It may have been almost 45 years since he made his Dorchester debut in August 1976, but for Hedley Steele a lot of the memories of his eight years at the club are still very clear.
Speaking just a few days following his 67th birthday, Steele recalls his time at The Avenue as “a bit of a rollercoaster.” Signed by then player/manager David Best, he joined a Dorchester side fresh from a disastrous season having finished rock bottom with only 28 points, but would go on to lift the league trophy as captain a couple of years later.
Born in Barnsley, but settled in to South West life at a young age, Hedley started his career with Tiverton where he quickly came to the attention of scouts from Exeter City. He signed amateur terms with The Grecians in 1972 before progressing to pen a two-year professional contract with them in ’74. He made his professional debut against his hometown Barnsley ironically enough. (Hedley’s father had been Oakwell groundsman for many a year and Hedley himself had been mascot since the age of four)
His career at St James’ Park seemed to be going well enough but injury would severely hamper his progress for the duration of his time at the club. A stress fracture and then persistent knee issues would see him spend a lot of time on the treatment table over the two contracted years. But when he was called into manager John Newman's office after training on a Friday in the later part of the season, he was still hopeful of being kept on.
"A few of the older players at training had been saying to me "Oh you'll be alright, you'll stay on" so I had started to believe what they were saying. Then I got in to the manager's office and the conversation starts. "It's that time of year when we look at who to keep at the club... I'm sorry to tell you that you won't be kept on."
“It feels like your whole world is coming crashing down. But then the manager goes; "Ah, but. We've had David Best from Dorchester Town get in touch and he wants to take a look at you in a reserve game." So, I'm walking down Exeter high street in a bit of a daze, 22 years old, been let go, due to get married in a few months but Dorchester are interested."
Dave Best had just taken over as player/manager at the Avenue, having played 12 games in the doomed 75-76 season. A very good goalkeeper in his day (he made over 550 appearances for Bournemouth, Oldham, Ipswich and Portsmouth), he had inherited a side that had some good experience and had his own ideas he wanted to implement.
"Bestie's approach when he took over was going and looking at league clubs in the area and seeing who fit into what he wanted to do. He knew what he'd inherited in terms of experience and he wanted to supplement it with young hungry players - 'rejected pros', for the want of a better phrase, and try and blend them together. He (Best) and Graham Curtis (DTFC Chairman) came down to watch the reserve game I played in and after the game we sat in John Newman's office and we had a chat along with my Dad. He said what he wanted to do and they invited us down to Dorchester to have a look around and a spot of lunch. So, I went down with my Dad, met them and went to the ground and had another chat. It felt like a proper football club and it sounded exciting. "
“I wanted to join straight away and wanted to move house to help facilitate it. The club said they'd help with that and try and get me some work as well. I asked my Dad what he thought and he just said; "well you could do a lot worse"! I just had to tell the future wife we were going to be moving!"
Hedley ended up moving to Maiden Newton (About 50 yards down the road from David Best) and found work at West Dorset District Council.
"I signed to play for David Best. Having been let go by Exeter, I needed picking back up and that's what he did. He was the reason I signed and I wanted to play for him. He was looking for players to help him have a go and we did. His recruitment off the field was clever and he had a real influence on the pitch as well as off being the goalkeeper.
He'd be joined at the club by other new arrivals from pro clubs in Trevor Brinkworth (Swindon), as well as Mike Galpin, Martin Bridge and Clive Grout (all Bournemouth) as the manager aimed to blend the hungry newcomers with the more experienced hands such as Peter Poore, Steve Pegram and Richard Burley. He quickly struck up a good friendship with Martin Bridge. Both men were new to the club and both putting final touches on their respective weddings.
In his first season at The Avenue Ground, the Magpies would ultimately finish fourth as their title challenge petered out following the February departure of former Manchester United, Portsmouth, Southampton and Welsh international, Ron Davies.
Davis' departure back to the USA would signify a run of four consecutive defeats, but his influence at The Avenue had seen a change of fortunes. Hedley would be one of three ever presents along with Steve Jones and Trevor Brinkworth, although an appearance for assistant manager, Eddie McManus stuck out in Hedley's memory.
"We arrived at the usual pick-up place for Mick Galpin but there was no sign of him. It was the days before mobiles so eventually we managed to get a hold of Mick. He'd got a migraine so couldn't play. Well, we only were allowed one sub in those days, so Eddie McManus, Bestie's assistant, ended up being on the bench. He wasn't exactly match fit! We just had to hope that no one got injured and of course what happens? 10 minutes in and Pete Poore gets a dead leg! He managed to play on until about an hour in, but he couldn't carry on so Eddie had to come on. I think we just stick him up front and left him up there and Ron Davies dropped to centre half. We got a 1-1 draw out of it and Ron was happy to drop to the back as knew that's where he'd be playing when he returned to America!"
Hedley was also full of praise for Davies who despite having played at a much higher level did not just turn up and go through the motions. Davies, a man who used to do hurdles in heavy boots to help improve his jumping ability, scored seven goals in 18 appearances that season.
"Ron had an aura about him and a presence. He wasn't just there to make up the numbers, he wanted to win. He had such a spring in his jump, like he was being held up there on strings. He treated it properly and didn't shirk anything. You'd think someone that had played to the level he had wouldn't fancy all the 50/50's in the Southern League, but he never shied away. We dropped off big style once he left."
After a near miss with promotion that season, The Magpies would go one better the following season, gaining promotion to the Southern Premier in 1977-78 as runners up. Hedley would only miss one game that season and would become the club captain as the same core of players who had come so close to going up the previous season would right that wrong, alongside a couple of notable additions.
Veteran striker John O'Rouke, who had enjoyed a prolific professional career at clubs such as Middlesbrough, QPR and Ipswich, would net nine goals in 21 games that season, and a young player by the name of Graham Roberts would start to make his mark with nine strikes in 30 appearances. It marked quite the turnaround for manager David Best and his plan of supplementing experience alongside youthful hunger had worked thus far. Sadly, the step up to the Southern Premier came too soon and the team would get relegated that following season with only seven wins from 42.
"It was tough with bigger budget clubs and the increased travel. I don't think we really believed we deserved to be in that league until too late. I remember late that season we beat Yeovil at home and looked decent, but it was too late. We had something to prove the following season after that disappointment."
And proving that point would be one of the standout memories for Hedley from his time at the Avenue. Though it was anything but easy.
New additions came in from the local area in Ray Ames from Poole and Paul Thorne from Bridport, as well as the emergence of a young local lad by the name of Trevor Senior, who had made a good impression at the end of the previous season.
"Paul Thorne came in from Bridport and didn't miss a game. He could absolutely tear teams apart and side would just try to kick him out the game. He once got put through an advertising hoarding in the corner down the slope and it just left an outline of a body where he'd gone though. He just hopped back over the boards and smiled. We had to tell him to stop smiling so much at them! He never went missing and had such ability in those wide positions. Ray Ames also came in and he was a player you hated to play against but loved having on your side. He'd be another player that the opposition would be talking about before the game and try to stop him but he was like a little tiger. He'd wind them all up and he had such a low centre of gravity he'd always seen to bounce back when they tried to force him off the ball. You didn't want to get into a verbal battle with him and he'd always be winning freekicks and penalties. People like Richard Burley and Barry Dominey were quite unassuming, but you'd be driven on by them and you wanted to play with people like Paul Thorne and Amesy."
And it wasn't just on the field that Ames would prove a valuable addition. "In the dressing room you had Pete Poore who was very respected from the amount of time he'd spent at the club and he'd ended up going from a striker to a defender and was probably a better defender in the end! But him and Amesy were like our Morecambe and Wise. Any practical jokes or wind ups, they'd be at the centre of it. Amesy would be stood there protesting that he didn't do anything, looking like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but you knew he was guilty. Those two were always involved."
On the pitch things would go well without being spectacular, and February would see the departure of manager Best and the elevation of Stuart Bell to the position of caretaker boss. Bell had been involved at the club for some considerable time and it was his knowledge of the reserve side that was vital in the sides continued push for promotion. With many injuries to key players the gaps were filled by the club's reserve side, not that that's how it felt.
"There was no them and us and the two sides just seemed to merge into one. There were no bad eggs and Stuart knew what they were capable of. One of the strengths we had as a club were that teams of a higher stature all thought we'd fall away. When I was playing for the Southern League representative side, all the banter in the changing room would be from the players at the 'big clubs' like Dartford, Aylesbury and Dover saying how we wouldn't get the job done. We rattled a few cages and bucked a few trends."
And buck the trend they did. Goals from Paul Thorne and Kevin Leigh at a packed Avenue saw us overcome Dartford 2-1. And that win, combined with Aylesbury being held at home to Gosport saw us secure the title. Not that we knew at the time. Whether it was mischievousness or being bad losers, the call to Aylesbury to find out the score came back with information that they had won. It was only when Trevor Senior went home to get changed for the end of season gala, and happened to check Ceefax that the truth emerged.
Days later, Steele was once again lifting silverware as the team overturned a 2-0 first-leg defeat at home to Weymouth, to win in a comprehensive 4-1 victory at The Rec and lift the Mark Frowde Cup.
Winning the league in the centenary season would also coincide with the club becoming a 'Limited Company' and things were starting to really look up with the announcement of ex-England and Tottenham striker, Martin Chivers, as player/manager in 1980. Sadly, this wouldn't be a success as Chivers would depart in around Christmas of 1980, having scored seven goals in 18 games.
"Chivers oozed class and had a real aura about him. He was another man who had an unbelievable leap on him and he scored some very good goals. It was a real shame it didn't work out for all parties, but Stuart Bell became boss again, this time permanently having been Chiv's number two. We never looked like winning it again but we finished in a respectable position and had a good side still."
It would be the following season in 81-82 that would provide the final of Hedley's favouritememories. The team just missed out on promotion again, finishing third. But it was that season’s FA Cup run that would go down in history – ending in cruel fashion at the hands of AFC Bournemouth.
"The full house at home in the first game (that finished 1-1) and the big crowd away in the replay were just something else. Particularly that first game with all those fans in the old ground, it was just magical. It had all the romance you dream of as a kid growing up watching FA Cup finals and wanting to play at Wembley. The whole experience was everything you would have wanted… except the result."
The Magpies had taken the lead at the Avenue through Paul Thorne and despite a Bournemouth equaliser in the second half, it was the non-league hosts who felt unlucky not to have won on the day, but a trip to Dean Court beckoned. Hedley himself would strike first for Dorchester in the replay with an effort from the edge of the box, but Bournemouth levelled and just as penalties were dawning, the Cherries scored a last gasp winner deep into injury time of extra time to break the hearts of players and fans alike.
That game would be the last game that Trevor Senior would play for the club before his £35,000 move to Portsmouth, and Hedley was not surprised when the move came about.
"Trevor was our 'Roy of the Rovers' find. We had him joining in with the 5-a-side at the end of training when he was just 14 or 15 and when he came though into the first team, he gave his all and scored an unbelievable number of goals. He had two hattricks in the cup run to the Bournemouth game, one at Cheltenham away and they didn't much like us going there and beating them 3-1. He turned out okay for a bloke who had to play up front with me for a while!"
Alongside Trevor and Ron Davies, there was one more player that Hedley viewed as one of the best he'd played with, and that man was future England international Graham Roberts.
"He'd come to us under Bestie in my first season (76-77) and you'd started to see glimpses of his skill and power, even then. As the club and the squad evolved, so did he and the ability he had at that age was really something. He's another one who didn't go on to do badly and the fact he was used in an advanced position for us before working his way back to defense shows how adaptable he was. He didn't mind the physical stuff and his career tells you how good he was."
Steele speaks glowingly of his time at the Avenue – a place he says “oozed character.”
"The ground has some real lifelong memories. It was our ground. It was a place that had been lovingly developed as much as possible and without all the trappings of other, newer stadiums. It had history, character and that sort of thing is very difficult to replicate. The old stand just oozed character and despite being limited facility wise, it had a proper family atmosphere and with the social clubs there it meant we were all able to mix together. There was no sense of distance between fans and players, and the more you played there, you didn't even notice the slope!"
Hedley's time at the club would come to a close at the end of that season, with work commitments taking him back to Devon. But after a Dorchester career spanning seven years, 298 league appearances and 29 goals and a league title, his legend and place in club history is secure.
His contribution will be recognized in a permanent manner with his named embossed on one of the 700 new seats in the newly refurbished main stand, something he is very proud of. "It's a real privilege and an honour and hopefully my family can view that with pride for years to come."
A league winning captain who led the club on and off the pitch through one of its most successful periods. It is certainly a career worth commemorating.
Hedley Steele’s seat is available to sponsor at dorchestertownfc.co.uk/sponsoraseat
Words: Stuart Voss