The treble has, of course, only been achieved once in English football, and you’ll all know about that one. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you don’t, we’ll get there in 22 episodes) Elsewhere, Celtic managed it in 1967, in the Netherlands, Ajax and PSV have done it, Bayern Munich got theirs in 2013, Inter in 2010 while Barcelona, the big show-offs, have done it twice, in 2009 and 2015. Liverpool so nearly, nearly, nearly managed it too, back when they were just establishing themselves as the dominant power in not just English but European football as well, but were denied by the side that would eventually achieve it in 1999.
The 1976/77 season was essentially 1970s and 1980s English football in microcosm; Liverpool beat (pretty much) everyone in sight, bad weather meant historic fixture backlogs, and violence, both on the pitch and in the stands, was a continuous theme throughout the campaign. And it all started so promisingly too, with Sport and Recreation minister (great job title) Denis Howell writing to West Ham and Liverpool to express his admiration for their fans’ conduct in Europe the previous year, a patronising pat on the head of a kind that can be quite firmly filed under ‘tempting fate.’
Violence – or perhaps more specifically the fear of violence – was a constant theme, with proposals mooted that would see a wall built around the players entrance at Wembley after Liverpool players were attacked at the Charity Shield (which they won, beating Southampton), residents near Derby’s Baseball Ground attempted to take out an injunction preventing football being played at the stadium, a Nottingham councillor declared fans should be ‘hosed down with water jets’ should they get too unruly, while Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty repeatedly called for the return of the birch, for persistent offenders.
As an aside, Docherty would encounter his own problems the following summer, when his affair with United physio Laurie Brown’s wife lead to his sacking. “I certainly did not expect this,” Docherty said when his dismissal was announced. “It was a bombshell. I thought I would have been judged on my playing record, like Wembley in two successive years, one of them victorious.” The ditty ‘Who’s up Mary Brown?’ would become a terrace staple for years to come.
Nonetheless, ribald chanting wasn’t the extent of the trouble on the terraces, and United fans seemed to be at the heart of it. After a particularly spicy occasion at Norwich, clubs across the country contemplated banning United away fans entirely (which a few actually did) while Howell promised to bring in special measures to prevent more trouble. Calls for the end to the football special trains were made, hands were wrung but trouble continued to occur, notably at a friendly between Rangers and Aston Villa that had to be abandoned due to a pitch invasion that saw bottles thrown, policeman fought, over 100 injured and 50 arrested. To clarify: that was in a friendly.
Still, in rather more peaceful occurrences, the title race in 1976/77 was a humdinger. Liverpool barely left the top two after the start of September, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t pushed – on this occasion by Manchester City and Ipswich Town. Bobby Robson’s Ipswich were in the middle of their extraordinary decade or so under him when they only finished lower than sixth in the league once, while City continued their gradual improvement under Tony Book, who had arguably their best side in years.
Liverpool began the season in imperious style, losing just two of their first 16 games, highlights of which included a 3-1 Merseyside derby victory and a 5-1 thrashing of Leicester, about which Foxes boss Jimmy Bloomfield said: “It is frightening to think what Liverpool are going to do to a team that plays badly against them.” ‘The rest of the First Division can really start worrying now,’ wrote Paul Fitzpatrick in the Guardian, as Liverpool went five points clear at the top of the table.
Neither Ipswich nor City began the season in such style, but by December they had both found some form and caught up with the defending champions, and one eye-catching result in particular saw Ipswich beat John Giles (who, like Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter, left Leeds that year) and West Brom by a vidiprinter-busting score of 7-0. They were helped out rather by a Liverpool wobble as winter closed in, as they lost three in four during December then scrambled a 1-1 draw against City via an 89th-minute Dave Watson own-goal. That run also featured a 5-1 hosing by Aston Villa, Bob Paisley’s side’s worst defeat in 13 years and about which Tom Fox in the Times wrote that Villa ‘made Liverpool cower and crash’ and that they ‘were fortunate not to concede even more.’ “I haven’t let in five since I played for the Scunthorpe ‘A’ team 12 years ago,” said Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence afterwards.
From that point, the race was close until virtually the end of the season: every time Liverpool looked like pulling clear, such as a weekend in February when they beat Derby (who were in the process of trying to lure back Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, after Dave Mackay was sacked) while Ipswich and City lost to Leicester and Bristol City respectively, they would be hauled in again, to the extent that Ipswich actually inched to the top of the table by April.
Ultimately though, it was how the sides coped with injuries that would prove key, with Ipswich in particular suffering from various ailments, such as the curious case of Kevin Beattie, who burned his face after rather unwisely trying to spice up a bonfire in his back garden. That kept him out for the last seven games of the season, and with both Paul Mariner and Mick Mills also missing games, Robson’s men gradually fell away, losing seven of their last 13 and eventually finishing five points off top spot.
City kept with Liverpool until the last though, despite losing to both their rivals and Derby – a particularly damaging 4-0 defeat – as the season reached its business end. “They never know when they are beaten and are so consistent and thorough it’s easy to see why they are favourites,” said Book of Liverpool, who would eventually clinch the title on the final Saturday of the campaign.
Liverpool went into the day two points ahead of City with a game in hand, so only required a point from their home game against West Ham, a point they collected in low-key style with a 0-0 draw. ‘Undoubtedly they deserve this, the first of the three trophies they have pursued so earnestly this season,’ wrote Peter Corrigan in the Observer, ‘but there was anti-climax in the way they finally confirmed their right to it. The point they needed was plucked almost casually from a game which produced little in the way of fire and aggression.’
There was a little more drama in how things unfolded at the bottom of the table in the closing week of the campaign. Stoke and Tottenham were already relegated, but in a piece of fixture scheduling that Sky would have been proud of (but actually came about because of the afore-mentioned weather problems), the three teams still in danger of taking the third relegation spot all played on a Thursday night, with Coventry City and Bristol City meeting while Sunderland faced mid-table Everton. At the start of the day all three sides had 34 points, but with the two games scheduled to kick off at the same time the drama was finely, and in theory fairly-poised – until the last few minutes, that is. As it was the game at Highfield Road actually began five minutes later than the one at Goodison Park, so when news came through – announced on the scoreboard, no less – that Everton had won 2-0, meaning only a victory for either side would keep Sunderland up, the Coventry and Bristol players suddenly lost all interest in a contest, quite happy that the 2-2 scoreline would see them both survive. The two teams virtually downed tools for the remaining minutes – ‘Farce ends a match of brinkmanship’ read the headline in the Times – as Sunderland faces fell on Merseyside.
“This was the biggest disappointment of my life,” said Sunderland manager Jimmy Adamson. “You’ve got to make your own luck in this game, but we could not.” Sunderland were actually probably not sent down by skullduggery or a defeat on the final day, but due to disastrous form earlier in the season: they won just two of their first 25 and at one point went 10 games without scoring, so not even a run of just three defeats in their last 19 could save them in the end.
Tottenham’s relegation came at the end of a season which drifted from the earliest weeks. In the summer Terry Neill had resigned to return to his spiritual home at Arsenal, with Keith Burkinshaw stepping up from first-team coach to the top job, helped out by Bill Nicholson, who returned to White Hart Lane as an advisor to the new boss. Alas, it didn’t do them much good, and they remained in and around the drop zone from the very first week of the season. Some brief hope came with a 3-1 win over Aston Villa in April, but that was mercilessly stamped upon by a 5-0 shellacking by Manchester City at the start of May. One of the teams that would replace them in the First Division was Nottingham Forest, who scraped a promotion place after Taylor had finally joined Clough at the City Ground. You’ll be able to read more about that pair in next week’s edition of If You Know Your History…
And so, with the title won, attention turned to the other pair of trophies Liverpool needed to complete their treble. The FA Cup final against Manchester United came a week after the league was secured, and before the game an enterprising soul had his collar felt by the police after he placed an advert in a newspaper offering ‘cup final seats’ for £15. In a triumph for fraud and literalism, those poor souls who parted with their hard-earned received a stool with ‘cup final’ written on the seat. Cheeky. Any Liverpool fan who was taken in might actually have been grateful for being scammed, as it turned out, as a John Toshack-less side lost 2-1 to United, all three goals coming in five second-half minutes as first Stuart Pearson put United ahead, Jimmy Case equalised but then a Lou Macari shout was deflected home by Jimmy Greenhoff. Paisley hurried on at the end of the game to rouse his players, not as some sort of too-late token effort, but in the knowledge they had a European Cup final against Borussia Monchengladbach in four days to play.
And play it they did, gaining healthy compensation for the death of their treble dreams by handsomely defeating the German side 3-1, thanks to goals from Terry McDermott, Tommy Smith and Phil Neal. The game was to be Smith and Kevin Keegan’s last for the club, the former retiring (a decision he quickly reverse) and the latter heading to Hamburg, but they were replaced handily enough. “There may be a lad or two up and down the country who may quite like to join us,” smiled Paisley after the game, possibly already in the knowledge that Kenny Dalglish was on his way to take Keegan’s No.7 shirt.
This was the first of Liverpool’s European Cups, cementing their place at the top of the game and starting that extraordinary run of English success in Europe’s top competition. However, while Liverpool remained the continent’s top side, in 1977/78 their domestic dominance would pause for a season…
Liverpool – 57 pts
Manchester City – 56 pts
Ipswich Town – 52 pts
Aston Villa – 51 pts
Newcastle United – 49 pts
Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Stoke City
Winners: Manchester United
Winners: Aston Villa
Runners-up: Borussia Monchengladbach
CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Runners-up: Athletic Bilbao
FWA Footballer of the Year
Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool)
Oh God, it’s just going to be Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool now, isn’t it? Unless Manchester United can build on that cup victory, of course. Mind you, perhaps Aston Villa can step up after their League Cup triumph. Oh, and it might be worth keeping an eye on Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. People say they’ll be lucky to stay up, but I don’t know…
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)