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The untold story of Barnstaple Town's Western League glory

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 27, 2012

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"BARNSTAPLE TOWN are champions of the Western League."

That statement would sound remarkable today and probably be greeted with shock among football fans across the West Country.

But in the spring of 1980, despite the magnitude of their achievement, it did not even make headline news.

For the first time in 27 years, and only the second time in their history, the championship trophy returned to Mill Road.

Unfortunately for those involved, their efforts went largely unnoticed by the wider public.

Imagine a time without league websites, without Facebook, without Twitter, without text messages, when local football results only appeared in the newspapers.

An industrial dispute among printers meant papers across the country went unpublished in the first half of the year.

Here at the North Devon Journal, or the Journal Herald as it was called then, two editions fell by the wayside in early May.

It meant thousands of people in North Devon did not even know about the culmination of an extraordinary season for Barnstaple.

Bryan Hill had taken over as joint manager in February after his predecessor Brian Perks walked out to join bitter rivals Bideford.

Along with Dave Baglow, the reserve-team manager, Bryan guided Town through the highs and lows of the final 16 games.

On May 3, they won 2-0 at Bridport to take the title by a single point from Bournemouth reserves.

"Brilliant times," said Bryan. "It was a very good season and unfortunately the players didn't receive any accolades because the press were on strike.

"I see the players now and I suppose they feel a little bit sold short. It's as if it never happened.

"Poor old Dave Pedler, who was the sports reporter at the time, was just as gutted as us because he couldn't write about it."

When Bryan took on the caretaker role, Barnstaple were in contention for the league but not expected to stay the course against Bournemouth and Weston- super-Mare.

Did he believe they could actually win the title? "Never even thought about it," he said.

Yet the team stuck together, coming out on top in a tough division which included Exeter City, Tiverton Town, Bridgwater Town, Paulton Rovers and Mangotsfield.

Now 74 and living in Ilfracombe, Bryan still enjoys watching Western League games at Marborough Park and occasionally Mill Road.

"If it's rubbish you can always go in the bar," he said.

That Barnstaple team who upset the odds to take the title almost 33 years ago brings back fond memories.

"They were good lads," said Bryan. "I know a lot of them are still in North Devon.

"We were well organised, we were hard to beat and we had a good bit of quality up front, which is where it counts.

"John Neale was an ex-pro and Budgie (Paul Hillier) had been at Swindon as a youth.

"Dave Blanche was probably one of the best left-sided players, certainly in my experience of 30-odd years, in the Western League. He couldn't tackle to save his life but he could play.

"Trevor Burnell and Dave Awcock were a good pairing at the back.

"Trevor was a tremendous character. You could tackle in those days and he'd kick his own grandmother."

When Bryan was appointed, he signed Hillier to take some of the burden off Neale up front.

"I knew Budgie had been at Swindon but he wasn't playing football, he was playing rugby for Ilfracombe," said Bryan.

"In his first game at Mill Road, he fouled the goalkeeper and they ended up rolling around on the ground.

"Then he kicked the full back and they were having a set-to.

"In the first half, he must have had four or five fights.

"I remember John Neale saying 'What a good signing he is. I haven't been kicked in the whole of the first half'."

Barnstaple took a few knocks in the closing weeks of the season, losing 2-0 to favourites Bournemouth, then drawing four games during April.

Relying on Bournemouth and Weston to drop points, their chances appeared to be slipping away.

"We thought we had blown it," said Bryan. "We thought the game was up but Bournemouth had never played at a pitch like Clandown before. It was the most obscure of all grounds. I'd imagine the top goalmouth was about 3,000ft above the other one."

The Poppies slipped to a shock defeat, leaving Barnstaple the chance to take the championship by a point if they won the last game.

Backed by a coach load of supporters, goals from Hillier and Neale secured the victory at Bridport.

"I always remember the night we beat Bridport, they put on a bit of a do for us, which was good of them," said Bryan.

"We'd got drunk and were going back to the club for the evening do. Dave Awcock was out of his brains and bent down to stroke this dog. It was an Alsatian and the bloody thing went potty and chased him down the road."

Hangovers and angry dogs aside, Town cleared their heads for the final of the Devon Professional Cup four days later against Bideford at the Sports Ground.

"When you've just won the league you want to look smart," said Bryan.

"The only kit that was available was the awful lemon and mauve one."

Never mind appearances, Barnstaple were good enough to beat their old rivals 1-0 with a goal from Dave Brown.

By then, however, Bryan and many of the squad knew they were destined to rejoin Perks at Bideford the following season.

Even before the Bridport game, he and Baglow had known they were surplus to requirements, with the manager's job going to ex-Falmouth Town boss Richard Gray.

In modern terms, their achievements can be described as doing a Di Matteo – leading a club to an historic win at short notice, only to be denied the long-term chance to build on the success.

"I applied for the job and they must have felt I wasn't experienced enough," said Bryan.

"There were better blokes than me around.

"Richard Gray had won the Western League four years on the trot with Falmouth. He had first choice on all the players Plymouth Argyle released at the end of the season.

"I can understand why they gave it to Richard. I didn't at the time, but I do now.

"I think it hurt Dave more than it hurt me because he thought we could make a good crack at it."

Bryan could see the logic in Perks's controversial exit three months earlier too.

"The rivalry back then between Barnstaple and Bideford was a bit scary at times," he said. "They used to get big crowds. I can remember two-and-a-half thousand.

"Brian said he'd been offered the job at Bideford and I suppose that job was the crème de la crème in North Devon – you have got to admit that. It probably still is today.

"I often wonder whether Brian thought we weren't going to win the league."

Having started out at Barnstaple as the under-18s coach, Bryan went on to have a successful time as a manager, including spells with Bideford and Ilfracombe Town.

He had a year on the coaching staff at Plymouth Argyle and was there when John Hore took the Pilgrims to the FA Cup semi-final in 1984.

Returning to Mill Road for a second spell, he led Barnstaple to the Western League senior division title and promotion in 1993-94.

With some cherished memories at North Devon's leading clubs, the win at Bridport probably ranks as the most famous of all.

Or at least it would have been famous had the papers been running at the time.

"It's a lifetime ago," said Bryan. "I'd do it all over again."

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