Saturday, 18 September 2021

Brian Leach, a Henley Town FC near-legend

BRIAN LEACH, who died suddenly during the night of March 7/8 at his home in Caversham, was one of the

BRIAN LEACH, who died suddenly during the night of March 7/8 at his home in Caversham, was one of the best and best-known footballers ever to represent Henley Town.

He was also manager of the team that went right through a Hellenic League season without losing a game.

Spotted when playing for Coley Boys’ Club, he was taken on to Reading’s ground staff in 1950, becoming a professional that November.

In those days Reading were still the “Biscuits” and played at Elm Park. Brian went on to make 118 first-team appearances for the club, 108 of them in the Football League.

In 1955 he was given a brief trial by Burnley, then one of the most prestigious clubs in the country. They were in the midst of a period in which they finished in the top half of the old First Division 12 years running, becoming champions in 1959-60.

Such was Brian’s burgeoning reputation that it was a surprise to many when the club did not sign him.

He eventually left Reading prior to the 1957-58 season, moving to Headington (now Oxford) United, who were playing in the Southern League Premier Division with the Football League still very much a closed shop.

He was the only player to appear in all their 42 league matches that season.

Leaving Oxford in the middle of the following campaign, he then had spells with Tunbridge Wells United and Clacton Town, where he was a member of the side that won the Southern League Division 1.

These were the days when no former professional could play among amateurs without a special permit and obtaining one was sometimes a drawn-out process, so Brian signed for Henley in 1962-63. He did not make his debut until the end of October, when his presence as a deep-lying inside-left and goal-maker soon began to make the rest of the side look better than before.

Other than the Henley Charity Cup, Town’s first team had not won a trophy since the war but at the end of the season they won two cup finals, the Oxfordshire Charity Cup and Hellenic League Division 1 Benevolent Fund Cup, on successive evenings.

In the following year they went one better by winning the Hellenic League Division 1, although they were relegated after only a single division in the Premier Division.

Though 13 years elapsed between Brian’s first and last appearances for Henley, there were a couple of relatively short periods when he played elsewhere, most notably at Thornycroft Athletic, one of the best teams in the Hampshire League.

Prior to the 1967-68 season, Town installed an ambitious new chairman and one of his first acts was to bring Leach back to Henley, this time as player-manager.

He soon assembled a formidable side, which went right through the season without losing one of its 30 league fixtures, a record that hasbeen equalled only once in any division of the Hellenic League.

Early in 1969, Brian gave up the manager’s position but continued to play for Henley —even in the reserves, if that was asked of him — until they lost their old ground in 1971. All the while, he was appearing for the ex-Reading All Stars and often in Sunday league football as well.

Despite the fact that Henley were running only a youth team, which played on the most primitive of pitches, both the FA and the Oxfordshire FA sent teams here in 1971-72 to celebrate the club’s centenary. The Town team was drawn mainly from their old players and Leach was made captain, as he had often been in the past.

By 1975, Henley were playing in the senior section of the Wycombe and District League and Leach joined up with them yet again, this time as player-coach.

Despite the fact that he was now 43, it came as a surprise when he suddenly announced that he felt his powers were waning and that the time had come to retire.

But the lure of playing the game was too much for him and, after a short interval, he resumed playing on Sunday mornings, last turning out for Mapledurham United at the age of 50. Apart from his sheer enthusiasm for the game, what made Brian a special footballer was his extraordinary ball control — yet he never used it to show off. He could be closely marked yet still manoeuvre himself into a space just through his technique.

His passes, even over long range, always ended up where he intended. His penalties, free-kicks and corners were of the highest class. On top of all this, he read the game wonderfully well, always seeming to be in exactly the right place without ever appearing to hurry. All this was enough at Henley’s level to turn him into a near-legend.

If there was a reason he never made it into the First Division, it was perhaps because he did not have the pace or the shot that would have turned him into the perfect player.

At the time of the Our Sporting Life exhibition, only four former Town players were honoured individually and Brian Leach was the only one who was still living.

When the exhibition ended, the display panels were moved into Henley Town’s clubhouse, where they remain. It is a nice to think that, if there is an after-life, Brian may now be conversing with William Wing, Reg Arlett and Harry Reeves.

More News:

POLL: Have your say