WITH arch-rivals Tiverton Town having gone up the previous season, Taunton Town were heavy favourites to retain their Western League crown in 1999/2000.

They did it with something to spare, after a brief scare from Mangotsfield United, by finishing 16 points clear at the top.

There was a club record 16 wins in a row, a run of 22 league games without defeat and an astonishing 66 goals from Antony Lynch - leaving him one short of Reg Oram’s record from the 1950s.

There was frustration in the FA Vase again, though, the competition which had been manager Russell Musker’s primary objective for the season.

“Even if we win the league again, we cannot go up into the Dr Martens [Southern] League - at least not unless we win the lottery,” Musker said in August.

“Our aim is to reach the FA Vase final at Wembley.”

His main job over the summer had been to hold on to Lynch and his strike partner Ellis Laight, who had scored 51 and 56 goals, respectively, in 1998/99.

Lynch was attracting interest from Exeter City, Forest Green Rovers, Gillingham and Leyton Orient, but Taunton put an asking price of £35,000 on both strikers, and no serious offers arrived.

Musker was also looking to bring in “four or five” players as cover, with the Peacocks losing their reserve side when the Combination League folded that summer.

He didn’t have to look far, raiding newly-promoted Minehead for goalkeeper Mark Coombe, defender Darren Cann, and midfielders Ian Down and Ben Rowe - all of whom had joined the West Somerset side from Taunton.

(Shorn of those players, Minehead finished bottom of the table, but were spared relegation by five new teams entering the league, meaning that no teams dropped out of the Premier Division.)

Musker also signed utility man Jeremy Christopher from Bideford, with keeper David Penberthy going in the opposite direction after losing out to Coombe.

Cann joined Tom Kelly, Richard Thompson and Paul West as centre-back options, while Rowe, Paul Edwards, Tony Fortt and Derek Fowler battled it out for the wing-back positions.

Down, Chris Myers and Martin Parker all offered quality in the centre of midfield, behind attacking midfielder Mark Loram and the frontmen, Laight and Lynch.

Taunton started the season like champions, winning their first six league games, scoring 20 goals and conceding four.

They also knocked Southern League sides Cirencester Town and Dorchester Town out of the FA Cup, drawing 2-2 at Cirencester before winning the replay 4-0, inspired by a Lynch hat-trick.

Laight, one of five ex-Dorchester players in the Taunton team, scored the opener against his former club and two Lynch goals sealed the win.

Hailing his super strikers, Musker said: “They’re a great partnership. Off the pitch they’re like chalk and cheese, but on the pitch they gel very well.

“They really know each other’s game and have an excellent understanding.”

The FA Cup run ended against another Southern League side, Margate, who won 3-0 - all three goals coming from set-pieces.

Taunton reacted by putting five past Bideford and Backwell United, but their first league defeat followed on October 26.

Mangotsfield won 4-0, and Musker admitted: “We were fortunate not to lose more heavily.”

At that stage it looked like there might be a genuine title race, with Mangotsfield a point behind the leaders with two games in hand.

But ultimately Mangotsfield could not keep up, as the Peacocks would not suffer another league loss until April 20.

There was also the impressive feat of going unbeaten in 21 games in all competitions between October and March, launching their Vase campaign with a 2-0 win at Wessex League side Bemerton Heath Harlequins.

This is The West Country:

CHAMPIONS: Taunton Town's 1999/2000 squad

Bishop Sutton were beaten 7-1 (with all eight goals coming in the second half!), and with Mangotsfield losing their first league match, Taunton ended November five points clear at the top.

Lynch entered December in fine form, bagging a hat-trick against Exmouth Town in the Les Phillips Cup and four against Tooting & Mitcham in the Vase.

“His finishing is good enough for the Football League,” purred Musker, but neither Lynch nor any of his team-mates would play between December 7 and January 4, due to waterlogged pitches.

Chasers-in-chief Mangotsfield lost again, this time against Bridgwater Town, and so Taunton ended the year (and millennium) with 13 wins from 16 games and a two-point lead.

That advantage was soon eight points, as Taunton beat Bideford, Bristol Manor Farm and Melksham Town, while Mangotsfield lost to Yeovil Town Reserves.

The latter two wins were secured without Christopher (knee ligament injury), Cann, Kelly and Myers (all flu), but the flu victims were back for the 460-mile round trip to face Skelmersdale United in the fourth round of the Vase.

Almost 200 Peacocks fans joined them, and they were rewarded with a battling victory over the North West Counties League side.

Lynch put the visitors ahead, Robbie Cowley and Peter Holcroft made it 2-1, and Laight scored for 2-2 at half-time.

There were no goals in the second half, but Lynch secured a 3-2 away win with his 34th goal of the season, six minutes from the end of extra time.

The fifth round tie was more routine, as Taunton travelled to the Isle of Wight and beat Cowes Sports, of the Wessex League, 7-0.

Lynch scored four, including three in the first half, to book a quarter-final spot.

The draw for the last eight took place at Anfield, with Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier pairing the Peacocks with Vauxhall Motors, another North West Counties League outfit.

Taunton breezed into the Somerset Premier Cup semi-finals, beating Yeovil Town 5-1 with three goals from Laight and two from Loram, but they could not repeat the trick in the Vase. Musker’s men could not have gone into March 4’s home tie with Vauxhall in better form, having won their previous 16 games.

The first half was goalless, but the hosts’ defence fell apart after the break, conceding five times to blow their Vase chance for another year.

It was a bad day at the office for Rowe, who looked out of position at centre-back.

After Nicky Young had headed in from a corner, Rowe’s poor clearance allowed Leigh Williams to double Vauxhall’s lead.

It was 3-0 with 20 minutes left, as Rowe fell over and ceded possession inside his own box, and Greg Briggs scored.

Myers’ header pulled one back, but two free-kicks (from Young and Peter Daley) killed the game.

A stunned Musker said: “Our performance hit me for six as we have been playing so well recently.

“They were no better than us and we could have been 2-0 up at half-time.

“But in the second half we didn’t perform and we gave in too easily when we conceded the first goal.

“Our defensive mistakes didn’t help but, if you do make mistakes, the team has to rally round. Instead, we just stood around moaning about what had gone wrong.”

This is The West Country:

ON FIRE: Antony Lynch scores one of his 66 goals, against Wellington

The Vase gone, Taunton set about wrapping up the league title, stretching their lead to 13 points with wins over neighbours Bridgwater (4-0) and Minehead (5-0).

Some home fans protested at the Bridgwater match, holding ‘We want to go up’ signs, and supporters later met with club chairman Tom Harris to discuss fundraising, to bring the facilities at Wordsworth Drive up to Southern League standard.

For now, there was the small matter of revenge against Mangotsfield, and goals from Parker, Loram, Lynch (2) and Ian Bastow sealed a 5-0 win over their rivals.

The title was secured the following Saturday (April 15), with a 3-1 home victory against Yeovil Town Reserves, as Myers and Lynch (2) got the job done.

Mangotsfield finished 16 points adrift in the end, but went up to the Southern League in Taunton’s place.

The Peacocks’ bid for cup success faltered, however - not helped by Laight missing the end of the season with a damaged kidney.

Bristol City (whose side contained eight players who had tasted Football League action that season) beat Taunton 2-1 in the Somerset Premier Cup semi-finals, and there was more heartache in the Les Phillips Cup final.

Lynch needed two goals to equal Oram’s record of 67, and duly got the opener after 45 seconds. But Chippenham Town, who had reached the Vase final and lost 1-0 to Deal Town, hit back through Simon Charity.

Lynch was unable to score again, Taunton wilted in the heat, and Steve Tweddle’s 77th-minute goal prolonged the Peacocks’ dismal cup final record.

Much like in 1998/99, failure in the Vase put a stain on an otherwise fine season - but the wait would soon be over.