Hereford say farewell to Ronnie Radford, an unlikely hero of the FA Cup

Hereford celebrate Ronnie Radford's goal against Newcastle in 1972 Credit: Alamy
Hereford celebrate Ronnie Radford's goal against Newcastle in 1972 Credit: Alamy

To book a place in football folklore sometimes all it takes is one moment – and that’s exactly what happened to Radford and Hereford in 1972.

 

Football can create the most unlikely of heroes, and they can appear in the most unlikely of places.

Ronnie Radford, who died this week at the age of 79, scored one of the most famous goals in the history of football in England, a goal which has become celebrated not only as a piece of absolute ferocity, but also as a cultural moment, a snapshot of the world of early 1970s England, a world now half a century away.

The story of this goal is the story of a series of unlikely events all falling into each other like a line of dominoes. Hereford United of the Southern League might easily not have got as far as the third round of the FA Cup that year. After beating a then non-league Cheltenham Town in the fourth qualifying round, they needed a replay to get past King’s Lynn and then two more to beat Northampton Town.

By the time of that second replay against Northampton, which was played at The Hawthorns as a neutral venue, their opponents in the third round were already known: Newcastle United.

Even though the match was twice postponed for a waterlogged pitch Hereford took 5,000 supporters to St James’ Park, where they were on the wrong end of three goals in the first 13 minutes. At 2-1 down after having taken the lead just 17 seconds in, a second-half strike from player-manager Colin Addison earned them a draw in front of a crowd of almost 40,000.

The replay at Edgar Street was then also postponed and the match was eventually scheduled for the same day as the fourth round of the competition: February 5.

A couple of hundred miles from Hereford in London, a decision was taken that would also thrust a young commentator into the limelight. John Motson had joined BBC radio in 1968 and had spent the 1970 World Cup as a back-up commentator, watching matches on a television, ready to jump in and provide a fallback should the sound feed from Mexico fail.

The following year, he was an interviewer at the FA Cup final as Arsenal did the double by beating Liverpool at Wembley.

But in the summer of 1971, the BBC reshuffled their football team. Kenneth Wolstenholme had left the corporation and was replaced as lead commentator by David Coleman, with Barry Davies as number two and Alan Weeks on duty for when Coleman wasn’t available. But Weeks was an all-rounder, better known for his work on ice skating and gymnastics, and by October 1971 he’d been withdrawn and replaced by the 26-year-old Motson, whose first game for the BBC was a goalless draw between Liverpool and Chelsea.

On FA Cup fourth round day, the BBC were covering Liverpool vs Leeds United and Preston North End vs Manchester United, but a late decision was made to send Motson and an Outside Broadcast Unit to Hereford for their game, to fill out a few minutes at the end of the broadcast. Motson himself took a lift from London to Hereford with Billy Meadow and Ricky George, two London-based Hereford players who knew him from his first job with the Barnet Press newspaper, with Barnet also playing in the Southern League by the mid-1960s.

Upon reaching Hereford, they found a town which had gone down with a serious case of FA Cup fever. The match was sold out of its 15,000 tickets and people were finding any vantage point they could – roofs, the trees overhanging the ground, anywhere – to watch. Because of the postponements, it was already known that the winners would be playing West Ham United, so Hereford already knew what they were playing for.

Most still expected Newcastle to win. They did, after all, arrive at Edgar Street in 16th place in the First Division. But on a pitch that was only just passed as playable after the effects of week of cumulative rain and snow – it probably wasn’t playable, but with fixtures starting to pile up it had to go ahead – and in front of a baying crowd, they found the going increasingly difficult.

But Newcastle, in a change kit of all-red, couldn’t find a way through. Hereford goalkeeper Fred Potter later recounted that “Supermac [Newcastle striker Malcolm MacDonald] made a big mistake before the tie. At the hotel bar in Newcastle he said: ‘I’m going to get effing 10 against you’,” giving Potter all the inspiration he needed for the tie. It wouldn’t be the last time that MacDonald’s tendency to mouth off would land him in hot water.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

At times, Newcastle’s inability to put the ball into the Hereford goal bordered on the comical. At one point, a Hereford clearance hit Newcastle’s John Tudor with such force that the ball cannoned off the side of his head, over everybody and out off the crossbar. Terry Hibbitt, following in and in front of an open goal, hit the bar as well from the rebound.

Meanwhile, MacDonald’s breezy arrogance seemed to achieve nothing much beyond inspiring Hereford’s defenders to play the game of their lives against him, and in the second half when he did get round Potter, he shanked the ball over with an open goal in front of him, a miss cheered by Hereford supporters as if it had been a winning goal for them.

With eight minutes to play MacDonald did finally score, his 23rd of the season, a far-post header to give Newcastle the lead, and it looked as though Hereford’s valiant run was finally coming to an end. It was a little harsh. They’d hit the post themselves in the second half and had improved as the deterioration of the pitch levelled things up, having other chances besides.

But this wasn’t quite the end of the story yet. Three minutes after Newcastle took the lead, Radford, a part-time carpenter, won a tackle in the middle of the pitch and played a one-two. As the ball bobbled up his right foot it perfectly and…

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Recently at a Christies auction of modern British and Irish art, LS Lowry’s celebrated painting Going To The Match sold for a total fee of £7.8m. The picture, based on Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park, was a snapshot, a moment in time lost forever but frozen by Lowry.

If the lost world of early 1970s Britain could be caught in a moment, it might be a still shot of this goal, of hundreds of children, seemingly all wearing green parka jackets, swamping the pitch and Radford after his shot brought Hereford level.

It was a monstrous shot which flew into the top corner of the goal, wide of the dive of the Newcastle goalkeeper Willie McFaul, who couldn’t have done much more to try and stop it. It ended up, entirely unsurprisingly, winning the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition.

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On a bog of a pitch, chances were thinner on the ground in extra-time, but Hereford took theirs. With two minutes to play of the first period, Dudley Tyler found substitute Ricky George on the right-hand side of the Newcastle penalty area and his low shot evaded a last-gasp tackle from Bobby Moncur and the dive of McFaul to creep inside the far post, give Hereford the lead and spark another pitch invasion.

The same followed at 120 minutes with the full-time whistle. After 210 minutes of football and three postponements, Hereford United had caused the FA Cup’s greatest ever shock result.

Hereford’s run in the FA Cup ended in the next round, but only after another almighty fight. Following a goalless draw against West Ham at Edgar Street, it took a Geoff Hurst hat-trick to beat them in the replay at Upton Park. But that cup run wasn’t forgotten come the end of the season when, despite having finished two points behind champions Chelmsford City, Hereford were elected into the Football League in place of Barrow.

Ttwo years later, after having been promoted in their first season as a Football League club, they beat West Ham in the third round of the FA Cup, again after coming from behind at Edgar Street in a replay to win 2-1.

They remained a league club until relegation into the Conference in 1997 and returned in 2006, but folded in 2014, two years after their second relegation. Their successor club, Hereford FC, now play in the National League North and their upcoming FA Cup first round match against Portsmouth is only the second time that the reformed club have played EFL opposition in the FA Cup, having lost to Fleetwood Town in 2017.

Motson, meanwhile, was also richly rewarded for his commentary. The BBC bumped the Hereford vs Newcastle game up the Match of the Day schedule to make it their lead match that evening, pushing him very suddenly into the limelight. He’d been on trial at the BBC that season on a non-contract basis but, his profile raised by a match that was changed at the last minute from a brief report to that night’s main match on Match of the Day, he was offered a contract at the end of the season and quickly ascended to take Coleman’s place as the BBC’s lead commentator alongside Barry Davies, covering his first FA Cup final for them in 1977.

The passing of Radford has been a shock and a sadness to Hereford, and he can certainly be assured of a big send-off at Edgar Street. His place in the history of the game in this country is assured by one wondrous strike, a goal that put his name, the name of his club and even the name of a commentator sent to report on it on the map. He may well have ended up as one of the top ten single moment footballers, but what a moment it turned out to be. Sometimes all it takes is for the stars to align and for that one shot to connect properly. When it happened for Radford, nothing was was ever the same again, either for the player himself or the team he represented.

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