The Forgotten Fifteen

How Bury triumphed in British football's worst year

Martin Dobson at home in Bolton.

Martin Dobson

Martin Dobson was the man who masterminded Bury’s success in British football’s worst year. As the player-manager who was still only 36 when he took the reins in Easter 1984, his appointment came as something of a shock after Jim Iley’s time as manager and not just because of his youth. Here was a man with a real footballing pedigree that was still very clear in the memories of supporters at the time. His appearances for England were still fresh in the memories of a lot of South Stand-ers, as was the image of him in the royal blue of Everton and the claret and blue of Burnley. The latter’s fans still called him Sir Dobbo as a mark of the esteem he was held in east Lancashire.

I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finding Dobson to request an interview for the project which would tell the story of his team, because his number was still in my phone from when I interviewed him for the matchday programme.

The chats that I had with former players for the feature called The History Boys, in deference to my love for Alan Bennett, were only ever surface level. Bound as I was by a 500 word limit on each article, this was easily achieved with a lot of players following ten minutes on the phone to them. The write-up that came next usually stuck to a rigid template. First off, I would get an initial quote as a soundbite to reel the reader in. Next came the paragraphs on their career up to joining Bury and how they came to sign on the dotted line at Gigg Lane, as well as any unknown anecdotes from their time as a Shaker. I concluded with a line or two about what they were doing with their lives now and a suitable ‘payoff’ line. Job done.

It was a simple task, but when I first spoke to Martin he kept me on the phone for half an hour with tale after tale about his spell that hadn’t been heard for years. He outlined how he brought big names such as Trevor Ross and Leighton James to the club, as well as describing how younger squad members like Gary Buckley and Kevin Young were nurtured. It was an anecdotal trove that was pleading to be mined. As the seed for The Forgotten Fifteen formed in my head, I knew that even if I was unable to get hold of any of the other players, just relying on the boss’s memories might well be enough. Mindful of this, I made sure he knew how interesting his stories were as I put the request in. I needn’t have been so cautious; he agreed to the request immediately and invited me round to his house to speak to him.

On a bright spring evening I travelled to a smart suburb of Bolton for the interview. Weighed down by the lever arch file containing print-outs of match reports from the library and various other bits and bobs, I rang the doorbell. The man himself emerged from round the back of the house in shorts and t-shirt. Rather than looking like the stern taskmaster I’d always imagined him as, he looked like a man who’d been washing his car not ten minutes previously.

Untold stories were shared about the games and players that made the season as two hours and thousands of words... flew by.

The research that I’d taken with me proved to be largely incidental as Martin led me to the comfortable sitting room where we’d talk. We walked past, and he described, the quietly classy reminders of a career of someone whom football had treated well. It was clear that he still had a very vivid and accurate memory of the Gigg Lane of 1984, which rendered most of my line of questioning irrelevant. The boss grabbed the steering wheel and took the conversation in his own direction with only minimal prompting from me. In its way, that’s how it should have been. After all, he was there in the centre of the action whereas I was only three, then four, years old. It’s his story and he told it with rich, wonderful depth.

The result was a terrific meander through the game as a whole as well as a Bury Football Club that was in turmoil when he joined. It was a club that would plumb the depths before it hit the heights. Untold stories were shared about the games and players that made the season, as two hours and thousands of words – on Martin’s part mainly – flew by.