Woking don’t have a history rich with success but on this day in 1958 there were more than just birthday celebrations, as they took on Ilford at Wembley. 12 April ~ Charlie Mortimore MBE is 90 today. His name will probably mean little or nothing to fans of this era, but to those who, like me, grew up watching Isthmian League football from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he is a legend.
Though an amateur in every sense of the word, he also turned out for Aldershot and, once, for Portsmouth. But it is with Woking, the club of my boyhood, that he will always be associated. He joined in 1953 and played his last game in 1965. In 12 seasons he made 363 appearances as an elegant centre-forward and scored 250 goals.
Today he would have played many more games, but leagues were smaller then and nearly all football was played on Saturdays. He also missed a lot of Woking games when on duty for England or other representative teams.
If today he turns 90, it cannot be a more memorable day than when he turned 30 on April 12, 1958. For the first time in their largely undistinguished 71-year history Woking had reached the final of the Amateur Cup.
It was the culmination of a short-lived golden age. Though suspect in defence, they had a front five that contained four amateur internationals. Mortimore himself, wingers Roy Littlejohn and the 18-year-old Reg Stratton, and Geoff Hamm, the playmaker and brains of the team. They failed by a point to win the league in 1957 despite scoring 104 goals in 30 games.
They were brilliant on their day, but perhaps not consistent enough in the league, so we all hoped that they might win the Amateur Cup. Those hopes seemed dashed when they lost 3-2 at home to Walthamstow Avenue in a first-round replay in 1957, my first major football disappointment.
A year later it was all different. They beat Aveley, and then Hendon, Hayes, Finchley and Barnet from the Athenian League, to make it through to Wembley. They scored 21 goals, all from the front five apart from an own goal. Mortimore scored six.
Their opponents in the final were Ilford, then a lowly Isthmian League side, but with a mean defence. They had scored 12 goals, five from penalties, and conceded just two to Woking’s eight. They had beaten Isthmian League champions Wycombe and, in the semi-final, north-east giants Crook Town at Sunderland, so they could not be underestimated. But Woking were clear favourites, and we all knew that it was now or never…
Cooped up in boarding school, I had only seen the 6-1 win over Aveley. But April 12 was holiday time, and nothing was going to keep me from Wembley. The day was cold and clear, and 71,000 were in attendance. It was expected to be a battle between the Woking attack and Ilford’s defence, and so it proved in the first half.
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For 38 minutes Ilford thwarted Woking with some “robust” play, but then keeper Paddy Gibbins failed to cut out a cross and John Hebdon, the only uncapped member of Woking’s forward line, took advantage.
The second half was agony as Ilford searched for an equaliser. For the first time in my three-year football-watching career I knew that I would be heartbroken if Woking lost. It was a coming of age moment.
With ten minutes left Stratton settled it as his shot ballooned in off Gibbins’s outstretched leg. And then, with three minutes to go, Charlie showed his greatness. With a chance to score himself, he passed to the better-placed Hebdon, who completed the scoring.
The Woking team quickly broke up, with Hamm moving to Wimbledon the same summer. An inexorable decline culminated in 1965 when the team propped up the Isthmian League. But Mortimore stayed through it all.
And it was in 1965, coincidentally on his 37th birthday, that I saw him play for the last time. It was not a glorious exit, but a 2-1 defeat to Leatherhead in an insignificant Surrey cup.
No matter. Happy birthday, Charlie, and thank you for making thousands of Woking folk so happy 60 years ago, including one callow and troubled 14-year-old. Thinking about that day still gives me an inner glow. Richard Mason
Adapted from WSC Features.