This season is shaping up to be an absolute classic. But it will take some drama to even come close to matching the campaign contested by Clough, Shankley, Revie, and Allison. By Andy Robinson.
As the football season moves into the busy Christmas schedule many experts are predicting that this could be the best in the history of the premiership. We have had dramatic finishes before on numerous occasions. Blackburn losing at Anfield but still clinging on to the crown as Manchester United were held at Upton Park. We have had both Arsenal and Chelsea ensuring the trophy went south to London with the Wiltord goal and the suspicious Drogba goal at Old Trafford. Most memorably of course there was Aguero’s winner deep into injury time against QPR which left the red half of Manchester, the Home Counties and the Far East in the pit of despair.
This year post Ferguson, United aren’t in the title race but Arsenal with a flying start, their London rivals Chelsea – with the “Happy one” back at Stamford Bridge – and Manchester City scoring for fun it does look like it could be one to remember. It is highly unlikely however that it will match the greatest ever season in the top flight. The First Division Championship 1971 -72.
The favourites for the title that year were Arsenal. The season previously the Gunners had surprised everyone by doing the double and in the summer they had broken the record transfer fee with the purchase of Alan Ball from Everton. Unfortunately for them the season never got going and with only two points for a win they finished a distant fifth. Don Howe their inspirational coach had left to take over at West Brom and former physio turned manager Bertie Mee was lost without him and they never again hit the heights of the double winning season. Shortly after, the side began to break up with the sale of Charlie George to Derby County, Ray Kennedy to Liverpool and future manager George Graham to Manchester United.
Everton who had won the title the season before Arsenal had done the double were in an even worse position. As previously stated their star player had been sold to Arsenal and Colin Harvey a playmaker on the verge of a regular England place was involved in a bad car accident and around the same period the manager Harry Catterick suffered a heart attack. With just one away win all season they finished a lowly fifteenth in the final table. Rumour also has it that the club was also in the midst of an unsavoury sex scandal.
Manchester United, who only three years previously had triumphed at Wembley in the European Cup Final, were by now a desperate ageing side with a highly fancied manager, Frank O’Farrell replacing Wilf McGuiness who didn’t last long after the legendary Matt Busby. Bobby Charlton was in his last season before becoming manager at Preston and Denis Law was on the treatment table more than he played. As for the golden boy of European football George Best, he did what every one of us wants to do. He packed his job in and went on the ale in Spain with a glamour model. The rot had truly set in at Old Trafford and in April 1974, club legend Law now playing for Manchester City and with his final kick in English Football backheeled them into Division Two.
The season of 1971 -72 saw the EUFA Cup replace the Inter City Fairs Cup. Back then, unlike its modern day equivalent the Europa League this was a trophy that was worth winning and brought glory to the winner. In the inaugural competition two English clubs Spurs and Wolves contested the final but neither were to finish anywhere near the top of the table. Neither did the strongly fancied Chelsea, holders of another European trophy – the Cup Winners Cup. Bill Nicholson’s Spurs finished sixth and Bill McGarry’s Wolves were down in ninth. Chelsea led by Dave Sexton, who as first team coach at Arsenal in the late sixties had done much of the groundwork for Bertie Mee and Don Howe’s double winning side found management a tougher role and ill- discipline on the pitch and boozy nights off it from a set of legendary, flamboyant players saw Chelsea limp into seventh spot.
The title race itself became an epic battle between four clubs. Don Revie’s Leeds, Shankley’s Liverpool, Malcolm Allison’s Manchester City and newly promoted Derby County led by Brian Clough.
The early season pacesetters were one of the favourites for relegation. Tony Currie the brightest young talent in England ripped up trees at the very start of the season for Sheffield United and they led the table after the first ten games. It wasn’t to last forever though and they soon faded. The mantle was taken up by City.
The nucleus of the City side which had won four trophies in three seasons but finished trophyless the season before still very much remained and if anything improved. Bell, Lee and Summerbee were all now at the peak of their careers and Allison who many considered a coaching genius was to get the best out of them. Then for no fathomable reason which still angers elderly City fans he decided to splash out big time on Rodney Marsh. Marsh was a great player but a maverick and wasn’t one to put a shift in for his team mates. There was resentment in the camp and after a stunning away victory at rivals Derby, City were to win just four from the last nine games. One of these was a defeat at Maine Road to Stoke, where England keeper Gordon Banks, the player City had tried to sign but failed to land, had the game of his life.
Breathing down the necks of City for most of the season were Leeds and Liverpool. Liverpool were the ultimate side in transition. The greats of the sixties – St John and Yeats had gone but had been replaced within a two year period by the likes of Clemence, Heighway, Lloyd, Thompson and Keegan. Shankley in his swansong had managed to succeed where Busby had failed and had laid the foundations for the dominance of the seventies and eighties that his beloved club were to enjoy. Despite not being fancied by many they almost stole it at the death when they went to Highbury in their final game needing to win. They could only manage a draw.
Most experts considered Leeds to be the best team of the early seventies and Don Revie had built a fine side. In the days before foreign players in the top flight, the Elland Road outfit boasted England regulars Clarke, Cooper, Madeley and Norman Hunter and they were joined by half the Scottish International team as well as veterans Johnny Giles and Jack Charlton. The side was strong, fast, skillful and brutal but events were to conspire against Leeds. The early part of the season had seen them drop valuable points when they were forced to play away from Elland Road due to its closure following a knife throwing incident of football hooliganism. The miner’s strike too played a part. This led to a ban on the use of floodlights and the cancellation of all midweek games so by the season’s end they had a horrific backlog of fixtures. With all four sides neck and neck going in to the final week of the season Leeds needed a win away to Wolves just two days after beating Arsenal in the Cup final. Appeals to the FA Secretary Alan Hardaker for a delay fell on deaf ears as England were due to play the West Germans and Gunter Netzer in the European Championship quarter final midweek. So a Monday night it was and with an injury ravaged side and Billy Bremner at centre forward, Leeds went to Molynuex and promptly blew it. The controversy surrounding this game surfaced again years later when Wolves players made serious allegations about bribery.
On the night of the Leeds and Wolves game Brian Clough and his Derby County side were sat in a restaurant in Malta having finished the season with eight defeats and on 48 points. The failure of both Liverpool and Leeds that final weekend left them both and Manchester City short by a point. Derby in their first season back in the top flight were a side built with a mixture of experience and youth. Old pro’s like veteran Welsh captain Alan Durban and former Spurs double winner from the early sixties Dave Mackay combined well with younger players and future England centre backs Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. A simple philosophy which mixed pass and move and playing the ball short and having his wingers chase back caused problems for most sides and they held their own when pitched against the bigger names. They also benefited from no European involvement. They were worthy winners and to show it was no fluke they won the title again two years later under Scotsman Mackay.
When the events above occurred I was a 9 year old City fan and I had seen my side win three trophies in a short space of time. There was no sense of disappointment, I felt we would be back next year. My life as a Blue though didn’t pan out like that. Now I am a 52 year old fan who has seen six trophies in 46 years. So now with a mindset of selfishness but certainly not righteousness; you will forgive me for saying that I hope this season doesn’t go the way of the 71 -72 and that we have battered Arsene Wenger and Chelsea, possibly Liverpool and Everton into submission by Easter. However for a long time, and it felt like a lifetime my only involvement was to cheer on whoever was taking on United. I was almost neutral.
If I were a neutral now I would love to see a modern day equivalent of the best season ever.