The Best Club You've Never Heard Of
Aug 07, 2014 10:10 PM EDT
If you have an interest in non-league football, or you're a 'fútbol hipster' looking for a league that no-one else knows to be extra edgy, and you want to find your club then look no further than Dunstable Town Football Club. The Blues (or Duns has become a recent addition owing to our beloved Paul 'Pipeman' Harris) were first established in 1883 and currently play in the Southern League Premier Division, at level three of the non-league system or the seventh tier of the English football pyramid. So they're an old club that plays in blue, who cares? Well, this club has a pretty interesting history. The club has been brought back to life three times, in the 1950's, 1975 and again in 1998. 1975 is the part that really is meant to be made in to a dodgy straight-to-DVD movie though.
In 1973, a gentleman named Keith Cheeseman became the chairman at Creasey Park. He was a construction magnate reputed to have a fair amount of financial backing and appointed former Manchester United trainee, Barry Fry, to his first managerial position. If you know the Football League in the '90s, you will know who Barry Fry is, if not just find an interview on YouTube. The larger-than-life figure was presented with a team that attracted miniscule attendances, and set about to build a team to challenge for the league title and build up the profile of the club - "My first two gates at the club were 34 and 43 people - my family came to the second game!". Fry would approach his former boot boy from his Manchester United days, and a good friend, to play for him. That boot boy was a former World player of the year and European Cup winner, a certain George Best. Another signing would be the former West Bromwich Albion and England great, Jeff Astle. Fry brought Manchester United to Bedfordshire for a pre-season game, which was incidentally 40 years ago this past week, and defeated the Red Devils 3-2 in front of a crowd of over 10,000 with thousands more locked out. People watched over fences, sat on the side of the pitch and climbed the floodlight pylons to watch. A buzz was generated throughout football that this twenty seven year old, and one of the world's best players, found himself at Creasey Park. Some sad that his Manchester United days looked numbered, others delighted to be able to see someone comparable to the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at their local stadium.
Cheeseman had been known to give Fry blank checks, and pay for lavish nights out for the players, on the way to winning the Southern League Northern Division. Jeff Astle scored thirty four of Dunstable's one hundred and five league goals, but why Dunstable? Astle had left WBA after a cartilage operation and wanted to get back in to football. With no offers from league clubs, Creasey Park still wasn't a fantastic offer, but Fry and Cheeseman were able to put a package together to tempt 'the King'. By day, he would consult for W.W. Parrish - A building contractor owned by Cheeseman - with a company car and a decent salary. Eventually the former England international found himself fed up with driving from building site to building site, and came up with the fantastic idea of becoming the club's commercial manager. An engaging sociable footballing great could probably sell ice to the Eskimos, but instead he sold West Brom lottery tickets on behalf of Dunstable. Dunstable and Astle made a commission on sales, and Albion were the only ones responsible for paying out winners - Genius! Astle would also consult on signings, leading to a period that would see a number of ex-internationals donning the white lion. A consummate professional, Astle yearned to have daily training rather than the twice-a-week that semi-professional clubs work on, so Dunstable became a full-time club on certain levels to accommodate for someone that was already a club legend with an admirable work ethic.
Best, on the other hand, had just retired as a Manchester United player at the age of twenty seven. He had numerous high-profile fall-outs with United boss, Tommy Docherty, and had a little more interest in his personal life than on the pitch. As Barry Fry was the man to take a young homesick Northern Irishman under his wing at Old Trafford, Best considered himself forever in Fry's debt. When Fry asked Best to make an appearance, Best jumped at the chance and would never take a penny to do so. Fry said “He had no idea where Dunstable was and seemed no wiser when I told him it was near Luton.” Yet he was eager to get there to help his friend put that town on the map. Georgie even bought a new set of goal nets as a gift to the club to mark the opening of the floodlights in a game against Luton Town. Following his third appearance, Best would be subject for a FIFA ban due to playing for a club, other than United, without permission. Best would go on to play for Stockport, Fulham and the LA Aztecs among others.
Things seemed to go so well at Creasey Park until players started to receive phone calls to inform them that they had defaulted on mortgages and loans. Cheeseman was never seen with money, but seemed to have an endless flow of funds. The blank cheques began to bounce, the players became aware that he had taken out financial products in their names, after gathering their names and addresses for the purpose of sending invites to a Christmas party (Data breaches these days show no imagination!). These loans from an American company would see Cheeseman serve six years at Her Majesty's pleasure. Later on he would jump bail and flee to the Spanish islands after being involved in $550m of securities fraud. An associate would be executed by the Mafia and Cheeseman would serve a further twenty years, after an FBI global manhunt, for what became known as the largest robbery in history - now second.
Back in South Bedfordshire, bills continued to come in and creditors appeared from all over the path of destruction left by Cheeseman. The club would go in to liquidation and immediately reform under the name Dunstable FC. They would continue until a 1994 liquidation under much quieter circumstances. The club still managed to field teams including future British television personality, Bradley Walsh, and being the starting point for the career of England striker and Chelsea legend, Kerry Dixon. Upon the 1998 reboot of Dunstable Town, the club has - and continues to - face extreme skepticism for the crimes committed by Cheeseman a quarter of a century prior. A rapid progression through the leagues saw the club peak at the Southern Premier once again in 2004/05, but the club could not keep up with its own progress as money and the stadium just weren't where they needed to be. After a couple of tough years and relegations, the club committee built itself up from fans of the previous two incarnations of The Blues, along with the newer generation. Local businessmen with a passion for football and a keen sense of history, along with fans, have propelled the club back to the Southern League Premier Division once again. The club went the entire 2012/13 league season unbeaten as they won the Spartan South Midlands Premier Division. They followed it up with a final-day Southern League Central Division title. The Duns have utilised connections with former professional footballers and recently released young professionals to give a platform to show the professional clubs why they should rectify their mistake. As such, scouts from as high as Liverpool and Manchester United have strolled into Creasey Park on a match day.
I'm not implying that The Blues are about to ease their way into the Football League, but the one hundred and thirty one years of Dunstable's history has had more interesting twists and turns than most. As a fan of the club I wish to see continued success, and as a fan of the game I want to see the hard work of the players, staff and fans rewarded. Up until the recent redevelopment of the stadium, the managers would be covered in mud and paint on a Saturday morning as the pitch was prepared. Fans and committee would paint the stadium and trim back the weeds for the FA ground inspection. Everything was just so ramshackle, but just screamed grass-roots football. From the 1890s turnstiles that came from Manchester City's former Maine Road home, to the seats from the old Wembley Stadium, which sat in a barn that was converted to a stand. Even the equipment box still bore the legend "Arsenal FC - Highbury". A stand was lost to the wind, as were two floodlight pylons, and the clubhouse roof collapsed in a snowstorm. Everything was built and rebuilt by the hard work of volunteers, as football used to be even at the highest level. It's not pretty, you won't see live coverage on TV, but it's what the game is all about. So please, I'd like not to be the entirety of the Dunstable Town Supporters Club of America (Not that there is one - that would be weird to have a one-person club - so even more reason to become a fan!).