THE 1974-75 season wasn’t a classic for English football. The country had been suffering a long hangover after the national team’s exit from the World Cup. We were excluded from the 1974 finals in West Germany, pinning our hopes on Scotland and Jack Taylor the referee. While the global audience marvelled at the exploits of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Lato, we had John Craggs of Jack Charlton’s dour Middlesbrough. Total football? It would have been total disaster had Boro won the Football League Championship. Thank goodness for Derby County, who at least tried to play attacking football.
But there was something stirring, not necessarily in the First Division, but coming up from the division below. Manchester United’s long, slow decline ended in relegation in 1974 and they spent the 1974-75 regrouping and comfortably winning promotion. Tommy Docherty built a new-look United that was steeped in the club’s recently abandoned tradition of playing attractive football (ok, so they also had Jim Holton) and he brought a young, exciting team back to the top flight. Nobody expected them to make the impact they did, but they were not alone in trying to bring a bit of entertainment back to a game that was becoming the ugly child of English sport.
In London, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham, managed by Dave Sexton and John Lyall respectively, had finished 1974-75 unspectacularly in the league, but West Ham had won the FA Cup, beating Fulham 2-0 at Wembley. Rangers had won many friends with their free-flowing football, but nobody expected them to improve much on the 11th place they achieved in April 1975. But many people felt that with neighbours Chelsea relegated, QPR could lure a few disillusioned fans to Loftus Road.
Manchester United, QPR and West Ham, and their commitment to entertaining football, promised much for English football in 1975-76. Sadly, it would not be rewarded by silverware, although all three went close to winning major prizes.
QPR started the season with a 2-0 win against Liverpool, a result that would become more important as the months passed. The first goal of the campaign went to Gerry Francis, the England captain whose star climbed and fell in the space of a year, largely due to injuries. West Ham won 2-1 at Stoke City and Manchester United began life back in the First Division with a 2-0 victory at Wolves.
People started to recognise QPR’s potential when they visited the Baseball Ground, home of champions Derby and came away with a 5-1 win. Derby themselves were also playing an eye-catching brand of football, enhanced by the arrival of Arsenal’s Charlie George and, latterly, by the arrival of Welsh winger Leighton James from Burnley. But they got off to a bad start and were chasing the leaders for months. After five games, only three teams – United, West Ham and QPR were still unbeaten.
United’s team of scurrying, baggy-shorted young players was making headlines. Docherty had stumbled across a goalscorer in Stuart Pearson in 1974 and he had continued from where he left off in the Second Division. Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Daly and Lou Macari formed the busiest midfield around. United played fast and furious, exploiting the wings through Steve Coppell and [from November 1975] new signing Gordon Hill. Where they fell down was in defence and in their away form, which was patchy. Although they had faults, United were great to watch and became, for the first time since the heyday of Best-Law-Charlton, the neutrals’ favourite team.
United lost their unbeaten record to QPR on September 13, a diving header by a rejuvenated David Webb winning the game at Loftus Road. On October 4, both QPR and West Ham lost their records, Rangers going down 1-2 at Leeds United and West Ham falling 0-1 at home to Everton. By Christmas, the fumes of FA Cup success had evaporated and West Ham lost momentum and slid down the table.
There air of optimism about Upton Park in the first few months of 1975-76 was mainly due to the club’s involvement in the European Cup-Winners Cup – nobody seriously saw the Hammers as title material, despite some fine footballers. Chicken-run veterans still remembered the club’s glorious 1965 run that ended with TSV Munich 1860 being beaten at Wembley in a final that captured the purist approach of Ron Greenwood and his charges.
West Ham easily negotiated the first round tie with Finland’s Reipas Lahti, drawing 2-2 away before winning 3-0 at Upton Park after three second half goals. In the next round, they were drawn to meet Ararat Yerevan of Armenia, although they were then part of the USSR and had won the Soviet Cup in 1975. The first meeting was drawn before the Hammers won 3-1 at home in another highly-charged European night in East London. This put Lyall’s side into the last eight of the competition where they would face FC Den Haag of the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, back in the Football League, the Hammers were top of the table and Derby County and Liverpool had started to creep into contention. QPR were in third place and United had slipped to fifth. By the end of 1975, the league table read as follows:
|Queens Park Rangers||24||10||10||4||31||18||30|
|West Ham United||23||12||4||7||35||30||28|
The manner in which QPR, Man.United and West Ham had started 1975-76 had prompted great discussion around the England team. Don Revie was struggling to win people over as manager and England were set to miss out on a second successive tournament having lost to Czechoslavakia in Bratislava in a misty qualifying game. Critics were starting to call for the removal of players like Paul Madeley, Roy McFarland, Mick Channon, Malcolm MacDonald and Allan Clarke and advocating an England team centred around the leading clubs of the day. One, I believe Eric Batty of World Soccer, was arguing for a team along the lines of: Parkes, Clement, Gillard, Francis, Thomas and Bowles of QPR, Brooking, Paddon and Bonds of West Ham, Greenhoff, Coppell and Pearson of Manchester United and Keegan of Liverpool. The argument was that familiarity would bring greater success than the disparate unit currently wearing the Admiral shirts of England had managed under Ramsey and Revie.
Of course, it didn’t happen, but it did show that the triumvirate of QPR, West Ham and Manchester United were being recognised for what they were trying to bring to English football.
The quality of the football was a reflection of the characters involved. Sexton at QPR was always a big disciple of European football, and his team, which combined the attributes of ball artists like Stan Bowles, Don Masson and Dave Thomas, with the steely grit of David Webb, Frank McClintock and Ian Gillard, played lovely football that paid homage to the Mighty Magyars. He would have loved to have achieved that at Chelsea, but the Kings Road got in the way. Shepherd’s Bush may have had the bookmakers to distract Bowles, but it didn’t have the cachet of the Kings Road hostelries that all but destroyed his Chelsea vision.
Ironically, Manchester United’s Docherty has also flown so close to great things at Chelsea. He preceded Sexton at Stamford Bridge but his temperament was far removed from the cerebral Sexton. At Chelsea, he forged a team founded on fast, exciting and youthful football, as well as an innovative approach to set-piece play. It all imploded, as it did at United in 1977 (amid different circumstances), but for a while, it worked spectacularly at Old Trafford and dragged the club from its early 1970s mayhem.
John Lyall was a protégé of Ron Greenwood and had been on the fringes of the famed West Ham footballing academy. West Ham, for years, preached purist football endorsed by the holy trinity of Moore-Hurst-Peters. Lyall carried on from his master, with Trevor Brooking partially filling the gap left by the World Cup winning trio.
How did it all end? QPR became the people’s favourites in 1975-76, but fell agonisingly short of the final hurdle, finishing second to Liverpool. They would never go as close again. West Ham lost their FA Cup at the first time of asking, losing 0-2 at home to Liverpool, but they went on to reach the final of the Cup-Winners Cup, losing 2-4 to Anderlecht in Brussels. In 1976-77, they were relegated.
United continued to delight and reached the FA Cup final, but were surprisingly beaten by Second Division Southampton 1-0 at Wembley. They finished third, four points behind Liverpool and three short of QPR.
QPR: Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, John Hollins, Mick Leach, Frank McClintock, David Webb, Gerry Francis (captain), Don Masson, Don Givens, Stan Bowles, Dave Thomas
Manchester United: Alex Stepney, Alex Forsyth, Stewart Houston, Gerry Daly, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan (captain), Steve Coppell, Sammy McIlroy, Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari, Gordon Hill
West Ham United: Mervyn Day, John McDowell, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds (captain), Tommy Taylor, Kevin Lock, Billy Jennings, Graham Paddon, Alan Taylor, Trevor Brooking, Pat Holland, Keith Robson, Bobby Gould