I was contacted a few months ago by Nick King who was looking for information on his great-great grandfather Willis Bentley as part of his family history research. Willis briefly played for Chester during the 1891/92 season, the club’s second season in the Combination League, when they were based in Faulkner Street. Between us we managed to piece together some information on his time playing for the club and Nick has put together this interesting biography with input from me in the Chester section.
WILLIS BENTLEY (1860-1916)
Willis Bentley was born in Sheffield in 1860, and played mainly as an amateur back / half back for major teams for ten years between 1882 and 1892. He also played cricket in the summer months, mainly for his employers’ teams.
Willis lived in the northern industrial and terraced housing area of Sheffield all his life, and local sporting pages indicate that he started playing football as a teenager.
In the period 1878 to 1882, he played for local teams Walkley FC, founded by his father in the 1850s, and Owlerton FC. On the 1881 census he was a steel worker.
In 1882, Willis registered as a player for Sheffield Wednesday FC. He played several games for them commencing January 1883 with an F A Cup match against Nottingham Forest, with a brief pause from November of the same year when he fractured his skull during a regional match between Sheffield and Birmingham at Aston, Warwickshire. His final game for Wednesday was in 1885, with a letter in a local paper mentioning his health, and his registration formally ended in 1889.
Willis got married in 1887 and newspaper reports indicate that he played for Owlerton between the years 1886 to 1888. Around 1889, Willis found work as a (physical exercise) attendant at the Wadsley Asylum and formed a works team. Soon after, he played a single match as goalkeeper for Sheffield United FC in their founding 1889/90 season.
Whilst still employed by the Asylum, Willis joined Gainsborough Trinity for their 1890/91 season, in which they won the Lincolnshire Cup and Midland League medals. Unlike his service with previous teams, this presumably involved considerable travel on trains.
Willis started 1891 playing for Trinity but, for unknown reasons, moved to Chester where he participated in a trial match at the start of September. The match attracted a lot of local interest and Willis, who played as a forward, was picked out for his performance although the Cheshire Observer reported that he received little help from Newton, one of the other forwards.
He made his Chester debut in the second Combination fixture of the season, a home game against Denton at Faulkner Street which finished 3-3. In the next game against Stoke Swifts a “fearfully disorganised” Chester were heavily beaten 9-1. However Willis seems to have come out of the game with his reputation intact with the report stating that his play had greatly improved and that he promises to develop into a good back. He was again complemented on his performance in the friendly against Halliwell where it was mentioned that the club had finally secured his services.
After playing in both the league game and FA Cup tie at home to Wrexham he missed the league game against Everton Reserves through injury but returned for his final game, against Macclesfield in November. By the end of December Willis had returned to Gainsborough Trinity where he remained for a few more months.
After ‘retirement’ from playing, sometime after 1892, Willis coached junior teams and playing cricket for Neepsend Gas Works. From the late 1890s on, Willis worked as a gas stoker alongside celebrated Wednesday player Billy Betts, who had been active with the team at the same time as Willis.
Willis died from pneumonia in 1916. He had four children, but only one survived infancy.
‘Sheffield Wednesday FC: The Official History 1867-2017’ by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 9781445619538)
“The Origins of Sheffield Wednesday” by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 1445619709)
‘The Men Who Made Sheffield Wednesday FC’ 2007 by Tony Matthews (ISBN: 9780752441566)
‘Trinity Champions’ by Andrew Stothard.
‘On the Borderline: Official History of Chester City F.C.’ 1st Edition by Chas Sumner (ISBN: 9781874427520)
This photo was taken in August 1949 and features Ted Elliott in pre-season training. The Carlisle born goalkeeper joined Chester from Wolves in October 1948 and played 59 league games for the club before moving to Halifax Town in November 1950 after losing his place to Harry Threadgold.
It is the background of this photograph which is probably of more interest as it features a great view of the Kop which is not normally seen from this angle. The most obvious feature is the half-time scoreboard at the back of the terrace. I believe the scoreboard was first erected around 1933 as the key to the games featured in programmes for the 1933/34 season. It is visible in one of the photos from the late 1930s that features in my Images of Sport book.
Interestingly the scoreboard seems to have disappeared by the time of the 1952 FA Cup tie against Chelsea and photos from the mid-1950s confirm that it had been removed. However it looks like it was replaced at a later date further to the right of the goal with a different framework. It is still visible in photos as late as the 1971/72 season but I personally don’t remember it being there for the 1974/75 promotion season. In later years I remember there being a half-time scoreboard along the wall of the Popular Side by the Kop and there was also one at the corner of old wooden main stand by the Sealand Road End which is visible in photos from the late 1950s and 1960s.
In addition to the scoreboard the white circle in the centre of the goal was put there for shooting practice while it is surprising to see how overgrown the Kop was at this time. It is reminiscent of how the terrace looked in the late 1980s.
If anyone else has any more background information concerning the half-time scoreboard and other aspects of the Kop I would be interested to hear from them as I would like to expand on this article with a few more pictures if possible.
These photographs were taken at the start of the 1969/70 season as Chester prepared for their 12th season in Division 4. As the longest serving member of the league, alongside Aldershot, there was the usual degree of optimism that this would be Chester’s year as Ken Roberts’ started his second full campaign in charge. Roberts had gradually transformed the side and only four players, Terry Carling, Barry Ashworth, Mike Sutton and Graham Turner remained from when he had been appointed manager in February 1968. It was also the second season of the all sky blue kit which gave a fresh look to the team, evident from the pictures.
Although Roberts had been unable to prevent another application for re-election in 1967/68 there had been an improvement the following year with a 14th placed finish and this continued into the 1969/70 season as Chester ended the campaign in a comfortable 11th position. However it was cup competitions where the team excelled and they reached the 4th Round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1948 after victories over Third Division Halifax Town and Doncaster Rovers followed by Second Division Bristol City. The run was halted when an injury ridden team was beaten 4-2 at Swindon Town. Meanwhile there was another appearance in the Welsh Cup Final where they were beaten by Cardiff City over two games.
The first photograph shows captain Cliff Sear emerging from the tunnel of the old wooden stand followed by Terry Carling, Roy Chapman and Mike Sutton. Sear, a former Wales international and Manchester City full back, had signed the previous season and went on to have a long association with the club that continued until 1987. As well as a reluctant spell as manager at the start of the 1982/83 campaign he had two spells as caretaker manager but will be best remembered for his work with the youth team which included the development of Ian Rush.
In the second photograph Ken Roberts is shown welcoming his four new signings to Sealand Road. Terry Bradbury, a former England schoolboy international, joined from Wrexham while Albert Harley was a local lad who had previously been with Stockport County. The experienced 35 year old Roy Chapman had made his Football League debut with First Division Aston Villa as long ago as 1953 and scored nearly 200 league goals. His Chester career started with a brace in a 3-2 win over Scunthorpe United but by October he had moved on to become player-manager at Stafford Rangers. The fourth player, Keith Webber, also features in the picture below and was bought from Doncaster Rovers.
The Cardiff born inside forward had started his career with Barry Town before signing for Everton where he made a goalscoring debut in a 3-1 League Cup win over Walsall. A stocky player, he managed only four First Division appearances at Goodison Park before moving to Brighton in 1963, where his exceptional pace proved an asset. A spell with Wrexham was followed by a move to Doncaster in 1966 and after coming to Sealand Road he managed 14 goals in 74 Football League games as well as scoring one of the goals in the 2-1 giant-killing of Bristol City. In 1971 he joined Stockport County and also played non-league football for Morecambe, Northwich Victoria, Oswestry Town and Rhyl. He was later licensee at the Grosvenor Arms in Handbridge but sadly died of a heart attack in September 1983 at the early age of 40.
Chester started their second season at the Moss Rose in Macclesfield with a home game against Fulham. The Blues gave debuts to veteran goalkeeper Barry Siddall and former Manchester United and Scotland defender Arthur Albiston but the big news was the return of Stuart Rimmer who rejoined the club from Barnsley for a record £94,000. The signing was a major boost for supporters who were growing increasingly despondent about the lack of progress on the new ground and Rimmer received a rapturous reception.
Although the returning hero failed to get on the scoresheet Chester won the game 2-0 with goals from Chris Lightfoot and Gary Bennett.
The Chester Chronicle photograph shows Harry McNally walking off the pitch at the end of the game receiving some advice from a supporter. Out of interest does anyone know the identity of the supporter?
Behind, and to the right of the manager, is the legendary Barry Butler who had been substituted earlier in the game. The utility man played in every position for the club, including replacement goalkeeper, and his conversion to a centre forward in the second half of the season went a long way to saving City from relegation.
Further in the background is the old Moss Rose pub which has now been demolished and to the right is the temporary portakabin that was used as a police control centre.
The 1st Round of the 1950/51 FA Cup paired Chester with fellow Third Division North side, Bradford PA. There was little to choose between the teams in the league with the visitors in 8th position and Chester two points behind in 12th place. However Frank Brown’s side were considered favourites having beaten Avenue 2-0 three weeks earlier at Sealand Road in what had been the first ever competitive meeting between the clubs.
The Yorkshiremen had been relegated from Division Two the previous season and this was their first campaign at this level since 1927/28. They had the reputation as a big spending club and the Cheshire Observer noted that over £60,000 had been spent in aggregate transfer fees on those players who had represented the club so far during the season. Perhaps the most notable name in the Bradford team was Jack Haines who had signed from West Bromwich Albion the previous season for £12,000. A pre-war Liverpool player he had won an England cap against Switzerland only two years earlier and had also played for Swansea Town and Leicester City. Despite this pedigree he had been in and out off the Bradford team and had recently asked to be placed on the transfer list.
A more familiar face to Chester supporters was left back Stan James who had made a number of guest appearances at Sealand Road during the war when he was stationed at Blacon Camp. He won a runners-up medal for Chester in the Third Division North Cup Final against Rotherham United in 1946 and the club had hoped to sign him from Bradford but the fee had proved prohibitive.
Bradford had been convincingly beaten in the league encounter at Sealand Road, thanks to first half goals from Tommy Astbury and Geoff Coffin and Avenue manager Fred Emery had recognised that his team had played badly and were capable of far better things. Meanwhile, Frank Brown was quoted in the Cheshire Observer as saying: “We are anticipating a hard game and must not under-estimate Bradford’s cup fighting ability…..We have ground advantage and our own supporters to cheer us on.”
Unfortunately Chester had failed to build on their commanding performance league win against Bradford. It had been followed by a 3-1 defeat at top of the table Tranmere and then a dismal home showing against Barrow resulting in a 2-1 setback. Frank Brown had boldly experimented by playing three centre forwards against Barrow. Ralph Morement, Tommy Tilston and Geoff Coffin had all donned the number 9 shirt during the campaign but the experiment failed to pay off as Chester wasted a host of chances to give the visitors their first away win of the season.
The big news in the week leading up to the game was the transfer of goalkeeper Ted Elliott to Halifax Town. The former Wolves man, had picked up an early season injury and lost his place to Harry Threadgold who had seized the opportunity with both hands and put in some brilliant performances. As a result Elliott had asked to be put on the transfer list and the deal was completed two days before the cup tie. Tattenhall-born Threadgold was not the only local player to be making the news as Cestrians Tilston and Coffin both signed professional terms prior to the Barrow game after being part-time at Sealand Road since 1944 and 1946 respectively.
There was no special training for the players before the cup tie which had a 2:15 kick-off.
2 – The Match
After the failure against Barrow, Frank Brown took a pragmatic approach for the cup tie by reverting to the same side that had defeated Bradford in the league game three weeks earlier. Jimmy Hankinson and leading scorer Albert Burgess were both recalled while Geoff Coffin took over the number 9 shirt from the injured Tommy Tilston and utility man Ralph Morement dropped to the reserves.
Despite taking an early lead Chester succumbed to a much improved Bradford team who had lost their three previous matches. In the end Chester were perhaps unlucky not to draw and were left to rue Frank Hindle’s missed penalty with the score at 1-1.
Chester got off to a perfect start and took the lead in 4 minutes when Coffin headed in a cross from Les Devonshire. Instead of building on the lead Chester surrendered the initiative and allowed the visitors back into what developed into an end to end encounter. Bradford came close to scoring when Hindle cleared a John Smith shot off the line with Harry Threadgold out of position while, at the other end, Mitchell Downie pushed away a Devonshire free kick and a fierce drive from the same player just passed wide of the post.
In the 29th minute Bradford capitalised on Chester’s failure to extend their advantage when the ever dangerous Billy Elliott came inside to head a Bill Deplidge cross past Threadgold. Chester had the perfect opportunity to regain the advantage on the stroke of half-time when Arthur Wheat was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball. Hindle was the man who stepped up to take the penalty but his weak effort passed wide of the post. The decision to hand responsibility to the normally reliable full-back was questioned by the Chester Chronicle who pointed out that this was his first ever penalty kick.
Bradford took the lead in the 66th minute when Smith headed down an Elliott cross for Deplidge whose shot gave Threadgold no chance. The Yorkshire side also struck the crossbar while Threadgold made a good save from Smith. Meanwhile Downie saved well from Astbury and both Burgess and Coffin missed good chances when well placed. The best opportunity for an equaliser came in the later stages when Billy Foulkes went on a mazy run from his own penalty area and slipped the ball to Coffin who shot straight at Downie. Bradford had to contend with a number of goalmouth scrambles but Downie continued to make some excellent saves and Chester were left to face an early cup exit.
Bradford’s outstanding player proved to be outside-left Billy Elliott who caused problems all afternoon with a brilliant exhibition of wing-play which right-back John Molyneux could not match. While an uncoordinated Chester defence struggled to cope with a potent Bradford strike force the visitors proved stubborn at the opposite end with centre half Les Horsman particularly dominant. Wingers Devonshire and Foulkes were arguably Chester’s best forwards but they lacked service with neither Burgess and Hankinson being particularly effective. Wing-backs Tommy Astbury and Peter Greenwood were not as impressive as usual and Coffin should have scored more than one goal had he displayed more steadiness.
The attendance of 8,255 drew gate receipts of £701.
Chester’s defeat cost them a meeting with the man who had lead them into the Football League in 1931. Charlie Hewitt had moved to Millwall after leaving Sealand Road in 1936 and the London side were drawn against Bradford in the 2nd Round. Hewitt’s side went on to win this encounter after a replay. In the league Bradford climbed to 6th place, seven places above Chester who struggled to maintain any consistency and neither troubled the top or bottom of the table.
Astonishingly the 1st Round elimination was the first time that Chester had been defeated at this stage of the competition since a defeat to Lincoln City in 1890.
Bradford man of the match, the promising Billy Elliott, had asked to be put on the transfer list before the FA Cup tie and went on to greater things. The following summer he moved to Burnley for £23,000 and was awarded the first of five England international caps in 1952. He later spent six seasons at Sunderland. Another man on the transfer list at Park Avenue was inside-forward Jack Haines. He remained with the club until 1953, when he was transferred to Rochdale, before signing for Chester in 1955 at the age of 35.
Four players featured in their final FA Cup game for the club. The man who missed the penalty, full-back Frank Hindle, ironically moved to Bradford in the summer after two seasons at Sealand Road. He never managed to find the back of the net for Chester in any of his 81 appearances and, despite making more than 200 appearances for his new club, he also failed to score at Park Avenue. Hindle died in Scotland in 2013.
Former Preston inside-forward Jimmy Hankinson failed to establish himself at Sealand Road and only made 15 appearances for the club. Although he was retained at the end of the season he appears to have left Chester during the summer.
Another player who only spent one season at Chester was outside-left Les Devonshire. The Londoner was a regular at outside left and only missed two league games in 1950/51. Like Hankinson he was retained in the summer but returned to London and signed for Crystal Palace where he remained for a further four years. He later played for Margate and Canterbury City and died in Middlesex in 2012. He was the father of future West Ham and England player Alan who has been a visitor to the 1885 Arena in recent years as manager of Braintree Town and Maidenhead United.
Another player who signed for Crystal Palace was Birkenhead-born Albert “Cam” Burgess who managed an impressive average of more than a goal every two games at Chester. He was leading scorer in each of his three seasons at Sealand Road and moved to Selhurst Park for £3,000 in September 1951. The nippy forward continued to find the back of the net regularly for Palace including a hat-trick in his 2nd game and 18 in his first 15 league starts. In a four game spell the following season he netted three hat-tricks. In July 1953 he moved back north, to York City for £850, and after one season returned to Cheshire with Runcorn. He died in 1978.