THE 2021-22 season marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest Football League title races of all time, 1971-72. What made it so notable? Four teams – Derby County, Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City were all in contention with just a couple of games to go. That season was arguably the end of a football mini golden age that started with England winning the World Cup in 1966. Certainly, characters like Manchester City’s Malcolm Allison felt the five-year period between 1967 and 1972 was very special.
For all those that like to tick-off lists of football grounds visited, around a third of the stadiums used in 1971-72 have since passed into history. Of the 22 first division grounds, 10 have been demolished and replaced with new stadiums. There are some very famous grounds among them: the Baseball Ground, Highbury, Maine Road, Upton Park, Highfield Road, Filbert Street, The Victoria Ground, Leeds Road, the Dell and White Hart Lane. There are some classics among that lot.
Some of those that have disappeared since 1972 had real character, such as Highbury’s wonderful art deco stands and rusty old Roker Park. While the locations may have changed, 14 of the 22 top flight clubs of 1972 are still playing at that level, seven are in the Championship and one (dear old, Ipswich Town), is languishing in League One. The past 50 years has seen most suffer ups and downs, but the giants of the game have largely retained their status.
But just how different was football in 1971-72? You only need to go as far as the old green carpet to see the fundamentals have been transformed. Look at those pitches today, like bowling greens or a tea-sipping garden party at Buck House. Whatever happened to mud, that great leveller? And the waterlogged pitch, with spray flying into the air when the ball rolled along the sodden turf? Like most things in life today, the rough edges have been trimmed off like unwanted fat on the Sunday roast. Mum used to create cup shocks, derail title runs and make heroes out of centre-halves who were covered in the stuff as they gallantly defended their goals.
Have we now created a sport that has to be played on a Subbuteo pitch where nothing out of the ordinary can impede the perfect journey of the ball? You could argue that a game that has so much money hanging on it, not to mention emotional baggage, should take place on an immaculate surface, and you’d probably be right. Today, there can be no excuse for a top level club with a suspect pitch.
But back in 1971-72, some clubs had very dodgy pitches – Derby County and West Ham among them – and Arsenal were a trailblazer in having under-soil heating. For most, though, if a pitch was frozen, the answer was hay, sand and rubber studs. And then there was Keith Weller and his ballet tights!
In those far-off times, fans, believe it or not, actually used to revel in a game played on poor conditions. Very rarely did a game get called off once it got underway, but sometimes the ball refused to roll and players skidded around like Bambi on ice. While the fans might complain at the “lottery” aspect of a bad pitch, they also didn’t want games to be postponed.
We have, in all probability, seen the end of the frozen pitch and mud is rarely tolerated, unless you watch non-league football. Even then, games are often called-off quite randomly and you sometimes suspect that if a manager doesn’t have his full squad available, he will push for a postponement when the weather turns difficult.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t mind a a challenge and some of the best games took place in driving rain and cloying mud. Sometimes it was the only way to stop George Best or Rodney Marsh, to name but two players from the era.
This isn’t a “better in my day” rant, because the spectator experience is probably more agreeable today than it was in 1972. Comfort was not a priority and facilities, at best, were fairly primitive, but far cheaper. It’s easy to get nostalgic about the game of your youth, but even as a baby boomer, I think visiting a football ground today is a more civilised and agreeable pastime. Regardless, I believe the 1971-72 campaign, with Brian Clough’s Derby County winning the title at that muddy ground and creaky George Eastham netting a winning goal at Wembley for Stoke City, was something of a landmark year.
This article first appeared in Football Weekends, reproduced by kind permission.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.