Little did Roy Bentley think when he was feeding the giraffes and elephants on Bristol City’s ground in 1941 that he would one day become the manager of a Football League club.
The animals had been evacuated from Bristol Zoo as a result of Luftwaffe bombing raids by Germany, and young Roy - a groundstaff boy at the time - had to supply food and clean straw for them before he could do any football training.
That experience was the first of many which prepared him for the vagaries of management. Later in the war he saw active service in the Royal Navy aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, and shortly after demobilisation joined Newcastle United for a fee of £8,500. In only his fifth game for the club he scored in the 13-0 demolition of Newport County at St James’ Park on 5th October 1946. The margin of victory in that Second Division match remains a Football League record to this day.
Roy stayed at Newcastle for 18 months before joining Chelsea for £11,000 in January 1948. It was at Stamford Bridge where he was to enjoy the finest moments of his long and distinguished playing career. Signed as an inside-forward, he was converted into a somewhat unorthodox centre-forward. A superb header of the ball, he frequently made his runs from deep positions to connect with crosses, and he also had a penchant for attacking down both flanks. Due to this mobility he was difficult to mark, and Roy became Chelsea’s leading goalscorer for eight consecutive seasons. His greatest triumph was to captain the team which won the First Division Championship for the first time in its history in the 1954-5 season.
Representative honours came his way too. He won 12 England international caps spread over a six-year period, scoring nine goals, one of which defeated Scotland and took England to the 1950 World Cup Finals in South America. He also made three appearances for the Football League XI, won an England ‘B’ cap, and scored in the FA Charity Shield 3-0 win over Newcastle United in September 1955.
He left Chelsea to join Fulham in August 1956, spending five seasons at Craven Cottage, then moving to Queens Park Rangers where he played for two more years before retiring as a player to manage Reading. At the age of 39, Roy was still playing First Division football, though by now he had been converted to centre-half. He made a total of 559 League appearances and scored 175 League goals.
The Reading board of directors were quite clear in what they wanted from their new manager. They resolved “to appoint a Team Manager, who would be solely responsible for the training and coaching of players, to select teams, and to secure the transfer of players into the Club, and to arrange the transfer of players out of the Club.” At the same time the Board promoted long-serving secretary Fred May to the post of Secretary-Manager, where his job description stated that he would “assume responsibility for the administration of the Club’s affairs.”
And so Mr Bentley began work, at a salary of £2,080 per annum, plus a bonus of £2,000 should Reading gain promotion to Division Two. He was also given use of a motor car, “up to the value of a Ford Consul,” and ordered to maintain complete liaison with the Secretary-Manager and training staff.
There was a six-week delay, caused by the ‘big freeze-up’ of January 1963 before the manager could see his team in action, and then they lost 4-5 at home to Brighton in a nine-goal thriller. But relegation was avoided, and players and supporters began to recognise how determined Bentley was to lift the club out of the Third Division.
He worked incredibly hard, planning all coaching sessions, driving thousands of miles to look at possible signings and opposing teams, and making personal appearances to promote the image of Reading Football Club. It was a time of considerable tactical development in football, and he changed the team’s traditional formation of 2-3-5 to the innovative 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. He changed the playing colours too, from the well-known blue and white hoops to sky blue shirts, shorts and socks. He also, from 1965, had to contend with the introduction of substitutes, and gave up his Sunday mornings to coach local schoolboys on the pitch at Elm Park.
Under Roy’s guidance Reading came close to promotion on several occasions, the nearest being in 1966-67, when fourth place was achieved after the team registered eight consecutive wins at the end of the season. There were some exciting cup runs too, the best performances being a 0-0 draw away to Manchester City and a 1-1 draw at home to Burnley, both in the FA Cup, and a 3-1 home win against West Bromwich Albion in the Football League Cup. All three opponents were First Division front-runners at the time. But success in the Football League was still elusive, although the reserve team - captained by the ever-popular Jimmy Wheeler who was by now Bentley’s assistant manager - won the Football Combination Division Two Championship in 1966.
By early 1969 the board decided that Bentley had been given sufficient time and opportunity to gain promotion and on 11th February 1969, he was informed by directors Waller and Baylis that his contract was not to be renewed. The parting of club and manager was an amicable one and, after a period as manager at Swansea Town (1969-72) and as a scout for Bradford City, where Wheeler had been appointed manager, Bentley returned to the Reading area. He became manager of Thatcham Town in the Hellenic League, then moved back into Elm Park as an approachable and good-natured secretary, a post he held from 1977 to 1984. He filled the same position with Aldershot Town from 1985 to 1986, and later became secretary of a golf club owned by Ron Harris, the former Chelsea player.