Here at Talking Bull we are continuing to build up our archive detailing the careers of former Hereford Heroes. This time we cast our eye over a player who acquired cult status after joining the club from Chelsea in 1976.
Occasionally a Hereford player achieves “cult” status for one reason or another. The effervescent Les Briley arrived at Edgar Street as a relatively unknown youngster after joining the Bulls from Chelsea in the summer of 1976. Hereford were about to embark on a journey into the second highest tier of football in England alongside the likes of Southampton, Blackburn Rovers, Nottingham Forest, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea. The signing of Briley went largely unnoticed, but in what proved to be a tough campaign, his all-action performances became a standout feature.
Les (born in Lambeth on 2 October 1956) began his career as an apprentice at Stamford Bridge under Dario Gradi and signed professional terms for the Blues in 1974. However, despite starring in the reserves over the next two seasons, first team opportunities did not materialise. The then Hereford manager John Sillett still retained good connections with his former club, and after Hereford lifted the Third Division Championship, quickly moved in to persuade the young midfielder to join the Bulls.
Briley looked to have a difficult task ahead of him. How was he to edge ahead of Terry Paine, Jimmy Lindsay, Dudley Tyler, Roy Carter and Peter Spiring in midfield? The answer was sheer exuberance and enthusiasm. I doubt I’ve seen a better box-to-box player in a Hereford shirt since, and you could hardly fail to spot his presence either as his dyed, highlighted long hair caught the eye. I’m pretty sure it was described as “clockwork orange” by a fan in the Meadow End at some point!
A 19-year-old Briley made his league debut for Hereford against Burnley in the Bulls third match in the Second Division in front of a 9,543 Edgar Street crowd. He immediately man-marked Welsh international Brian Flynn out of the game. Dixie McNeil scored a hat-trick thanks to a vintage performance from Paine in his 800th league appearance, and Hereford reached the heights of 5th in the table.
The youngster was then in-and-out of the starting eleven for a while, and even had to slot in at right back with both Steve Emery and Shane Walker side-lined through injury. This included a disastrous 1-6 home defeat at the hands of Wolves. However, after Paine announced his retirement following a narrow 2-1 loss at Southampton, Briley seized on a chance to perform at the heart of the Bulls midfield on a regular basis.
He played magnificently as Hereford drew 2-2 with his former club Chelsea at Edgar Street on 6 November 1976 with 12,528 raucous fans packed inside the ground. Scottish striker Steve Finnieston scored twice for Chelsea, but United levelled thanks to goals from defenders Steve Ritchie and John Layton who both somehow managed to score past Peter Bonetti.
The skilful and competitive midfielder scored his first goal for Hereford in a Third Round FA Cup win over Reading at Edgar Street on January 8, 1977. Briley produced a tremendous winner, hammering the ball home into the roof of the net through a ruck of players with almost 7,500 fans there to witness it. Les also featured in the Fourth Round as United lost 4-0 at Ayresome Park to Middlesbrough, for whom Graeme Souness scored with a memorable 25-yarder.
Another personal highlight was his performance against Wolves at Molineux on March 12. United may have lost 2-1, but it was the home fans who were clamouring for the final whistle after Briley had pulled a goal back in the 77th minute.
Incredibly, Hereford came to terms with life in the Second Division, but with just 11 games to go. Indeed, Briley was handed the captaincy after a series of fearsome displays as the Bulls lost only twice in that time. However, victories over Oldham (5-3), Millwall (3-1), Blackburn (1-0) and Southampton (2-0) coupled with draws against Cardiff, Bristol Rovers, Carlisle, Blackpool and Orient failed to lift Hereford up-the-table. Indeed, the Bulls were relegated just three points from safety!
Briley continued as captain at the start of the 1977/78 season, with his tough tackling and excellent distribution once again evident, but the financial meltdown that enveloped the club intensified. Chairman Frank Miles stood down in December after Hereford lost to non-league Wealdstone in the FA Cup, and after John Sillett resigned in February 1978, Briley was sold to Wimbledon for an £18,000 transfer fee, not long after McNeil had joined Wrexham for £60,000 and Roy Carter had linked up with Swindon for £25,000.
His last appearance for Hereford saw United lose 2-1 at home to Plymouth, alongside another young starlet – Kevin Sheedy on 28 January, 1978. Overall the combative youngster made 67 appearances for Hereford prior to being reunited with Dario Gradi at Wimbledon.
Speaking recently Briley said, “My heart has been in every club I’ve played for, including Hereford. There was a togetherness you don’t see in football much anymore. It’s the people you don’t see that matter from the groundman to the fans who sweep the terraces, and the volunteers in the ticket offices. When you step out onto the pitch the feeling you get from people stays with you. If you win, you feel you have done well for them. If you lose you feel you have let them down”.
Quickly installed as captain at Wimbledon he was to chalk up another 61 league appearances for the Dons, before a financial crisis meant he was sold to Aldershot for £40,000 in March 1980. After helping the Shots to promotion in 1983/84 he moved to George Graham’s Millwall in May 1984 and was a key figure as the Lions went from the Third Division to the top flight in successive years.
His best ever career goal was scored from 30 yards against Charlton Athletic at the Valley in a 3-0 win for Millwall, and has been termed “Les Briley’s Special” on the Lions supporters YouTube channel.
After 227 League appearances for Millwall, he later played for Brighton & Hove Albion before becoming player-manager at Slough Town.
Briley returned to the New Den and until recently was an assistant Academy Manager at Millwall.
Images courtesy of Ron Parrott, Hereford historian.