Only via the FA Cup and only in the 1970s could Leatherhead hit football's big time. Jon Spurling charts a story of yesterday's men that embraced Tomorrow's World
A maverick striker who courted publicity, a cabbage-patch pitch that mysteriously turned to mud even in the summer, a spit-and-sawdust stadium, a memorable green baize shirt and a tiny but prominent hooligan problem – Leatherhead’s remarkable FA Cup run in the mid-1970s was perfect for football as it entered the Technicolor age.
The Surrey club’s history is one of crushing ordinariness, save for passing glory in 1975. After Leatherhead Rose and Leatherhead United merged shortly after the Second World War, the newly formed plain Leatherhead ambled along in the Surrey Senior League, Metropolitan League and Corinthian League, before reaching the giddy heights of the Athenian League by the mid-Sixties.
After the installation of floodlights at Fetcham Grove during that decade, the Tanners gained a reputation as a decent non-League cup side. Clips from their run to the 1969 FA Amateur Cup semi-final, where they lost to eventual winners Skelmersdale United, were shown on Grandstand and Leatherhead reached the same stage two years later, as they lost to Ilford at The Den. Goal-poacher “Nobby” Skinner was granted cult-hero status in non-League circles and, with the club increasingly active in the local community, the Tanners’ growing profile enabled them to attract a decent array of talent to their rundown ground.
By the time the 1974-75 season came around, the Tanners regularly attracted 1,500 crowds to the Grove. Double that number saw Leatherhead defeat Isthmian League rivals Bishops Stortford in the FA Cup first round, before Colchester United – conquerors of Don Revie’s Leeds United five years before – became the Surrey side’s first ever League scalp in round two. The match provided the first sign that Leatherhead’s hooligan problems were increasing as fast as their rise to national prominence. Around 50 Tanners fans, including Colin Ward – author of Steaming In and kick lit pioneer – fought a running battle behind the Shed End (often used as a makeshift urinal) with their Colchester counterparts throughout much of the game. The local newspaper noted: “It seems astonishing that such a high police presence is required at games… it is a sad reflection on a minority of our fans.”
After being drawn away at Brighton in the third round (the latter’s manager Peter Taylor claimed: “We have an excellent chance to do well this season after we’ve swatted away those minnows”) the Daily Mail began to take an interest in the predictions of “Leatherhead’s answer to Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh”. With the tabloids building up the heavyweight rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Mail compared Tanners striker Chris Kelly – an upholsterer by trade – with Louisville’s finest. The “Leatherhead Lip” told the Mail: “Watch us go. I’m about to put Leatherhead on the map.” There was also talk of Kelly’s “Ali shuffle”, a step-over manoeuvre that foxed opposing defenders. As 2,000 travelling Tanners fans saw their team soak up constant pressure at the Goldstone Ground, Kelly broke forward late in the game and rifled in the winner from 20 yards. The clearly inebriated Kelly, a dead ringer for Robin Askwith star of the Confessions Of... films, was hauled out from the pub where he’d been celebrating with Leatherhead fans and chauffeured up to the BBC studios, having already learned that his team’s fourth-round opponents would be First Division Leicester City. He informed Match of the Day presenter Jimmy Hill: “Leicester are rubbish. We’ll stuff them in the next round.”
Tanners officials opted to switch the home tie to Filbert Street, with Kelly predicting: “The bigger the stage, the more we like it. It’s about time a non-League side reached the final.” “The Lip” was by now a bona fide celeb and was featured on Nationwide and, bizarrely, Tomorrow’s World in the week leading up to the big match. He also achieved lasting television fame when his name appeared on the back of Fletch’s copy of the Sun in Porridge later that year.
Match of the Day turned up at Filbert Street and it was difficult to judge whether or not John Motson was more excited about the goals by Peter McGillicuddy and Kelly that put Leatherhead 2-0 up after 30 minutes, or the fact that Tanners’ outfield players were the first team to wear green on MOTD.
Minutes before half-time, Kelly went around the Leicester keeper and seemed set to put Leatherhead into a 3-0 lead (“Can he score? He will if he does his shuffle!” roared Motson), but Steve Earle miraculously cleared the effort off the line. “If Kelly had scored, we’d have been finished,” admitted Leicester striker Jon Sammels after the game, “but that miss gave us a ray of hope at half-time.” As Leatherhead’s legs tired after the interval, Leicester’s fitness told and the Tanners were nudged out by the odd goal. Arsenal would have been their opponents in the next round. The Sunday tabloids were crammed with tales of the non-Leaguers’ heroics and Kelly boasted: “We’ll be back next year.” But when Leatherhead defeated Ron Atkinson’s Cambridge United in the following season’s FA Cup, Kelly had already left for a brief stay at Millwall.
After a 3-1 pasting by Altrincham in the 1978 FA Trophy final, Leatherhead rapidly retreated into hibernation. Without a “pledges and wedges” appeal to the local business community in 2000, the club would have folded. “The Lip” returned briefly as commercial manager, having also been part of Kingstonian’s climb to the Conference in the mid-1990s. Today the Tanners remain firmly rooted in the Isthmian (now Ryman) League First Division, with rivals including Banstead, Bashley and Burgess Hill, but their Grove clubhouse is a reminder of former glories.
Chris Kelly claims that the club’s giant-killing reputation will soon be revived, yet their perilous financial state suggests that Leatherhead’s football success – like Kelly’s two-second Porridge name-check – will forever be mired in the Seventies.
From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month