TAUNTON Town have a shot at matching an 18-year-old club record next weekend, as a win or draw at Salisbury on Saturday, March 17 would make it 23 league games unbeaten for the Peacocks.

The last time the club managed 23 without defeat was in the 1999/2000 season, as they won the old Western League (then the Screwfix Direct League) Premier Division title by a 16-point margin.

Russell Musker was appointed manager at Wordsworth Drive in November 1994 and oversaw a remarkable period of success – Western League winners in 1995/96, then runners-up twice, and then three consecutive titles in 1998/99, 1999/00 and 2000/01.

Unlike this current season, though, they weren’t gunning for promotion; despite that title hat-trick, each time they chose against going up to the Dr Martens Southern League.

Instead it fell to runners-up Tiverton Town, Mangotsfield United and Chippenham Town to seek election to the Southern League.

The reason? While the fans wanted promotion, the club was reluctant to move up until they had the cash, and over the next couple of seasons they raised funds to bring their ground up to standard.

Setting out his objectives for the season in August 1999, Musker told the Gazette: “Even if we win the league again, we cannot go up into the Dr Martens League – at least not unless we win the lottery.

“Our aim is to reach the FA Vase final at Wembley.”

Much of that ambition rested on the strike partnership of Ellis Laight and Antony Lynch, who had scored for fun as the Peacocks cantered to the league title by 11 points the previous campaign.

Laight scored at a steady rate in 1999/00, bagging 20 goals before his season was ended in March by a damaged kidney, but Lynch went to another level, finishing up with a sensational 66-goal haul.

That left him agonisingly short of the club record for most goals in a season – 67, set by Reg Oram in the 1950s – while he attracted attention from Exeter City, Forest Green Rovers, Gillingham and Leyton Orient.

Musker slapped an asking price of £35,000 on each player, and no serious offers came in, with the duo happy to stay and lead the line.

Eighteen years on, Musker said of the duo: “They were the main reason for us winning games, even when we weren’t the best team on the pitch, as they could always produce something special.

“They were players who could have gone higher, but they wanted to stay, as the squad were happy in each other’s company.”

Team-mate Ian Down added: “[Laight and Lynch] were the best in 25 years at that level, with an unbelievable strike rate.”

They were joined by four players from Minehead, as the Peacocks raided the West Somerset club for goalkeeper Mark Coombe, defender Darren Cann, and midfielders Down and Ben Rowe (all of whom had played for Taunton before).

With the new recruits on board, the Peacocks won their first six league games to live up to their reputation as title favourites.

Their performances weren’t always convincing, though, and after being held 0-0 at home by Chippenham in September, they lost their first match of the league campaign on October 26 – 4-0 away at title rivals Mangotsfield.

At that point Mangotsfield looked like serious challengers for the crown, but they could not sustain that effort, and as they faltered the Peacocks went on a record-breaking unbeaten run.

They would not lose another league game until April 20, 4-0 away to Brislington, when the league title was already wrapped up.

Between October and April, they managed 23 games without defeat – 20 of those being wins – and they were also unbeaten in 21 games in all competitions between October and March.

What, in Musker’s opinion, was the key to that superb run?

He said: “They were fantastic players and a great bunch of lads; everyone came to training because they enjoyed being there.

“We had no bad eggs – they were all good friends and gelled so well; it was a pleasure to manage them.”

Somerset County Gazette:

LINE-UP: The Taunton Town squad as shown in the County Gazette in July 1999.

What made that run of consistency all the more remarkable is that, unlike the previous season, Town did not have a reserve side to fall back on when injuries struck.

The Combination League had folded in the summer of 1999, and the now homeless reserve team met the same fate.

Down said: “We just got the job done; we had a squad of 15 or so, who had the mentality to keep the unbeaten run going.

“A lot of that was down to having good shape and discipline, as well as the belief that we would end up on the winning side.

“We had good players on and off the ball, and were very focused.”

Their league campaign back on track, the Peacocks could focus on their primary aim: the FA Vase.

Near-neighbours Tiverton had won the Vase the season before, and in 1999/00 Taunton beat Bemerton Heath Harlequins (2-0), Tooting & Mitcham (4-1), Skelmersdale United (3-2 aet) and Cowes Sports (7-0) to become only the second side ever to reach four successive quarter-finals in the competition.

They hosted Vauxhall Motors on March 4, but their dream of winning the trophy crashed and burned at Wordsworth Drive.

A disastrous defensive performance saw the Peacocks beaten 5-1, with Chris Myers’ goal being the slightest of consolations.

Despite that disappointment, Town still harboured hopes of winning a treble.

They won the league of course, but that was it for silverware, as Bristol City beat them 2-1 in the Somerset Premier Cup semi-finals, and Chippenham came from a goal down to win the Les Phillips Cup final 2-1.

It meant that the season ended on a rather bittersweet note, but with an outstanding unbeaten run, a second consecutive league title and plans afoot to raise more funds, the club was clearly going places.

In May 2001, the Peacocks finally claimed the FA Vase – and ended their poor record in cup finals – by beating Berkhamsted 2-1 at Villa Park.

Musker said: “We were probably the best team in the country at that level, and the Vase became the Holy Grail for us.

“We’d come so close in the years before, so it was ironic that when we finally won it the final was at Villa Park not Wembley!”

The following campaign, with promotion their target at last, they squeezed over the line – finishing second ahead of Brislington, on goal difference on the last day of the season.

They have remained in the same league ever since, but (after several near-misses in the playoffs) at last they have an outstanding chance of making it into the Southern League Premier Division for 2018/19.

After five years of steady progress under manager Leigh Robinson, the Peacocks sit at the top of the Southern League West standings, and made it 22 unbeaten in the competition with a 2-2 draw at North Leigh on February 24.

Down, whose son Toby is in the current squad, joked: “They’d better not beat our record!”

He added: “They have the commitment you need to go on a run like we did.

“I get a real buzz watching them, it’s a great club with good structure and facilities.

“I’m glad Toby has gone there and I hope he stays.”

Looking ahead, Down said: “I hope they can push on with promotion this year.

“With the squad they have now I think they could finish sixth or seventh in the league above.

“If they strengthen again as they have every year, and add another three or four players, then they could really challenge.”

Musker lives in Torquay now, though he did manage to catch one Taunton game last year.

He said: “They’ve done an amazing job; hopefully they can win the league, and I think they will.

“The pitch is amazing now – much better than in our time!

“I had a special time at the club; it has been special to be a part of it.”