The Catt Chronicles: Part one '“ King Alick and the Doncaster Rovers cup thrillers
My first ten years reporting on the club were much like the next forty...full of ups and downs.
During that period Rovers were promoted once and relegated twice - a yo-yo pattern that was frequently repeated until the stability of more recent times.
There were some memorable games, especially in the cups against Liverpool and Tottenham.
But, for me, it was always about the players and in those early days one man in particular.
Alick Jeffrey was the greatest player I ever saw pull on a Rovers shirt.
It’s hard to explain to those who never saw him play just how good he was and how much greater he could have been had it not been for the cruelest of injury blows.
Football is all about opinions and people will argue all day long.
My view is that had it not been for two broken legs Jeffrey could have become one of the nation’s greatest ever players, the winner of a 1966 World Cup medal and may even have earned himself a knighthood.
But don’t take my word for it.
The great Stanley Matthews, noted as being stingy with his praise of other players, called him a genius.
Jackie Milburn said he was the best youngster he had ever seen - and that included his cousin’s son Bobby Charlton, and Matt Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy likened him to Pele and reckoned he could have become the greatest of all the Busby Babes.
Nowadays we talk of players aged around 20 and 21 as only being ‘young lads’ and needing time to develop.
Alick was the original boy wonder.
He made his debut in the old Second Division, now the Championship, at the age of fifteen and less than three weeks after his 16th birthday he scored twice against Aston Villa to put Rovers into the FA Cup 5th round.
At the age of 17 he scored 15 goals in the first 13 games of the 1956/57 season and was set to sign for Manchester United when tragedy struck when he broke his right leg in two places playing for the England Under 23 team.
It looked like the end of his career when he broke his other leg when attempting a comeback two years later and he emigrated to Australia.
But he started playing again while out there and returned to Rovers the season before I started work.
He had not played league football for eight years but in his first full season back he scored 39 first team goals!
Alick’s career was marred by tragedy and not long after I’d started during the 1966/67 season he was in a car, driven by teammate John Nicholson, that was involved in a crash with a lorry.
Nicholson sadly died and Alick was out for another six months recovering.
So much misfortune would have broken most men but in his second game back he reacted the only way he knew how...by scoring a hat trick.
I only saw him the second time round when he had lost some of his pace and fitness but even then he still looked extra special and one wonders what he might have achieved in those eight years he was lost to the game.
Alick was never bitter and shrugged off sympathy saying if he hadn’t broken his leg in the first place he would have signed for Manchester United and might have died in the Munich air crash.
In his final season at Belle Vue he helped Rovers win the Fourth Division championship in 1968/69 notching 12 goals in the first 15 games and finished top scorer despite playing only half the campaign.
His departure marked the end of an era in which I had been privileged to witness the incomparable talent of a true Rovers legend.
Alick was far and away the greatest but there were many other excellent players who made their mark during my first decade.
Alan Warboys made his debut as a raw-boned teenager during my first season.
I had watched him come through the junior ranks and although he wasn’t at the club for long before joining Sheffield Wednesday he was to make a big impact on his return a dozen years later.
Peter Kitchen, one of the all time greats, scored on his debut at Shrewsbury aged 18 in 1970 and repeated the feat in his first home game against Swansea the following week.
Once he got into his stride he scored over 20 goals a season three years in a row.
He forged a fantastic partnership with big Brendan O’Callaghan, who notched 58 goals alongside him during that spell, with talented winger Ian Miller supplying the ammunition.
As a trio they were one of the most formidable strike forces during my time reporting on the club.
Mike Elwiss was another striker around at the time who is sometimes forgotten because he was only there a couple of seasons.
But just to underline how good he was he notched two goals on his debut at 17 and was top scorer for both those seasons, despite being younger than Kitchen, before moving to Preston in a club record deal.
Elwiss later signed for Terry Venables at Crystal Palace and was talked of as a potential England striker at one time before returning to Preston where he later married the chairman’s daughter.
Space does not permit mention of so many other talented players but one man who cannot be left out is Chris Balderstone who holds a record that will probably never be broken.
It’s a real Roy of the Rovers story that would never be repeated these days.
Balderstone was an outstanding county cricketer as well as an excellent footballer.
In September 1975 he played for Leicestershire against Derbyshire at Chesterfield on the same day he was due to make his home league debut for Rovers against Brentford in a night match at Belle Vue.
He was 51 not out at the end of play when he jumped into a car to make the dash to Belle Vue, switched shinpads, and helped Rovers to a 1-1 draw!
It was back to the crease the next day where he completed his century before taking three wickets to help Leicestershire clinch their first county championship title. You just could not make it up.
Keith Kettleborough was the manager when I started but George Raynor took over in the summer of 1967.
He’d been the manager of Sweden when they got reached the World Cup final in 1958 and had also been boss at Juventus.
The chances of Rovers appointing a manager with a CV like that now would be unimaginable but not much was made of it at the time.
George was a sprightly 60-year-old, animated and lively in conversation, and a coach before his time in terms of his ideas.
He made an immediate impact but there was little patience when results went against you in those days and he eventually had to make way for Lawrie McMenemy.
I always thought Lawrie was fortunate to take over the reins from Raynor who had laid the foundations for success but McMenemy put his own stamp on the team and they went on a memorable 20-game unbeaten run which led to them winning the Fourth Division title in 1969.
McMenemy, of course, was to go on to bigger and better triumphs but not before falling foul of the yo-yo club curse when Rovers were relegated two years later following an infamous mid-season shareholders AGM.
Today most club chairman give the manager a vote of confidence and then sack him but the directors were not pussyfooting around when the AGM was held in January 1971.
At the time Rovers had lost six games in a row and, after coming under fire from supporters about results, they tried to placate the gathering by announcing ‘if he doesn’t win the next game he’s out’ - despite McMenemy not being at the meeting to defend himself.
The announcement behind the manager’s back made the national papers with ‘win or else’ headlines.
It put McMenemy and his team under enormous pressure and the Board relented when the next game, at home to Plymouth, finished goalless.
They let him keep his job to the end of the season - but then sacked him anyway.
It was all so different in those days on and off the pitch.
Now there is a much greater emphasis on fitness and nutrition, bodyweight and heathy lifestyles.
Back then the agency I worked for was asked to do a feature on a player for the Sunday Express and I was given the job.
When I asked the manager’s permission to interview him he said ‘your lot are getting paid for this, what does the player get out of it?’
I replied that we didn’t really do that and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing he said ‘well he likes a fag so how about a pack of cigarettes’, to which we readily agreed!
Maurice Setters took over from McMenemey and had to rely on developing young players because money was tight.
He did it to good effect handing debuts to Elwiss, Steve Uzelac and Stan Brookes among others.
But it was hard going and Rovers finished lower and lower down the table until he eventually made way for Stan Anderson in 1975.
Rovers were in danger of having to apply for re-election when Anderson arrived but he made an instant impact and they won their first five games with him in charge.
It was Anderson who added the vital ingredient of Ian Miller to the Kitchen-O’Callaghan strike force and Rovers never looked back as a formidable attacking unit.
But they could never get the same reliability at the back and, although the football was attractive under Anderson, success eluded them.
Stan was down-to-earth, honest and likeable and he would probably be the first to say they should have won promotion while he was there.
For some reason it was just not meant to be.
The stand out games of that period were cup ties.
In the 1973/74 season we produced a massive shock drawing 2-2 with league champions Livepool at Anfield in the FA Cup third round.
Kevin Keegan gave them an early lead but Kitchen and O’Callaghan put Rovers 2-1 up before Keegan scored again to earn a replay at Belle Vue.
It was at the time of the powerworkers strike so the replay was held on a Tuesday afternoon with a 2pm kick off.
I remember arriving at the game well before noon to make sure I got my usual seat in the press box because it was jammed with sportswriters from the nationals ready to report an upset.
More than 22,000 fans packed into the ground but although Elwiss had a goal disallowed for offside the game was an anti-climax with the Anfield giants clinching a 2-0 win before going on to beat Newcastle in the final.
Rovers had a great run in the League Cup in 1975/76 and I remember one game in particular - though maybe not for the best of reasons.
In the second round we clinched a surprise 2-1 win against Crystal Palace who were top of Division Three at the time.
They were a formidable outfit managed by the flamboyant Malcolm Allison and they went on to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup that season beating Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland on the way.
Allsion said before the game there would be no excuses if they did not beat Rovers and one of the nationals wanted me to have a word with him afterwards for some quotes.
In my naivity I just marched up to him and blurted out ‘Malcolm, you said you’d have no excuses, what have you got to say now?’
He gave me a look that stopped me in my tracks and I thought he was going to punch me before he muttered something I couldn’t use anyway and just stormed off.
Nowadays I would adopt a rather more subtle approach.
We beat Second Division Hull in the fourth round, with more than 20,000 at Belle Vue, to earn an away trip against a star-studded Tottenham side.
I had a night off and went down with my father to watch as a fan.
Alan Murray put Rovers ahead but Spurs were 2-1 up by half time before Kitchen equalised early in the second half to the delight of the travelling fans.
But it all went downhill following an unfortunate own goal from Les Chappell and we finished up losing 7-2 - a score which didn’t really reflect the game.
It was still a memorable night driving back up the A1 along with hordes of Rovers fans.
Apart from 1968/69 there had not been much to shout about in the league during my first decade so the big cup games were always ones to savour.
COMING IN DECEMBER
In next month’s edition, I will be looking from 1976/77 through to 1985/86 which were dominated by Billy Bremner’s time in charge of the club.
That was when my real football education really started.