Ted's Excellent Adventure - Ted Bennett (Volume 6)
Geoff Wicken looks at the career of a truly multitalented footballer.
‘Superb is an inadequate adjective’ (Watford Observer, 19 February 1954).
Ted Bennett. GB Olympian. Multiple amateur international. FA representative tourist. Gifted accordion and piano player. 1950s Watford goalkeeper.
Ted’s two and a half years at Watford were just one part of a remarkable life in football. His career makes for a story that would be unthinkable now – and was far from normal even for the 1950s. It reveals much about how the game has changed: things just don’t work like this today.
The summary moves from highlight to highlight. Ted played at Wembley Stadium as a teenager. He kept goal for the GB team in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He won 11 England amateur international caps, while playing with Southall FC. Let go by his employers for taking too much time off to play for England, he turned professional with Watford aged 28 and was a first team regular for almost two years. He moved on in 1956, but not before enjoying an FA tour of the Caribbean with Bobby Robson, Jimmy Hill and others. His was an extraordinary footballing adventure, which was to have an unexpected postscript in the 1990s. And Ted was clearly quite a character – he had his priorities, his principles and his piano accordion.
Watford announced his signing in the programme for the December 1953 game against Shrewsbury. This reported him as married, with a son aged 14 months – today that son, also called Ted, has a large collection of memorabilia from his father’s career, which he has shared with the Watford Treasury. The item also mentioned that Ted ‘has made his name as a musician and is equally proficient as an accordionist or pianist.’ He played the violin too. His first appearance in print had been at the age of nine, when the young Ted was awarded third place in the British piano accordion competition. But it was in the football world that he was to become better known.
Ted was a Londoner, born in 1925 in Kilburn, where he continued to live. He achieved an early honour in his football career when, as a teenager during World War 2, he was a member of the Paddington Civil Defence team which played at Wembley Stadium in the London Civil Defence Cup Final. Subsequently called up and stationed in Lancashire, he played several times as a winger for Oldham’s reserve side.
After the war he kept goal for Kingsbury Town, who were successful in Middlesex leagues and cups, then moved on to Southall in the Athenian League. Amateur football was experiencing great popularity in the post-war period, with crowd sizes for big games that seem inconceivable now. Representative honours were taken seriously: Ted was selected for the Athenian League XI and received a velvet cap to mark the occasion.
He even had a brief taste of the Football League, playing two Division 2 games for Queens Park Rangers when regular goalkeeper Reg Allen was injured. The first of these was away at West Ham in March 1949. Ted was working at his job as a welder that Saturday morning when a telegram arrived at his home. His father cycled to his workplace to tell Ted to get himself to Upton Park. He had no boots with him, so had to play in a borrowed pair, and was suffering from a poisoned toe. Even so he performed well enough to be selected for a second time the following month.
Several professional clubs were interested in him, and QPR – the club he supported – offered him a contract, but on irregular terms with which he wasn’t happy. In any case, he preferred to stay at Southall and develop his amateur representative career. This proved a good strategy. By May 1950 he was an England international, chosen for a five-match tour of Scandinavia. From April 1952 to November 1953 he was first choice for the England Amateur XI, and considered the best amateur goalkeeper in the country. This was no small achievement, for the gap between the professional and amateur game was much smaller than it later became. With the maximum wage in place as a limitation on earnings in professional football, many fine players opted to play as amateurs and earn a living from other occupations while playing football unpaid – at least officially, although clandestine ‘boot money’ payments were far from unknown.
The payoff for which Ted had hoped came in the summer of 1952 with the highest possible honour for an amateur sportsman, of selection to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Helsinki. A newspaper photograph shows him being measured up for his Olympic blazer alongside Roger Bannister. Bannister, who achieved his famous four-minute mile two years later, was to finish fourth in the 1,500 metres and miss out narrowly on a medal. Unfortunately the GB football side didn’t come as close. With Ted in goal, they lost to Luxembourg in the Preliminary Round (3-5 after extra time) and were eliminated even before the opening ceremony had taken place.
Ted made his contribution to ensuring that the squad’s disappointment didn’t last long. Having taken his accordion to the Olympics, he provided regular entertainment for the GB athletes in Helsinki, and then for his footballing team-mates on the follow-on tour of Norway. Pictures in Norwegian newspapers illustrate the fun, with Ted on accordion and team-mate Alf Noble holding a banjo.
All this time Ted remained a welder, drawing £12 per week with additional ‘under the counter’ payments from Southall. He hoped to continue as an amateur, but was eventually taking so much time off work to play internationally that he lost his job. Watford moved in, and he turned professional. He was regarded as a major loss to the amateur game, and gave a newspaper interview in which he explained his reasoning after the loss of his job: ‘We like to eat. That kind of thing makes a hole in your savings.’
The club’s wage books from the period show his basic pay was £13 per week, rising to £15 when in the first team. There was a £2 win bonus, and £1 for a draw. Summer wages were £10 per week. So the range was quite wide, from £10 to £17 per week.
The Watford Observer shed some light on both Ted’s desire to do the right thing by Southall and how tough 1950s football could be: ‘England’s amateur goalkeeper Ted Bennett became a professional with Watford on Tuesday. And within a few minutes Ted was receiving attention from masseur Les Thomas for injuries received in Southall’s London Senior Cup replay on Saturday. It was in order to play in this match that Bennett refrained from turning professional last week. A cool and consistent goalkeeper, there is no doubt whatever that he should soon be challenging keenly for a first-team place.’
He did more than challenge. The following week Liverpool’s bid of £7,000 for Dave Underwood was accepted, and Ted went straight into the first team, performing ‘with complete assurance’ in the 3-1 win over Shrewsbury. He played in 80 of the 81 first-team games, including that debut, through to September 1955 – his one absence due to tonsillitis.
Ted recalled his best game as being early in his Watford career – a 3-1 win at Bournemouth in February 1954. The Bournemouth newspaper match report was full of praise: ‘Bennett’s display was the best seen at Dean Court for a very long time. It is not exaggerating to say that half a dozen of his saves were of the near-miracle type…agility, quick anticipation and perfect timing marked three saves which prevented what seemed like certain goals…his impeccable positional play…Bennett’s superlative exhibition…’ The West Herts Post reported that: ‘Disappointed Bournemouth fans stood and cheered Ted Bennett as he left the field on Saturday.’ The Watford Observer wrote: ‘Praise therefore to Bennett – superb is an inadequate adjective.’
The two seasons in which Ted featured regularly – 1953/54 and 1954/55 – were the club’s best of the 1950s. They were the only ones in which Watford achieved 50 points or more from the 46 games. Ted was ever-present in Division 3 South in 1954/55 as Watford finished seventh, powered by the goals of Maurice Cook, who scored 26 plus a further five in the FA Cup. This was the breakout season for the Hemel Hempstead-born Cook, who would join Fulham in 1958 for £15,000. Maurice became a favourite at Craven Cottage, where he spent eight years, six of them in Division 1, and scored 97 times in 248 games.
The summer of 1955 brought a wonderful experience. Ted was selected for an FA tour to the Caribbean, along with players such as Stan Pearson, Jim Langley and the Fulham trio of Bobby Robson, Jimmy Hill and Bedford Jezzard. The team chosen for the first match, with Ted in goal, romped to an 11-1 victory over Bermuda. The tour continued in similar vein, with nine wins and two draws from the 11 games, and 69 goals scored.
According to Ted Jr, the tour’s coaching staff asked Ted to concede a goal deliberately in one match in order to give the local fans something to cheer. Offended and furious at the suggestion that he should compromise his integrity, Ted was having none of it, only to find himself beaten by an own goal from one of the FA XI defenders. Otherwise Ted was a popular tourist thanks to his musical abilities. He took his accordion with him and provided much of the squad’s entertainment. Pictures show him in full flow at the back of the team bus. The trip concluded with several days in Jamaica watching a cricket test match between the West Indies and Australia.
Ted would also regularly play the piano in pubs, and often headed straight back to his local in Kilburn after matches. He was playing there one Saturday evening when a stranger arrived looking for him, claiming that Ted had cost him several thousand pounds in pools winnings by saving a penalty that afternoon. Ted’s fellow pub-goers protected him: the story goes that the stranger found himself exiting through the window rather than the door.
The Watford Observer handbook for 1955/56 felt that his fine form in the previous season and on the FA tour ‘suggested that Ted may well add further professional honours to the eleven caps he gained as an amateur.’ Alas this was not to be. Things took a downward turn in September 1955, when he suffered a broken finger at Reading. His recovery was affected by a bout of pneumonia and he was only to play five more games, in two short runs in the team. The programme for what proved his final game, at home to Crystal Palace in February 1956, tells of a late penalty save at Exeter the week before, to preserve Watford’s 2-1 win.
In September 1956 Ted returned to amateur football, signing for Gravesend & Northfleet in the Southern League. But he only played 10 games there - he didn’t enjoy the travelling and so chose to retire. His final match was away at Llanelli, a long trip for amateur footballers who weren’t being paid, at least officially.
It was a rather low-key end to a brilliant career, little more than a year after the FA Caribbean tour. Ted had a greengrocery business in Kilburn, and was lost to the game, although he made a point of being involved in his son Ted’s football education. He would often be the only parent at school and junior games. He also believed that his son should decide for himself which team to support, so took him to experience games at all the London grounds. Young Ted liked it best at Fulham, and still attends home and away to this day.
Otherwise Ted’s interest in football after his playing career was that of an occasional spectator. This was until a chance meeting many years on, late in the 1980s, when Ted accompanied his son to a game at Craven Cottage. Outside the ground they bumped into his old Watford pal and Fulham favourite Maurice Cook. Maurice invited them into the bar inside. Before long, Ted was running the Vice Presidents’ bar on matchdays at Craven Cottage. After a while he was asked to take over as Fulham’s kitman, a role which he performed for two seasons between 1992 and 1994.
And so it was that on 22 January 1994, for Fulham’s game at Bournemouth, Ted would have found himself revisiting Dean Court, the scene of his greatest performance, almost exactly 40 years after it took place. Ted’s footballing adventures were unusual for a player of the 1950s or any era; this unexpected coda brought them to a fitting conclusion.