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.