Up The Avenue
Of the smaller clubs that have had runs in the FA Cup over the years, some have had unhappy endings. Enfield, who became a national name in the 1970s and 1980s, have been the subject of a piece on here before, whilst Farnborough Town, who briefly scared the living daylights out of Arsenal as recently in 2003, folded and had to restart again. The spirit of both of those clubs, however, lives on now in brand new clubs which both have brighter and more secure futures ahead of them. One of the most doleful stories that one can tell about the non-league game, however, comes from north-east London, where one of the most famous amateur names of all was swallowed up and spat out, with all attempts at reviving the name having come to nothing.
Walthamstow Avenue were one of the great amateur names. Playing at the cramped but idiosyncratically vast Green Pond Road (which was used as one of the football venues for the 1948 Olympic Games), they scared the living daylights out of various Football League Clubs, and won some of the biggest honours in the amateur game. Formed in 1900, they joined the Athenian League in 1929 and won it five times in years before the Second World War brought an end to the normal football programme. At the end of the war they joined the Isthmian League and, in the post-war years became one of the most powerful names in the amateur game, winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1952 and 1961 and the Isthmian League three times between 1946 and 1955, including winning it at their first attempt. It was, however, in the FA Cup that they grabbed the attention of the whole nation.
They had come close to causing upsets prior to their golden season in 1953. In 1946, they held Brighton & Hove Albion to a draw in the first leg of their FA Cup match (the 1945/46 season was two-legged – an experiment that the FA chose not to repeat) before losing the second leg, and in 1951, they became one of the first clubs to play a live on the television other than the FA Cup final when they played en exhibition match against the Scottish amateur club Queens Park that was shown by the BBC. All of this, however, was warming up for the main event. As the holders of the FA Amateur Cup, they were given a bye to the First Round proper of the FA Cup in the 1952/53 season, and drew Wimbledon in the First Round. A 2-2 draw at Green Pond Road left them facing a difficult trip to Plough Lane for the replay. They demonstrated their strength in winning this match by three goals to nil.
A draw against Watford in the Second Round may seem, from a modern perspective, like an immensely difficult draw. However, Watford were in something of a state of turmoil at the time. The season before, they had finished third from bottom in the Third Division South and, after a protest led by the local newspaper, the Watford Observer (whose advertisement famously adorned the stand at one end of Vicarage Road for many years), the entire board of directors had resigned and put the club up for sale through a share issue. During the 1952/53 season their form improved slightly, but the trouble off the pitch continued when they lost manager Hayden Green, sacked for taking back-handers for transfers. They drew 1-1 at Green Pond Road, but Walthamstow won the replay 2-1 at Green Pond Road. The Third Round draw saw them beat Stockport County, of Division Three North by two goals to one.
Considering that the strongest amateur teams were often considered to be more than a match for the also-ran strugglers at the bottom of the Football League at the time, Avenue hadn’t been unduly troubled so far, but the Fourth Round draw gave them one of the toughest draws that they could have dreamt of – Manchester United, at Old Trafford. United were in something of a transitional stage in their history, with a team featuring the last remnants of the team that had won the 1948 FA Cup and the first flourish of the Busby Babes, who would briefly light up European football before being decimated in the snow at Munich – Ray Wood, Roger Byrne and Johnny Berry were amongst those that lined up against them. They were also the defending Football League champions, and the match drew a crowd of over 80,000 to Old Trafford.
On a blustery January day at Old Trafford, Walthamstow put up a brave first half performance with Polish goalkeeper Stan Gerula saving everything that United threw at him, but fell behind to a goal just before half-time scored by United’s centre forward Eddie Lewis. United, however, failed to take full advantage of their pressure and, with ten minutes left to play, Walthamstow’s centre forward Jim Lewis (who had scored the winning goal in the FA Amateur Cup final against Leyton the year before) scored on the break to force a replay. Green Pond Road had coped with a crowd of 16,000 for their Third Round match agaiinst Stockport, but such was the interest in the game that the replay was switched to Highbury, where an almost inexplicably large crowd of 53,000 turned out on a Thursday afternoon for the match. Jim Lewis scored twice in the replay for Walthamstow, but this time their effort wasn’t quite enough, and Manchester United ran out 5-2 winners. They gained consolation at the end of the season, when they won the Isthmian League.
Walthamstow’s fall from grace was slow and painful. Green Pond Road was lost to developers in 1989, a year after Avenue themselves had been absorbed by their tenants Leytonstone-Ilford. The new club changed its name to Redbridge Forest and briefy played in the Conference, ground-sharing at Dagenham, before merging with them to form Dagenham & Redbridge, who are now in League Two. In recent years, there have been several attempts to revive the famous old name. In 2000, they reformed and played briefly in the Middlesex County League, before merging with Walthamstow Pennant. Internal ructions and a failure to attract much local interest led yet another merger, this time as Mauritius Sports & Pennant, who continue to play in the Essex Senior League. A mixture of local apathy and the voracious nature of property development in London did for Walthamstow Avenue. We shall see whether the old name can ever be successfully revived again.