72 Classic: Clough, Allison, Keegan and co. – why it was special

MALCOLM Allison, one of the pivotal figures of the 1970s, once said that the period between 1967 and 1972 was one of British football’s golden ages. Anyone who lived through that half decade of action will doubtless recall some outstanding players and personalities, memorable teams and the outlandish fashion and hairstyles of the age.

This was, after all, a period that desperately clung to the “swinging Sixties” and introduced the excesses and decadence of the early 1970s. It was played out against an economic background that was deteriorating weekly, culminating in the candle-lit days of power cuts in 1973-74 and the three-day week. From a footballing perspective, England still had enough self-confidence to believe that Sir Alf Ramsey’s squad was still capable of competing at the highest level. 1971 was just five years after the 1966 triumph and some of its key figures were still stubbornly hanging onto their place in the national team.

But if the end of the Sixties, from a cultural point of view, was signalled by the break-up of the Beatles, 1971-72 really killed-off the period with the decline of England, the ageing of some of its icons and the conclusion of the post-66 attendance boom. 1971-72 was two years on from the last football season of the 60s, but football’s two standard bearing groups of the decade – Best, Law, Charlton and Moore, Hurst, Peters, were coming to the end of their time of influence. By the end of 1972-73, the Manchester United trio were no longer at Old Trafford, for various reasons, and only Moore was still at West Ham.

The 1971-72 season looked like the final flourish of the man that epitomised the 1960s, George Best. He scored 26 goals in domestic football and provided some brilliant football, but it was the last we saw of the genius that was the Irishman. As Manchester United declined in the second half of the season, Best lost heart and by the middle of 1972-73, he had retired.

United’s fall from the pinnacle of the game really started in 1970 and their impressive first half of 1971-72 merely papered over the cracks. Within two seasons, they were relegated, although in hindsight, it was the short, sharp shock the club needed to acknowledge that things had changed since the days of Sir Matt Busby.

Even without United, though, English football served up an exciting championship race, possibly the most tense and open for years. Arsenal went into the campaign as double winners in 1970-71, but they were never really involved in a bid to retaining their title, although they returned to Wembley for the FA Cup final. However, Arsenal’s pursuit of European success suggested that there was a degree of stagnation settling in across English football. In 1970, when the Gunners won the Fairs’ Cup, they beat Ajax over two legs with some ease. Two seasons on, Arsenal were beaten twice by the Dutch team, who were holders of the European Cup. Something had changed and the spirit of progressive football wasn’t to be found in England, it was across the Channel.

The Dutch, with Johan Cruyff in his pomp, may have been leading the way in club football, but the West Germans had emerged as the team to beat on the international stage. There were signs that an irresistible force was in the ascendancy in Mexico in 1970, but in 1972, the Germans were European champions and they had signalled the end of Ramsey’s England in the quarter-finals, winning 3-1 at Wembley. West Germany had their own dynamic playmaker to rival Cruyff in the form of Günter Theodor Netzer, and he made England’s own midfielders look very pedestrian. That tie was, effectively, the end of Geoff Hurst – he left West Ham in the summer of 1972 – but also struck at the heart of English confidence.

Derby County players show off their League Championship medals aas they pose with the trophies won by the club during the 1971-72 season: (back row, l-r) ?, John McGovern, physio Gordon Guthrie, trainer Jimmy Gordon, Ron Webster, John Robson, Terry Hennessey, Alan Hinton, John O’Hare, Colin Boulton, Alan Durban; (front row, l-r) Peter Daniel, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector, ?; (trophies, l-r) Central League, Football League Championship, Texaco Cup Photo: PA

In terms of self-confidence, Derby County’s outspoken manager, Brian Clough, had few equals, although his style wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Nobody predicted that Derby would become genuine title challengers, although Clough had assembled an exciting team at the Baseball Ground. Leeds United, who had become serial bridesmaids in 1970 and 1971, were most people’s idea of champions, although they remained unpopular. Don Revie had instilled in his squad something of a siege mentality, largely built on the “us and them” philosophy and the desire to create intense loyalty and togetherness. It worked, but Leeds never had the strength in depth required for a campaign fought on multiple fronts and accompanying their intensity was high drama – a Leeds defeat was invariably greeted with schadenfreude by the rest of English football, which only served to bond Revie’s troops even closer. This often clouded the fact that Leeds were a extraordinary footballing team and in 1971-72 they produced some of their best performances. They won the FA Cup and were beaten at the death by Wolves in their final league game when the double was at stake. Once more, they had fallen short at the final hurdle.

Returning to Malcolm Allison, his Manchester City team had the title within their grasp, but to some extent the signing of Rodney Marsh, the coveted Queens Park Rangers forward, cost City the title. Signed in March 1972, for a record £ 200,000 fee, March joined a team that was four points clear at the top of the table. Marsh himself admitted that the transfer was a mistake and that it had been detrimental to City’s championship credentials.

While Marsh, despite his skill and charisma, upset the shape of Allison’s team, a new and relatively unknown forward had injected fresh impetus into Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. His name was Kevin Keegan and he would become British football’s hottest talent and the successor to George Best as the face of the game. Keegan was a different proposition to Best, though. He didn’t have Best’s natural virtuosity, or his maverick tendencies, but he made the most of his attributes and he knew his worth. Keegan was wholesome, reliable and energetic and Liverpool’s Kop loved him.

Liverpool were one year away from beginning their ruthless pursuit of silverware, but in 1971-72, they had enough to finish painfully close to the top spot. That belonged to Derby County, but not before no less than four teams stake a claim to the title, right up until the final week. Derby were, perhaps, the least likely to finish in first place, but there could be no denying the quality of their football. Players like Roy McFarland, Colin Todd, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector and John O’Hare would become household names, while Clough, with his emphasis on skill and hard work, would go on to prove that his success was no fluke.

The party was not quite over, but the guests were gradually leaving. Within a decade, attendances in division one had fallen by 10,000 per game. Clough left Derby in 1973-74, Allison resigned from City, Revie took on England in 1974 (after a second title with Leeds), Shankly retired in 1974. United were relegated, Chelsea followed them in 1975 and Tottenham lost that doyen of managers, Bill Nicholson. And to cap it all, England failed to qualify for World Cup 1974 and Ramsey was sacked. In 1971-72, who would have predicted such a chain of events, even in the unpredictable world of football.

Coming soon: Chapter 2 – Lifting Leeds

Derby, Leeds, Liverpool and City – anyone could have won the 1972 title race

MALCOLM ALLISON, that big, brash, iconic figure from the early 1970s, once said the period between 1967 and 1972 was a golden age for English football. Of course, during that time, Manchester City were quite successful, so naturally, Allison would look back on this six -year spell as special. But this was an age where the big prizes were not monopolised, no matter how hard Don Revie’s Leeds United tried to dominate the landscape.

In 1971-72, English football was coming to the end of its post-1966 boom. There were some fine players and teams around and, as this season showed, a number of genuine contenders for the major honours.


Arsenal had just won the “double”, but that triumph was exhaustive for a team that had few stars but was more about function than form. Although Bertie Mee’s side deserved enormous credit for winning the league and cup, Leeds United were arguably the outstanding team of the day. Many pundits tipped Tottenham, who had been resurgent in 1970-71 or Chelsea, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup winners in 1971. Manchester City had exciting players in Colin Bell and Francis Lee, but they were too inconsistent to be considered championship material.

Manchester United still had Best, Charlton and Law, but the latter two were ageing and less fit than in the past, and Best was living a hedonistic life that alternated between London and Manchester. Liverpool were in transition, low on flair and attacking power and less enthralling than their 1963-66 period. As for Leeds, they had experienced two heart-breaking seasons where they tried to be in contention for everything. They had an outstanding starting eleven, but their squad was a little thin, especially for battles on all fronts. Leeds were not popular outside Yorkshire, but you could not help but admire some of their football – the 7-0 win against Southampton on March 4 for example – even if it was laced with a bit of brimstone.

There was little mention of Derby County, the team managed by the outspoken and often gregarious Brian Clough. Derby had been in the top flight for two seasons since winning promotion in 1969 and after finishing fourth in 1969-70, they had slipped down the ranks a little. Besides, the midlands hadn’t provided a title-winning team since 1959 when Wolves clinched their third championship of the 1950s. The power, supposedly, was in the north, notably the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds axis.

It was still possible for outsiders to break into the trophy-hunting pack, each club had its stars – such as Willie Carr at Coventry, Ron Davies at Southampton, Frank Worthington at Huddersfield, Derek Dougan at Wolves, Jeff Astle and Tony Brown at West Bromwich Albion, Steve Kember at Palace and Malcolm MacDonald at Newcastle, one of the big transfers of the summer of 1971. Even in lower divisions, some clubs were able to hang on to their prized assets, such as QPR’s Rodney Marsh, Ted MacDougall at Bournemouth (and Boscombe Athletic) and Don Rogers at Swindon Town.

Manchester United’s George Best (c) is walked off the pitch by teammates Tony Dunne (l) and Bobby Charlton (r) after being sent off by referee Norman Burtenshaw for arguing with one of his own team-mates.


The 1971-72 campaign started with the Football League’s referees championing a clampdown on bad behaviour. In the opening weeks, sending-offs became more regular as the new tougher regime settled. The Football League had instructed their referees to take a hard line, penalising even the most innocuous foul with a booking. Dissent, too, was forbidden and George Best was among the first casualties, sent off in Manchester United’s second game for persistent arguing.

The early pacesetters were Sheffield United and Manchester United, but neither would feature in the closing stages of the season. The former, although falling away in the second half of the season, had a very acceptable first season back in the top division, while Manchester United, under Frank O’Farrell, allowed their early form to disguise the problems in their squad. The 1971-72 season was really the last flourish of George Best, who had a good first half of the programme as United lost just twice before the end of 1971. Into 1972, United started with seven consecutive defeats and went on to lose 11 of 19 games. The collapse was quite dramatic and sent United down to eighth place at the end of the season, after being five points clear at the top at one stage. Best scored just four goals after December 31, 10 less than in the first half of the season. He was clearly fed-up and told the media: “I’m off-form and sick about the way I’m playing”. He later made headlines for the wrong reasons, going missing in London and subsequently being ordered to adopt a more homely lifestyle with his old landlady.

United tried to bolster their attack with the signing of Ian Storey-Moore of Nottingham Forest, a transfer that proved to be very controversial. Storey-Moore was originally heading for Derby County where a £ 225,000 deal had supposedly been agreed. Storey-Moore was paraded in front of the Baseball Ground crowd, but at the last minute, the player decided to join Manchester United. Storey-Moore had said he was “joining a great club” in signing for Derby, but it was later revealed that his wife had changed his mind. Clough was livid, and probably a little embarrassed, but the Derby manager must have been pleased that he did not sign Storey-Moore after all. The player was forced to retire through injury just two years later.

London’s top trio, like Manchester United, failed to last the distance. Arsenal, who had lost their coach Don Howe to West Bromwich Albion, started the season well, reinforced their squad with Alan Ball from a strangely declining Everton, but ended up way off the pace. Arsenal’s ability to grind out results in their double season seemed to have been lost at times – they had various periods where they lost consecutive games and their home form – one of the key elements of 1970-71 – was nowhere near as impressive. Although the Gunners reached the FA Cup final, their fifth final in five seasons, there was sense of anti-climax.

Tottenham were heavily focused on their European campaign and although they had flashes of brilliance in the league, they were never as convincing as they had been in 1970-71. Spurs won the UEFA Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers after a run that includes games against teams from Iceland, France, Romania and Italy (AC Milan).

Chelsea began the season dreadfully, losing three of their first four games and it was not until October that they regained their composure, by which time they were too far behind to be considered challengers. At one stage, it looked as though they might force their way in, but after being knocked out of the FA Cup and losing the Football League Cup final in the space of eight days, their season was never as convincing after the first week of March.

Derby County manager Brian Clough (l) with Nottingham Forest’s Ian Storey-Moore (r).


The championship had, by March, settled into a four-way battle between Manchester City, Leeds United, Derby County and Liverpool. City were four points clear after beating Everton away on March 11 and of the four, Shankly’s Liverpool were considered to be too far off the summit. Liverpool had settled into a characteristic run after indifferent form in the autumn and Kevin Keegan, a relatively unknown player before he joined the club in May 1971, had become one of the finds of the season. Liverpool went from early February to May day without defeat, taking them to the brink of the title.

City extended their lead to five points on March 18 and gave Rodney Marsh his debut after signing from Queens Park Rangers for £ 200,000. Marsh’s arrival seemed to upset City’s flow, though and two weeks later, they had lost the lead to Derby after a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Stoke. Derby had leapt to the top after beating Leeds 2-0 at the Baseball Ground. Leeds were carrying a few injuries but they were no match for Derby, who never allowed them to settle on the ball. Don Revie was full of praise for Derby’s performance and said that if his team did not win the league, then Derby would be champions.

City were certainly blowing their chance, following that home defeat against Stoke with another defeat at Southampton. They won their next two games against West Ham and Manchester United by 3-1, but one point from two away games, at Coventry and Ipswich, left them with one game to go, on April 22 at home to Derby.

City won 2-0 at Maine Road with Francis Lee and Rodney Marsh on the scoresheet and although they were top with 57 points, they had finished their league programme. With Liverpool (played 40) and Derby (41) one point behind, and Leeds (40) on 55, City had little chance of finishing ahead of this trio.

In fact, Liverpool and Leeds were now favourites. On May 1, two games took place that would throw more light on the title race – Derby beating Liverpool 1-0 courtesy of a John McGovern goal and Leeds winning 2-0 against Chelsea at Elland Road. Leeds were now closing-in on what they hoped would be the double. They had to face Arsenal on May 6 in the FA Cup final, and their last league game was two days later against Wolves at Molineux. Liverpool, meanwhile, still had a chance, but had to visit Arsenal on the same night.

Leeds completed the first leg of their double by beating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley thanks to an Allan Clarke goal. The celebrations had to be put on hold as the trip to Wolves at the end of a gruelling schedule was ahead of Revie’s side. Derby, meanwhile, finished with 58 points from 42 games and were top, and were now sunning themselves on a club holiday in Majorca.

The league table underlined the tight situation:

P W D L F A Pts
Derby 42 24 10 8 69 33 58
Leeds 41 24 9 8 72 29 57
Man.City 42 23 11 8 77 45 57
Liverpool 41 24 8 9 64 30 56

If Liverpool won and Leeds failed to get a point at Wolves, then Shankly’s team would be champions. But if Liverpool only drew and Leeds lost, Brian Clough’s holidaying side would win the title. Leeds needed just a single point to win their second league championship.

Manchester City’s Rodney Marsh (second r) fires home one of his team’s two goals, watched by Derby County’s Roy McFarland (l), John Robson (second l) and Colin Todd (r)


It was, understandably, a tense night in north London and Wolverhampton. Don Revie said his team would go all out for victory: “I reckon it would be soccer suicide to adopt a defensive style of play. Attack is the best form of defence against Wolves. I cannot recall a team being forced to play a championship decider so soon after appearing in a Wembley cup final, but I am convinced there is sufficient character in this Leeds team to accept the challenge and emerge triumphant.”

Revie had asked for the game to be delayed to mid-May, but the Football League wouldn’t have it. Not for the first time, Leeds and their fans felt victims of a conspiracy to make sure their club did not win a major trophy.

It was an evening of drama. Leeds came out full of vigour and had a penalty appeal turned down in both halves. In between, Wolves took a first half lead through Francis Munro and despite pressure from Leeds, they doubled their advantage on 67 minutes when Derek Dougan scored. Billy Bremner pulled one back for the FA Cup winners, but Wolves held on to win 2-1. Over at Highbury, the game between Arsenal and Liverpool ended goalless.

Liverpool, though, were denied the title two minutes from time when John Toshack put the ball in the net but the “goal” was ruled out for offside. Bill Shankly was an unhappy man: “We have been deprived of the championship by a diabolical decision. It is a heartbreaking thing to happen to my young lads after their magnificent challenge.” Shankly added, though, that Derby were the best team Liverpool had faced in 1971-72.

Dejected Leeds United goalkeeper David Harvey and No 2 Paul Reaney (left) after Francis Munro had scored to put Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 ahead after 42 minutes in the First Division match at the Molineux ground. Wolves went on to win 2-1, wrecking the League championship hopes of FA Cup winners Leeds.

Jack Charlton declared that he was “as sick as a pig” as Leeds trudged out of Molineux. Revie, in his Yorkshire Evening Post column, congratulated Derby, but was understandably bitter. “Deep down, I cannot accept they deserved to snatch the title from Leeds United’s grasp. It would be hypocritical for me to say that Derby won the gripping championship race because they were the best side. It was more a case of Leeds failing to get the breaks needed when chasing the elusive double. We have done remarkably well to finish second in the table in view of the setbacks experienced during the last eight months. The worst blow, of course, was the League’s decision to force us to play our last League fixture against Wolves just two days after appearing in the FA Cup final.”

Brian Clough, who was in the Scilly Isles, commented: “It is incredible. I believe they played four and a half minutes of injury time at Molineux – if seemed like four and a half years to me. There is nothing I can say to sum up my feelings adequately.”

The controversy didn’t stop in 1972, however. There was talk of bribery and rumours that Leeds tried to get Wolves to “throw” the game. It raged on for years. It did little to devalue Derby’s triumph, which Brian Clough said was “one of the miracles of the century”. It was certainly one of the most absorbing championship seasons in British football history. If only we could have such a close-run, multi-club title race today.


Photos: PA