There have been plenty of thrilling title races in the history of English football. Leads exchanged, assumed victories thrown away, pulsating and undulating contests the outcome of which nobody could predict. But you couldn’t really say that of the 1973/74 season. Leeds United looked like champions from the very first week, essentially had the title wrapped up by the turn of the year and, a spring wobble aside, were imperious from August to May.
No, in 1973/74 the interest came from elsewhere: a combustible manager picking the latest of his many arguments, a shock relegation, the last breath of fading stars, and the first instance of something that we have taken for granted for some years.
1974 was a time for revolution, social constraints thrown off like an inadequate raincoat, caution gaily cast to the wind: yes, that’s right, football was played on Sundays. Necessity being the mother of invention, the move to the Lord’s day was largely a practical concern: the energy crisis that year meant football teams were banned from using floodlights (the game in general was precluded from using generators to power the lights), which presented certain fixture concerns as playing midweek games was obviously a bit of an issue. “Football is the national game and we should be concerned to give the public what they want, when they want it,” glowed FA secretary Ted Croker. “A lot of people do want to watch football on Sundays.”
Four FA Cup ties were played on Sunday January 6, and the game between Bolton and Stoke attracted double the attendance of the Lancashire club’s usual gate. Not that everyone was taken with sabbath fixtures, though. “I would want to see a lot more Sunday soccer in different parts of the country before I was convinced,” sniffed Alan Hardaker, chairman of the FA. Shortly afterwards the Football League follows suited with a round of games played on January 20, and a week later the first ever Division One match played on a Sunday saw Stoke beat Chelsea 1-0 thanks to a controversial Geoff Hurst penalty.
Various disputes raged about television coverage too, the paranoia that the privilege of watching anything approaching football from your own trusty old armchair reaching such a point that wailing hands were thrown skywards when the FA Cup fourth round draw was televised at 4.50 on a Saturday afternoon. “It’s ridiculous,” spluttered Leyton Orient chairman Arthur Page. “It might encourage people to stay away from the matches if the weather is bad. There are too many amateurs running the game today, they do not look far enough.”
Back with the more prosaic business of football, what was perhaps more interesting than Leeds’ title win was the back-story to it, and more specifically how many times manager Don Revie nearly left before the league was sealed, or even started. The previous summer, he was almost tempted away by Everton as they looked to replace their own grand old man, Harry Catterick, while he also refused an offer from the Greek national team, was entertained on the yacht of the Olympiakos president and at one point Real Madrid were thought to be interested in his services. Disagreements with the Leeds board meant that he nearly left at the end of the previous season, but midway through a family holiday he telephoned a slightly bemused Keith Archer, the club secretary, to tell him he wanted to stay.
‘Most newspapers wrote off Leeds’ title chances for 1973,’ wrote Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson in ‘The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United’, ‘Yet, with the exception of [Billy] Bremner and [John] Giles, most of the key players were still under thirty. Moreover, some of the changes forced on Revie gave his team a little more efficiency and a lot more zap.’
That zap was certainly evident at the start of the season. Revie had set his team the task of going the whole campaign unbeaten, and in pre-season training emphasised a more attacking approach from his men, something displayed in their opening games. They won their first seven matches, scoring 19 times in the process, the goals largely spread between Bremner, Allan Clarke and Peter Lorimer. ‘Already the League’s natural order is asserting itself,’ purred Jeremy Bugler in the Observer. ‘Leeds, once described as ‘persistent mediocrity, destined for success,’ are playing today with persistent brilliance.’ During trips to Arsenal and Tottenham, the home support applauded the visitors from Yorkshire, so delightful was their play.
‘Dirty’ Leeds had cleaned up their act, too: after a suspended £3,000 fine for the previous season’s disciplinary problems had been issued to Leeds (and Birmingham) in the summer, Revie demanded more fair play from his team, which was largely forthcoming. Revie puffed out his chest with pride when one referee complimented his side and wished ‘all matches were played in the same spirit’ after a particularly Corinthian-minded affair.
Perhaps inspired by this new ‘head boy’ mentality, Leeds went top at the start of September and wouldn’t relinquish the position all season. Revie’s aim for a campaign unblemished by defeat was looking good, equalling then overtaking Liverpool’s 24-year-old record for games unbeaten at the start of the season, beating Chelsea then Norwich in December. They would come close to equalling the then unbeaten record, held by Burnley who didn’t lose in 30 games throughout the 1920/21 season, but had to settle for 29 after losing 3-2 to Stoke (having lead 2-0) in February.
Leeds would lose only another three games – one to their nearest challengers Liverpool – all of which came in a mildly alarming March dip, representing their only real loss of form in the whole season. At that stage Leeds were six points ahead but Bill Shankly’s side had two games in hand, causing jitters aplenty at Elland Road, but they were to be unfounded. After winning their penultimate game against Ipswich, Leeds would be champions if they beat QPR on the final day, or better still if Liverpool failed to win one of their three remaining games. In the end Arsenal did them a favour, a Ray Kennedy goal against Liverpool securing the title for Leeds and leaving them to celebrate their success at Loftus Road. “When we were going through the shaky patch of losing against Liverpool, Burnley and West Ham I thought we had lost it,” Revie said, “but the players’ tremendous application, character and ability showed over the Easter period.” Revie, of course, would leave at the end of the season, replaced by Brian Clough, and we all know how that went.
Clough, of course, was available after his stubbornness, distaste for authority and, frankly, a failed bluff saw him and Peter Taylor resign from Derby, having won the First Division the season before last. Clough had got himself in some bother early on in the season, attracting an FA charge in August after criticising their handling of the Leeds disciplinary case, writing in the Sunday Express that Revie’s team should have been ‘instantly relegated’ for their sins, noting that ‘No wonder Don Revie was smiling broadly as he left the disciplinary commission’s hearing in London. I looked at his happy face smiling at me out of my newspaper in Spain. It just about spoiled my holiday to read that the £3,000 fine has been suspended until the end of the coming season.’
Clough’s disputes with Derby chairman Sam Longson were notorious, long-running and varied, but this, along with his new contract to be a pundit on LWT, appeared to be the final straw. As Longson was preparing to restrict Clough’s media appearances, the manager and Taylor resigned in what was basically a bluff, assuming that firstly the board would not accept, and if they did support from both the dressing room and the public would see them return and Longson forced out. It didn’t pan out that way, and despite protests from both the dressing room and the public, Longson remained firm and Clough and Taylor were out. Jonathan Wilson, in his biography of Clough ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’, that the pair ‘left, as a final gesture of defiance, in a club Mercedes. Later that week, the club cancelled the insurance on the club cars and then, in a moment of staggering pettiness, informed the police the pair were driving without appropriate cover.’ Perhaps slightly ironically given media commitments were the crux of the dispute, Clough would put in his most infamous punditry performance a few days later, calling Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski a “circus clown in gloves” before the World Cup qualifier between England and Poland that would end in a draw, thus scuppering England’s chances of making it to West Germany the following summer.
Again, Clough and Taylor assumed they would eventually return to Derby, but Dave Mackay went back to the club as the new manager, and the pair rather curiously rocked up at Third Division Brighton a few weeks later. Clough seemingly spent the majority of his time there complaining that his players were no good, and tried to get out at least once, having been offered the Iran national team job, but to no avail, eventually walking out when Leeds called in the summer.
As one manager unthinkably departed from the top flight, so would a team at the end of the season. Manchester United’s 1973/74 campaign actually started quite well, winning two of their first three games, but from then it went downhill relatively rapidly. They would win two more games in the first half of the season, a time in which manager Tommy Docherty took the rather maverick step of appointing goalkeeper Alex Stepney as the club’s penalty taker. Stepney converted two from the spot, but it should perhaps serve as an indication of the state of United that those two goals made him their joint top-scorer at Christmas.
It was hardly a surprise that United were relegated, in the end. They won just ten games all season and, aside from a good patch of form around Easter, they were largely miserable throughout the campaign. The derby at Maine Road in March seemed to sum up the chaos, as Lou Macari and Mike Doyle were sent off for their part in a ‘fracas’, but refused to leave the pitch. ‘The sad spectacle of the referee pointing the way to the tunnel, and while all 22 players trooping off while discipline was imposed and accepted, traced the melancholy course of the opening half-hour in last night’s Manchester “derby” at Maine Road,’ intoned Tom German rather solemnly in the Times.
This United team had been in relatively steady decline since Matt Busby had retired in 1969, a year after they won the European Cup, already on their third manager by 1972 after first Wilf McGuinness then Frank O’Farrell failed, the club eventually turning to Scotland manager Docherty. This was a side whose stars had aged and retired, or in the case of George Best had simply sparked and spluttered but in the end faded. Best made a half-hearted return to Old Trafford in the first half of the season, but by January had played his last game for the club, still just 27, and would spend the remainder of a premature and peripatetic footballing dotage shuffling around assorted clubs in England, Scotland, Hong Kong, Ireland and America.
Another former United great who had moved on was Denis Law. Law had been given a free transfer by Docherty at the end of the previous season, in which he’d played just 11 times, but Docherty probably wasn’t expecting him to rock up across town shortly afterwards. Law’s time at Manchester City wasn’t massively successful either, and by March he was offered a move to Motherwell, which he turned down in an attempt to force his way back into the team. That he did, and with his final touch of his club career backheeled a goal that he thought had relegated United. This of course is perhaps the most debunked myth in football, to the point that it’s barely even a myth anymore. United were relegated by results elsewhere rather than by Law’s instinctive and immediately-regretted goal. ‘After a lapse of 37 mostly glorious years Manchester United face at least one season in the outer darkness,’ wrote Eric Todd in the Guardian, ‘a fate which like that of the Roman Empire once was deemed to be impossible.’
Like Law, Bobby Moore and Peter Osgood moved on from West Ham and Chelsea respectively, and after the World Cup qualifying debacle, Alf Ramsey was relieved of his position as England boss a few months before his contract expired. Revie took over, while in the summer Bill Shankly suddenly resigned at Liverpool. This, clearly, was a year for departures and new beginnings in English football.
1, Leeds United – 62pts
2, Liverpool – 57
3, Derby County – 48
4, Ipswich Town – 47
5, Stoke City – 46
Runners-up: Newcastle United
Winners: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Runners-up: Manchester City
Winners: Bayern Munich
Runners-up: Atletico Madrid
Runners-up: Tottenham Hotspur
EUROPEAN CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Runners-up: AC Milan
FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
Ian Callaghan (Liverpool)
PFA PLAYERS’ PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Norman Hunter (Leeds United)
ROTHMANS GOLDEN BOOTS AWARD (GB TEAM OF THE YEAR)
GK: Pat Jennings (Tottenham Hotspur)
RB: Paul Madeley (Leeds United)
CB: Roy McFarland (Derby County)
CB: Norman Hunter (Leeds United)
LB: Alec Lindsay (Liverpool)
MF: Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
MF: Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool)
MF: David Hay (Celtic)
FW: Kevin Keegan (Liverpool)
FW: Mick Channon (Southampton)
FW: Tommy Hutchison (Coventry City)
SUB: Colin Todd (Derby County)
How will Liverpool cope without Bill Shankly? How will Leeds fare under Brian Clough? Is this the end of Manchester United as a force in English football? Join us next week for 1974/75.