Freddie Cox – ‘Gillingham’s Greatest Manager’
In the chequered history of Gillingham Football Club, there have been some dark moments, and June 1962 was one of them. While the rest of football was following England’s progress in the World Cup in Chile, Gills fans were following the progress of an FA investigation into allegations that four players had taken bribes to throw the Easter games against Wrexham. It was just one more twist of the knife. Another disastrous season had seen Gills finish 20th in the Fourth Division, arrive late for away games at Barrow and Doncaster, and have newspapers openly campaign for them to be chucked out of the league and replaced by Oxford. Only Accrington Stanley’s resignation saved us. We had no manager, Harry Barrett having finally been sacked, and there were only ten professionals left on the books.
Then suddenly light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Gills announced the appointment of a manager that we had heard of – Freddie Cox. Wartime fighter pilot, a winger with Spurs and Arsenal, played in two Cup Finals, former manager of Bournemouth (where he took them to the Cup quarter-finals) and Portsmouth. He had been out of football for eighteen months building up a newsagents business in Bournemouth, but beggars can’t be choosers. We were to learn that Freddie was a driven, totally focused, dedicated man whose teams took no prisoners on the field, nor he off it. He was Pulis and Paul Scally rolled into one and he gave us a three and a half year roller-coaster ride of record-breaking, controversy, rows – and some unforgettable games.
Freddie soon set to work in bringing the team up to strength with some shrewd free-transfers, and then stunned everyone with an eve of season signing of centre-forward George Francis from Brentford for £4,000. George’s goals were the key to a string of early season victories that saw Gills comfortably placed just behind the leaders. But more than that, it was the manner of winning. Flowing movement and passing which was scarcely believable from the stuff that had been Barrett’s trademark. No better example of New-Gillingham was the 4-3 defeat of previously unbeaten leaders Oldham in November 1962, a match which finally got us back into Fleet Street’s good books. ‘Boom Days Return For Fighting Freddie Cox’ blared the Express; ‘after years in the doldrums Gillingham this morning wakes up to find itself a success’, said the Mail. The 2-1 Boxing Day home win over Chesterfield saw us comfortably retain fifth place.
And then it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. The Big Freeze of 1963 meant there was no football for two months. The Gillingham team that finally took the field again in early March played a different style. The passing and movement was still there, but a meaner, harder edge had been injected. Cox had clearly spent the two months drilling the tactics of a defensive formation which varied between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, both then pretty well unheard of. Winning our remaining home games other than a 3-2 defeat by Barrow in April, and grinding out low-scoring draws away, Gills very nearly went up. The final game in a season which was extended to the end of May saw us beat Oxford 2-1 in an early evening kick-off at Priestfield to take fourth place, only to be squeezed down to fifth on goal-average when news came through that Mansfield had drawn their last game 1-1.
In the short summer break, Freddie Cox honed his tactics and in 1963-64 Gills were crowned Fourth Division Champions. The players had to follow his instructions implicitly. The basic idea was to defend in depth and keep the ball as much as possible. You started off with a point, so you aimed to keep it for the rest of the game. If a goal came, so much the better, you sat on it and passed the ball around for the rest of the game. It worked. Sometimes the passing destroyed teams, and we won games two or three nil – if not we just played out a draw. Most teams had no answer. We went 15 games unbeaten at the start of the season, we had 12 straight home wins, we were unbeaten at home all season, we only conceded 30 goals and kept 24 clean sheets – all club records at the time. Except for one Saturday in December, we stayed at the top of the table for six months (18th September 1963 – 14th March 1964) until two successive postponements knocked us off. When we played those games at the end of the season, at York and Newport, and won them both 1-0, we took the Championship.
However to say Gills’ success was not very popular would be a bit of an understatement. Gillingham were absolutely hated. The media’s descriptive powers were employed to the full – dour, defensive, rugged, crude, uncompromising, disgraceful, thuggish, agricultural, the tactics of the abattoir, killing football – and so on. Booed and jeered everywhere, they hated us because they could rarely beat us. At Tranmere, someone threw a teapot on the pitch in disgust, at Stockport Dennis Hunt’s tackling nearly caused a riot, at Oxford they had never seen a goalkeeper dressed completely in green take free-kicks from near the halfway line, at Halifax someone ran on to take a swing at Mike Burgess following yet another pass-back.
The most amazing incident however occurred in the home match against Doncaster in February. With twenty minutes left, Gills went 1-0 down, but equalised with ten minutes to go. From the dug-out in front of the Gordon Road Stand, Freddie clearly gave the team instructions to sit on the point, which they did. The crowd nearby started to give him stick, so he picked up the trainers bucket, and threw the contents all over them. Classic! The press picked up on it, and he retorted ‘They asked for it. The people here know nothing about football’. When he walked across the pitch at the start of the next home game, he was roundly booed by the Main Stand. He stopped in the centre circle, slowly turned round, and stuck two fingers up at them! The Rainham End, who regarded him as a cult hero, cheered him to the echo. However the Kent Messenger reporter was appalled at his behaviour, and said so. Just before the start of the next home game, Freddie marched up to the press box and threw him out.
If the KM getting what they deserved sounds familiar, how about the row with the Supporters Association. At his first AGM, Freddie launched into a spectacular attack on the Committee’s attitudes and approach. ‘Southern League people with Southern League outlooks’ he dubbed them. He followed it up in his programme notes with personal attacks on Jack Pynn, the Mr-GFCSA at the time, who reciprocated. They were going it hammer and tongs for several issues. The upshot was the formation of the rival ‘Blue and Whites Supporters Association’, sponsored by the Club.
Back on the field 1964/65, our first season in the Third Division, was probably one of our most exciting ever. Strengthened by John Meredith, Charlie Rackstraw and record signing Rodney Green we had guile and goal-power to add to our tough defence. Watford were beaten 5-2, there were back-to-back 5-0 wins against Shrewsbury and Luton, and a 5-1 demolition of Workington. At other times we ground out results in tough and tight matches. Crowds were enormous. By early April and with a 2-1 win at Bournemouth we were well on the way to the promised land – and then the roof fell in. On 10th April 1965 we lost at home 1-0 to Exeter, and a record-breaking run of 52 consecutive home games without defeat came to an end. We then lost three of the remaining five games to finish seventh, five points behind champions Carlisle. The legend of ‘They don’t want to go up’ was born.
Cox went mad. He tore the team apart. Out went Geoff Hudson, Mike Burgess, Alec Farrell and Rodney Green, and a rebuilding job went on for several months into the new season. Results were unpredictable – for example we let in five at Oldham, beat Swindon 1-0 at the County Ground, were embarrassed losing 2-1 at home to Folkestone in the Cup, and the following week won 4-0 at Oxford. Then suddenly the week before Christmas, Freddie Cox was gone. He resigned and went back to manage Bournemouth. It was always thought that Doctor Grossmark didn’t try very hard to keep him.
Subsequent games between the two sides were always tense, dour affairs – usually a low-scoring draw at Priestfield and a 1-0 defeat at Dean Court. Cox took Bournemouth to a fourth-placed finish in 1968/69, but in one of the great ironies that football often throws up, Gills 2-1 win at Orient in the last match of the 1969/70 season saved us, and relegated Bournemouth. Freddie Cox was sacked. He died three years later, at the tragically early age of 52.
Was Freddie Cox Gills’ greatest-ever manager? Yes.