In the 128 years since the Football League was founded, we’ve seen just about every possible type of season there is. Good ones, bad ones, dramatic ones, dull ones, predictable ones, chaotic ones. However, there’s a good case to be made that the 1971/72 season was the strangest in English top flight history.
For a start, there’s the start. Leeds United were forced to play their first eight games away from home after crowd trouble saw them penalised by the FA, while Old Trafford was closed for two weeks after a knife-throwing incident. On the pitch, defending champions Arsenal, perhaps impacted by the departure of coach Don Howe for West Brom, lost three games in August and didn’t draw until November, whereas newly-promoted Sheffield United were the early pace-setters, winning their first four games, remaining unbeaten and top of the table until early October. In the end the Blades fell away, a run of defeats in October then a complete collapse in form after the turn of the year, their blistering beginning never likely to last.
One of the things that did last was a continuing argument over discipline. The start of the season saw a clamp-down on dirty play in the First Division, with the foul from behind now punishable with a booking and in general referees told to take a much dimmer view of violent offences. All of which would be fine, if the clubs had actually been told about it. As it was the Football League kept things quiet, briefing referees in secret and the number of bookings racked up.
A rather spicy PFA meeting was held at the start of September to go over things, the union’s chairman Derek Dougan declaring they were “upset and astonished that [the Football League] did not consult us.” After an FA Cup game against Everton in January, Crystal Palace chairman Arthur Wait said of referee Tommy Dawes: “[He] had a real stinker. At one stage I thought he was going to book the corner flag.” The row continued all season, to the point where the Minister for Sport got involved to try making peace.
Life was also strange – as it would be for the best part of 20 years – at Manchester United. Their form in the first half of the season was excellent, losing just twice and being top as late as January 8. ‘Can anything prevent Manchester United from winning the First Division championship this season?’ asked the Times after one particularly impressive result, a 5-2 thrashing of Southampton in which George Best (more on him shortly) grabbed a hat-trick. The short answer to the question was ‘yes’, and a slightly longer one went ‘yes, a calamitous run of form in January and February that saw them lose seven games in a row and fall away, eventually finishing – for the third season in a row – in eighth place.’
As for Best, this was perhaps the last time United saw the finest of his shimmering talent. He, as United, began the season well but faded in the winter. “I’m off form, and I’m sick about the way I’m playing,” he said in December, and January saw him take an extended sojourn from duty, coming to the conclusion that a week in the company of Carolyn Moore, reigning ‘Miss Great Britain’, was preferable to shuttle runs on a cold Manchester training field. When the man from the Daily Express arrived at his house to ghost his weekly newspaper column, Best refused to come out of his bedroom, and when he eventually emerged he headed for a London discotheque. “I would like George to put whatever has been troubling him behind him and resume training as soon as possible,” implored United manager Frank O’Farrell. When Best returned he was fined two week’s wages and ordered to live back in digs, in the hope that it would teach him a lesson. It didn’t quite, and Best announced his retirement the following summer, a decision he would soon reverse.
Meanwhile, a title race was breaking out, and a rather good one too. However, it didn’t involve defending champions Arsenal, who lurked for a few months but despite the signing of Alan Ball from Everton in December (“Alan didn’t want to move south, but Arsenal guaranteed him £12,500-a-year,” said Ball’s dad at the time) they fell away, eventually finishing sixth.
Arsenal were also hoofed out of the European Cup by holders and eventual winners Ajax, and after Liverpool were dismissed in the second round of the Cup Winners’ Cup, English interest in Europe was focussed on the third European competition, proudly boasting a new name of the UEFA Cup. Tottenham and Wolves met in the final, the first time two English clubs had contested a European final and guaranteeing a fourth winner from Blighty in a row, Leeds, Arsenal and Newcastle having taken the cup home in the previous three seasons.
The two sides sashayed through to the final in some style, scoring 52 goals between them, though the two legs themselves were not nearly as thrill-filled as the teams’ respective paths to it would have suggested. A brace from Martin Chivers gave Tottenham a 2-1 lead from the first game, and they secured the trophy with a shifty 1-1 draw in the return at White Hart Lane. As an aside, the referee for the first leg was one Tofik Brahamov, the Azerbaijani official who the Sky Sports boys recently conclusively proved was correct to award England’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup final. If he hadn’t been dead for 23 years he probably would be absolutely delighted.
In domestic matters, Stoke won the League Cup, beating Chelsea in the final but it was perhaps the semi-final against West Ham that was the star attraction, played out over four games after two replays were necessary. Highlights of the quadrilogy of matches included Gordon Banks saving a penalty from Geoff Hurst, and Bobby Moore having to go in goal after West Ham keeper Bobby Ferguson was injured in the fourth game. Moore himself managed to save a penalty, but Mike Bernard converted the rebound, the spoilsport. “After this,” said Stoke manager Tony Waddington, “Wembley could be something of an anti-climax.”
In the league, by February three of the main challengers were established, with Derby, Manchester City and Leeds taking up residence at the top of the table. Later, Liverpool’s brilliant post-January form, helped by the burgeoning partnership between John Toshack and Kevin Keegan, saw them zoot past Arsenal and join the title charge. One particularly impressive Liverpool shellacking, a 5-0 win over Newcastle, moved the Observer’s ‘special correspondent’ to remark: ‘On this evidence they could [win the title] for no team at present is playing sounder defensively – not a goal has been conceded in the last six games – or attacking so superbly.’
And yet, they were not favourites. Leeds, under Don Revie, were gunning for the double, while Manchester City held top spot for all of February and March. Furthermore, they had plenty of spending power, which they used to purchase long-term target Rodney Marsh from QPR, a move that has often been blamed for derailing their title challenge. However, while Marsh admitted as such (“I have to hold my hands up – I cost Manchester City the 1972 league championship,” he wrote in his autobiography), he only actually started seven games, manager Malcolm Allison not holding a particularly high opinion of his fitness. And in those seven starts, he scored four goals, including one at Old Trafford and another against Derby in City’s final game. Not exactly the record of a title-spoiler.
And yet the story, and indeed team of the season was Brian Clough’s Derby. The Rams had spent much of the campaign ‘there or thereabouts’, with frustrating inconsistencies keeping them from the very top until the closing weeks of the season. “We are not big enough and strong enough to dish it out when it needs to be dished out,” remarked Clough in December, and they didn’t seem to be treated as serious title contenders even as they closed in on the summit. The Derby Evening Telegraph only started talking about the possibility of winning the league in March, while John Samuel wrote in the Guardian, after a tough match at Tottenham, that a bout of time-wasting ‘suggests a lack of true championship ambition.’ It is worth noting Derby won that game.
And so, the final stretch of this most curious of campaigns would prove rather appropriate. The run-in to the 1971/72 season was covered at greater length a year ago on The Set Pieces, but it’s worth revisiting to emphasise just how frantic and close it was. It seems curious these days, but Derby completed their fixture obligations a full week before both Leeds and Liverpool played their final game, and City were done a nine days before that. On April 22 the two sides faced each other, and goals from Marsh and Francis Lee gave City the victory, leaving Derby in third. Clough’s side then overcame Liverpool 1-0, John McGovern scoring the only goal, afterwards repairing to Majorca as the remaining teams were left to scrap it out.
By the day of the FA Cup final, hitherto the traditional denouement of the domestic season, three teams were still in with a chance of winning the title. City were a point behind leaders Derby having played all their games, so were out of the running, but both Leeds and Liverpool could still pip Clough’s men, facing away trips to Wolves and Arsenal respectively. The bad news for Leeds was that their game came just two days after the FA Cup final, which they won against the Gunners, a consequence of which was their players who weren’t absolutely shattered were actually injured. Terry Cooper and Mick Jones were both out, Allan Clarke and John Giles were half-fit, and Revie’s best efforts to get the game moved were thwarted by the authorities, much to his chagrin.
In that respect it was hardly a surprise that they lost, 2-1 thanks to goals from Dougan and Frank Munro, but they didn’t slip quietly into the night. ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers,’ wrote Geoffrey Green in the Times, ‘without the slightest compassion – and why should there be in such a fierce competition – last night beat Leeds United as time stood still and yet ran helter skelter…Once more it was a brilliant failure to add to their distinguished record…Leeds died like heroes.’ Eric Todd, writing in the Guardian, said that the Wolves defence ‘performed miracles of salvage’ as Leeds attacked relentlessly but to no avail.
As Revie’s men perished in the Molineux mud, so it meant that a victory for Liverpool would secure the title, on goal average above Derby. Alas for Bill Shankly’s side, Arsenal ‘discovered the form that failed them in the Cup final,’ wrote Green’s colleague Norman Fox. ‘Poor Liverpool, who had to win to take the league title…must have cursed the cruel irony.’ Arsenal controlled much of the game, and until the closing stages Liverpool were curiously unthreatening. In the final few minutes they had Toshack goal debatably ruled out for offside, but they couldn’t find the strike they needed, the game ended 0-0 and Derby, thousands of miles away, were champions, with positions two, three and four finishing on the same points.
“It is incredible,” Clough 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.” Clough celebrated while on holiday with his parents (“It was nice that Mam and Dad were there to share the moment,” Clough wrote later), while the rest of the squad made merry in Majorca. A most curious end, to a most curious season.
1, Derby County – 58pts
2, Leeds United – 57pts
3, Liverpool – 57pts
4, Manchester City – 57pts
5, Arsenal – 52pts
Winners: Leeds United
Winners: Stoke City
EUROPEAN CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Runners-up: Spartak Moscow
Winners: Tottenham Hotspur
Runners-up: Wolverhampton Wanderers
FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
Gordon Banks (Stoke City)
ROTHMANS GOLDEN BOOTS AWARD (GB TEAM OF THE YEAR)
GK: Gordon Banks (Stoke City)
RB: Paul Madeley (Leeds United)
LB: Terry Cooper (Leeds United)
CB: Roy McFarland (Derby County)
CB: Bobby Moore (West Ham United)
MC: Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
MC: Johnny Giles (Leeds United)
WG: Jimmy Johnstone (Celtic)
FW: Martin Chivers (Tottenham Hotspur)
FW: Francis Lee (Manchester City)
FW: Eddie Gray (Leeds United)
SUB: Kevin Keegan (Liverpool)
SUB: Peter Simpson (Arsenal)
Can Clough defend his title? Isn’t it about time Liverpool won something? And what about Leeds, eh? They can’t come second again, surely? Join us next week for the 1972/73 season.