Great Reputations: QPR’s total footballers of 1975-76

IN THE aftermath of the 1974 World Cup, English football was fascinated by Dutch and German football. England’s failure to qualify for that competition and the decline of league football into a physical, defensive product that had started to drive people away, meant that a lot of soul-searching had taken place. The conclusion was that English domestic football needed a lift.

In 1975-76, there were signs that the industry was getting the message. Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United served up some of the best fare seen in years, West Ham were keeping with their tradition of attractive, but ultimately fruitless, football and Derby County, as reigning champions, were also keeping the purists happy. But the club that everyone was talking about as the season got underway was Queens Park Rangers.

London’s best

QPR was an unfashionable club, despite its proximity to the BBC, but in 1975, “the superhoops” represented the best that London had to offer. Arsenal, just four years on from their memorable double, were in decline; Tottenham, now without legendary manager Bill Nicholson, had struggled to replace an ageing team; and Chelsea were languishing in Division Two, hampered by player unrest and massive debts. QPR had former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton in charge and the quiet, cerebral man who won silverware over the other side of West London had two of his team – David Webb and John Hollins – at Loftus Road.

Sexton was one of the few English managers who made the effort to attend the World Cup in Germany and he was excited by what he saw. Always keen to experiment with continental methods, Sexton had never forgotten the Hungarian team of 1953 and when he saw the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich, not to mention the Dutch and German teams that lit up the 1974 World Cup, he was keen to bring the concept of “total football” to England. At QPR he had a team that was equipped to serve up the most progressive football west of Hilversum.

(L-R) Queens Park Rangers’ Stan Bowles gets away from Leeds United’s Trevor Cherry, Norman Hunter and Frank Gray

The men from the bush

QPR’s squad was relatively small, certainly by the standards of the 21st century. The team picked itself. In goal was Phil Parkes, a huge man with equally large hair. So notable was Parkes’ hair that he was used to advertise Cossack, a gentlemen’s hairspray. That aside, he was a fine keeper and played briefly for England. The full backs, Dave Clement and Ian Gillard, also played for England. They were fast overlapping defenders with a bit of steel in their make-up. Hollins, Frank McClintock and David Webb brought immense experience to the team, but Sexton gave them all an Indian Summer in 1975-76. There was also youthful vigour in the form of David Thomas, a fast winger, and the new England captain Gerry Francis, who was never as impressive as he was in this memorable season.

The guile and craft, not to mention headlines, were provided by Stan Bowles, a sublimely gifted, but flawed individual. He also had a stab at playing for England, but he was never going to win many caps in the era of Don Revie. Goals also came from Don Givens, a much underrated striker who played for the Republic of Ireland. Don Masson, a Scottish international, was a cultured midfielder who came to prominence late in his career. The rest of Rangers’ squad comprised journeymen like Mick Leach and Don Shanks. The starting eleven was arguably the best team in the First Division in 1975-76.

The season

QPR kicked off with a 2-0 win against Liverpool at Loftus Road. They followed that up with a 5-1 success at Derby, a result that stunned the media as much as it did the Baseball Ground. A typical headed goal by Webb enabled QPR to beat early-season pacesetters Manchester United 1-0 and it was not until October 4 that Sexton’s men lost their first game, at Leeds. It was tight at the top right up until the end of 1975 and a few frustrating results pushed Rangers down to fifth place at the turn of the year.

From the end of January, QPR went on a superb run that included 11 wins and a draw in 12 games. On March 6, Rangers went top after beating Coventry 4-1 and after overcoming Manchester City 1-0, they were one point ahead of United and Derby and two in front of Liverpool. The media had now accepted that QPR could win the league. Some journalists – those that eulogized about European football on a regular basis – went as far as suggesting that QPR should form the nucleus of the England team and that Sexton was the man to lead the country’s troubled national side.

Rangers barely put a foot wrong, producing some wonderful flowing football. But when they went to Carrow Road, home of Norwich, they were beaten 3-2, despite outplaying the East Anglians. It was a costly defeat that sent a signal of hope to the other clear challenger for the title – Liverpool. Rangers ended the campaign with a 2-0 win against Leeds United at Loftus Road. It put them top of the table with 59 points, but Liverpool – one point behind – had one game to play, against struggling Wolves. This finale was vital for both teams – defeat would send Wolves down, victory would enable Liverpool to deny QPR their first championship. It ended 3-1 to Liverpool. Rangers were destined to finish runners-up.

Queens Park Rangers’ Gerry Francis gets away from Liverpool’s Phil Thompson

The best team to never win the league?

QPR certainly rank alongside the best sides to finish as bridesmaids. There wasn’t much wrong with the team, but it was never going to stay together for long. Why? Players like Hollins, McClintock, Masson and Webb were not in their prime and Francis was injury prone. Bowles was a mercurial talent, never likely to stay anywhere very long. And Rangers were not a rich club – they were always in danger of losing talent to bigger outfits. Sexton was also coveted, moving to Manchester United a year later. Basically, if he had been able to hold together his former club’s talent, QPR 1975-76 were what Chelsea 1970-72 might have become. QPR were great to watch and they deserved the title. It’s almost as tragic as Holland’s failure to win Munich ’74.

Photos: PA

Great Reputations: Anderlecht mid-1970s, trusting in purple

BELGIAN teams never made much of an impact in Europe in the early years of UEFA’s club competitions, the country was largely seen as an also-ran when it came to football. Teams like Anderlecht and Antwerp sustained very heavy blows in the first European Cup tournaments, often suffering double figure aggregate defeats. But the dynamic across the continent began to change in the 1960s and by the early 1970s, Belgium had become a credible force in the game.

Standard Liège reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1961-62, losing to Real Madrid and a year later, Anderlecht surprisingly beat the Spanish giants 4-3 on aggregate in the first round. It was not unusual for a Belgian side to have a decent run in Europe and to match that, the national team also won through to the 1970 World Cup, finishing ahead of Yugoslavia and Spain in their group. In 1970, Anderlecht from Brussels reached the final of the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup and were only narrowly beaten 4-3 by Arsenal.

Across the border, there was a new footballing movement that was gathering pace in the Netherlands which later became known as “total football”. It was only natural that this would have some influence on surrounding countries like Belgium. Teams like Anderlecht and Bruges were now renowned as difficult opponents in European competition and the national team followed-up their 1970 World Cup campaign by qualifying for the semi-finals of the 1972 European Championship, the latter stages of which they hosted.

Anderlecht, at this time, became the best supported club in Belgium, with crowds averaging over 20,000 at their Astrid Park stadium. The “purple and white” won the Belgian league in 1972 and 1974 with a team that included experienced international Paul Van Himst, Dutch winger Robbie Rensenbrink and the Hungarian Attila Ladinsky.

For Anderlecht, the period between 1974 and 1981 saw the club make its mark in Europe, playing some exciting attacking football and winning two European prizes.

In the mid-1970s, Anderlecht and Bruges, led by Austrian Ernst Happel, would fight-out the Belgian title race, but in 1976, 1977 and 1978, the team from West Flanders remained ahead, although in the last of those seasons, there was just a single point between them.

Anderlecht won the Beker van België in 1975 (beating Antwerp) and 1976 (4-0 against Lierse). In 1975-76, under new manager Hans Croon, they entered the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Croon was something of an eccentric manager and a character, but he was seen as a stop-gap until national team manager Raymond Goethals was available to join the club.

Anderlecht had the good fortune of a relatively easy run through the  competition, beating Rapid Bucharest, Yugoslavia’s Borac Banja Luka, Wrexham and East Germans BSG Sachsenring Zwickau. Anderlecht’s opponents in the final were West Ham, who had a tougher route. Croon’s side almost had home advantage, too, with the game being played at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Anderlecht had two members of the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 in their ranks – Rensenbrink and the recently signed Arie Haan, who joined from Ajax. And there was also François Van Der Elst, a promising young winger who had alarming pace and a clear eye for goal. On the bench was another starlet in Franky Vercauteren, a player who had come through the Anderlecht youth system.

Although West Ham, a team that had faded dramatically after a strong start to 1975-76, took the lead, Anderlecht’s speed and directness earned them a 4-2 victory, with Rensenbrink and Van Der Elst scoring two apiece.

In the summer, Goethals arrived at the club after leading the national team between 1968 and 1976. OIne of Europe’s most coveted and charismatic coaches, he was known as “Raymond-la- science” for his incredible knowledge of the game, his range of nicknames also included “Le sorcier” and “Le Magicien”.  Always seen with a cigarette screwed into his mouth, Goethals was an advocate of zonal-marking and the 3-5-2 formation long before it became fashionable. At Anderlecht, he was fortunate to have some sublimely gifted players that could produce football with a swagger – casting them in the role of distant cousins of the Dutch sides of the period.

Goethals considered that the jewel in Anderlecht’s crown, Rensenbrink was often under-rated and from a technical perspective, every bit as good as the more high profile Johan Cruyff. Rensenbrink was an introvert, the complete opposite to his celebrated compatriot.

The only major signing for 1976-77, Goethals aside, was English forward Duncan McKenzie, a wonderfully skilful but infuriatingly inconsistent player. He played just nine games and scored two goals before being sold back to England and Everton.

Anderlecht went close to winning the title and finished second in both the league and cup, beaten 4-3 by Bruges in the final, despite leading 3-1. To underline that 1976-77 was a campaign of near misses, they also reached the Cup-Winners’ Cup final again, losing 2-0 to Hamburg in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium.

As Bruges had won the Belgian double, Anderlecht competed once more in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1977-78. Belgium had an outstanding year in Europe that season, for Bruges reached the European Cup final and Anderlecht returned to the final of the competition they had won two years’ earlier. This time, they had a harder road to the final in Paris – beating Lokomotiv Sofia, Hamburg, Porto and Twente before facing Austria Vienna. It was easy going for Anderlecht in the Parc des Princes, a 4-0 win with Rensenbrink and full back Gilbert Van Binst both scoring twice.  Anderlecht’s consistency and performances in Europe meant they were ranked in the top six in UEFA’s team rankings in 1977-78 – even ahead of teams like Barcelona and Juventus.

Anderlecht continued to go close in the Belgian League but Goethals never won a domestic title with the club. He moved to Bordeaux in 1979 but returned to Belgium with Standard Liège where he won two championships. Linked to a bribery scandal when he was at Liège and forced to resign, he Later won the UEFA Champions League with Marseille. When he died at the age of 83, former Anderlecht player Hugo Broos paid this tribute to him: “I was lucky to play under him for three years – I look back on that period with a lot of happiness. Raymond was one of football’s eternal greats.”

Anderlecht were eventually champions in 1981 and two years’ later, they won the UEFA Cup. But their three consecutive European Cup-Winners’ Cup finals were a considerable achievement and put the club, and Belgian, football firmly on the map.

Photo PA: Anderlecht 1976-77