1971/72: A Chaotic Climax

There are lots of ‘events’ in football now. Transfer deadline day, tournament draws, player/manager unveilings: everything packaged up nice and simple for us masses to take in and understand, but with fanfare, fireworks and TV cameras.

One of the ‘events’ that can be a genuinely remarkable spectacle is the final day of the season, when titles are won, relegation is decided and we’re treated to close-ups of grown adult human beings crying on national television over a game.

This hasn’t always been the case, though. The first time the English top flight arranged all the last matches of the season to be on a single day for the purposes of drama (and, in fairness, erm, fairness), was in 1994/95 when Blackburn pipped Manchester United to the Premier League title.

Before that, the end of the English domestic season was frequently something of a mess, fixtures strewn hither and thither for assorted reasons, occasionally making traditional types frightfully cross by the last league games coming – gasp, shock, swoon – after the FA Cup final.

One of the most extreme examples of this came in the 1971/72 season, which featured a quite frankly insane but fragmented climax involving four clubs vying for the title until the very end and eventually separated by only a single point, the lead changing hands what seemed like dozens of times and a month of fixtures that looked like a Kinder egg in which the surprise was a small stick of dynamite, fragments of chocolate/games deposited all over the place.

The combatants in question were Brian Clough’s Derby, Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer’s Manchester City, Don Revie’s Leeds United and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool – a veritable Who’s Who of the era’s great managers – but it was perhaps the least-lauded team of the quartet that looked like they were nailed on for the title.

City lost just once between the start of December and March, and by the middle of the latter month had established a four-point lead at the top of the table, a not insignificant margin with half a dozen or so games remaining and only two points for a win.

Of course, despite building such a lead, City being City they did their absolute best to self-sabotage. A disagreement/power struggle between Mercer and Allison had been rumbling for the better part of 18 months, partly due to the younger man’s ambition and partly because they favoured different takeover bids (the former was happy to go along with one headed by local businessman Joe Smith, the latter preferred a consortium that included future chairman Peter Swales). After the Swales group won control in the October of that season, Mercer was marginalised, and although he officially had the title ‘manager’, Allison was named ‘team manager’. While it had no immediate impact on the team’s form, it was clearly an unsatisfactory situation.

In his book ‘Big Mal: The High Life and Hard Times of Malcolm Allison’, David Tossell wrote: “If the changes were meant to mean the end of the unrest at the club, someone miscalculated badly. No one was about to live happily ever after. As City chased another First Division title, Mercer no longer felt close enough to the team, while Allison thought Joe was too involved and would end up describing him as ‘a sort of shadowy presence’.”

Then, when the title looked to be theirs for the taking, Allison signed a long-term target, QPR’s Rodney Marsh. The flamboyant forward was crowbarred into a strong and settled side, and perhaps coincidentally their form collapsed. They won just three of their final eight games, although Marsh was key in their last game, a victory against title rivals Derby. “Right, no beating about the bush,” Marsh wrote in his autobiography. “I have to hold my hands up – I cost Manchester City the 1972 league championship.”

A look at the fixture list for the last three weeks of the campaign makes for… fragmented reading to say the least. The last full round of games was on 22 April after which there was no single day with more than four matches. City played their last game on that final full day, beating Derby to put them top of the league by a point, but were left to twiddle their thumbs while the others finished up: Leeds and Liverpool still had two games left and Derby one.

For much of the season Derby had buzzed around the upper parts of the table, occasionally nabbing top spot and generally remaining just about in touch, but the prospect of them being genuine title contenders didn’t really emerge until March, when a brilliant run of nine wins in 11 games, including a dismantling of Leeds on Easter Monday, saw them usurp City at the top of the table.

However, just like City, internal ructions and wranglings intervened, and they damn near blew the whole thing. Clough’s relationship with Derby chairman Sam Longson had been dicey almost from the very first day he arrived at the Baseball Ground, usually over either money (Clough’s salary or transfer fees) or the manager’s brash attitude, and both of these factors converged in early April when Coventry approached Clough and assistant Peter Taylor to take over at Highfield Road.

Coventry, who finished that season fifth-bottom, did not seem a particularly attractive proposition, but remarkably Clough and Taylor accepted the offer and handed in their resignations at Derby. How serious they were about moving to Highfield Road though, is questionable.

In his biography of Clough, ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’, Jonathan Wilson wrote: ‘That night, Clough and Taylor went to Longson’s house with (club director) Mike Keeling, indicating that they may be prepared to stay if Derby offered more money…The board promptly agreed to the pay-rises. A day later, though, Longson discovered the late-night visit had been a charade. (Coventry chairman Derrick) Robins, tiring of Clough’s delaying tactics, had withdrawn the offer, sending Coventry’s assistant secretary Bob Dennison… to deliver the rejection to Clough personally.

Whether the internal politics had an impact on their form is uncertain, but Derby’s last three games of the campaign were rather up and down. They comfortably beat Huddersfield 3-0, but lost 2-0 to City at Maine Road a week later, the much-maligned Marsh scoring one and being fouled for a penalty that Francis Lee tucked away. Plenty of pressure was thus on their final match of the campaign, against Liverpool, who had spent much of the season flitting around in mid-table only to launch a late title bid, but a John McGovern goal was enough to give Derby the win and first place in the table, their fixture obligations fulfilled.

While they were in top spot, they were still only 8/1 to actually lift the title, as Leeds and Liverpool both had a game remaining, the former only a point behind and the latter two, but both had superior goal averages, meaning a draw for Revie’s men against Wolves on the last day would be enough to retain the title, and if they didn’t manage that then a victory for Liverpool at Arsenal would see them champions.

In Derby’s favour was some fierce fixture congestion in Yorkshire. After City had played their last game, Leeds were two points off top spot with two to play, but also had the FA Cup final against Arsenal to deal with. An appeal to the Football League to rearrange their matches was rebuffed, adding to the sense of persecution and injustice. “To Leeds supporters it seemed as if the League’s principal remit was to stop the club winning trophies,” wrote Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson in ‘The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United’.

This meant that Leeds would require three victories in three massive games inside eight days to seal the Double, the final league game (against Wolves) coming just two days after the cup final. The first was secured easily enough, a 2-0 win over Chelsea at Elland Road, on the same day as Derby’s win over Liverpool, leaving them a point back and only needing that draw at Molineux.

The problem was that all of these games were taking their toll, with Eddie Gray, Johnny Giles, Allan Clarke, Paul Madeley and Paul Reaney all nursing injuries in the lead-up to the trip to Wembley, to add to long-term casualty Terry Cooper. The final was a reasonably grim affair and while Leeds beat Arsenal 1-0 with a goal by the patched-up Clarke, the team undoubtedly paid a price, Eric Todd in the Guardian rather flamboyantly declaring that ‘the Wembley Gods inevitably demanded a substantial fee for victory’. Mick Jones suffered a shoulder injury that ruled him out of the Wolves game, while Clarke and Giles probably shouldn’t have played, the former eventually forced off with a thigh problem.

So the league title would come down to a Monday in May when the season should really have already ended, with Leeds at Molineux while Liverpool travelled to Highbury. Derby, anxiously waiting the results, went off on their jollies – Taylor taking the squad to Majorca while Clough went to the Isles of Scilly with his family – as their rivals slugged it out.

The sense of powerlessness must have been incredible, especially for someone like Clough. This was a man who liked to be in command, to control every situation even if he left some of the details to his underlings, and suddenly a season’s work was left in the hands of two teams for whom the league was not exactly a priority: Arsenal were still suffering mentally and physically from the cup final, while Wolves were in the middle of their two-legged UEFA Cup final against Spurs. This was a remarkable achievement, taking a club from the nether regions of the Second Division to the brink of the title, and while the denouement was taking place he was pacing around hundreds of miles away, unable to influence a thing.

It was probably a good job that Clough wasn’t watching either of the games, because they may very well have been the end of him. 

Liverpool pounded on the door at Arsenal in the first half, Emlyn Hughes and Kevin Keegan both coming within a whisker of breaking the deadlock, while at Molineux a patched-up Leeds attacked relentlessly, with Billy Bremner playing as an auxiliary forward, Eric Todd in the Guardian exclaiming that if he ‘has played a more inspiring game I wish I had seen it.’ Indeed, that was the plan, Revie declaring that it ‘would be soccer suicide to adopt a negative style of play.’ Leeds went close on any number of occasions and so very nearly won it at the last, with Gerry Taylor clearing a Terry Yorath lob off the line as the final whistle neared.

But things kept on going right for Clough and Derby. Frank Munro gave Wolves the lead just before half-time, a lead doubled by Derek Dougan after the break, while down in London Arsenal held firm in the face of the Liverpool onslaught. Indeed, luck appeared to be very much on their side, because refereeing decisions in both games favoured Derby. Leeds were denied a penalty despite Wolves full-back Bernard Shaw appearing to handle a cross from Peter Lorimer (‘they should have had at least one penalty” wrote Todd), while Liverpool had a late John Toshack goal disallowed for offside.

“I did not think the goal was offside,” said Bill Shankly after the game. “Toshack came from nowhere to put the ball in. The linesman did not flag, but the referee took no notice.” Shankly also called it a “diabolical decision” that had “cost us the championship.”

Had either of those decisions gone the other way, then Derby’s players would only have had a holiday to enjoy, rather than a league title too. But they didn’t, and it ended Wolves 2-1 Leeds and Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool. Derby, remarkably, were champions.

Taylor, with the Rams players in Majorca, followed the game via telephone, in what sounds like a vaguely comic scene with most of the squad watching him, the colour draining from his face as the more dramatic moments of the evening were recounted, only for him to raise a fist in the air when it was all over, shouting “We’ve won it! We’ve won it!”

Clough, not usually a man stuck for words, nearly was. Nearly. “It is incredible,” he told the Guardian. “I do not believe in miracles, but one has occurred tonight. I believe they played four and a half minutes of injury time at Molineux – it seemed like four and a half years to me. There is nothing I can say to sum up my feelings adequately, although I supposed we could have won the cup as well.

“For a team and a town like Derby to win the title is a credit to all concerned. This has given me far more pleasure than I can adequately express. It makes you appreciate what a job you and your players have done. And my players have given blood this season. In fact, no team has given more.”

Still, in a moment typical of Clough, not someone afraid of flirting with hypocrisy, he offered a note of warning to his charges abroad: “Even so, although they are now on holiday in Majorca I want them to remember they are still Derby County players and to behave accordingly.”

Even then, after all of this, the season wasn’t over. One more game remained, the campaign trickling into the summer months with the small matter of the North London derby. Arsenal, perhaps drained by their exertions in the cup final and against Liverpool, were beaten 2-0 by Tottenham with goals from Ralph Coates and Alan Mullery.

These final results meant that, remarkably, the top four were separated by a single point, Derby finishing one ahead of Leeds, Liverpool and City (in that order, thanks to goal average). With the organised and orderly way season finales are arranged these days, we shall never see a denouement quite as chaotic as this again. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but as final stretches go, 1971/72 takes some beating.

Image Attribution:

By Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang, bestanddeelnummer 930-7831 (Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo) CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, via Wikimedia Commons

1971/72: A Chaotic Climax
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