Top 25 Cult Heroes 1954-1979: Number 19

Alf Bentley – ‘Spit and Polish’

‘Millwall tamed by Tubby Alf’ screamed the headlines in the Sunday papers in February 1962 – well a small strap-line over a couple of paragraphs actually – but it said it all about Alf Bentley’s finest game in the Gillingham goal.

It was my first away game. Gills were in serious trouble near the foot of the Fourth Division, and Millwall were going for promotion. They had just signed a certain centre-forward called Pat Terry from Northampton for the final push. Johnny Simpson had broken a toe in training the day before, so Alf would be in goal. It was all set for Gills usual thrashing at The Den. But Alf was superb in a rearguard action as Gills battled to a 0-0 draw, and we almost snatched a win when Tom Johnston got on the end of a long Bentley clearance and smashed the ball against the bar. To say the natives were unimpressed with the game that day is a slight understatement.

Alf Bentley was the first of a number of goalkeepers who had the misfortune to be Johnny Simpson’s understudy. In his four years with Gillingham from 1958 to 1962 he only got 13 games, all only as a result of Simpson injuries. At 5’10’ and 13st 6lb he was, err, slightly rotund, but what marked him out as a popular favourite was his banter with the crowd behind his goal, and his extraordinary capacity for spitting. When Gills were on the attack, he would stand well out of the area. When the opposition started an attack, someone would shout ‘Here they come Alf’, which he would turn round and acknowledge, and then spit on his hands. When patrolling the goalmouth he would be continually talking to the crowd and spitting into the back of the net. Someone might shout ‘Need someone on the post Alf’ and he’d say ‘Yes OK’ and spit again.

Sometimes the repartee didn’t quite work. I remember a reserve match against Crystal Palace when future West Ham star and England International Johnny Byrne bulleted a header past him. Someone said ‘Should have saved that Alf’ meaning it as a joke. Alf glared, spat and kicked the ball into the Main Stand. The referee came up and said ‘I do not want that kind of behaviour at one of my matches, thank you.’ I wonder if that would happen these days.

Alf was one of several players who left Gillingham following Harry Barrett’s sacking in 1962. He subsequently played in goal for several Kent clubs, and after retiring he became a very successful manager at that level. There he discovered and nurtured the talents of several future Gills stars, in particular Mark Weatherly.

Sadly, Alf died in 1996, aged 64.




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