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

FA Cup Final: Another chapter in London’s oldest big derby

IN the modern age, the big London clash is Arsenal v Tottenham, two clubs in close proximity, massive fanbases and key roles in the development of the game. Those that know their football history will be only too aware that Arsenal started life on the opposite side of the River Thames, adopting a series of names – Dial Square, Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal – as they searched for their true identity. Arsenal are not the only club to modify their name and image, but they were probably the first to adapt to the changing times.

Arsenal, like Manchester United (ex-Newton Heath) and Liverpool, have attracted a fair amount of envy down the decades. Jealousy is one of the overriding emotions of football, manifesting itself in resentment over wealth, status, stadiums, sponsors, players, owners and managers.

Fans also begrudge their rivals creating history and seem to believe the only “good history” is sepia-tinted and nowhere near the present. The fact is, history is made every day or our lives. While many fans tag a player a “legend” even if he’s only played a handful of games and appeared just a few years earlier, they consider recent history made by a club to be almost irrelevant.

Chelsea have been far more successful than Arsenal over the past 20 years. They are seen as arrivistes by many fans at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. They “bought” success between 2004 and the current era, forgetting that Chelsea, from 1997 started winning again after almost three decades of under-achievement and frustration. In their own way, Arsenal bought success in the 1930s, their first golden age, and Liverpool were one of the wealthiest clubs around in the 1970s and 1980s and benefitted accordingly.

Manchester United, in the 1990s, prospered from the club’s elevation to a corporate entity, floating on the stock market and creating what we now see as the epitome of financial era football. Arsenal’s second coming, a combination of David Dein’s foresight and innovation of the part of Arséne Wenger, was effectively usurped by Roman Abramovich flying over west London.

Removal men

Arsenal’s move north, accessing the more affluent surburbs, has arguably become more controversial as time has passed. Nobody had heard the phrase “franchise club” or “Woolwich Wanderers” when the club shifted a few miles across the Thames, but once that took place in 1913, the rivalry between “The Arsenal” and Tottenham Hotspur started.

Arsenal’s relocation demonstrated the club had business acumen – Woolwich Arsenal were not in good financial shape and in 1912-13, they averaged just 9,400 at their Plumstead home – lower than Orient and well below half of attendances at both Tottenham and Chelsea.

Chelsea’s formation in 1905 was the result of circumstances. If Fulham’s chairman, Sir Henry Norris, had accepted the Mears family’s offer to move his club to Stamford Bridge, a new club might not have seen the light of day.

Curiously, the same Sir Henry became chairman of Woolwich Arsenal in 1912, and wanted to merge Fulham and Arsenal to create a London “super club”. This was blocked by the Football League, so the move to north London took shape.

It proved to be an inspired decision, for in 1913-14, the first season as “The Arsenal” at their Highbury Stadium, a classic ground designed by Archibald Leitch, the crowds averaged almost 23,000.

The new Arsenal developed its inventive and professional ethos in the mid-1920s when Herbert Chapman was hired from Huddersfield Town. Chapman had won two of the three league titles that the unassuming Yorkshire club secured between 1923 and 1926. Chapman replaced Leslie Knighton as manager, an earnest figure who claimed he was not given the funds needed to build a strong Arsenal side. He had a point – as soon as Chapman was in place, Arsenal loosened the purse strings and over the following seasons, Arsenal became known as the “Bank of England club”.

The club’s financial power was underlined when they signed England inside forward David Jack from Bolton for £ 13,000 in 1928, who although almost 30, went on to score 26 goals in 1928-29.

Arsenal won the FA Cup in 1930 and in 1930-31 became London’s first league champion. The Gunners’ side accumulated 66 points from 42 games and scored 127 goals. Arsenal were so superior that over the other side of London, Chelsea decided it was time to invest in major talent to grab some limelight.

Since their formation in 1905, Chelsea had longed to be London’s most glamorous football brand. From the signing of Willie Foulke in their debut season, to assembling a forward line that included three England internationals – George Hilsdon, Jimmy Windridge and Vivien Woodward – the club not only had a swagger about it, they were also one of the best supported in the land. Between 1908 and 1914, Chelsea had the highest average crowds in the Football League and by 1931, were drawing 36,000 per game to Stamford Bridge. Arsenal, the champions, were averaging 37,000.

With so much activity in north London, Chelsea tried to keep pace with Arsenal in 1930-31, signing Hughie Gallacher from Newcastle for £ 10,000 , Alex Jackson from Huddersfield for  £ 8,500 and Aberdeen winger Alec Cheyne for £ 6,000.

This was not enough to make Chelsea into contenders for the big prizes and the gulf between Leslie Knighton’s galaxy of stars and Arsenal was evident when the Gunners’ won 5-1 at Stamford Bridge at the end of November 1930.

Arsenal dominated the 1930s and Chelsea flattered to deceive for most of the decade and into the early post-WW2 years. Arsenal switched their playing kit to the now familiar red body and white sleeves in 1933, but Chelsea had the option to adopt a similar kit a year or two earlier, but decided against it.

Arsenal’s road to the final

R3 Leeds Utd (H) W1-0
R4 Bournemouth (A) W2-1
R5 Portsmouth (A) W2-0
R6 Sheff.Utd (A) W2-1
SF Man.City (Wembley) W2-1

Arsenal won trophies in the austerity era, the league title in 1948 and 1953 and the FA Cup in 1950, but they were no longer the major force in English football. Chelsea won their first league title in 1955, but as the 1950s became the early 1960s, both clubs had fallen behind their rivals, notably Tottenham, who won the “double” in 1961 and were the first English club to win a European prize.

Chelsea stumbled upon a youth policy that very much mirrored Matt Busby’s approach at Manchester United and this yielded a number of players that would form the backbone of the club’s first team in the mid-1960s. Arsenal, meanwhile, looked lost during the 1960s and Chelsea developed an impressive record against them, winning 16 of 24 league meetings between 1959-60 and 1971-72. Arsenal’s “double” season of 1970-71 saw Chelsea claim victory early in the campaign, but during the run-in, it was clear Bertie Mee’s side had the upper hand once more.

By the mid-70s, both clubs had dropped some way down the league table and in 1975, Chelsea were relegated and Arsenal were just four points better off in 17th place. For the rest of the decade and for half of the 1980s, the rivalry between Chelsea and Arsenal was somewhat muted, but the late 1990s rekindled the flames of passion.

Both clubs were at the forefront of the new Premier age, taking advantage of the ability to sign exciting foreign players. When Arsenal won the double again in 1998, their stars were either French or Dutch, while Chelsea’s Football League Cup winning side had only three Englishmen in their line-up. Perhaps it was the glamour of London, or the ambition of the clubs’ chairmen, Dein at Arsenal and Ken Bates at Chelsea, but the two capital city rivals were instrumental in making English football more cosmopolitan.

Arsenal had a distinct advantage for a while over Chelsea and it was not necessarily anything to do with money. It was stability in the dugout. While Wenger, a somewhat speculative appointment, was installed in 1996 and stayed in place until 2018, Chelsea’s approach to team management was built around quick success and short-termism. However, from 2003, their strategy certainly proved more successful than Arsenal’s patient, conservative stance. While this demanded respect, it also became out-dated by the fast-changing Premier League.

Shifting sands

The Abramovich era at Chelsea saw a complete about-turn in London football which gave Chelsea the upper hand. Arsenal, who now had a gleaming new stadium to pay for, appeared to resent that Chelsea, for so long seen as a club that under-achieved, were now wealthy and able to compete with the traditional heavyweights in the transfer market. Between 2003 and 2019, Chelsea won 16 major trophies to Arsenal’s five. Although both clubs are still among the wealthiest and most influential in Britain, they have been pushed into the shadows by the emergence of Manchester City and Liverpool.

Chelsea’s road to the final

R3 Nottm For (H) W2-0
R4 Hull City (A) W2-1
R5 Liverpool (H) W2-0
R6 Leicester C (A) W1-0
SF Man.Utd (Wembley) W3-1

It is likely that Abramovich will spend big again to make Chelsea contenders, but Arsenal continue to be a frustrated club. Their owner, Stan Kroenke, has a very different style than Abramovich and although many Arsenal fans will always claim Chelsea are a club that has prospered through the use of financial steroids, deep down they crave an owner who can make them competitive again.

The modern game has destroyed the unwritten rule of never selling a key player to a close rival. Very few players have been transferred between the two clubs, but in recent times, Olivier Giroud, David Luiz, William Gallas, Peter Cech and Ashley Cole have resided in both dressing rooms.

The clash of cultures means that any meeting of the two clubs lacks nothing in passion and friction. The Europa League final in 2019 was an exception as the location (Baku) and Arsenal’s malaise made for a tepid, one-sided final won emphatically by Chelsea. In 2017, the FA Cup final meeting at Wembley was an engaging, end-to-end contest deservedly edged by Arsenal – possibly the last decent final.

The immediate futures of the two clubs are at stake this time. For Chelsea, Frank Lampard needs a trophy to ease the pressure and expectation that will build for 2020-21. For Mikkel Arteta, any doubts about his ability to lift the club will be removed by winning the FA Cup. The stadium may be empty, the season’s end long overdue, but the rivalry between the two clubs will ensure it will not be dull. It is, after all, London’s oldest football rivalry at the highest level.



Photos: PA