Last week was the anniversary of Cheltenham Town’s first-ever promotion to the Football League, many moons ago. Two days prior to their promotion ‘El Glosico’ took place at Whaddon Road in front of more than 3,000 supporters. It was a weird occasion, the weekend before both teams had played their second leg semi-final FA Trophy ties, Cheltenham losing to Kingstonian and ourselves winning a thriller coming back from two down to win 3-2 at home to St Albans to book ourselves a place at Wembley. That resulted in what was a first for me, myself, and our players were applauded onto the pitch by the Cheltenham fans. A class act.
We weren’t there to do Cheltenham any favours and it was a scrappy game that ended 1-1. Dennis Bailey scored the Cheltenham goal and the following season he signed for us. His signing was highly significant because it marked our departure from signing predominantly West Country lads to picking up players from all over the country. It wasn’t a wise move, in hindsight, I would have been much better served to stick to the M5 area between Bristol and Tewkesbury for our recruitment.
Dennis was the first player Forest Green signed who had Premier League experience. Probably the highlight of his career was scoring a hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford during a 4-1 win for QPR. He features in Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography. Apparently, Sir Alex was somewhat surprised when Dennis wandered into the home team’s dressing room after the game whilst Sir Alex was conducting his post-match debrief on what had been an embarrassing defeat. Dennis asked the great man if he would be so good as to get the United players to sign the match ball. People have received bravery medals for less!
During the next couple of years, we signed a lot of players with Premier League experience and it’s fair to say they weren’t a huge success. We signed two full England internationals in Tony Daley and Nigel Spink as well as others who had graced the Premier League stage.
Don’t get me wrong, they were all professional but they just didn’t buy into the ethos of the club. The club had been built on five solid years of improvement during which team spirit was everything. Their attitude was sound but the hunger was lacking. Football wasn’t fun and quality time spent with team-mates, for them, it was work.
I remember a great put down by one of those that had played at the very highest level to Steve ‘Porks’Perrin, our goalkeeper who had been signed from Melksham Town who were about five steps lower down the pyramid. Steve was eulogising about how brilliant the new ground at Crawley was and the size of the huge changing rooms. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Porks asked, even having been to Wembley didn’t blunt his enthusiasm for Crawley’s new gaff.
“Dunno,” said one of those from the highest level, “I’ve played at the San Siro, that was quite nice!”
I can’t see it ever happening again, full internationals and Premier League players dropping through the leagues as their legs start to go. There’s too much ego and money at the top level. Let’s put this into perspective. One of the guys who played for us who had played in the Premier League got a job as a UPS delivery driver when he finally hung his boots up. Nothing wrong with that, it’s an honest way to earn a living but can anybody out there see this generation of Premier League stars having to do the same? Not a chance.
In a regular column, iconic former Forest Green manager Frank Gregan has teamed up with Stroud Times.
Now living in Spain and a published author, the former sergeant major joined Rovers in 1994 – leading his side to back-to-back promotions and Wembley final. Frank transformed the club from non-league minnows, charting the way for what they have gone onto achieve under the late Trevor Horsley’s successor Dale Vince.
Follow Frank on Twitter: @Greegers