FEATURE: 125-up! New book recalls the golden years as the UCL celebrates a very special anniversary
Football may have come to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, but that can’t take anything away from a remarkable milestone for one of the area’s major leagues.
The United Counties League is this year celebrating its 125th anniversary, having started out as the Northants Junior League back in 1895.
The first season saw 11 clubs take part, with Wellingborough Reserves becoming the first champions, and aside from breaks for two World Wars, and the current Covid-19 crisis, it has been going ever since.
League celebrations involving get-togethers have obviously been put on hold and ‘are all a bit up in the air’ at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the occasion can’t be marked with a bit of style.
Northampton resident Andy Goldsmith has ensured the milestone is celebrated with the publication of a new book entitled From The Nene To The Wash - The History Of The UCL.
It is a lovingly put together and fascinating season-by-season account from the day the league was set up in a room at the Granville Hotel in Wellingborough, right up until the completion of the 2018/19 campaign, and a reborn Daventry Town’s premier division success.
The UCL has a very long and proud history, and among the clubs to play their first matches under its umbrella are both Northampton Town and Peterborough United.
Goldsmith himself has a lengthy history with the league, having spent 35 years with Northampton Spencer, as programme editor, youth coach and also president.
He now helps out at another Northampton UCL side, ON Chenecks, and admits doing the book, which he finished in February and was published last month, was something he really enjoyed.
“I wanted to write the book for the league, because it is a massive achievement for it to be in existence for 125 years,” said Goldsmith.
“They have had some tough years, and they have had some big years, like when Kings Lynn came in, and we had AFC Rushden & Diamonds come in with the big crowds.
“But there was a time in the early 60s when the league was down to just eight clubs and nearly folded.
“Then you have a team like Desborough, and for them this is the only league they have ever played in, a one-league club.
“The league also saw the birth of the Cobblers and there is quite a bit about that in the book, and it saw the birth of Peterborough United as well.
“Then there are quite a few reformed clubs who started in the UCL, such as Boston United, Stevenage Borough and Rushden & Diamonds.
“It was interesting doing the book, and I really did enjoy it.
“The feedback I have had so far has been very good, and I am proud of it because I had never done anything like this before.
“There’s that saying that there’s a book in everyone, so here is mine.”
And he added: “I have done the book as a season-by-season account, so I wanted pictures from every season, and I wanted the league tables from every season.
“I wanted the book to be a one-stop shop of the UCL, from the Northants League days to now.
“That’s why the title is From The Nene To The Wash, because it started off in Northampton, and ended with Kings Lynn being the most extreme place in the league on The Wash, down the other end of the river.
“The league certainly covers a big area.”
So how did it come to be that Goldsmith was given such a big challenge?
Sadly, the two people who urged Goldsmith to get writing have now passed away.
They were Jeremy Biggs, who was known as Mr UCL and put together a book marking the league’s centenary in 1995, and also former league chairman John Weeks.
“John and myself were very passionate about the history of the UCL and the clubs, and seeing as I was at Spencer for a long time I had a lot of stuff, said Goldsmith.
“Jeremy had done plenty of stuff prior to that, so the bones of the book were there.
“I wanted to do a good job for Jeremy and John, because they were both very passionate about the league and very knowledgeable.
“It was something I wanted to do, and I was keen to get other people involved.”
As mentioned earlier, there are pictures marking every season played, and Goldsmith says he is grateful to photographer Gordon Whittington for that.
“Every Saturday from the mid 1990s he was out taking pictures, and they weren’t really shared around,” he said.
“I phoned him up and he said ‘I have got millions of photos’, well I said I don’t want that, many! But could you send me pictures of two or three games from each season, that means something.”
He was delighted to do that, and then there was Bob Perkins, who went through all of the league tables to ensure they were correct, while Goldsmith also leaned on fellow author Ian Addis, who has previously written books on Northants football, and also penned former Northants and England cricketer David Steele’s autobiography
“I had never written a book before, and even though I had done a programme for 35 years, I didn’t know where to start,” admitted Goldsmith.
“Ian was a big help over two or three meetings, but he was a mentor I could turn to if I needed to.”
More help came from Goldsmith’s old Spencer pal Andy Wrighting, whose Futureprint company have printed the book, as well as local magazine publisher Paul Desmond, who designed the front and back cover.
The book is of course full of football facts and figures, historical pictures and tales of on-field successes.
But Goldsmith was also keen to include stories and anecdotes of off-field interest.
So, included in there are instances such as when the Barton Rovers team bus got stuck in the river ahead of an FA Vase clash at Buckingham Town, with the players having to climb out of the windows in the roof to play.
Then there was the occasion a sink-hole opened in the Finedon Town pitch on the opening day of a season, and the tale of a former Cobblers player being enticed to play for Rushden Town - by being given a new house as a signing on fee!
But the main focus is on the football, and of course the UCL will always be part of the history of the Cobblers, as it was the league in which the club played its first game following its formation at the Princess Royal pub (now the Jeckyll & Hyde) on the Wellingborough Road back in 1897.
The Cobblers’ first campaign saw them finish in mid-table, before they won it the next season, with Goldsmith revealing: “Northampton were actually slow starters in the county.
“You had the likes of Wellingborough and Rothwell formed well before the Cobblers came along.
“Even places like Earls Barton had teams before the Cobblers joined the league for the 1897/98 season.
“They stayed in it for two years, and then moved on to the Southern League, but they then did put their reserves in and they played in the league for quite a long while.
“They had an A side in there as well, who used to play at the Dog & Duck in Wellingborough for a while.”
Goldsmith hails from Bedford and grew up spending his Saturdays at the Eyrie watching Bedford Town, who at one stage ruled the roost in the UCL.
Indeed, several clubs have enjoyed dominant spells over the years, and the book includes a full honours list of who has won what, as well as a table of which clubs have played in it, and for how long.
“There have been different eras where different clubs have dominated,” said Goldsmith.
“After World War II, Rushden Town were phenomenal, with them and Bedford Town dominating. Then in the 1970s you had Stamford, who were the first UCL club to play in the Vase, and actually got to three finals.
“Then you have to say Irthlingborough Diamonds, while Spencer had a very good time under Gary Sargent in the 90s, when they had six ex-Cobblers playing in the team.
“That wouldn’t happen now.
“Into the 21st century it has been more open and nobody has dominated because of the pyramid.”
Yep, you no longer get a team winning the UCL premier year on year, because once they win it now they automatically go up to the Southern League, whereas in past times that was a far more complicated proposition.
This season is of course already over due to the coronavirus crisis, with the Football Association calling a halt to all leagues below National League level.
It is something that has not been ideal for Goldsmith or his book launch either, although he is staying positive.
“It has done quite well so far, but it is getting out and distributing it now,” he said.
“The place we were going to have it on sale in Northampton was the library, and they can’t give any guarantees as to when that will be.
“I know there are a lot of people who do buy stuff online, but this book will appeal to a lot of older people who don’t use that market.
“If you have somewhere locally you can go and pick it up, I think that is a benefit to the older generation. But that’s where we are.”