Bedford eager to ruin Fry's trip home

FA Cup Countdown: Peterborough's manager and 'loyal friend' to Eagles has only a short journey to make on Saturday
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The Independent Football

When the great chairman in the sky finally conducts his post mortem on Barry Fry's crazy, colourful career in football, the verdict may well be one of life by misadventure.

First came his illusory days as a schoolboy star, representing England at Wembley before 100,000 people, then his short-lived status as a contemporary of George Best's in Manchester United's youth team. Later there were his managerial escapades at Barnet under Stan Flashman's chairmanship, and at Birmingham after David Sullivan bought control.

Through it all, however, Fry's allegiance to his home town of Bedford remained constant, and he and his family live there to this day. So it was with a hearty guffaw that Fry greeted the draw for the first round of the FA Cup, which sends his Peterborough United side 40 miles to face Bedford Town on Saturday. Not only does Bedford's chairman, David Howell, live in the same road, but Fry's CV is peppered with the name of the Ryman League Premier Division outfit.

Fry played for Bedford in the late 1960s and became manager a decade later. In their Southern League heyday, the original "Eagles" regularly applied for Fourth Division status and 18,500 packed The Eyrie when Everton beat them 3-0 en route to winning the FA Cup in 1966. Two years earlier they achieved one of the great giant-killings, winning 2-1 at Newcastle. Fry wistfully recalls skipping school to watch a 1956 replay with Arsenal, in which they led before losing 2-1, making the memory of their demise in 1982 all the more painful.

Howell, who runs a property-management consultancy and took over the reborn club two years ago, summarises a sorry tale. "The Charles Wells Brewery owned the old ground and gave the directors five years' notice. They did look for a new site, but there was a lack of foresight and urgency. They were relying on the council to bail them out. It never happened."

Bedford's disappearance was untimely, coming three seasons after the advent of the first national non-League set-up, today's Nationwide Conference. It was seven years before three diehard supporters resurrected the name, the new team starting in a local park against the likes of Sandy Albion and Potters Bar Crusaders in the South Midlands League.

Yet they swiftly worked their way up the non-League "pyramid". Since moving to a trim, if tiny, out-of-town ground, grandiosely christened The New Eyrie, three promotions in five years have taken a team now managed by Roger Ashby (previously with Rushden & Diamonds) to one rung below the Conference. Howell feels such achievements are "remarkable", but is convinced Bedford could go much further.

He plans a new, 6,000-capacity stadium on the site by 2003 and aims for League status by 2010, saying: "A lot of supporters recognised that we'd peaked. They could see we weren't going to progress further without a corporate structure, proper investment, planning and a vision.

"The ingredients for success are here: great tradition, a hardcore support (attendances average 550) and the scope for growth in the fan base, plus a catchment area of 100,000 without any substantial clubs nearby. We've got the M1 on one side and the A1 on the other, great rail links to London, and three airports close by. Put all those together, get the cooperation of the local authority, and you've got a chance.

"There's actually more potential in Bedford than at Rushden & Diamonds, 20 miles away. I want to prove you don't have to be a Max Griggs [Rushden's multi-millionaire owner], throwing money at a club. Run it with efficient business disciplines and you won't be constantly flirting with extinction.

"So we're going to spend £3m on a 5,000-seater. I don't have that sort of money, but I am prepared to do everything to make it happen. People in football have to snap out of this mentality that you either find a sugar daddy or you scrape around at the bottom and hope for a lucky cup run."

Not that Bedford, recovering nicely after losing their first seven Ryman fixtures, would be averse to the latter. "As well as the financial spin-offs from a full house of 2,650, drawing Peterborough has been great for our credibility and media profile," explains Howell. "BBC TV are covering the game and it's perfectly timed for our planning application because it proves the demand for football here. People thought I was off my trolley to get involved, but this makes it all tangible." Howell hails the man plotting their exit as "a loyal friend" of the club, who helps raise funds, loans them players and sends teams over for friendlies. One of Fry's six children, Adam, is on Second Division Peterborough's books after three years at Bedford; another, Frank, plays for Town's under-14s, one of a staggering 17 sides they run. Fry Snr will watch him play on Sunday morning, whatever Saturday afternoon brings.

"It's a special occasion for me, which shows the magic of the Cup," says Fry. "I love Bedford. I've always lived there and I'm full of admiration for the businessmen like David who've revived the club. I hope it's a great match, a 5-5 draw since that's the sort of score I'm associated with, and that Peterborough win the replay 6-0." The great Bedfordian will not mind, for once, being the enemy on his own doorstep. "No doubt," Fry concludes with a wry chuckle, "I'll get booed by both sides."