Burnden Park as soon as look at you. Each liked to get a tackle in early before their opponent had settled on the ball. And both viewed most wingers as, in Tommy’s evocative phrase, “yellow bellies”.
There were honourable exceptions to this tag. For instance neither full-back would hear a word against the great Tom Finney’s skill, courage or commitment. And both admired the Leicester and West Brom winger Derek Hogg, who refused to be intimidated by Roy. Tommy explained: “Roy clattered him a few times but he used to get up and have a do back. He wasn’t scared at all - but most wingers were. When they came to Burnden they were frightened to death.”
However, there were differences between the two full-backs on the pitch, the most obvious being their attitude to the halfway line. For Roy, in this early part of his career it was generally an invisible barrier not to be crossed. He was hardly unique in this for, as we’ll see in a subsequent chapter, the idea of the overlapping full-back was generally unheard of. Yet for Haydn Berry this was evidently a source of frustration as early on in Roy’s career he saw qualities which he thought elevated the right back above the level of a mere big-boot merchant.
Berry remembers a walk back up Manchester Road into town early in Roy’s career with the young full-back listening “without a murmur of impatience or protest” while the football journalist expounded on “soccer finesse.”
It presents new facets to the impression that many people may have of Roy. “My point,” wrote Berry years later in Roy’s testimonial brochure, “was that Roy, by nature a robust defender, could add to his game a little more polish and style without sacrificing its effectiveness and with a better chance of catching the eye of the ‘Big Wigs’ some day! We knew well enough he would never be made into a Warney Creswell or Alf Ramsey but I could, and did, mention internationals of the past who started out in rough, tough style and added a bit of lustre later with great success, Stan Cullis for one.
“Roy listened courteously and though to the end of his playing career he remained above all, a hard-hitting full back, he did develop constructive facets including the push clearance to a colleague in place of the big boot upfield and the right wing overlap with the powerful cross and big shot.”
Tommy on the other hand showed he was more than a kick-and-rush merchant right from the beginning of his career. “George Taylor used to play hell with me for going over the half-way line,” he remembers, crediting his great friend, Bryan Edwards with granting him the chance of having freedom to roam. “I played with a wing-half,Bryan, who loved defending. He used to have stitches in his eyebrows every week.”
In contrast Roy played behind more attack-minded players so the options for getting forward were more limited. At the beginning of his career the right half was Johnny Wheeler and later Hennin, both of whom needed no encouragement to support the forwards. What sort of team had Roy stepped back into? According to established star Doug Holden, it was one which was tailor-made to suit the new twenty-three-year-old right back. Holden, one of Bolton’s most skilful players, said: “Bolton were a tough old Lancashire team built on a certain tradition. With players like Roy at the back we were very strong defensively and used to kick the hell out of opponents.Players would tackle through the back of other players. It wascompletely different then; now you daren’t breathe on them.”
The emphasis on toughness extended to training sessions as well. Holden explained: “Even in practice games you could get injured the way we trained. We’d play six against six and kick the hell out of each other.” So Bolton didn’t only have tough defenders - just as importantly, the attackers weren’t soft either.
Training, when it didn’t consist of wearing out the gravel around the pitch, took place on a cinder patch at the back of the Burnden Stand. “You couldn’t turn a horse round on there,” said Tommy Banks. “There was just one set of posts. It was a laugh and a joke.” Matters improved dramatically when, in the mid-1950s, training moved across the valley to the new Bromwich Street complex which had two pitches.
Allied to this robust approach, the other thread which ran through Bolton’s style of play was the almost total reliance on its talisman. Put simply, the tactic was to get the ball to Nat as quickly as possible. Even when he was at the end of his career and ravaged by injuries, Lofthouse was still telling young players like Francis Lee to hit him early.
Lee explained: “Nat said to me, ‘When you get the ball, cocker, I want you to cross it somewhere in between the six-yard line and the penalty spot and make their keeper come for it and I’ll do the rest.’ He used to love the keeper coming out because he’d go in and hit him. And then they’d be watching for him after that.”
However, Tommy Banks thinks there was more than that to the team and they sold themselves short by concentrating on getting the ball up to Lofty at all costs. He said: “It wasn’t right on the fella and on us because we had two good inside forwards. Ray (Parry) and Dennis (Stevens) never stopped running. Dougie (Holden) was a good footballer too. It helped George Taylor when we got Bromwich Street too. He’d lots of good ideas.”
Despite defeat against Cardiff in the third match of the 1955-56 season, Roy kept John Ball in the reserves for the next match, a 4-1 home win against Arsenal, in which both he and Banky contributed to the team’s general improvement with a number of constructive touches.
Roy was back to stay and thereafter would not be dropped until he was in his thirty-fifth year.
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