Bedford Rugby’s 1997/98 campaign was the finest in the club’s history as the Blues fulfilled their ambition in winning promotion to the first division after running away with the inaugural Allied Dunbar Premiership Two title. The Champions also progressed into the final of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup, narrowly losing 33-25 to Gloucester in front of 7,500 at Franklins Gardens having defeated other first division opponents, Richmond, Bristol and Sale, on their cup trail. Mike Rayer won the Bedfordshire Times and Citizen Player of the Year award, breaking his own individual points record with 370, while Junior Paramore won the Allied Dunbar Two Players Player of the Year accolade.
Perhaps the team did not match the achievement of the victorious knock-out cup side of 1975, but few would argue that Geoff Cooke’s team was the best ever to grace the Goldington Road turf. No less than 15 new players were drafted in before the start of the new season. Martin Offiah may have returned to his preferred league code but he was replaced by union’s great wing, Rory Underwood, as the new faces arrived thick and fast.
The season started slowly with unconvincing victories at home to Rotherham and away to Exeter before two key wins in the latter half of September. London Scottish were hit by a devastating first 20 minutes of open rugby, Bedford cruising to a 45-33 victory while at Coventry the Blues proved they could turn it on in the face of adversity. At 15-3 down with a quarter of the game remaining, Bedford fought back for a memorable 22-15 win. That took them to the top of division two and, from that point, they never looked back.
Geoff faced something of a dilemma when, for financial necessity, he was forced to release eight of his forty playing staff in mid-October; Marcus Cook, Ryan O’Neill, Paul Allen, Matt Oliver, Paul Hewitt, Nick Smith, Norman Hadley and Peter Anglesea were the unlucky men. But far from worrying those players left, it served to motivate the Blues to a 16-match unbeaten run which included the record-breaking 77-3 trouncing of Coventry. "The best performance of the season," as Director of Coaching, Paul Turner recalls.
When defeat came it was against the old local foe Northampton in a tense, but thrilling encounter at Franklins Gardens to decide a Tetley Bitter Cup fourth round tie. The 31-26 scoreline perhaps did not do justice to the Saints’ superior performance but Bedford’s never-say-die attitude, scoring two late tries through Matt Deans and Junior Paramore, spoke volumes for their character.
There after, with Bedford destined for promotion, the season could have lost its impetus before the latter stages of the newly-formed C&G Cup gave the Blues a series of meaningful fixtures. Victory over Bristol was sweet revenge for the 96/97 play-off defeat while Paul Turner’s old club, Sale were also victims at fortress Goldington Road. Defeat to Gloucester - who possibly benefited by losing in a friendly at home to the Blues a month before the final - led to two home wins and two away defeats to finish the season… but promotion had long been assured.
The previous season the Blues transformed themselves from being an also-ran into a potential front runner in division two after finishing fourth and reaching the play-offs. In April 1997 Bedford celebrated a monumental victory over Newcastle who would be runners-up to Richmond in the second division. Just over a year later both teams were Allied Dunbar Champions after Rob Andrew’s men were league one victors. Such statistics bode well for Bedford as they prepare for 1998/99.