One of the most popular points of discussion amongst football fans has always been the debate over who was or indeed is, the “greatest player” in their own particular club’s history.
Southend fans are certainly no different in this respect with the names of Collymore, Eastwood, Powell, Tilson, Barrett etc very much to the fore whenever the subject is brought up. That said, for those supporters who followed the club during the late 60’s and early 70’s and were fortunate enough to have seen him play, it is a fair bet that there would be only one man in their thoughts as to who would be the most worthy recipient of this honour - Billy Best.
With almost 50 years now having passed since Billy played his last match for Southend, the esteem he is still held in speaks volumes for the player he was and the undoubted mark he made at the club during his five years here between 1968 and 1973.
123 goals in 246 (& one as sub) appearances and being the second highest goalscorer in the club’s history behind Roy Hollis bear testimony to the level of the greatness he ascended to whilst wearing our famous blue shirt, which in turn led to the love and adulation still felt for him to this day by that generation of fans from that era, to whom he will always and forever be the undisputed “King of Roots Hall”.
It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to speak to Billy regarding his career and time as a Shrimper [for the matchday programme vs Carlisle United in April]...
“As a boy growing up in Scotland, you’d get home from school and be straight out on the street or local bit of grass kicking a football about. I progressed after to some local clubs before signing for Pollok and although there were times I heard that both Rangers and Stirling Albion were looking at me, nothing came of it and it was only when I was recommended by a coach to Dave Bowen at Northampton that I came to England and signed for them in September 1962.
“Dave was a top class manager and performed miracles at the club, getting us promoted into Division 1 in 1964/1965. After winning three promotions in four years, it was a difficult season and probably a step too far for the club. I remember scoring against Leeds United but only really played a minor part as we were relegated after what is still Northampton’s one and only season in the top-flight.”
After 40 league games (11 goals) in his first spell at the County Ground, Billy left the Cobblers in January 1968 to sign for Southend under then manager Ernie Shepherd, making his debut v Chester the same month.
“I think it took me five games to score my first goal for Southend and I remember thinking during that time that the fans can’t be too sure about me so far. I scored against Halifax and then two more goals the week after, and things just started to take off for me after that. Looking back now, the years I spent at Southend were undoubtedly the most enjoyable of my career."
“People ask me about the 10-1 FA Cup game v Brentwood Town now but there was very little fuss made about it at the time, really, as it was just expected that as a league team, we’d beat a non-league side easily. It was obviously very one sided but basically also one of those days when everything we tried came off. We found the spaces and they didn’t.
“I remember being in the dressing room at half time with us 3-1 up and Gary Moore sitting there with two goals already under his belt and thinking that I’d better get going now,” he laughed.
“I loved playing up front with Gary. It was the classic big man/little man combination that seemed to work really well for us.”
What came next has gone down in Southend folklore, with Billy scoring five times in the second half with the last four coming in the final six minutes of the game as hapless Brentwood totally capitulated. After scoring a hat-trick in the 9-0 defeat of King’s Lynn in the First Round, Billy registered 10 goals in the FA Cup during the 1968/69 season and 31 in all competitions.
He retained his place at the top of the goal scoring charts the following season with 24 (despite missing a large part of the season after breaking his leg at Lincoln City), including four in the away game v Peterborough United in March 1970, including a hat-trick between the 13th and 18th minute of the match to secure a dramatic 4-3 win for the Shrimpers.
Just prior to the start of the 1971/72 campaign, Southend were invited to take part in a ground-breaking pre-season tour to Russia, a time during the Cold War when travel behind the Iron Curtain was notoriously difficult. Billy remembered: “It was an amazing trip. Such a difference to what we were used to. The trappings of so much wealth with all the gold buildings in Moscow, yet going down the road in the coach you’d see women washing clothes in the river. We lost all four games but they were all by narrow margins. Let’s just say that there were a lot of changes to their teams and players were definitely brought in to make sure they got the result - especially as we were being promoted as an international team during the trip.
“We played before some big crowds and I remember we were always given roses before games. You became an instant hero by giving these to spectators before kick-off and they loved us for doing that for them. We had an interpreter with us and a rather mysterious man who always travelled up front in the coach wherever we went.
“I remember when we were stopped for speeding by the police, he got out and it was sorted out very quickly. I don’t think that there was much doubt he was a government official or KGB, but we were never told. We were certainly followed and watched wherever we went. It was a great trip however and the hospitality fantastic in every way. A great memory.”
So of all the goals Billy scored for Southend, was there one that particularly stood out for him during his time at the club? “Not really,” he said. “All were special to me. It was my job to score goals and win games for the club and the fans. After a goal we just shook hands and got on with it again, no knee sliding back then,” he laughed.
“About halfway through my time at Southend, I was heading for the bar after a game and was told to go to the office where I found out that Sheffield United were interested in signing me. I asked for time to think about it over the weekend and would talk to them again on Monday morning. When I went in, I was told that the club had decided they didn’t want me to go and that was the end of it. I have been told that there was newspaper speculation about interest in me from Millwall too, but nothing came of that either.
“Back in my day you didn’t know what an agent even was. You were happy to even be offered a contract at the end of each season. You obviously played to win and if results went well great but most of us played mainly for enjoyment and the love of the game.”
In his final season at Roots Hall, Arthur Rowley played Billy in a mainly supporting midfield role behind the two main strikers, Chris Guthrie and Gary Moore, before surprisingly allowing him to return to Northampton in the summer of 1973 - just 12 goals short of Roy Hollis’s club record.
Billy played another 201 (and two as sub) league matches for the Cobblers between 1973 and 1978 scoring 37 goals, mainly in midfield and defence. “We gained promotion from the Fourth Division in 1975/76 too under Bill Dodgin Jnr. who was a very good manager. I really enjoyed playing further back as the more I went on, the more I found could read the game. Apart from goalkeeper, I played in every other outfield position for Northampton and I loved it.”
Upon his release from Northampton, Billy joined Bedford Town in the Southern League (being signed by former Southend manager Barry Fry) in 1978 and played over 200 games for them before joining his last club, Corby Town for one final full season in 1982/83. His time at Corby had a final footnote, however, as he was recalled for one last game for the club to play in their Northamptonshire Senior Cup Final v Kettering Town in 1983 (a 3-2 win) when he became the oldest player in club history to play a first team match aged 39 years, 8 months and 1 day. It was his last ever professional appearance.
“I never had any interest in becoming a manager and once I had finished with football, I knew it was time to get a proper job,” he laughed. “I became a painter and decorator and had a business with one of the other Northampton Town lads. I still follow football, mainly Northampton and Southend and I am very sad to see the situation the Shrimpers now find themselves in. I really hope they can turn things around and stay up come the end of the season.”
Did he have any regrets about not being able to stay at Roots Hall and have the opportunity to break Roy Hollis’s record? “Not really. That is football. In fact, being number two is probably more of a talking point for people now. I was lucky enough to get in the school team first of all and things just went from there. Promotion or relegation, I enjoyed it all. I loved my time at Southend. They saw something in me and I am glad I am remembered as giving the club and the supporters something back after everything they did for me.”
BILLY BEST - THE RECORDS
- Club record 9 hat-tricks in both League and Cup - 1967/68 v Chester, 1968/69 v Exeter City, Aldershot, Kings Lynn & Brentwood Town (5), 1969/70 v Scunthorpe United, Peterborough United - away (4) & 1971/72 v Grimsby Town, Reading - away (7 at home and 2 away)
- Scored more goals at Roots Hall than any other player in the club’s history. 85 in 127 matches between February 1968 and April 1973. An average of two goals every three matches.
- The last player to score four goals in an away match for Southend. 28th March 1970 v Peterborough at London Road. This included a first half hat-trick in just five minutes and is most probably the fastest away hat-trick in the club’s history.
- Along with Jimmy Shankly (brother of the great Bill Shankly) the only players to have scored five times in a match for Southend.
- Jimmy Shankly, Roy Hollis, Bud Houghton and Billy Best are the only players to score four times for Southend in an away match.
- Billy’s five goals in the FA Cup match v Brentwood Town were scored in the final 18 minutes of the match and are the quickest 5 goals scored consecutively in the history of the competition after the First Round proper.
- His final three goals in the same match were scored in the 87th, 88th and 89th minute. This 3-minute hat-trick is once again the quickest ever scored in an FA Cup tie after the 1st round proper.
- Played and scored in all four divisions of the Football League.
- Inducted into the Northampton Town Hall of Fame 2006.
The greatest ever Shrimper? Quite probably, but of course these debates are always totally subjective. There is no doubt whatsoever, though, that it takes a very special player indeed to achieve anything like the records shown above (most of which will in all likelihood never be broken) whilst also being remembered with such devotion and affection by those lucky enough to have seen him grace the Roots Hall pitch all those years ago now.
Billy Best - “The King of Roots Hall” and #SimplyTheBest.
Article featured in the Carlisle United programme. Click here to buy a copy.
Written by Dave Bishop/Dave Brabbing
Records by Dave Brabbing
Photos by Dave Goody