A history of senior football in St Albans - Part 10
The return of John Mitchell
By Derek Roft
The club were hopeful of an improvement for the 1981-82 season. Sadly the season started badly for the club. Ron Duke was livid after one game, a Herts Charity Cup tie against Hitchin Town, when he said. “I had to sit and watch that rubbish for 90 minutes. So I had all of the players locked in the dressing room for 90 minutes to listen to me”. It was yet another “lock in”. By Christmas 1981 City were in the bottom four of the table. The Herts Advertiser had produced a “Half Time Report” and compared to situation to the previous year when the team were close to the top of the table. A few of the major players from the previous season had either left or retired such as John Butterfield, Dave Lawrence and Phil Wood.
It emerged that John Mitchell had retired from playing top class football. He had left the Saints in the early 70s to play for Fulham and Millwall but he was unlucky with injuries until he finally decided to call it a day. The club still had their money troubles at this time because they owed £2,260 to the council in unpaid loans.
Ron Duke decided to leave to manage Dagenham, the forerunners to todays Dagenham & Redbridge. John Butterfield returned to the club to take over as manager.
The 1982-83 season could only be described as a complete disaster. At the start of the season the club was deducted three points for breaking league rules. It took a further half a dozen matches to go from -3 to 0 and go into “profit”. All of this made for a very difficult season and the club were relegated to the Second Division
For the 1983-84 season new players were drafted into the squad in the hope of making a quick return to the First Division. Gary Keen, Robbie Smale and Terry Benning were the most notable players. A month into the season saw John Mitchell return to City as joint manager with John Butterfield. A few months later he took over fully when Butterfield resigned. Paul Mayles also joined to club. The team began a good move up the table.
Suddenly there was an injury crisis in defence. The regular central defender was injured. Mitchell decided to bring back Phil Wood from Letchworth. Wood was still a few matches short of completing 1,000 matches in all competitions for the Saints. By December City were now 2nd in the table. The following month saw Wood reach 1,000 appearances at home to Uxbridge. He was presented with a silver tea service by the club. Club President Ken Hill said, “I hope people reaise that this is an amazing feat to complete such a great number of appearances for one club”. As well as St Albans City Wood had also played for Enfield and Wycombe Wanderers. At the end of the season St Albans had gained promotion to Division One.
Back in Division One the Saints began steadily enough. Martin Gurney made his debut early in the 1984-85 season. By October they were in he top three. Sadly at Christmas Billy Minter had passed away. He was arguably the club’s greatest ever player. He scored all seven of the Saints goals as they lost 7-8 in an FA Cup tie away to Dulwich Hamlet in 1922. Ron Duke had rejoined the club as John Mitchell’s assistant manager.
Rob Dowie joined the Saints from Hertford Town. His brother Iain also joined later iin the season. Iain would go on to become a top flight manager after he retired. The club seemed to fall away toward the end of the season and a creditable first season finish of seventh was made.
“There were supporters with tears in their eyes.”
The club began the following season steadily but in mid October Ron Duke was sacked following an incident in the clubroom with a player. By Christmas the club were 2nd in the table. Then by April they were ahead by two points from Wembley. With one match to go this was still the position. City had to play away to Lewes to win the league. Wembley had completed their season. City went to Lewes and won 7-0 to win their first league title of any kind since 1927-28. “There were supporters with tears in their eyes. I know just how much this meant to them. I am now looking foward to managing the boys in the Premier Division”. Mitchell said.
Their first season in the Premier Division began badly after half a dozen games they were close to the bottom of the table. Allan Cockram made his debut in the 1986-87 season. As the season progressed they began moving up the table to finish 14th.
John Mitchell stepped aside to become a director at the club. John Lacy, a former team mate at Fulham, took over. The club tried to mount a serious challenge for the title but they slid down the table to below half way.
Harold Figg passed away in the close season. Figg had made his debut in 1920 and played in the famous Dulwich Hamlet FA Cup tie. He retired from playing in 1934 and as well as playing football he worked at the Herts Advertiser newspaper. He was 87 years old.
In 1987-88 former goalkeeper Doug Parkin took over as manager. Dean Austin joined the club at around this time. He would go on the play for Southend United, Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace. When he left Southend United as Saints had a percentage of the transfer money as a “sell on” agreement. It was yet another season in the lower reaches for the Saints.
A nightmare season
Parkin was sacked and Pete Lawrence, the youth team manager, took over. His was a nightmare season. Dean Austin left to join Southend United. Lawrence left towards the end of the season and City finished in the lower reaches again.
After a similar finish in 1989-90 they flirted with relegation in 1990-91. Two thirds of the way through the season John Mitchell returned as manager. The Billy Minter Invitation Trophy was launched. It was hoped that Mitchell could once again steer the club towards better times.