In four years Dave Bowen took Northampton to the First Division on a budget that would not cover the laundry bill at Old Trafford

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Going back more years than I find it comfortable to remember, a photograph taken by Monte Fresco for the Daily Mirror captured vividly a feat remarkable in the annals of English football and which is probably beyond the comprehension of people who today go around sporting the colours of big clubs in the Premiership.

The photograph was of an ancient door, the main entrance of Northampton Town FC. It took up the width of a page and the headline above read simply "This is the First Division".

Defying all logic and in the short space of four years, Dave Bowen who died this week, had brought Northampton through from the Fourth Division on a budget that now would not cover the laundry bill at Old Trafford. Amazingly, to my mind, he turned a profit in the process.

It was the sort of dream a great number of football supporters have but never really expect to see fulfilled, so in the summer of 1965 people in Northampton pinched themselves and marvelled at Bowen's achievement. This and other things about the former captain of Arsenal and Wales came quickly to mind when news of his death reached me in the United States.

There was no need to cast around in the past because I enjoyed Bowen's friendship, and just a few weeks ago we were comparing football now with how it was in his time as a player and manager. One conclusion was that Northampton's climb from obscurity - later matched by John Toshack's Swansea and Graham Taylor's Watford, and most recently by Wimbledon, although in their case progress came through the efforts of more than one manager - is today beyond emulation. The game's economy simply doesn't allow for it.

Predictably, Northampton lasted only one season in the First Division and quickly went back whence they came. Some of the things that occurred in between serve to emphasise the merit in Bowen's achievement. In the light of current events it is barely believable.

For example, shortly after gaining promotion to the top flight Bowen asked his directors how much money there was to spend on players. All local businessmen, excited by the prospect of being treated royally at grand stadiums, they went into a huddle. When they came up with pounds 25,000, Bowen looked at them blankly. "You can't be serious," he said. "Sorry," came the reply, "that's all we can raise between us."

Sharing space with the county cricket club, Northampton's ground at the time had only duckboards along one touchline and was so ramshackle in appearance that Bowen's negotiations with players were always conducted after nightfall. If you coughed in the manager's tiny office dust fell from a sloping ceiling. Remarkably, you may think, Colin Bell who later turned out in the colours of Manchester City and England, was almost persuaded by Bowen to join Northampton from Bury. "Trouble was that he came here in the daylight," he liked to say.

Today you would not be confident of Wales beating the Faroe Islands, but the team Bowen captained had many outstanding figures and to everyone's surprise almost reached the semi-finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Wales lost 1-0 to Brazil but Bowen always maintained that but for the absence of John Charles, who was then a huge star with Juventus, it would have been a different story. "John was at his peak, perhaps the best player in the world, equally good at centre-half as at centre-forward. But it was at centre-forward that people feared him, the Brazilians as much as anybody, but unfortunately John was injured."

A big difference between then and now is that clubs were not required by the game's governing body, Fifa, to release players for international duty even if it meant them missing World Cup matches. It was only at the last minute that Juventus permitted Charles to turn out in Sweden and on the understanding that an obligation to his employers would be kept prominently in mind.

It may surprise you to learn that this sort of thing happened frequently even when it involved Welsh, Scottish and Irish players with English clubs. Once, for example, Scotland had to play a World Cup qualifier against Italy without the services of notable players from Liverpool and Manchester United whose managers were respectively Bill Shankly and Matt Busby.

Bowen would later come across this problem when managing the Welsh team on a part-time basis. It was a job to which he brought all the determination and passion that made him such an inspiring captain.