Thirty years ago, Frome Town were in dire straits.
They had lost all but one of their opening eight games of the 1991-92 Western League Premier Division campaign and were only kept off bottom place by the hapless Ottery St Mary.
An already modest playing budget had been slashed as Elmore (5-1) and Bideford (6-1) inflicted stinging home defeats and manager Steve Ford, who had guided them to a comfortable mid table finish the previous season, felt he had done all he could and resigned.
His successor was the jovial Bristolian John Southern whose first half dozen games in charge were all lost as The Robins sank to rock bottom. The 3-1 Badgers Hill reverse against Plymouth Argyle Reserves in mid-November extended their dismal run to fifteen defeats in sixteen but things were about to change.
A battling 2-2 draw at Exmouth brought the first away point of the campaign and lifted them off the bottom and four days later, the ageing Steve Walkey, who had been plucked from the Reserves, helped himself to a hat-trick in a 3-0 triumph at Ottery.
Boxing Day produced a dramatic finale at home to Chippenham who led 1-0 as late as the 88th minute before strikes from Micky Pearce and Walkey turned the game on its head as a healthy haul of eleven points from eight matches took them out of the relegation zone.
The revival didn’t last as five defeats on the bounce sucked them back into the mire before Paul Bernard’s late winner in a 2-1 triumph at Liskeard offered a glimmer of hope as the relegation dogfight was going to the wire.
Last game but two was a real six-pointer against fellow strugglers Bristol Manor Farm and with Frome leading 1-0 thanks to a 44th minute Darren Pool effort, the Badgers Hill faithful were anxiously anticipating a vital victory. A tragic defensive mix-up late on, however, gifted the visitors an equalizer and their antagonistic celebrations in front of the home fans ignited, let’s say, a bit of a ruckus which the press described as ‘shameful scenes’.
A 3-2 reverse at Bideford on Easter Monday meant Frome’s fate was now out of their own hands with the final relegation slot resting between themselves and local rivals Welton Rovers who, going into the last game, were a point ahead with a superior goal difference.
The equation was simple…..The Robins had to win at high-flying Saltash while hoping Welton got no more than a draw at Minehead but the omens were not good with Frome not having picked up a single point on the road at any of the top ten. One last roll of the dice, but the trouble was, they needed a double six.
Few from Frome gave their side any chance at all and only six made the long journey to Cornwall as a tense contest of few chances in blustery conditions unfolded. Half time arrived goalless but there was bad news from Irnham Road where Welton were a goal to the good.
The snack bar running out of pasties added to the feeling of doom as keeper Mark Jones pulled off a fine save to preserve parity. If they were going down, they were going down fighting as Pool created a decent chance for Richard Coombs but it was blocked on the line while at the other end, skipper Mark Bartlett came to the rescue with a last ditch lunge.
Time was ebbing away then on 85 minutes it happened. A Ken Airey through ball caught the Saltash defence flat-footed and put Coombs in the clear. Instinctively, he swept it past the advancing keeper and into the bottom corner, his first and only goal for the club!
The six went berserk but had to endure the agony of a late Saltash onslaught as Southern’s heroes held on but the more than welcome final whistle brought mixed emotions…..an outstanding 1-0 victory but it might not be enough.
Irnham Road was contacted via the pay phone in the clubhouse (no mobiles in those days). Could Minehead (mid table and absolutely nothing to play for) do Frome an enormous favour?
“Final score please?”
“Minehead two, Welton one”
It was like a defendant in the dock getting the ‘not guilty’ verdict at the end of a long gruelling trial. Staying up, staying up, staying up! The news was swiftly conveyed to the away changing room which erupted into frenzied scenes which went on long into the night.
Cruelly for John Sothern, he was sacked just a couple of days later, more for happenings off the field rather than the fare served up on it.
But he will always be remembered for giving the club one of the most dramatic afternoons in its history.
With grateful thanks to Minehead FC