Millwall will not easily forget the end of the 1971/72 season. On the final Saturday, some fans – even some players – were on the pitch at The Den believing that promotion rivals Birmingham City had lost and that the Lions had at last reached the top tier. The Blues, in fact, had won. What was worse, they had a game in hand, which they also won, consigning Millwall to another season of Second Division football. “This game is cruel enough without things like that,” manager Benny Fenton observed ruefully.
Benny had followed his brother Ted into professional football, firstly at West Ham United in 1937, where he made 21 first team appearances, before joining Millwall a few months before the start of the Second World War. Military service with the Essex Regiment then left its mark. Barry Bridges, one of the ‘nearly men’ of 1971/72, noted that Fenton liked his teams to be well turned out. “Before you go out for a game, everything’s got to be right, shorts have got to be pulled up, socks have got to be straight.”
Most of Fenton’s 409 appearances came after the war, for Charlton Athletic from 1947 to 1955, and then as player-manager of Colchester United from 1955 to 1958. Playing until he was almost 40, he was the wiliest of old pros. Fenton stayed on at Colchester until 1963, the board retaining faith in him even after relegation to the Fourth Division in 1960/61. He repaid them by bouncing back the following season.
Fenton moved to Second Division side Leyton Orient in 1963 but the club was adrift and the board was impatient – he was sacked a year later. This meant that he was available in 1966 when Millwall were looking to replace Billy Gray, who having just won promotion from the Third Division, had suddenly resigned, frustrated by the owner’s chronic lack of ambition. Fenton stayed at The Den until 1974, consolidating Millwall’s new status by consistently finishing in the top half of the Second Division.
Like most managers, Fenton needed time. He had inherited a strong squad which he nurtured and developed astutely. His tactics were pragmatic rather than visionary and occasionally too negative. Training, with an emphasis on stamina and speed, was tough, but players learned to value Fenton’s positive qualities, even though, as performances dipped, some became more critical. But even Eamon Dunphy, more critical than most, could later reflect kindly on his old boss and what he had almost managed to achieve in 1971/72.
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