Just five games into the new season, Saturday’s 2-0 loss at home to Chelmsford brought the curtain down on Gordon Bartlett’s 22-year reign as Wealdstone manager.
It is difficult to write negatively about a man who gave so much to Wealdstone Football Club. In fact, you can argue not difficult, but “impossible.” The negative vitriol that has circulated the Vale in recent weeks has been difficult to deal with as many wrestle with their own loyalties towards a man who has overseen the rebirth of Wealdstone FC.
So as time is taken to digest upon his remarkable managerial achievements, which in time may place him as “the greatest ever”, @StonesGoals looks back at the remarkable career of non-league football’s finest custodian.
The world has come a long way in the twenty-two years since Gordon Bartlett was appointed manager.
GB joined in the Summer of 1995 with the promise that a new ground was “just around the corner“. Wealdstone, on the pitch meanwhile, were at their lowest ebb of existence in the non-league pyramid having accepted voluntary demotion in return for a transfer to the more-localised Isthmian League – where they would start life in the third division.
The club was still ruing a series of painful ground-shares, first came Vicarage Road, financially very damaging almost terminally so, followed swiftly by Yeading, a ground lacking atmosphere, all whilst supporter disillusionment continued to mount with the club experiencing gate averages of 200 and teetering close to permanent extinction.
But at the height of the Brit Pop era here was an exciting young manager with growing stock in the non-league game and he arrived at the White Lion ground in Edgware with a growing pedigree having steered Yeading to FA Vase success just five years earlier.
No doubt about it, Stones pulled off something of a major coup by luring Bartlett to the club. And even though the new ground didn’t materialise as quickly as promised, Wealdstone were entering a bold new era – a new league, a new ground sharing agreement with Edgware Town and now a new manager.
The latter heralded the start of a fairly tale marriage as Wealdstone sought to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the non-league game.
Gordon is pictured on the left with Club President Paul Rumens (centre) and his Yeading assistant Leo Morris, who followed him to Wealdstone, as part of their unveiling in May 1995.
On taking over his first training session at Wealdstone:
“Paul [Rumens] introduced me with a spiel that was so good I wondered who on earth he was talking about. It was a bit ‘over the top’ to say the least. I may have had a good couple of years and a decent track record but listening to Paul the analogy with ‘sliced bread’ came to mind…..”
Off the bench: A quarter of a century of non-league management
The expectation at the start of the 1995/96 campaign was evident with supporters expecting promotion to the Isthmian second division at the first attempt.
It started perfectly as Wealdstone won 9-1 away at Cove. Reflecting on hat-tricks for Steve Fraser and Paul Sheldrick (who netted the first goal of the new regime), Bartlett remarked: “It was a poor pitch in a run down stadium with small tatty dressing rooms. I thought whilst it was great to win, maybe I had dropped down too far. I was used to competitive football on well prepared pitches and decent facilities. As I looked around again I also had to spare a thought for the club (Wealdstone). They had been at the very top of non-league football, yet here they were just ten years later, five leagues lower, playing one step above park football and I was down there with them. It was entirely my choice… now I had to shoulder the task of pulling the club out of the ‘nether regions’ of football.”
But, despite a fairly sizeable Isthmian third division budget, Bartlett had to settle for a fourth-placed finish in his maiden campaign – one spot shy of automatic promotion but enough to cause frustration on the White Lion Ground terraces.
Twelve months later, at the end of the 1996/97 season, the mood was different as Bartlett celebrated the third division title with a tantalising final day victory at local rivals Northwood.
It was the first of many ‘win or bust’ scenarios with only a victory good enough to keep the title away from Braintree. Northwood themselves had a good chance of promotion and had to avoid defeat to be sure of sealing third spot. A double from Bryan Hammett either side of a Roy Marshall header ensured Wealdstone emerged victorious on a day that would represent the beginning of a long climb back up the non-league ladder.
“It was a feeling of great emotion and relief when the final whistle blew and started the biggest celebration I have ever been involved in. Everyone was on the pitch, players, fans, management, Directors and of course, the Chairman. Champagne was produced and the scenes were incredible. It is only in the quiet moments of reflections later that you fully comprehend the pressure, the problems and the accumulative decisions you have had to make to get there, all for that one moment of glory. I hadn’t experienced euphoria like this before, not even at Yeading after the Vase win. This was all about passionate people.”
Gordon Bartlett, pictured above with captain Fergus Moore, reflects on the Isthmian Third Division title win in 1997
More promising campaigns were to follow as Stones would steam roll the divisions, gaining automatic promotions the following two seasons; although the latter of those saw a ground grading irregularity at the end of the 1998/99 campaign deny Wealdstone their rightful place in the Ryman Premier.
A period of stagnation on the pitch followed as Bartlett continued to oversee a period of stability whilst off the pitch activity saw Prince Edward Playing fields, derelict for the best part of a decade, emerge as a front-runner for the new ground. In the midst of all the ground development stuff off the pitch, Bartlett was the subject of various approaches from other non-league sides, notably Maidenhead, Hayes and Staines to name just a few.
On rejecting the chance to join Staines Town in 2003:
“My heart strings were still pulling me to Wealdstone and if I was going to take this opportunity and turn my back on all the hard work of the past few years, it would really have to be worth my while with the new ground only months from completion.”
Off the bench: A quarter of a century of non-league management
Bartlett stayed whilst rumours that stadium contractors Stadia Management were going bust in 2004 unfortunately came to fruition leaving the ground 75% complete and Wealdstone’s board seeking suitable alternatives. In the midst of this Wealdstone were beginning a slow transition from an average Ryman side into one that would finally challenge for a place in the Conference. Bartlett unearthed some exciting players at the turn of the millennium, with the likes of Marvin Morgan and Jermaine Beckford spearheading Stones attacks – the pair would eventually find their way into the professional game.
Whilst the ill-fated Prince Edward Playing fields project lingered on in the background, Stones continued to stutter their way through some stagnate seasons in the-then Ryman League Division One North.
Better news was soon to follow when the National League announced a major competition restructure was to come into play in time for the 2004/05 season. With the top-six sides guaranteed promotion to a new-look Ryman Premier, there was also an olive branch offered to the side finishing in seventh with a play-off against the side finishing seventh in the equivalent south division. With the Stones suffering from inconsistency, and sides below benefitting from games in hand, a top-six finish was slipping away.
It was during the run-in that the side strung together nine wins from the final eleven matches to sneak into seventh place on goal difference and set up a tense play-off final against Dulwich. What followed in early May 2004 was one of the most dramatic finishes to a Wealdstone game that a Bartlett side had ever delivered before (and even since) with the game going to penalties after a pulsating 2-2 draw. Stones would emerge victorious that evening and the game remains one of the most memorable of his reign.
It underpinned another new dawn with a college agreement put in place with Stanmore that would see a conveyer belt of young talent flirt with the fringes of the first team, and, added to by the delivery of Ryman Premier football, Stones were on the up. And with that, came yet more expectation.
On managing expectation at Wealdstone:
“The incidents are moments of frustration, anger, disappointment, but they are not the concern, what really matters is how you react to them. I once got a text message, just one word, “Cock!” after a poor performance and a defeat…”
Off the bench: A quarter of a century of non-league management
The first season in the Ryman Premier was to prove the last at Edgware as the club narrowly avoided relegation. A temporary ground share with Northwood was arranged by the Summer of 2005 and another difficult season followed. The end of that season saw the now prolific Jermaine Beckford sold to Leeds United for £70,000, following on from Les Ferdinand earlier on in his managerial career, Beckford must rank as one of Bartlett’s greatest ever finds.
After some difficult first seasons in the Ryman Premier (and one in the Southern League where Stones were transferred temporarily on geographical grounds), Bartlett slowly built a team that would emerge as front-runners in the division and challenge for a place in the Conference. All this was to happen against the back-drop of off-pitch developments with the soon-to-be-disbanded Ruislip Manor’s Grosvenor Vale ground confirmed as the unlikely new home of Wealdstone Football Club in early-2008.
Having dealt for years with dwindling support and shoe-string budgets it was regarded a miracle that after 17-years the Stones had a ground they could once again call home. Bartlett had a story to sell and with the supporters bringing the ground in line with ground grading regulations in time for the 2008/09 curtain raiser, the manager was beginning to sign players with serious potential. Of course the early years in Ruislip were helped by a shrewd partnership with Watford, which saw Stones benefit from some exciting young talent, not least the two marquee signings at the start of the season, namely recently released youngsters Marvin McCoy and Kieron Forbes.
A little over 18-months later and Grosvenor Vale was hosting it’s first tie in the FA Cup first round proper when Wealdstone took on Rotherham. Successive promotion play-off failures soon followed but by now the club was continuing on an upward trajectory and Bartlett’s Wealdstone even flirted with a Wembley return, before falling one short in the FA Trophy semi-final despite a great run of results that included two Conference Premier scalps along the way.
“The mix in the changing room is very important, but to be successful, you must have enough strong characters with a winning mentality to help influence the others”
Bartlett, 2013. Full interview here (courtesy of Roger Slater).
After the heartbreak of an agonising 2-1 play-off semi-final defeat at the end of the 2012/13 season, many of Wealdstone’s key performers moved on. Richard Jolly retired, Lee Chappell and Chris O’Leary, stalwarts of the FA Trophy semi-finalist side, moved to St Albans and a further blow was announced when Alex Dyer signed for Conference National new boys, Welling. Gordon, who later admitted he seriously considered his own future, recruited impressively with Jerome Okimo, an exciting and dynamic left-wing back signed from local Chalfont St Peter, and 37-year-old former Premier League star Glen Little joining along with Johnny Wright and Tom Hamblin – two other names who would enter Wealdstone folklore. Little’s impact in particular was huge and Wealdstone took the division by storm, winning 96 points, scoring 99 goals and losing just six times in the process as the side finally won the Ryman Premier title – giving Bartlett the second and final title of his Wealdstone reign to reaffirm his status as a club legend.
Furthermore, an individual award for his endeavours was bestowed upon him when he was recognised by the Ryman League as manager of the year at the league’s end of season presentation evening.
The long good bye
The first season in the National South was particularly tough. Stones struggled to assert themselves and recorded just one victory from the opening ten fixtures.
After overseeing the worst ever start to a campaign under his stewardship, the noise for change was beginning to grow; some were suggesting it could be the beginning of the end for the management team.
And then Gordon Bartlett strode into the boardroom facing his toughest meet the manager to date and was nonchalant enough to proclaim: “We will stay up.”
The patience of the board, who continued to back Bartlett through the adversity, was rewarded – with interest. And Bartlett’s proud proclamation just months earlier was achieved convincingly. An unlikely 12th place finish was achieved to cap off an impressive 20th-season in charge of the Stones.
The second season began in all too familiar fashion with Stones again reliant on a mid-season turnaround in form to secure another mid-table finish and consolidate at NLS level.
An arguable highlight from those first two NLS campaigns was the run to the FA Cup first round. Scott Davies, now despised by some Stones supporters, achieved notoriety with a beautifully taken 70-yard strike on the way to a tie against football league side Colchester. Despite losing 6-2, the TV exposure generated by the presence of the BBC, who ran an episode of Football Focus from within the clubhouse, meant the run was an undoubted success (both financially and otherwise).
Despite this, the footballing landscape was evolving at a pace that was alien some 20-years earlier and murmurs of Bartlett’s suitability continued to quietly grow.
There was social media too, and with this came more opinions, many bore by the fruits of the geographical relocation to Ruislip which were beginning to bare.
Rightly Gordon Bartlett was, for the most part, defended with the utmost of loyalty and could conceivably point to one of the worst budgets in the division which he made mockery of by delivering two mid-table finishes.
Success breeds expectation and with attendances firmly on the rise and the club positively establishing itself in West London, outside investment was viewed now as a necessity if the club was going to compete at the business end of the table. By the Summer of 2016 Peter Marsden was appointed as the new club Chairman, and was a name in his own right having been pivotal in helping Accrington Stanley establish themselves in the football league. And here he was at Wealdstone, boldly proclaiming big things for the football club.
As a result, the budget was bolstered and Bartlett was able to conceivably build a squad he deemed capable of getting out the division. He admitted himself just last November that this was the “best squad he has had.” But slowly that claim started to unravel as the terrible home form that had blighted his side for the two campaigns previous showed little sign of abating. Wealdstone seemed shot shy and when Hungerford beat the Stones with relative ease in the same month of Gordon’s high praised claims, questions were asked following unsavoury scenes at the end of that match.
Despite rumours of his sacking emerging on social media the following day, Gordon survived and to his credit once again transformed Wealdstone mid-season, as he so often did; but this time it was to be his final salvo. One defeat in the final 20 games was impressive, but not enough to better 8th place and, ground grading issues aside, not good enough from a side expected to challenge the top-five. Perhaps more costly were the big defeats that saw his side capitulate in several league games earlier last season.
“We all have opinions and with hindsight I may well have done some things slightly differently over the years. The only thing is, when you are in a managerial situation, at the end of ninety minutes or at the end of the season, you are judged on results. Nothing else.”
Gordon Bartlett’s prophetic assessment from Off The Bench.
On Saturday 19 August 2017, twenty-two years to the day that Gordon took charge of his first game as manager of Wealdstone FC, he would take charge of his last. Wealdstone would lose the game to Chelmsford 2-0, compounding further another difficult start to the season, and by Monday 21 August a mutual agreement was made that was to relinquish him of first team duties.
Nothing is certain in football. It is, as Gordon said himself, a results business – and now supporters can only reflect on his legend. The like of which will probably never be seen again – at any level. Only Arsene Wenger remains standing as the last bastion of longevity but he hasn’t jumped the same hurdles or endured several seasons of wet Tuesday nights away at Concord Rangers.
In total, Gordon took charge of over 1,000 Wealdstone first team games – over 900 of which were in the league. His win record in league games alone stood at 43%. He averaged 64 points per season. And in years to come he will be credited for putting Wealdstone back on the footballing map.
Gordon Bartlett arrived as a promising young manager.
Left as a club legend.
And gave us many stories along the way.
Extracts from this post taken from “Off the bench: A quarter of a century of non-league management” originally published in 2010.