SUNDAY, December 17 marked 40 years since Minehead AFC hosted Exeter City in the second round of the FA Cup – the culmination of two glorious seasons for the club.

For two successive campaigns, the Blues made the second round of the Cup, and in the first of those (1976-77) they finished as runners-up in the Southern League Premier Division – the closest they’ve come to a spot in the Football League.

Minehead both possessed and faced some very fine players during this period, with several greats dropping down the league pyramid.

The Blues’ player/manager during this golden spell was Bob Boyd, and he recalls battling Jeff Astle (“a tough character, so you had to get your elbow in first”) and John Charles (“my idol... so powerful”).

Striker Andy Leitch, meanwhile, says it was an honour to play against the likes of Jimmy Greaves, Geoff Hurst and Derek Dougan.

The fact that Minehead were able to hold their own against such legends says a great deal about the players that they had in the 1970s.

Heading up the team were the Blues’ very own ‘Holy Trinity’ – the front three of Leitch, Jimmy Jenkins and Derek Bryant.

Leitch said: “We scored nearly 100 goals between us [in 1976/77], and loved playing with each other.

“Jimmy was so quick, Derek was the intelligent one, and I was the ‘lump it up’ targetman.”

But, as Boyd is quick to emphasise, they had plenty of other talents in the side.

He said: “When I took over there was the basis of a good side, and we built it up from there.

“We had a low budget but a great fanbase; of our team I’d say four or five could play in the Football League today.

“Leitch was a brilliant header of the ball, a natural goalscorer, and Jenkins was different class – he’d play in the Championship today.

“Balance, pace – he had everything, but he was so laid-back.

“One time he disappeared off to a fish and chip shop right before a game!

“Bryant was a great goalscorer, who ghosted in like Martin Peters used to, while Bobby Brown got 16 goals from midfield and could easily play in the Championship today as well.”

Just 22 players turned out for the club in that 1976/77 campaign, of whom 14 were regulars as they played a total of 69 games and scored 124 goals (96 of those coming from Bryant, Jenkins and Leitch).

As well as league success that year, they enjoyed runs to the second round of both the FA Cup and FA Trophy.

In the Cup, it was quite a journey, as they saw off Bridport 4-2, Barnstaple 2-1, Taunton 2-1 and Falmouth 3-0 (in a replay) in the qualifying rounds.

That set up a first-round tie at Fourth Division side Swansea City on November 20, 1976.

Ahead of the match, Boyd told the Somerset County Gazette that “we are going to Swansea to play our normal game”.

“We shall just be patient and wait for the breaks.

“[4-3-3] is a system we play well and Swansea won’t find us easy to beat.”

And so it proved.

Leitch had been at Swansea the season before, and so it was a special return for him.

He recalled: “Swansea could have been two or three up inside 20 minutes, but we stuck at it.”

It remained goalless until the final minute, when Boyd’s free-kick resulted in a penalty area scramble, and Leitch poked the ball home.

It left the striker with mixed emotions, as he said: “It was great to go back and get the winner as Minehead had never made the second round before, although I did feel for [Swansea], as they’d offered me the chance of full-time football.”

Somerset County Gazette:

THUMBS UP: Minehead players and staff are delighted to hear that they'll face Portsmouth in the FA Cup.

The second round draw pitted them against Portsmouth of the Third Division, taking the Blues to Fratton Park on December 11, to face a side managed by former Liverpool striker Ian St John.

Boyd said the match paid the team’s wages for the season by itself, while Leitch added: “It was an unbelievable draw; they were probably the best team in the draw given their history.

“The build-up [to the match] was superb, as we were in the news the whole time.”

In front of 14,089 fans, Portsmouth showed their high division pedigree by taking a 2-0 lead courtesy of Dave Kemp and Chris Kamara (‘Unbelievable Jeff’ – yes, that one).

But Leitch headed in on 70 minutes, and from there they piled on the pressure... but Pompey held on to end the Blues’ run.

Boyd said: “It was a cracking game, and the last 30 minutes it was all us.

“Ian St John couldn’t stand watching, so went to the dressing room for the last half hour.”

And – as the Gazette noted at the time – Portsmouth chairman John Deacon went into the away dressing room afterwards to say: “We were sweating at the end. I congratulate you – you were great.”

Cup run over, Minehead’s focus turned to their league campaign, but ultimately five points would separate them from Premier Division winners Wimbledon.

Still, as runners-up, it meant the Blues were technically the 95th best team in England that year.

Leitch said: “We did so well, that at the end it was sickening [not to go up], but at the time we just kept going – it was unbelievable.

“Wimbledon went from strength to strength from there – just think, a couple of results the other way and it could have been us!”

The next season (1977/78) it became clear that the Blues had developed a taste for the FA Cup, because they were at it again.

Their first match was in the fourth qualifying round, and a 2-1 win over Salisbury (in a replay) meant they would host fellow Non-League team Wycombe Wanderers in the first round proper.

Wycombe were dispatched 2-0 on November 26, and the second round brought them up against Third Division Exeter City on December 17.

Looking to cash in, Minehead erected temporary stands, and although Leitch remembers the 3,050 who attended generating a “brilliant” atmosphere, the club were disappointed not to get 4,000 at Irnham Road.

It wasn’t their day on the pitch either, as the Grecians scored three goals (scored by Tony Kellow and Colin Randell (2)) without reply – Leitch adding: “Exeter played so well and didn’t give us a look-in.”

Leitch could have set a new FA Cup record for scoring in a seventh consecutive match, but having had a header saved by Exeter keeper Richard Key, he had to settle for six alongside West Brom icon Astle.

Somerset County Gazette:

TOP SIDE: The Minehead squad before their FA Cup tie with Exeter City.

The Blues had had their glory days, as the team began breaking up – Bryant and Jenkins departing – and Boyd resigned as boss, citing board interference in transfers.

Leitch said: “The magic was disappearing amid the chopping and changing, and we just seemed to fall away.”

They fell away to Premier Division relegation after finishing second bottom, and although they made the FA Cup first round for three successive seasons between 1979 and 1981, they could not reach the heights of 1976/77.

Those years left plenty of memories to treasure, with Leitch describing the experience of play for the Blues then as “fabulous”.

“Everyone got on so well, and I’ve never known team spirit like it,” he added.

Boyd, who moved on to Bristol City Reserves, and then enjoyed success managing Frome Town and Bath City, turns 70 in a fortnight.

He said: “It was a golden spell for us, and fantastic to play in front of a big crowd every week.

“It’s a different game now, but with the team we had I think we’d be a great Non-League side today.”