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1959-1961: The New Baths Take Shape

Members must have had mixed feelings about the building of their new first class bath.  They obviously looked forward to its completion but while work was in progress the club’s activities would be disrupted.  The Council did its best to minimise this, the bulldozers would move in at the end of the 1959 season and it was hoped the work would be finished early in 1961.  During that time the club would transfer to the Bloxwich Baths.


The last season at the old Tower Street Baths brought a significant success for the Ladies’ Section with the winning of the Team Race League.  It was not altogether unexpected for the team had finished 2nd to Smethwick in 1957 and 1958.  At the end of the year the section announced an increase in membership – 432 compared with 379 the previous year.


While the senior polo team struggled to regain its position at the top of the tree the junior team stepped into the breach and swept all before them in 1959.  They won the junior version of the triple-crown, Staffs Cup, Midlands Cup and the League title.  The treble was clinched with an 8-4 win over Smethwick in the Staffs final.  The scorers: Terry Morris (4), Alan Cooper (2), Bill Young and Bob Keates.  They even progressed to the semi-final of the National, something the seniors had not done for over thirty years.


And they caught the eye of the Staffs selectors; for the junior inter-counties tie against Gloucestershire they chose Whittington, Cooper, Felton, Keates and Allen, and then asked Young, Morris and Bates to stand by as reserves.  That was the nearest they ever came to picking the whole of a Walsall team to represent the country.


Competing in the first Welsh Championship in Newport, Sydney Redwood won the 100yds in 61.0 – a Welsh record and she was 3rd in both the 220 and 440.  In the Bologna Trophy, the annual England v Scotland v Wales match, she was 2nd to Diana Wilkinson in the 100yds.  Wilkinson was in superb form and produced a British record of 58.7.  It gave Sydney an idea of what she would have to do if she was to gain selection for the Olympics in 1960.  Unfortunately the move to Bloxwich disturbed her training and she was not able to improve her time by the vital two seconds that would have given her a chance of making the team.


The senior polo team’s last game in the old pool was the final fixture of the 1959 Midland League.  The team bid farewell to the pool that had seen so many exciting matches by beating Leicester 13-6.  Some of the juniors had been blooded during the latter half of the season – Terry Morris made his debut in the Leicester match.


This is the senior polo team’s record in the Midland League in the 1950s.

1950       10     6    0    4     45     35    12     3rd
1951        18    17    0    1    120    36    34    Champions
1952        14    12    1    1     102    35    24     Champions    
1953        16    14    0    2   144     47    28    Champions    
1954        16    13    2    1    127     62    28    Champions
1955        18    14    2    2    157     79    30    Champions
1956        18    13    1    4    134     101   27    2nd    
1957        20    17    0    3    207    96    34    2nd
1958        22    17    2    3    185    116    36    2nd
1959        20    10    1    9    115    113    21     6th


The last gala at the old baths was the Annual Sports on September 17th.  Nostalgia dominated the Walsall Observer’s report on the proceedings.  Readers were reminded of the time the Mayor fell into the pool on the day the baths were opened in May 1896; of Edna Hughes; of the polo team’s achievements, particularly the winning of the 1922 National which was said to be as memorable locally as the football team’s victory over Arsenal in 1933; and of course the tradition of selfless devotion by the club’s officers over the years.  


The eight life-members of the day were present – Frank Cooper, George Thorburn, Tom Mayo, Fred Pring, Bill Boole, Tom Bailey, Tom Longmore and Mrs. Eva Bilton.  Every one of them had been members of the club for over forty years.


There were notable performances in the pool by Alan Cooper who retained the 440 championship, by Terry Morris who won the junior 225yds in 2:44.8, and by 14 year old Lynne Townsend who beat Joyce Cook and Sydney Redwood to win the club’s 100yds back-stroke title.  With that the club retired to Bloxwich and awaited developments at Tower Street.


Away from home the club enjoyed mixed fortunes in 1960.  The change of environment did not seem to suit the polo team for it spent most of the season near the bottom of the Midland League, finally placing 9th of 10 teams and winning only seven of its eighteen matches.  However, playing at Bloxwich did not disturb the junior team at all, they produced exactly the same results as in 1959, the triple crown and a place in the National semi-final.


To do justice to the senior team’s showing it must be stated that they were without Gordon Brownjohn who had left to join Wednesbury, and they lost many of their games by a margin of one or two goals.  In the first round of the Staffs Cup at Tunstall, Walsall found themselves in a quandary when neither of their goalkeepers, Whittington and Clews, were able to play.  Into the breach stepped Sid Mattocks, a boy who was deaf and dumb and already had the distinction of playing for the England schoolboys’ football team.  It was a closely contested game in which Walsall went down 12-11.


The junior girls enjoyed their year at Bloxwich as well.  Lynne Townsend, Bernadette Trevor, Elaine Rowbotham and Susan Crannage formed the team that won the Birmingham & District Team Race League.


During the year the newspapers showed photographs of developments at Tower Street.  Behind a spider’s web of scaffolding the building was taking shape.  The new boiler house was already completed.  In fact the work on that had started in 1959 and finished later that year.  The tall chimney stack that had been a familiar landmark was demolished; the modern system did not need a tall chimney.  The contractors faced a problem when they excavated the car-park site to the necessary depth of 24ft because the hole started to fill with water.  The site is quite near the River Tame and the soil was saturated with water.  It was a problem that had been expected and the river was redirected before the concreting began.


By a happy coincidence the man who would be Mayor of Walsall in 1961 was the man whose endeavours had made the new baths a reality, Councillor Fletcher.  He laid the foundation stone and he would officially open the building.  He said it was particularly pleasing to him that the scheme had met with no opposition. 


Everyone, it seemed, was happy that Walsall was to get a gala bath.  In the six years since the plans had first been accepted by the Council the cost had risen to over £300,000, but there were no protests about that either.


In March 1961 the eagerly anticipated opening of the baths was tinged with sadness at the news of the death of George Wainwright.  He had been Superintendent at Tower Street since 1947 and was recognised as one of the best swimming and polo coaches in the area.  The club had tremendous respect for George Wainwright.  Just a month before he died he had been accorded the honour of Presidency of the Birmingham & District Swimming and Water Polo League.
 

Tower Street: Business as Usual

May 6th was set as the day the new baths would be officially opened.  It was every bit the ‘thoroughly well designed pile’ that the Observer had described the ‘new’ baths in 1896.  The 1961 edition had a new pool that measured 110 x 45ft, seats for 800 spectators and a café that offered a full view of the pool.  The acreage of glass plate along one side of the bath drew the comment; ‘Young swimmers are going to ripen like tomatoes in their new glass-house.’  The ASA were obviously confident of Walsall’s ability to open the baths on time for they chose the venue for the International Trials on the opening day.


The opening ceremony began at 11.30 in the morning with the unveiling of a commemoration plaque in the foyer that was followed by short speeches from the Chairman of the Baths and Parks Committee and the Mayor.  The proceedings were necessarily brief because the action in the pool started at noon.


There was plenty of swimming for the large crowed to see.  The Trials were divided into two sessions, one in the early afternoon and the other in the evening. In between there was a gala for local swimmers that ended with a polo match.  All the events in the Trials were of course time-trials, there were no heats or finals.  The very first event was the men’s 220yds freestyle and the honour of winning the first race in the new pool went to T. Boyes of York.


The trial races were seeded and the swimmers most likely to be selected for the forthcoming internationals appeared in the evening session.  There were a number of famous names, the most famous was undoubtedly Anita Lonsborough who had won the 200m breast-stroke at the Rome Olympics in 1960.  There was Natalie Steward of Hornchurch who had finished 2nd in the 100m back-stroke in Rome, and Margaret Edwards of Heaton.  Robbie McGregor swam in the 110yds freestyle; he was beginning his rise to stardom that would end with a silver medal at the 1964 Olympics.  Diana Wilkinson, Allison Turnbull and John Martin-Dye; nearly all the best of the British were there to celebrate the opening of Walsall’s new baths.  It was too early in the season to expect outstanding times from the stars, but Graham Sykes showed he was in form by setting a new British record for the 110yds back-stroke.  The staging of such a prestigious event on the opening day was a splendid tribute to the town and the club.


It was perhaps fortunate that everything had gone according to plan on the great day for a few days later there was a major embarrassment.  On the following Thursday morning, staff opened the building and found that most of the water in the new pool had drained away.  The pool was out of commission for only a few days while the joint was repaired but it meant a gala due to be held that week-end had to be called off.


The club then resumed its activities and, not unexpectedly, there was a sharp increase in membership.  The 1961 figures showed a total of 961 (453 men and 508 women).  The most remarkable upward trend was in the number of senior ladies, there were 117 of them.


Now operating in a bath of standard dimensions, the club adjusted the distances of some championship.  The 100yds would now be 110yds, and the junior championship which had been 225yds since 1895 would now be held over 220yds.  The 50yds would now be 220ft.  Five new championships were introduced, butterfly, back-stroke and breast-stroke for men over 110yds, and diving championships for men and women. 


Along with a higher membership the ladies produced a higher level of success in 1961.  They brought four trophies back to Tower Street.  The senior team won the Birmingham Team Race League and the juniors achieved outstanding results, winning the Hudson-Crowther Trophy for the Birmingham Junior League, the Birmingham & District Team Championship and the Staffordshire Aggregate Trophy which is awarded to the club whose swimmers produce the highest number of points in the season. They performed splendidly. Lynne Townsend won Staffs titles at freestyle and back-stroke and set a new ASAMD butterfly record; Joan Allen was second in the 220yds ASAMD junior and senior championships; Stella Townsend was second in senior and junior Staffs championships at back-stroke and Glenys Wilson took third in the Staffs junior breast-stroke.


The ladies carried the club’s standard that year for the senior polo team were still struggling to regain their position.  They were 4th in the League and the juniors were given no chance of repeating their triple-crown successes when they were ousted from the Midlands Cup after an administrative error. It was an oversight by the club; when they submitted the names of the players to the organisers they omitted the name of Keith Smith.  When Smith played in one of Walsall’s matches the officials invoked the rules and the club was disqualified from the competition.  There was no hearing, the club was given no chance to plead its case, there was no opportunity of anyone doing what Frank Cooper had done back in 1928 in the case of Harry Mills.  Jack Hale complained to the press that the ruling was against the spirit of junior competition, but it made no difference. 


At the age of 41 Dennis Hale made a come-back to water polo, but not by choice.  As manager of the Staffs team that met Cheshire in Birkenhead he was pressed into service when the county’s star player, Mick Hands, failed to turn up.  The ‘player-manager’ got his name on the score sheet, but Staffs went down 13-5.  After the game Hale ruefully counted his bruises and declared that from then on his retirement would be permanent.


Late in the year the club lost one of its vice-Presidents when Mrs. Eva Bolton, nee Parker, passed away.  Perhaps it is invidious to name someone as being the most effective of a splendid line of administrators that the Ladies’ Section has had over the years, but relying on the words of those that knew her, the author is left in no doubt that Mrs. Bolton’s contribution to Walsall Swimming Club was quite exceptional.

Moving with The Times

The early 1960s brought a series of changes.  Prior to 1962 the ASAMD had distributed its championships to galas around the area, that year it was decided to hold them all at one venue, to centralise them, and on August 14th the Tower Street Baths played host to the first ASAMD Championship Gala.  There was a major change to the format of water polo matches, instead of two halves of seven minutes there were four quarters of five minutes with a two minute interval between each quarter.  Furthermore, teams could name a squad of eleven players and any of the seven players in the water could be substituted at the end of a quarter.  The changes were recommended by the International Water Polo Board and accepted by FINA , the sports governing body.  There would be more rule changes in subsequent years, but the ones in 1962 were the most fundamental.


In polo circles there was concern about the lack of success of the Great Britain team at the European Championship in Leipzig that year.  They placed ninth, only Poland were below them.  It was thought that the formation of a national league might help to improve the standard of play and this came about in 1963.  The Premier Invitational Water Polo League was comprised of eight teams;-Birkenhead, Otter, London Polytechnic, Sheffield Dolphins, Sutton & Cheam, Weston and Birmingham.   The Birmingham team was the pick of the players in the Birmingham League.  Walsall’s application to be founder member had been turned down, but the club’s supporters were given the opportunity of seeing the best teams in Britain because the  Birmingham team played its home matches at Tower Street,  The club’s efforts to join the National League continued.  In 1964 it offered to take over the fixtures of Sheffield Dolphins who had dropped out of the league during the season, but this was turned down.  However, in 1965 the club finally were accepted into the league and it was not before time, Walsall had a team that was a match for any in the country.


In the winter of 1963-64 Walsall obtained the services of two outstanding players, Mick Hands and Noel Winter.  Both were established internationals with a wealth of experience.  They had opposed Walsall in many Birmingham League matches, Hands for Heath Town and Winter for Wednesbury.  With these two, and the best of their successful junior team now established seniors, Walsall were now able to compete with the elite.  Revitalised, the club entered the National championship; for some years previously it had declined to do so, knowing it stood little chance of success.  There was now an air of confidence in the Walsall camp.  


There were moves within the club to change its style of administration.  In 1963 a Club Council was formed.  It was comprised of the Chairmen, Treasurers and Secretaries of the two sections, and there was talk of amalgamation, but it took another 20 year for that to happen.  There was talk of another kind of amalgamation, it was suggested that the club combine with Bloxwich, Willenhall and Darlaston to form a single swimming club.  It did not take long to rule that one out.


A certain amount of dissent had surfaced with a faction threatening to break away and form another club.  To forestall any attempt at forming a club that decided to call itself ‘Walsall Water Polo Club’ the club’s committee used the subtle expedient of simply elongating its title.  Walsall Swimming Club became Walsall Swimming and Water Polo Club.  Dissent was unusual, in fact virtually non-existent up to this time.  The club had always conducted its affairs democratically, there was never any chance of a ‘generation gap’, teenagers were voted on to the executive committee.  Junior polo players Gareth David and Bill Young were on the committee in the early 1960s.

Hands and Winter lift Walsall

Many consider Mick Hands to be the most gifted polo player that ever played for the club.  He was named ‘European player of the year’ in 1962.  He was with Walsall for two years and his abilities lifted the club’s standing considerably.  With him and Noel Winter in the team, Walsall came close to winning every match in 1964, certainly there was no team in the area that could give them a match.

The club steamrollered its way through the Midland d League.  The season’s record of the leading clubs tells the story.

                        Walsall           20-20-0-0  219-60  40pts

                        Aston              20-16-1-3  186-82  33pts

There were more demolition jobs; Heath Town were beaten 16-2 in the Midland Cup final, the club’s biggest ever win in a final, and there was another convincing win in the Staffs final, 11-2 over Darlaston.  From mid-season it had been obvious the triple-crown was on the cards.  But there was the important business of the National Championship and Walsall needed a good cup-run to prove they were capable of ‘mixing it’ with the best.

The first round draw produced an away match at York on Tuesday, July 6th.  It was played in an open-air pool and turned out to be a tight, evenly contested match that was in the balance until the end.  Hands put Walsall ahead but York led 2-1 at the end of the first period.  The next goal came in the third period when 15 year old Mike Hale equalised.  Then Davenport put Walsall in front.  York fought back and scored to make it 3-3.  The game went into extra-time, Hands scored in the first period and that was enough to see Walsall into the next round.

It was another away game, another trip north, this time as far north as Galashiels.  It was a tough one, they had not been beaten at home for nine seasons.  The club tried to obtain leave for Terry Morris who was in the Army.  That failed and John Felton took his place.  The squad was – Hands (captain), Whittington, Winter, Davenport, Felton, Bates, Hale, Williams, Rogers, Clews and Gibbons.  Again it was a close encounter, but Walsall won 7-6 and entered the semi-final, a home match this time against Penguin.

It was played on September 19th and drew a capacity crowd.  It also drew glowing tributes from the local press, chiefly because of the play of Mick Hands.  He gave Walsall the lead and then added a second that the Observer described thus.

‘Receiving on the left the tipped the ball over the player marking him before diving underneath.  He emerged with the ball and only the goalkeeper to beat.  What an awful plight for the Penguins international keeper.  Several times he jumped for the non-existent ball as Hands sold him dummy after dummy before slamming it into the almost untenanted net.’

How could Walsall fail with such a player?  They won 7-4 and went into the final.  It was against Otter on Saturday October 3rd and it was at Tower Street,  The baths could not hold all the fans that wanted to see the match, Walsall’s quota of 600 tickets were sold in no time.  The teams began the match with the following players:-

Walsall:          Whittington, Gibbons, Winter, Hale, Davenport, Hands and Bates.

Otter:               Towers, Burn, Paine, Kemp McClaughlan, Milton and Stevens.

Walsall defended the shallow end in the first period and quickly fell behind to a goal scored by Milton.  When Walsall attacked, Winter hit the bar but Stevens increased Otter’s lead.  Hands reduced the deficit from a penalty.  The teams changed sides with Walsall 2-1 down.

Stevens made it 3-1 with Gibbins (Walsall) and Burn (Otter) out of the water.  The teams then swapped goals; Hale made it 3-2, Stevens 4-2 and Gibbons 4-3.  Into the third period and slack marking gave Burn the chance to restore Otter’s two goal lead.  It was becoming increasing obvious that the two goals Otter scored early in the match were vitally important ones, for since then the play had been evenly balanced.  But near the end of the third quarter Walsall finally got on terms, Hands scored from a penalty and immediately afterwards Davenport got the equaliser.  The home crowd’s jubilation was short lived.  Stevens put Otter in front again with a goal that was disputed.  It was claimed that the referee had blown for foul before the ball entered the net, but it stood and Otter went into the final period leading 6-5.

When Burn was ordered out it seemed Walsall had a good chance of at least sending the match into extra-time.  It was seven against six for several minutes, but try as they would the equaliser never came. 

Phil Morgan covered the match for the Express & Star and these are extracts from his report –

It was largely a question of tactics, and a lack of confidence when it was most needed, that cost Walsall their last chance of winning the National Club Championship in their own packed Gala Bath on Saturday night…. As those last three minutes ticked away, Otter, with their slender lead had skipper Robert Burn on the bath-side, but Walsall, alas, did not make use of their extra man…. they could not contrive to get into a scoring position a man confident enough to have a go at beating England goalkeeper John Towers in the shallow end goal.  The man who might have done it, skipper Mick Hands, one time Heath Town favourite, and Great Britain star, had to ‘lay off’ in case the move broke down.  It did, twice, and before he turned desperately to make for the other end of the bath to deal with the clearance I could see the disappointment on his face.

 

Then it was that Otter’s tactics told, despite being a man short they managed by keen anticipation, accurate throwing and swift movement off the ball, to keep possession for those vital seconds that meant the difference between success and failure.  They succeeded, worthily in the circumstances.

 

For Walsall, so long a polo stronghold of the Midlands, there was only disappointment….in this final, their biggest test to date, however, they just missed the edge which Otter managed to hold from first to last.  But they came out of it with a notable distinction.

 

They included 15 year old Mike Hale, son of the team manager, to provide the youngest player ever to appear in the national final. The boy played a man’s part in what was, more than ever, a man’s final, with close marking, keen tackling and fast swimming….What a grand game this was, with all the old Walsall enthusiasm from the packed tiers of seats and the familiar atmosphere of difference of opinion with the referee, Mr. Bishop of Sheffield, who handled the game firmly enough.

A notable feature of the game was that Walsall started and finished with the same seven players and Otter changed only one of their men (Griffin for Paine).  The days of tactical substitutions had not yet arrived it seemed.

Although the result was a keen disappointment it should be put in perspective, it was the only match Walsall lost in 1964.  And for the first time since the 1920s the club had a team that could compete at the highest level.  Surprisingly, it was the first time Otter had lifted the trophy; they were beaten finalists in 1888, the first year of competition, and again in 1938, 1947 and 1960.  Founded in 1869, they are the oldest club affiliated to the ASA.

Services Rendered to Swimming

With Walsall’s polo back on its pedestal the ladies, in a rather quieter fashion, were continuing to operate successfully.  The ability of the committee and coaches to manage a membership that had stabilised at around 500 was commendable.  When Mrs. Churm retired as Treasurer after 24 years she was honoured with life-membership,  The years of service put in by the officers was remarkable.  Mrs. Butler had been Secretary since 1947 and Mrs. Mander, who had taken over the Presidency following the death of Mrs. Bolton, had served in various posts since the late 1920s.  There was a justifiable hint of pride in the Annual Report of 1963 – ‘The section’s prosperity is due to the services rendered to swimming, and not solely to the attraction of having a new Gala Baths in the town.’  It also  noted the fact that it was one of the few clubs in the area to cater for senior women, there were 150 that year.


The ladies organised social evenings for the juniors, annual Christmas parties for the children, and for many years tolerated the presence of young boys under nine on their evenings in the pool, until the boys’ unruly behaviour proved too much for them.  The managed their financial affairs efficiently, in fact they had to bale the men out of difficulties on several occasions.  The ladies had to foot the bill for men’s prizes and medals at the annual gala; they purchased a timing clock that could be used by both sections, paid the club’s affiliation fee of 12 guineas to the ASA, and pitched in £150 towards the £200 or so needed to send the polo team to Germany for a series of matches in 1966.


The men’s embarrassment at this state of affairs led them to suggest, and then to insist, that the financial resources of both sections should be pooled, so saving them from the ignominy of having to ask for money.  The ladies said no, they would continue to control their affairs as they had done for over sixty years, but were always prepared to consider any requests for assistance.


The best of Walsall’s female swimmers made a successful trip to Cambridge for the ASAMD Championships in July 1965.  Sandra Gough won the 110yds back-stroke and was 3rd in the 220 freestyle.  Lynne Townsend won the 110yds butterfly, Val Taylor was 2nd in the girls’ 110 freestyle and 3rd in the 220, and Christine Walker made the final of the 110 freestyle. These four formed the team that finished 2nd in the medley relay.


The senior polo team played in the National League that year and performed well enough to finish in mid-table.  Optimistically, the club again booked Tower Street for the final of the ASA National.  Unfortunately Walsall went out to Cheltenham early in the competition and the fans watched Penguin beat Cheltenham 6-5.  But Walsall were able to hold on to the Midlands Cup.  Aston were beaten 9-7 in the semi and Heath Town 7-3 in the final.  The Australian team came to Walsall on July 26th and beat the home team 10-4.  Two nights later, again at Tower Street, the Australians beat the Great Britain side 5-2.


Walsall faced the 1966 season without Mick Hands who had moved from the area, but a number of the club’s players were recognised by the international selectors that year.  Tony Wittington was picked for the European Championships in Utrecht, and Gordon Hodges, Bill Johnson, Keith Gibbons and Mike Hale played for England in the under 21 match against Scotland.  In July the Walsall team made its first trip abroad, to Kamen in Germany.


Jack Hale travelled as manager of the following squad – Whittington, Massey, Mike Hale, Winter, Bates, Hodges, Johnson, Gibbons, Morris, Bailey and Dickinson.  They played five matches and won them all, beating Tserlohm-Schleddenhoften 7-1, Westolen-Wethmar 9-3, Phalwil (Switzerland) 13-2, Dortmund 6-1 and Kamen 7-2.


For the fourth year running the club’s committee was able to bring the National final to Tower Street, no doubt hoping the home team would be there to contest it.  It did not happen.  Walsall beat Leamington 6-3 in the preliminary round and Aston 7-6 in the first round, but in the quarter-final Birkenhead stopped further progress by beating Walsall 12-8.  They went on to beat Sutton & Cheam 6-5 in the final.  Perhaps it was some consolation to Walsall that they were knocked out by the eventual champions.
 

1967: The Glory Year

The early season results of the polo team in the National League showed they were capable of challenging for the highest honours.  In April and May there were seven matches against the best teams in the country and Walsall lost only one of them.  At Tower Street they drew 2-2 with Penguin, beat Cheltenham 4-3, and drew 7-7 with Birkenhead; in four away games they drew 4-4 with Cheltenham, beat Penguin 10-7 and London Poly 5-3, then lost 7-6 at Weston.


It was the club’s third season in the League and the best start it had made.  The supporters were obviously encouraged; the group that travelled to London for the match with Polytechnic outnumbered the locals two to one.  Noel Winter had moved to Barrow-in-Furness but continued to play in all the matches.  When the team played in London it meant a round trip of 600 miles.


There was plenty of international opposition for Walsall that year.  The first was against Holland’s under 21 team on June 17th.  The Dutchmen won 8-4.  The following night they met a Great Britain under 21 team that included Bill Johnson, Mike Hale and Gordon Hodges.  On July 31st the club were beaten 10-4 by Australia as a prelude to the Australian’s match with the Great Britain team two days later.  Winter and Hale were capped and Britain gained an exciting and unexpected 6-5 victory.  The USA team were on a tour of Europe and they came to Tower Street on September 4th.  The Americans had beaten a string of national teams on the continent; one of their victories was a 10-0 win over Belgium.  They received the usual cordial welcome in Walsall.  Their manager, Vic Larsen, said it was the best they received so far.  On the night, their captain returned the compliment by presenting Noel Winter, Walsall’s captain, with a bouquet of flowers.  But they were in no mood for any further pleasantries and proceeded to trounce the home side 14-4.  It was said to be the finest display of polo ever seen at Tower Street.


With almost every weekend, and some weekdays, taken up by an important polo match, the club was reminded that it had a swimmer of great promise when Val Taylor won two Midland titles at Coventry on the weekend of June 23-24.  She won her heat of the 440yds in the record time of 5:14.5 – the previous best had been 5:24.1- and then improved to 5:10.9 as she won the final.  She won the 220yds, but very narrowly, her time of 2:28.5 was exactly the same as Ann Wheeler of Oxford.  In the 110yds Wheeler won in 66.7 with Taylor second in 69.0 but two golds and a silver was the best showing by a Walsall swimmer since the championships had been centralised.


On July 28th the club won its first trophy of the 1967 season when the juniors won the Midlands Cup by beating Leamington 13-5.  The boys that did it were – Jones, Minton, Salt, Lindsay, Bayley, Burke, Paris, Hale, Horne, Taylor and Horton.  They relied heavily on the shooting ability of Mike Hale who netted eight goals.  It was the first of our important matches at Tower Street in five days.  The following night the seniors won their first round match in the National when they beat Cardiff Poly, and after that came the Walsall v Australia and G.B. v Australia games.  It was all happening in Walsall that week.


The club drew Cheltenham at home in the quarter-finals of the National on August 15th.  It turned out to be a tense, grim battle between two closely matched teams.  The marking was too close to allow any good polo, but the crowd were enthralled right up to the final whistle.  Walsall took the lead when Hodges scored before a Cheltenham player had touched the ball.  That was the only goal scored in the first period.  In the second and third periods there were a succession of penalties that followed the pattern of Cheltenham equalising and Walsall going ahead again until the third period closed with Walsall leading 4-3.  In the final session Mike Hale scored from another penalty and that was enough to see the club through to the semi-final.


It was against Penguin on September 20th at Tower Street.  Before that came an equally important match for the juniors, they too had progressed to the semi-final of their National competition and they met Birkenhead at home on September 6th.


Although one might have expected a great deal of enthusiasm from the local press for an 11-8 victory that put the juniors in the final for the first time, the Walsall Observer’s report was critical.  It spoke of Birkenhead being the fitter and more capable side.  The reporter was apparently disturbed by what he saw as flaws in the Walsall defence whenever Birkenhead attacked, he failed to stress that Walsall scored eleven goals at the other end.  Mike Hale netted seven of them.


In contrast, Walsall’s excellent defending was seen as the main factor in the seniors 5-1 win over Penguin in their semi-final.  With Neil Bates neutralising the threat of John Martin-Dye, and Hodges scoring a goal in each of the first three quarters, Walsall took a stranglehold on the match and never let it go.  It was a unique situation for Walsall; both teams were through to the final of the National.


Neither match would be at Tower Street, but apart from that the venues could not have been better for the home supporters.  The seniors would play Birkenhead at Coseley on October 21st and the juniors met Thornaby at Bilston on October 14th.  The youngsters were in good form; they beat Aston 10-8 to make sure of the Midland League title on October 5th and then won the Staff’s final by beating Tunstall 7-3 a week later.  The team was judged to be the best junior side in the country and odds-on favourite to win the National.


Thornaby were from the North-East, they had reached the final the previous year and been beaten by Aston.  The teams lined up as follows:-


Walsall:    Jones, Salt, Minton, Burke, Bayley, Taylor, Hale, Horne, Paris, Horton, Pugh and Lindsay.


Thornaby:    Cosgrove, Halliday, Randall, Dick, Rea, Harbisher, Laker, Wellford, Featherstone, Breardon, Almond and G.Featherstone. 


Walsall appeared to suffer from an attack of nerves during the opening exchanges and Thornaby took advantage by scoring first with a goal by Harbisher.  This unsettled Walsall still further, but they recovered and equalised with a goal from Hale.  It was 1-1 at the end of the first quarter.  In the second session Rea put Thornaby in the lead again, and again Hale equalised.  It closed with the score at 2-2.  In the third quarter Walsall began to dominate.  Hale put Walsall in the lead and then added another from a penalty to provide a two-goal cushion.  It did not last for long.  Rea made it 4-3 from a penalty.


This is how the Observer’s reporter described the closing stages of the match.


The final quarter must rank as one of the most exciting ever witnessed, and left those who had made the trip from Walsall, including the Mayor, Alderman A.J. Thompson, and Councillor T. Croft, Chairman of the Baths and Parks Committee, with their hearts in their mouths. 


To begin with, Hale missed with two shots and then Rea equalised for Thornaby.  Laker then put them ahead with a superbly taken goal only for Hale to level it for Walsall.  Walsall then went ahead with a penalty from Hale, but back came Thornaby with one from Rea to make it 6-6.  In the bitter struggle that followed Walsall came out a goal and a National Championship to the good when Hale scored in the dying seconds of the game. 


Of the two sides, Thornaby were the better on the night – particularly Rea.  As far as Walsall are concerned too much reliance was placed on Hale and it was his personal ability which swung the match for Walsall.


There was no doubt that Thornaby had been under estimated.  They had played with more strength and skill than the pundits had given them credit for.  But Walsall had won the Junior Cup for the first time and were half way towards pulling off an outstanding double.


The seniors faced a daunting task in their final on the following Saturday night.  Birkenhead had finished top of the National League that year, and had won both Cup and League the year before.  Furthermore, they had never been beaten by Walsall.  The only club to win the senior and junior finals in the same year was Plaistow in 1948.  Cheltenham had reached both finals three times; in 1952, 1957 and 1959, but failed to pull off the double each time.  In 1961 both Birkenhead teams got through. Their seniors beat Penguin but the juniors went down to Sutton & Cheam. 


The Coseley Baths on the Wolverhampton Road could only accommodate 400 spectators, but most of them were Walsall supporters.  They might have had misgivings about their team’s chances after two recent defeats at home in the National League.  Walsall had lost 6-3 to Sutton & Cheam on September 9th, and by 8-6 to Polytechnic on the 22nd.


The teams:-    

                                                                                                                                      
Walsall: Tony Whittington, Noel Winter, Neil Bates, John Bayliss, Bill Johnson, Gordon Hodges, Mike Hale, Eddie Haken, Dave Warren, Bramwell Stone and John Massey.


Birkenhead: D. Jones, F. Manley, G. Waring, A. Murray, H. Wood, H. Fogg, R. Matthews, J. Atre, A. Binley, P. Matthews and D. Owen.


Walsall took the initiative and attacked strongly throughout the first quarter, and they had goals to show for it, three of them, two by Hodges and a penalty by Hale.  Birkenhead reduced the deficit with a penalty by Fogg at the end of the session.


It was the turn of the Walsall defence to take a pounding in the second quarter and Atre pulled another goal back.  At that stage the game appeared to be swinging Birkenhead’s way. 


Winter then played a leading role in the proceedings.  Against the run of play he scored to give Walsall a 4-2 advantage, and immediately afterwards lost his trunks in a mid-bath skirmish.  The pause in play while he replaced them was evidently to Birkenhead’s advantage for they swept on to the attack and scored three times without reply.


Two of the three had been scored by Fogg, and he netted again early in the third quarter to make the score 6-4.  Then it was Walsall’s turn and goals by Hale and Hodges levelled the match at 6-6.  Birkenhead went in front again, but back came Walsall with an equaliser by Winter.  7-7 at the end of the quarter and all to play for.


The final session saw Hale put Walsall in front and Winter increase their lead.  Then came a crucial period of play in which they struggled to hold onto their advantage.  Birkenhead began to play the best polo of the match, brilliant it was said.  It was only some heroic goalkeeping by Tony Whittington that kept them out.  Some over- zealous marking of Fogg and Matthews lead to a penalty.  Fogg took it but Whittington saved.  Moments later another penalty, and against Whittington, saved from Fogg.  The pressure continued, another foul, another penalty, this time the ball was given to Matthews.  He fared no better, his shot was beaten out by Whittington.  A hat-trick of penalty saves.  The match ended with Walsall the victors by 9-7 and without doubt the victory owed much to the goalkeeping of Tony Whittington.


The reports in the local newspapers were understandably jubilant.


The Express and Star:


‘It was an exceptional victory’, said the Mayor of a win that completed a tremendous double for Walsall, who the previous week had won the junior title by beating Thornaby 7-6.  The senior and junior double had been achieved only once before.


Birkenhead were strongly fancied to keep the title, but Walsall were a team of heroes and none more so that goalkeeper Tony Whittington.  At the end of the match each Birkenhead player in turn saluted the goalkeeper who had robbed them of victory.


It was the first time Walsall had ever beaten Birkenhead whose team included six internationals, and they could not have chosen a finer time to do it.


The Walsall Observer:


It was a match of classical proportions and Walsall’s team looked and played like the champions they now are.  The winning of the National Championship confirmed the belief that Walsall are one of the best water polo teams ever seen and provides a rich reward for those members of the Walsall Swimming Club who have worked so hard to make the team and the club the force it is today.


The 400 strong crowd, mainly from Walsall, gave their heroes an ovation that lasted long after the match was over.  The Birkenhead players and supporters could hardly have been more pleased if they had won, and Dennis Hale kept a promise he made three years ago when Walsall were last in the final, and jumped in the water fully clothed when the final whistle went.


The winning of the National was the final act in the most successful of the club’s history, the only competition it entered and failed to win was the Midland League in which it finished second to Aston.  The role of honours:-

 

  • ASA National Championship

  • Midlands Cup

  • Staffordshire Cup

  • ASA National Junior Championship

  • Midlands Junior Cup

  • Staffordshire Junior Cup

  • Midland Junior League

  • Midland Junior Team Race League


The juniors won every match they played and their captain, Mike Hale, achieved the unique distinction of taking a winner’s medal in both senior and junior finals.  Six juniors: Allan Jones, Ian Bayley, Kevin Salt, Mike Hale, Richard Horne and Peter Burke, played for the Staffordshire team that beat Surrey 7-4 to win the Inter-Counties Junior Championship at Huddersfield on September 2nd. It was the first time the county had taken the title.  Walsall players scored all the goals – Hale 3 and Bayley 1.