Going back a few years or so, outlandish results and scoring feats were not that unusual, especially during the Boxing Day fixtures when any number of players may have been turning out in less than top notch condition. That to one side though, the feat of Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell still merits mention. On 26th December 1936, Oldham Athletic visited Bell’s Tranmere Rovers side and went back home with a 13-4 defeat and tails between their legs. Bell had netted nine of his team’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’ of goals, and should have added a tenth, but missed a penalty. Nine was pretty good though and constituted a Football League record for the most strikes in a single game. That missed penalty hardly seemed to matter, the game had been won, and it would surely be a long time before anyone would anyone would challenge Bell’s scoring record. Well, actually, not so much.
As periods of goal-scoring records go, the 121 days between 14 December 1935 and 13 April 1936, are the most remarkable in the history of the Football League. On the first of those dates, Ted Drake netted seven goals against Aston Villa, setting a record – one that stands to this day when taken as goals scored in the top division. Just 12 days later though, Bell smashed the Arsenal forward’s mark with his nine-goal blitz against Oldham.
The final two goals, that took him past Drake were scored in the 88th and 89th minutes, as the crowd were awaiting to invade the pitch to chair off the hero of the hour. It was a feat described by the Liverpool Post as, “the most sensational scoring ‘feast’ football has ever known.” Bell had shattered Drake’s record, but the crown as the top marksman in a single game would rest on briefly on the head of the Birkenhead born forward. Less than four months later, he had reason to regret that miss from twelve yards when an unknown, unheralded player for Luton Town’s reserves, eclipsed the record netting ten times in a single game as the Hatters defeated Bristol Rovers 12-0. The player’s name was Joe Payne.
That year, Easter Monday fell on 13 April – what was it about holidays and goal-scoring? – and Luton Town were battling away for the single promotion place available from the old Division Three (South), with the other club to join Division Two coming from Division Three (North) of course. On that Eastertide, Luton were scheduled to play Bristol Rovers – the same team they had faced three days previously on Good Friday, gaining a 2-2 draw in the West Country. They had also played a game on the Saturday in between to boot. It was no surprise therefore that by the time the team was selected to face Rovers again, a few regular first teamers wouldn’t be available. It hasn’t always been the avaricious demands of television that caused fixture congestion.
It was therefore through a particular set of circumstances that an opportunity arose for a player regarded as a right-half, and one that had only been selected for the first-team on four previous occasions that season – the last of which had been in September of the previous year- came to be on the pitch for the game on Easter Monday. Joe Payne had been spotted by a Luton Town scout whilst playing for Bolsover Colliery in 1933. Signed by the club, his early years had hardly been a roaring success and as a 20-year-old had spent a period out on loan to non-league Biggleswade Town – local rivals of the club now fronted and oft-promoted by a certain Spanish football journo – before returning to Luton’s Reserve team. Three games in four days for Luton’s first team though, and a few inevitable knocks and injuries had left manager Harry Wightman short of a front man and, after learning that Payne had played on occasions as a centre-forward for Bolsover, resolved to use the almost-forgotten Payne as an emergency stand in to lead the line. It would only be for one game after all, and he could be placed back into the Reserves afterwards as other options became available.
Serendipity doesn’t even come close to describing what happened next. In modern parlance, it’s a bit like Mauricio Pochettino deciding to plonk Moussa Sissoko upfront in an emergency, and finding a player who could outscore Harry Kane. No, really. Before 13 April, Payne had never played as a centre-forward for Luton at any level. After that day, he would never play anywhere else for them.
Not unusually for an Easter holiday in Britain, the weather around Luton’s Kenilworth Road ground was more wintery than spring. A stiff wind blew, driving rain and occasional sleet showers across the pitch, meaning it took a while for both the players and the game to warm up. The match between the same sides on the previous Friday had been a close affair, finishing in a 2-2 draw, and as the clock ticked past the 20-minute mark and on to pass the first quarter of the game, this encounter seemed to be following similar lines. On 23 minutes though, all that changed.
Joe Payne had looked busy and enthusiastic, obviously keen to try and take full toll of his opportunity in the first-team, but had hardly troubled the visitors’ defence so far, but as the first 45 minutes entered its second half, a chance fell to him and he buried it to put Luton one ahead. On the touchline, Wightman must have smiled, metaphorically patting himself on the back for the selection of the reserve right-half to lead the line. Ten minutes later, Roberts added a second goal and Luton seemed on the way to victory. That prospect was rubber-stamped by Payne when he netted twice from close in on goal in the last five minutes before the break. Wightman’s emergency striker had spectacularly claimed a hat-trick, but that was merely the hors d’oeuvre, before Payne tucked into his feast!
Four minutes after the restart, a cross from Stephenson was hammered home for Payne’s fourth and, but for an apparent last-gasp goal-line save from visiting goalkeeper Ellis, a header from the four-goal forward would have added another, but as the ball was hooked back into play, Martin followed up to give Luton six of the best. It became clear that Bristol were in for a spanking from here on in. It was duly delivered as Payne netted with increasingly regularity after 57, 65, 75, 84 and 87 minutes. It had been less than four months since Bell’s exploits for Tranmere, and the publicity generated by his feat meant that everyone connected with, or merely watching, football was aware of the record.
With nine goals already to his name, in the dying embers of the game, Payne’s team-mates were keen to create another chance for the forward so that he could break Bell’s record. A match report in a local newspaper related: “Near the end, when it was thought that Payne needed one goal to eclipse the record, every member of the side played up to him.” One more goal was to come with just a minute left to play, but the chance fell to Martin, rather than Payne. The report added that, “when Martin scored the 12th goal I think even he was disappointed that it was not the centre-forward who had found the net.”
As the final whistle went, with Luton recording a stonking 13-0 victory, Payne left the field both elated and deflated. A player plucked from the reserves has scored a triple hat-trick in his first game for the first-team as a centre-forward. It was surely an event that would change his life. Conversely, it seemed that he had only matched Bell’s record, and surely would never have a better chance to write his name into the record books, or so it seemed until the following morning.
These were more innocent, and less-communicative, times. The names of goal-scorers weren’t broadcasted across the ground and all-singing-all-dancing electronic scoreboards were not even a pipedream. Often therefore, unless the goal was clear-cut, fans may not know who the plaudits should fall to until the following day’s newspapers officially detailed the events of the game, including bookings, attendance and, of course, the names of the players finding the back of the net. Joe Payne would have gone to sleep thinking that he had come so far, and gone so near, but fell just short of the record. The following day though, a surprise awaited.
The referee of the game had been a Mr Botham from Walsall, and in his notebook, full of details of the goals from the game, was an entry for Luton’s sixth Luton goal. It was recorded as having arrived in the 55th minute and the scorer’s name was Payne, not Martin. Botham had ruled that, despite the best efforts of Ellis, the beleaguered and over-worked Bristol goalkeeper, Payne’s header had crossed the line before Ellis could claw it back into play for Martin to follow up and put the ball into the net. Payne had scored ten goals. He had beaten the record set by Bell and set a new mark for the most goals scored by a player in a single game.
Accolades came pouring in for the Hatters’ hero. The same local paper that had lodged the match report enthused that, “Payne’s finishing was marvellous.” Going on to add that it was only his goals that he impressed, “he held the line together in brilliant style and distributed the ball in first-class fashion.“ Given the circumstances surrounding the all-important record-breaking goal decision by the referee, it would hardly have been surprising to hear rumbles of discontent coming from The Wirral, but that was far from being the case. Robert Bell sent a telegram to the new record holder congratulating him on the achievement. It was a gracious and praiseworthy piece of dignified behaviour by the Tranmere player.
Needless to say, any plans to send Payne straight back to the reserves were shelved indefinitely, and the following Saturday, he was to lead the Luton line again in an away fixture at Newport County. Proving that his exploits had been no fluke, Payne netted both goals in Luton’s 0-2 victory in Wales. Despite fortunately stumbling upon the gem of a forward hidden in their reserves, and his continuing prowess, Luton missed out on promotion by a single point to eventual champions Coventry City. It may have been reflective of an undue reliance of Payne, but despite his goals, the rest of the team fell short in their contributions and between the other players on the pitch only notched a single goal in the next three games, including home and away draws with Coventry that all but settled the issue, with the Midlands club taking the promotion spot.
For all that, and despite an ankle problem that led the Luton club doctor to reportedly ‘write off’ his remaining career, Payne retained his prolific goal-scoring streak. In the following season he would score 55 times for Luton as they erased the disappointment of missing out to the Sky Blues, and were promoted as champions of the Third Division (South). In the same season, was still plying his trade in that division, Payne was called up for England to play in a Friendly at the Töölön Pallokenttä stadium in Helsinki. Despite scoring twice, among illustrious company wearing the white shirts of England, he would not be selected for national honours again.
Despite gaining promotion, a record of 83 league goals in just 72 games, meant that it was always going to be difficult for Luton to hang on to their goal-machine of a forward. In 1938, Chelsea made a move for Payne, offering £2,000 for his services. Reports had suggested that after his ten-goal haul, a number of clubs including Arsenal and Manchester United, had tabled bids the likes of £9,000. It was a huge amount of money for that time, especially bearing in mind that the then British transfer record had been set at around £11,000 a few years earlier, when David Jack moved from Bolton Wanderers to Arsenal. To put things into some perspective though Payne was a forward playing in the regional division of English football’s third tier, rather than one moving from one top tier club to another. After the ankle problems he suffered though, bids of that magnitude disappeared and when Chelsea came in with their offer, Luton decided to cash in, but the Stamford Bridge were cautious enough to put the player on a ‘pay-as-you-play’ contract.
If it was a gamble, it was one that the outbreak of the Second World War would condemn as largely a poor one. Hostilities meant that although football was retained as an important factor in maintaining morale, it was within a largely truncated and localised structure. Despite that, in the time Payne was with the club before the war, he still managed to score 21 league goals in 32 games, before an ankle injury again intervened.
During the war years, in the competitions hastily arranged, he would score 17 goals in 18 appearances in the 1939-40 season and 39 goals in both the 1943-44 and 1944-45 terms. By the time hostilities ceased, recurrent ankle problems – including fracture – had diminished his powers and largely brought his career to an effective end. In 1946, he moved to West Ham and despite scoring six times in ten league games, it was clear that, at 32, Joe Payne’s race was run. Payne returned to his native Luton, living for a while near the Kenilworth Road scene of his greatest exploit. He died in April 1975, aged 61.
The Football League was founded in 1888, and during its time, there has been any number of remarkable feats both by teams and individual players. It’s of some doubt however whether there was ever a period similar to the three successive events that took place across 121 days when individual goal-scoring records were torn asunder. In Brimington Common, on the wall of the ‘Miner’s Arms’ a plaque was unveiled in 2006, by the then president of the Football Association. Geoff Thompson commemorating Payne’s achievements. It’s an entirely appropriate location, for it was where Joe Payne went to celebrate after scoring ten goals in a single Football League match and setting a record now surely unlikely ever to be surpassed.