The Great Escape

Welcome back to the story of the relegation battle in the First Division 1976-77. We have just a couple of weeks of the season remaining. When we left it last time Bristol City were rooted to the foot of the table, three points from safety but with games in hand. Above them were seven clubs separated by just two points.

These were the days of two points for a win, no final day when all clubs kicked off together, and cup replays. This resulted in fixture pile-up for some clubs. Here is the third part which takes us up to the final week of the season.

Saturday 7th May 1977

Bristol City1:1Manchester United
Everton1:1Coventry City
Manchester City5:0Tottenham
QPR1:1Liverpool
Stoke City0:0Norwich City
Sunderland1:0Birmingham City
West Ham2:2Derby County

 

The big game at the bottom was at Upton Park where West Ham took on Derby County. They were the only two to play in midweek, but both gained points. Geoff Pike scored his sixth of the season for the home side but Leighton James cancelled it out for Derby. Billy Jennings then looked to have won the game for West Ham, but Mick McGiven put through his own net and the points were shared. West Ham were now unbeaten in their last five and seriously starting to believe they had escaped. Derby too had lost just once in their last six and were looking in far better form than those around them.

QPR hosted the league leaders, Liverpool. Twelve months before, Liverpool had broken their hearts by winning the league in their final match of the season. How times change.

Don Givens gave the home side an early lead, which they held till midway through the second half when Jimmy Case equalised. Liverpool were now two points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand. QPR were still in trouble at the bottom, but a point was vital. It ended a run of three straight defeats.

Stoke and Norwich played out a goalless draw. Norwich were mid-table and already ‘on the beach’. But Stoke were still in danger, and having been thumped by Coventry the week before, were very grateful of the point.

After their defeat in the week, Coventry did well to earn a point at Everton. Tommy Hutchison equalised Bruce Rioch’s first-half opener. Rioch had, had an interesting season. He started out in midfield at Derby County, moving to centre-forward to score four in an 8-2 win over Tottenham. Then he moved to Everton with this being only his second of the season for them.

Astonishingly, Everton still had five matches to play in the season.

Sunderland’s Mel Holden had missed half of the season. It looked like they missed him too, as they took eleven games to win a match. Then from mid-November to mid-January, they lost nine in a row. How things had changed by May. Holden scored the only goal of the game against Birmingham and Sunderland were now unbeaten in eight and looking like they might get out of this.

At Ashton Gate, Manchester United arrived. 32,166 also turned up, although this was still less than witnessed the opening home game of the season when Stoke were the visitors. Chris Garland put the home side in at the break and the locals were dreaming of a huge win, but Jimmy Greenhoff ruined things with a successful spot-kick.

After Sunderland won, and every other team in the bottom eight earned a point, Spurs arrived at Maine Road needing to win. Even a draw was unlikely to be enough as this was their penultimate match of the season. City were in second but had lost at Derby and drawn at Villa in recent weeks. They wouldn’t make the same mistake this time. City were in imperious form. Tommy Booth got things going in the first half but it wasn’t until the second period where they turned on the style. Dennis Tueart, Peter Barnes, Asa Hartford and Brian Kidd all got on the scoresheet and Tottenham were a well-beaten team.

Mathematically, Tottenham were still in the game, but realistically, they were down. Even a win in their final match at home to Leicester might not be enough. Their goal difference was the worst in the division. Things looked hopeless.

QPR were now in the bottom three for the first time in the season, but they had games in hand. Above them were four clubs on the same points, with Derby just two points above the drop zone.

PosPGDPts
15Derby County40-734
16Sunderland40-633
17Coventry City39-1033
18Stoke City39-2033
19West Ham40-2133
20QPR37-532
21Tottenham41-2631
22Bristol City38-1229

Tuesday 10th May 1977

Bristol City1:0Leeds United
Coventry City0:0Liverpool

 

As if Coventry weren’t in enough trouble, they had to take on Liverpool who were one win away from retaining their title. So the goalless draw they earned was almost worth more than one point. Liverpool were then two points ahead of Manchester City and also had a game in hand, so they weren’t too concerned. But for Coventry the point was essential, taking them two points clear of the drop.

Bristol City were fighting for their First Division lives. They’d been at the foot of the table for over a month. This was their second meeting with Leeds in ten days. They lost up at Elland Road, but Chris Garland’s second goal in three days gave the Robins a huge win. Defeat could well have meant relegation. The win finally took them off the bottom.

PosPGDPts
15Derby County40-734
16Coventry City40-1034
17Sunderland40-633
18Stoke City39-2033
19West Ham40-2133
20QPR37-532
21Bristol City39-1131
22Tottenham41-2631

Wednesday 11th May 1977

Derby County2:0QPR
Stoke City3:3Manchester United

 

When Derby lost at Coventry two weeks before, they were only a point above the relegation zone. But their 2-0 win over QPR put them out of the story. Six points out of a maximum eight saw them move out of the bottom eight. Gerry Daly and Roy McFarland scored the goals.

QPR had just dropped into the bottom three after the weekend, and badly needed the points. But they were well beaten. They still had four games to go, though things were getting nervy for them.

Stoke City entertained Manchester United, who had their minds on the impending FA Cup Final. David McCreery in a rare start for the Red Devils, put them in front. Garth Crooks equalised but Gordon Hill made sure the visitors went in ahead. Hill scored again in the second half and so did Crooks. It was left to Alan Bloor to equalise for the home side and they’d earned a point. This took them above Sunderland, and two points clear of the drop.

PosPGDPts
15Derby County41-536
16Coventry City40-1034
17Stoke City40-2034
18Sunderland40-633
19West Ham40-2133
20QPR38-732
21Bristol City39-1131
22Tottenham41-2631

Saturday 14th May 1977

Coventry City0:1Manchester City
Derby County0:0Ipswich Town
Leeds United0:1QPR
Liverpool0:0West Ham
Middlesbro0:0Bristol City
Norwich City2:2Sunderland
Tottenham2:0Leicester City
West Brom3:1Stoke City

 

At Anfield, Liverpool gained the point they needed to secure back-to-back titles for Bob Paisley in only his third year in charge. The treble was very much on with an FA Cup final and a European Cup final to look forward to. For West Ham, it was yet another draw. They had drawn five of their last six matches, all of them unbeaten. Nine of their last twelve matches had been draws. They were desperately battling to stay up.

At Elland Road QPR arrived, knowing a win was a must as they’d dropped into the bottom three. In this piece, we have constantly referred to the season before when they were almost crowned Champions. Their final game of the season was a win over Leeds and they celebrated as if they’d won the league. At the end of this season, things were very different. But the result was the same thanks to a Peter Eastoe goals. The victory lifted them out of the drop zone and ended a run of five without a win.

Derby County picked up another point. It was their final match of the season and their run to the end had been a good one. Unbeaten in their last five, two victories had been enough to keep them up. Thirty-seven points would be enough this year.

Sunderland visited Carrow Road on a good run. Two successive victories had seen them make progress up the table, although they were certainly still in a fight. Sunderland brought plenty of support with them too. More people were in the ground than there’d been for the visit of Liverpool or Manchester United. After a goalless first half, Kevin Reeves and Viv Busby gave the home side a seemingly impregnable lead. With just seven minutes to go, Gary Rowell grabbed a crucial goal back. Then with five minutes still remaining, Bobby Kerr levelled to send the Wearsider fans into delirium. Sunderland’s run was now nine without defeat. Yet they were only out of the relegation zone on goal difference. One more game to go.

Stoke City were at the Hawthorns to take on West Brom. Alan Suddick scored his first ever goal for Stoke. Good timing. But goals from Mick Martin, Laurie Cunningham and David Cross gave the home side victory. Stoke had now dropped into the bottom three. They were without a win in their last seven, picking up just four points during that period. Things didn’t look good for them.

Coventry City had the chance to make a good case for survival when Manchester City arrived. City still had faint title hopes but of course, they disappeared when Liverpool drew with West Ham. Jimmy Conway took his chance to score his first goal for Man City and it proved to be the only goal of the game. Coventry were now only out of the relegation zone on goal difference with only one game to go to keep them up.

Bottom club Bristol City travelled all the way to Ayresome Park. The two teams played out a goalless draw. It didn’t really matter to the home side as they were mid-table. But for City, it was another vital point, but was a point really going to be enough? They had two games still to play, one of them at home to treble-chasing Liverpool.

At White Hart Lane, it was a sad day for the home side. In front of one of their lowest attendances of the season, few were cheering. Tottenham, at least, managed a 2-0 win with goals from Jimmy Holmes and John Pratt. But relegation was settled and so all they had to look forward to was Second Division football from next season, sixteen years after, they did the double.

Derby County were now safe so they’re now out of our story.

Tottenham were relegated. There were five clubs on the same points. Bristol City were hanging on, with two games to go. QPR had three games and potentially the best chance of staying up.

PosPGDPts
16Sunderland41-634
17QPR39-634
18Coventry41-1134
19West Ham41-2134
20Stoke City41-2234
21Tottenham42-2433
22Bristol City40-1132

 

So Tottenham were down. Derby were definitely safe. Six clubs were trying to avoid the remaining two relegation places. QPR and Bristol City had games in hand, but Bristol City had Liverpool, the League Champions, up next.

Join us for the fourth part when it all gets a little tense. There’s drama, shocks and goals.