Just as England had come close at Euro 96, Taunton Town fell short of retaining their Western League title in 1996/97.

The season was defined by the Peacocks’ battle with fierce rivals Tiverton Town - and the Devon team came up trumps.

THE 1996/97 season began with Taunton Town as Western League champions, having denied Tiverton Town a hat-trick of titles, and it looked like those rivals would be battling for honours once more.

The title contenders spent the summer months trying to sign each other’s players, but Ian Down (Taunton) and Kevin Smith (Tiverton) opted not to cross the divide.

Peacocks manager Russell Musker admitted that failing to land Smith was a blow, saying: “He was a big part of my plans for next season.”

Musker - who had dismissed rumours that he was being lined up to take over at troubled Torquay United - did bring in a number of handy reinforcements, however.

Midfielder Martin Parker and striker Martin Underhay both arrived from Torrington, while dominant centre-back Dave Ewens - Taunton’s captain in the 1994 FA Vase final - returned from Mangotsfield United.

Wing-back Paul Hirons came in from Forest Green Rovers, having previously played for Exeter City and Torquay United - scoring the only goal for the latter when they beat West Ham United in the FA Cup in 1990.

Musker seemed happy with his summer business, telling the County Gazette: “Even though we’ve lost Darren Tilley and Russ Wilson, I believe we’ll have a much stronger squad this season.

“We’ve got four new players, and Mark Cutler and Mark Loram will start the season with us.

“Last season Cutler was out for a long spell through injury, while Loram was suspended for practically the whole of the season.

“Our aim is to win the league again, and to do better in the cup competitions.”

The manager did admit that he would struggle to keep everyone happy in a 19-man squad, and midfielder Paul West headed to Wellington to gain match practice after the knee injury he sustained the previous season.

West returned within a month, without playing a game for the Tangerines, but would be a man on his travels that season, with stints at Elmore and Wellington (again) later in the campaign.

The league had a new title sponsor - Screwfix Direct replacing Great Mills - and Taunton had some new derby matches to look forward to.

Both Bridgwater Town and Chard Town had earned promotion to the Premier Division the previous season, and all those derbies meant some bumper attendances.

A crowd of 1,112 watched the Peacocks take on Bridgwater, only topped by the 1,196 at Taunton v Tiverton.

Musker’s side enjoyed a fine pre-season, winning 10-0 at Dartmouth, beating a Bristol City XI 4-1 and drawing 2-2 with Exeter.

Such was the strength of the squad that defender Keith Graddon (19 goals the season before) and mercurial midfielder Damon Palfrey were left out of the squad for the opening match of the season, a 6-0 rout of Bristol Manor Farm.

Mark Coombe remained in goal after a fine 1995/96 season, behind a strong defence of Ewens, Steve Kidd and player-assistant manager Derek Fowler.

Alex Crook, Ian Down and Parker manned the midfield, with Hirons and Ben Rowe providing width, and Cutler and Loram up front.

Hirons scored two on his debut at Manor Farm, as did Cutler, who ended August with five goals in five games (all wins).

Graddon quit to join Bridgwater, who led Taunton 1-0 at half-time in a Monday night clash at Fairfax Park, thanks to ex-Taunton player Nick Hawkins’ goal.

Parker set up Cutler to equalise, though, and then scored two himself in the last 13 minutes to win it for the Peacocks.

Another former Taunton player, Andy Perrett, reminded his old side of the form that had seen him bag 62 goals in 1993/94, as his hat-trick enabled Mangotsfield to come back from 3-0 down and draw 3-3 on September 7.

That allowed Tiverton to move into top spot, and the Peacocks lost centre-back Kidd, who retired through injury.

Darren Cann stepped in, and wins over Tuffley Rovers and Welton Rovers set up an FA Cup second round qualifying tie at Yeovil Town.

Previewing the match, Musker said: “We’re going into the game knowing it will be tough - but we’re capable of winning.

“I believe we’ve got as good a chance as anyone, and I think we are capable of troubling them in all departments.”

Yeovil played two divisions above Taunton, and would go on to win the ICIS League (what is now the Isthmian League) Premier Division that year - gaining promotion to the Conference - but the visitors had the better of a 0-0 draw in front of 3,303 at Huish Park.

Tiv Lowe excelled against his former club, and Cutler struck a post.

The replay took place the following Monday night, and Yeovil came from 3-2 down to win 5-3 in front of 2,257 at Wordsworth Drive.

Dean Birkby and Paul Turner put the visitors 2-0 up, but Cutler halved the deficit just before half-time, and Loram scored twice in two minutes to put Taunton ahead, with less than 30 minutes to go.

The home side couldn’t hold on though; Warren Patmore levelled, then scored again, and Jerry Gill sealed it in injury time.

Sadly the occasion was marred by crowd trouble at the end of the match, with West - a spectator rather than player - being knocked unconscious.

Chairman Tom Harris said: “I don’t like to see anything like that at Taunton - but it was just a few nincompoops who caused trouble.”

This is The West Country:

GOAL-GETTER: Taunton striker Mark Loram

A 6-0 romp against Elmore kept the Peacocks a point behind Tiverton (albeit having played a game more), and Musker signed Barnstaple Town striker Richard Hill, who scored in his first two games but would only last a couple of months at the club.

A 2-0 home win against Manor Farm meant Taunton topped the table with 35 points from 13 games (Tiverton had 33 from 11), but November was not a good month for the Peacocks.

They fell at the first hurdle in both the Les Phillips Cup (losing at Barnstaple) and the Somerset Premier Cup (beaten at home by Brislington).

In the league, a 9-0 shellacking of Bideford was followed by a damaging 1-0 loss at home to Mangotsfield, with Perrett - who else? - scoring the only goal of the game.

The comings and goings continued into December, as Taunton released Rowe (who went to Minehead) and Hill (returned to Barnstaple), and signed Richard Hancox from Torquay.

Hancox bagged a hat-trick to win the FA Vase third round tie at Bridgwater, but Taunton dropped two points at home to Torrington (who they’d beaten 6-0 two weeks before) - and they could hardly afford such mistakes with Tiverton sweeping all before them.

Cann left for Bath City, but quickly returned, to be joined by another defender in Richard Bryant (from Brislington), while Cutler - having lost his place up front to Hancox - departed for Paulton Rovers.

Frozen pitches meant Taunton had almost a month without a game ahead of their Vase showdown with Mangotsfield in January 1997, but this time the Peacocks prevailed.

Palfrey and Fowler (2) secured a 3-2 away win, and a 3-0 victory over Spalding United secured a quarter-final spot the day after chairman Harris was taken to hospital with a heart attack.

A run of 12 games without defeat kept Taunton in the hunt, but February proved a nightmare month; they failed to score in three consecutive matches and lost all three.

After a league defeat to Paulton, the Vase run was ended by Northern League side Guisborough Town - a 700-mile round trip without reward for the Peacocks.

With goalkeeper Coombe sidelined due to a swollen knee, reserve keeper Lee Ayres was beaten by a Shane Breckon free-kick, and was himself injured.

Reserve reserve keeper Ian Nott was unable to prevent Peter Quantrill and Paul Harrison sealing a 3-0 home win.

Musker’s side then lost 1-0 at Chippenham Town (ex-Taunton striker Barry Flippance scoring), leaving Tiverton six points clear with three games in hand, having won all 21 league games so far.

Musker admitted: “We’ve blown in it two competitions in the space of only seven days.

“I cannot see Tiverton dropping enough points between now and the end of the season to let us back in.”

The manager’s response was ruthless, releasing Loram and Lowe, and bringing in former Bristol City, Exeter and Plymouth Argyle striker Robbie Turner.

Like Hill and Hancox before him, Turner scored on his debut (a hat-trick at Westbury United) and set up both goals at Chard, where Taunton won 2-1.

This is The West Country:

IMPACT: Taunton player Richard Hancox

You may have noticed that title rivals Taunton and Tiverton have not played each other yet; both meetings came in April 1997.

At Wordsworth Drive, Hancox twice put the hosts ahead, but Phil Everett and Micky Fallon levelled.

It denied Tiverton a 27th straight victory, but they now needed only five points from their last seven games to win the title.

The championship was theirs after Taunton lost 1-0 at home to Bridgwater, as Mark Antonelli’s looping 20-yard shot beat Ayres.

Musker was not amused. “I feel like I’m fighting a lone battle at the moment,” he said.

“I don’t seem to have the backing of the players. They are not doing it deliberately - they are going through the motions.

“I have learned a lot in the past few weeks. Hopefully, it will help us to become a much better team next season.

“I’ll be looking around during the close season for players with heart. We’ve got good players here - but they need to pull their fingers out.”

There was a reaction, and it saw Taunton win at Ladysmead for the second season running.

Palfrey scored a beauty of a free-kick from 30 yards and Kevin Thaws also netted in a 2-1 victory.

It was mere consolation, though, as Tiverton finished 16 points clear to reclaim the title, and they added the Les Phillips Cup.

The revolving door of strikers had not helped Taunton’s cause; Cutler and Loram finished as joint top scorers (12 goals apiece), despite leaving the club mid-season.

Both would be back in 1997/98, to be joined by another scoring ace - Antony Lynch.