We are spoiled now. The destiny of the Premier League title isn’t always decided on the final day of the season, but at least you can be sure that that’s when every team will play their last game. Football hasn’t always been so sensible. In 1976, Queens Park Rangers ended a glorious campaign with a 2-0 win over Leeds United on April 24 and sat one point clear of Liverpool at the top of the table, twitching with anxiety. For ten whole days.
You see, while QPR had played their 42 fixtures, second placed Liverpool had played only 41 and they weren’t about to rush themselves into no.42 when they had the small matter of a two-legged UEFA Cup Final to play against Club Bruges. And so it was that their crucial final game with Wolverhampton Wanderers was pushed all the way back to May 4. The QPR players couldn’t celebrate, they couldn’t commiserate. They just had to sit and wait. And wait. And wait.
Of course, the fact that QPR were in a title race at all was remarkable in its own right. They were hardly one of London’s most illustrious clubs. They didn’t enter the Football League until 1920, didn’t reach the second division until 1948 and had to wait until 1968/69 for their first season in the top flight, winning only four of 42 games and going straight back down again. They won the new-fangled League Cup as a third division team in 1967, but the idea of winning the league title was faintly ridiculous. Or at least it was until they returned to the first division in 1973, finishing eighth in their first season up.
Manager Gordon Jago had built an impressive team at Loftus Road, mixing the experience of David Webb and Frank McLintock with bright young talents like Gerry Francis and Stan Bowles. But Jago left in 1974 after a series of rows with chairman Jim Gregory and was replaced by Dave Sexton, who had just been sacked by Chelsea.
Sexton was a quiet, thoughtful man, an admirer of the Dutch game, and he soon set about moulding a promising squad to his tastes.
“Dave was a nice guy,” said Bowles in 2008. “We became good friends years later, but I didn’t understand him at first. I’d come out for training and there’d be cones everywhere. I’d think, ‘Oh, fuck this.”
QPR opened the 1975/76 season in style, beating Liverpool 2-0 at Loftus Road. A week later they destroyed Derby County at the Baseball Ground, a Bowles hat-trick laying waste to Dave Mackay’s champions. Reputations didn’t tend to bother Bowles.
“The thing was,” he said in 2008’s criminally underrated classic, Football Fables, “every game was just a Sunday morning kick-around for me. Put your kit on and off you go. I’ve always been like that; I never get nervous. When people are chasing you for gambling debts it puts things in perspective, you know what I mean? That 90 minutes was a relief.”
Of course, Bowles could be a little too relaxed at times. It wasn’t unusual for QPR fans to bump into him in the bookmakers near Loftus Road as kick-off approached.
“I used to get the fans coming up to me saying, ‘Aren’t you playing today, Stan?” and I’d be going, ‘Course I am. I’ve got a few minutes left, haven’t I?”
QPR didn’t lose a home game all season. They were top of the table by the end of September before a horrible run of winter form, just three wins in eleven between November 1 and January 17, saw them slump to fifth. But if their rivals considered that the end of their challenge, they were very much mistaken. After their 2-0 victory over Aston Villa on January 31 they dropped only two points from their next twelve games and rocketing back to the top.
“With five games to go, we was 5/1 on,” laughed Bowles. “I’ve never seen Queens Park Rangers at 5/1 on to win anything.”
Unsurprisingly, this was a market that Bowles had been tracking for some time…
“I had a good bet on us to win the league at the start of the season,” he said. “33/1 for the title. I really thought that was going to come in for me…It never stopped my career, the betting. It never got in the way. I was an unlucky cunt, but there you go.”
All of that bad luck came at Carrow Road on April 17. Norwich’s Ted McDougall capitalised on a ludicrous defensive mix-up to head the Canaries into the lead. QPR responded, as they had done so many times that season. A delightful little ball from Bowles releasing Dave Thomas, who skipped through the defence and smashed home the equaliser. But a long range effort from Peter Morris caught an evil deflection and went in for 2-1 before Phil Boyer, so offside that he was practically in a different time zone, headed home a third. A late own goal provided no consolation for Sexton’s side.
QPR lifted themselves off the mat and picked up maximum points against Arsenal, with McLintock scoring against his old side, and Leeds on the last day of the season. And then they were forced to wait.
Four days later, with the frustration building in London, Liverpool took on Bruges at Anfield. If their weekend off had done them any good, it didn’t immediately show. They went two goals down to the Belgian side before coming out after half-time and hitting three in six minutes, unknowingly laying down a precedent for what would follow in Istanbul 29 years later.
Still, there was every reason for QPR’s supporters to be optimistic. It wasn’t as if Wolves had nothing to play for on May 4. They were at home and their only hope of avoiding relegation was to beat Liverpool and then hope that Birmingham lost to Sheffield United. When Steve Kindon opened the scoring for Wolves, the QPR players, scattered around the country, dared to dream.
Sadly for them, Liverpool weren’t quite finished with late comebacks. With 15 minutes to go, John Toshack nodded a ball down to Kevin Keegan and he scrambled the ball home. That would have been enough, but Liverpool elected to leave nothing to chance, scoring two more through Toshack and then with a wonderful strike from Ray Kennedy. Fifteen days later, schedules being quite mad in these days, they wrapped up the UEFA Cup, beating Bruges 4-3 on aggregate.
QPR’s players and supporters were crestfallen. Their only saving grace, such as it was, was that they were blissfully unaware they would never get that close again.
“I watched the Liverpool game at the BBC studios, funnily enough, with Gerry Francis,” said Bowles. “I watched up until the equaliser and that was it. It would have been over even with a draw because of the goal difference. I said to Gerry, ‘They’ll fucking murder ‘em now,’ and then I went down the pub and got drunk.”
What happened next
QPR lost the first two games of the 1976/77 campaign, setting the tone for a season in which they spent just a week in the top half of the table. They eventually finished 14th with only 38 points from 42 games. They were denied another appearance in the League Cup Final when they lost to Aston Villa in the semi-final replay, having already drawn with them over two legs and one period of extra-time.
“It wasn’t the same,” said Bowles. “The lads were getting older. That was the end of the story basically. We never got that close again and I never felt the same way about football.”
Sexton left for Manchester United in the summer of 1977, replacing Tommy Docherty who had been sacked for having an affair with the wife of the club physiotherapist. He finished in second place in 1980, but failed to win a trophy at Old Trafford and was sacked in 1981. He did at least win the U21 European Championships twice with England in 1982 and 1984, adding those trophies to the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup he’d won with Chelsea. Sexton died in 2012.
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