At the outset of the 1972/72 season, total football was on everyone’s minds. Following the exhilarating performance of the Ajax side in the 1971/72 European Cup, their second win in a row, the aspiration of every self-respecting English league manager was to play a more attacking, more invigorating style of football. The supposedly stultifying tedium of the previous season’s offerings, despite Derby’s unexpected title win, led Arsenal manager Bertie Mee, bested by Ajax in the quarter-finals, to claim that his team was going to embrace the so-called “new Continental ‘total football’ concept” and Manchester City’s Malcolm Allison likewise vowed to set pulses racing with an emphasis on attacking football. Brian Clough opined that seven clubs had a roughly equal chance of winning the league title, but warned with his usual savoir-faire that only his Derby side had yet to peak.
As it transpired, 1,160 goals were scored in England’s top-flight, quite bizarrely the exact number as the season before. While scintillating total football might not have arrived quite as promised, and, indeed, league attendance fell across the board except at Manchester United (a strange anomaly, as will be explained below), there was plenty of excitement and unpredictability both on and off the field.
As in the previous season, discipline was a hot, if confused topic. The rancour and bemusement that predominated during the 1971/72 season continued, the FA even having to clarify after the season had started that two bookable offences now added up to a dismissal, the sort of thing you might have thought would be both widely known and not open to interpretation. They also announced in July that League players accumulating 12 points would be suspended for two games, but there was still sufficient confusion for FA Secretary Dennis Follows to say in mid-August, “We have completely reorganised the disciplinary system in the game. The clubs wanted it and the players accepted it…But if those very people are not going to accept it in the spirit in which it was conceived we are in for a very difficult time.”
There were also shenanigans off the pitch, both on the terraces and in the boardrooms. European Cup Winners’ Cup winners Rangers were banned from overseas competition for two years, reduced to one on appeal, after fan trouble, and the spectre of fan misbehaviour was a genuine and regular menace, with ugly scenes at Chelsea against Leeds even leading to a reduction in standing capacity at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile an increasingly unpopular Leeds were investigated after newspapers reported that the club had offered bribes to Wolverhampton Wanderers players to throw their crucial game against Leeds at the end of the 71/72 season. Leeds denied the claims and a judge supported them, though (quite unusually for football, of course) the slurs persist to this day. Derby were fined for transfer irregularities and many top-flight teams had to suspend or transfer-list players for disputes over pay.
Pundits predicted that the title would be contested by Leeds and Manchester City. In fact, while two teams did dog it out for the season’s duration, it was Liverpool and Arsenal, not the more fancied northern powerhouses (though bookies did have City and Liverpool as joint second favourites, after Leeds). Both teams set a good early pace, with Everton and Spurs hot on their heels, while Leeds collapsed 4-0 in their opening game against Chelsea: David Harvey was concussed, forcing Peter Lorimer into goal while Mick Jones was also taken off with an ankle injury. City had two players sent off as they crashed to Liverpool, while Manchester United continued their erratic form of the previous season, losing at home to Ipswich.
Indeed, at Manchester United, once again all was not well. Bobby Charlton was demoted to the Manchester United reserves for the first time in ten years and, against a backdrop of chaos at the club, stated, “There are things I could say about the situation here that I would regret later.”
The situation was, indeed, dire, with Frank O’Farrell’s team failing to win their first 10 league matches and being knocked out the League Cup at home to Bristol Rovers (who also celebrated a 7-6 win over Sheffield United on penalties in the Watney Cup final, prompting Football League administrator Alan Hardaker to say, “This competition has brought a taste of soccer success to an area that is crying out for it”). O’Farrell was spending hand-over-first to stave off failure and also had to contend with George Best at the height of his waywardness, skipping training and hitting the (non-football) clubs in London hard, while O’Farrell and the board argued over whether the mercurial winger should be transferred.
O’Farrell was dismissed in December after a 5-0 loss at Crystal Palace with United bottom of the table and actually had the temerity to ask why. Tommy Docherty replaced him, and promptly spent a combined £420,000 on George Graham, Alex Forsyth, and Lou Macari, but he still did not manage to win in the League until mid-February. Docherty kept United up (just) but Best continued to be a thorn in the side, his love of booze and women now vastly exceeding his appetite for football. Despite this, the crowds continued to flock to Old Trafford and the club continued to be a commercial success even as it failed on the pitch (no modern analogues suggested here, of course).
Manchester City, the other team expected to challenge with Leeds, had their own issues. Malcolm Allison fell out with Joe Mercer after the latter was demoted from first team duties; Mercer left in something of a strop to take over at Coventry City before the season began. Allison lost seven of their first 10 matches and lost, like United, to a lesser side in the League Cup, small, not-so-noisy neighbours Bury in this instance. Mercer returned to Maine Road and his Coventry side won 2-1; the fans cheered their erstwhile coach and were less than complimentary about the incumbent. Allison didn’t take it at all well and it was hardly surprising that when a vacancy arose at relegation-threatened Crystal Palace, the bright lights of the big city attracted the dapper Allison and he resigned the City job. The move was ill-conceived, though, as Palace were relegated and City ultimately found a comfortable, if disappointing, mid-table berth.
By December, the title race was effectively down to two teams. While Liverpool had dropped as low as sixth in September following defeats by Leicester City and Derby County, they then set the pace for the remainder of the season, occupying pole position from September 23 right through to early February. Arsenal held second spot at the end of September, dropping to third, briefly, in November after a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Derby, but from December’s 2-1 home win against Leeds onwards, they never fell lower in the table. The Gunners beat Liverpool 2-0 away, the fourth of Alan Ball’s five penalties one of the strikes, on February 10th to retake the top spot, but threw away their advantage by losing 1-0 away at bottom of the table West Bromwich Albion.
Liverpool, with John Toshack and Kevin Keegan both scoring 13 goals, took the championship by the scruff of the neck in March, winning four and drawing one, while Arsenal’s challenge foundered further on a three game run of draws against Spurs, Everton, and Southampton at the beginning of April. Sweetly for Shankly, the title was effectively confirmed with a 2-0 home win over hated Leeds, prompting the great man to say, “I think we can call ourselves champions now. I’m delighted for the players, for the club, and especially for the fans, who have again proved themselves the greatest in the world.”
Leeds then walloped Arsenal 6-1 in the Gunners’ final game of the season, but the result was academic, if humiliating for Bertie Mee’s team, and Liverpool were champions by three points, their first title since 1965/66.
Liverpool then crowned a wonderful season by winning the UEFA cup (after beating Spurs in the semis) by defeating Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-2 on aggregate, becoming the first English team to win the championship and a major European competition in the same season. In the first leg Ray Clemence saved a crucial penalty having watched Jupp Heynckes’ effort in the other semi-final and assuming that he would shoot the same way; he did, and Clemence prevented the away goal that ultimately would have handed the trophy to the German side. Their 3-0 home win, with goals from Keegan (2) and Lloyd was described by Bill Shankly as “international-class”. A 2-0 defeat on 23rd May in the away leg gave the Reds an aggregate victory and it was a triumph for Shankly in his penultimate season in charge of the club; he went on to be crowned Manager of the Year, joining luminaries Jock Stein (twice), Matt Busby, Don Revie (thrice), and Bertie Mee in receiving the award.
In Europe’s premier competition, Brian Clough’s Derby County matched his pre-season prediction, given on August 15th at the Sportswriters’ lunch, of a semi-finalist’s spot: having beaten Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, Benfica, and Spartak Trnava on route to the semis, Derby lost 3-1 on aggregate to Juventus in controversial circumstances, a 0-0 home draw a disappointing end to the campaign.
The European Cup was won for the third time in a row by Ajax, the first team to complete a treble since Real Madrid’s five wins from 1955-1960. Johnny Rep, the youngest player on the pitch, beat Juve’s Dino Zoff for the sole goal of the game, proving that even while total football had failed to reach the English game, it was still alive and kicking on the continent.
Leeds once again failed to live up to Don Revie’s pre-season hype, losing a cantankerous Cup-Winners’ Cup game against AC Milan in Salonika. An early goal from Chiarugi was the highlight of an ill-disciplined game that also saw some unquestionably poor decisions from referee Christos Michas that benefited the Italian side.
Leeds were also on the receiving end of one of the great cup upsets, losing the FA Cup Final on May 5th to unfancied Sunderland of the second division. Sunderland fielded no internationally capped players, while all but one of Leeds’ squad were full caps and ten of the starting line-up were playing their second Cup final in a row. Sunderland had struggled in the early rounds, needing replays against Notts County and Reading but then despatched first division sides Manchester City and Arsenal. In a final noted for the goalkeeping brilliance of Jimmy Montgomery in the Black Cats’ net, Ian Porterfield scored past David Harvey to ensure a fairytale ending. The enormity of Sunderland’s achievement can be measured by the fact that they were the only FA Cup winners in the 20th century to field a side with no full internationals and that a second division team had not lifted the trophy since West Bromwich Albion in 1931.
Despite the disappointment and interest from Everton, Revie decided to stay at Leeds for the forthcoming season (the Toffees ended up appointing Billy Bingham, the Greek national team manager, who in turn had declined an offer from AEK Athens).
Tottenham Hotspur became the first team to win the League Cup twice, following a pretty scrappy final that was noted more for Norwich’s “choking style of play” than any flair or glamour. Substitute Ralph Coates scored the only goal. Norwich were delighted, though, after a season that exceeded expectation: it was their first season back in the top flight following promotion and they narrowly escaped relegation, despite having climbed as high as sixth in the table before the Christmas break; their survival was only ensured by wins over Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion in the season’s final month, saving themselves at the expense of the two clubs who were relegated.
Elsewhere, domestically, Hereford United had their first ever season in English league football (despite having come runners-up in the Welsh Cup in 1968), having been elected in place of Barrow. They did superbly, finishing second in the fourth division behind winners Southport. The club’s introduction to the league was also the first time that alien/reptile botherer and all-round curio David Icke came to some form of prominence as Hereford’s goalkeeper; he hung up his gloves in 1973 due to joint pains to pursue, initially at least, a career in sports reporting with the Leicester Advertiser.
Pele played his first and last match in London, when his Santos side, on a tour that was mired in controversies over payments, took on and lost to Fulham 2-1; Pele did score a penalty, though. The very first official women’s international was played and England beat Scotland 3-2 at Morton. Bobby Moore played his 100th game for England in a 5-0 win over Scotland at Hampden Park, a celebration of the Scottish FA’s centenary and England’s biggest win over the Tartan Army since 1888. Jimmy Hill, commentating at Arsenal’s home game against Liverpool in September, was forced to abandon the eagle’s nest and stand in as linesman, after the ‘official’ official suffered an injury. Hill probably did a better job.
At the end of the season, the English game bade a sort of farewell to two greats, as Bobby and Jack Charlton retired from playing football. Jack was offered the chance to scout upcoming Leeds opponents, but brusquely turned down what he saw as the nail in the coffin of his playing career, despite being told quite forthrightly that he would not be a first-choice centre back for the club. Both Charlton brothers officially left their clubs on April 28 1973; Munich survivor Bobby had scored a record 49 England goals in 106 appearances, while Jack had won 35 caps as well as playing 629 games for Leeds. However, their involvement in football continued immediately off the pitch, as both brothers walked straight into management jobs, Bobby at Preston North End and Jack at Middlesbrough, while also working in TV punditry. In this sense, if none other, the end of the 1973 season saw the end of an era in English football.
1. Liverpool (60 points)
2. Arsenal (57 points)
3. Leeds United (53 points)
4. Ipswich Town (48 points)
5. Wolverhampton Wanderers (47 points)
West Bromwich Albion
Runners-up: Leeds United
Winners: Tottenham Hotspur
Runners-up: Norwich City
EUROPEAN CUP-WINNERS’ CUP
Winners: A.C. Milan
Runners-up: Leeds United
Runners-up: Borussia Mönchengladbach
FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
Pat Jennings (Tottenham Hotspur)
ROTHMANS GOLDEN BOOTS AWARD (GB TEAM OF THE YEAR)
GK: Pat Jennings (Tottenham Hotspur)
RB: Paul Madeley (Leeds United)
LB: Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool)
CB: Bobby Moore (West Ham United)
CB: Roy McFarland (Derby County)
MC: Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
MC: Alan Ball (Arsenal)
WG: Johnny Giles (Leeds United)
WG: Peter Lorimer (Leeds United)
CF: Mick Channon (Southampton)
CF: Allan Clarke (Leeds United)
Sub: Colin Todd (Derby County)
Can Liverpool retain their title or will Brian Clough’s Derby County snatch it back? After four near misses in a row, is it Don Revie’s turn? And what of Manchester United? They can’t get any worse, can they? Oh. Oh dear…
IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY: 1969/70; 1970/71; 1971/72; 1972/73; 1973/74; 1974/75; 1975/76; 1976/77; 1977/78
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHTwitter)