With the current season over a quarter gone, early signs are we could be in for one of the most open and exciting title races for some time. While Manchester City look to be every bit as good as last term, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea all appear to have improved considerably and, should this state of affairs continue, we could be in for a roller-coaster season.
Seasons whereby there are more than two sides making a concerted title push right up to the wire have notoriously been few and far between. Should two or more teams manage to cling onto City’s coat tails until the spring this time round, it would be rather a rare event.
In the Premiership era there have only really been a handful of occasions when the final weeks of the season have been approached with three teams or more still in real title contention.
2001 -02 with Arsenal, United and Liverpool battling things out until the last fortnight of the season is one such case that does spring to mind, as is 2013-14 (City, Liverpool and Chelsea) and 1998-99 (United, Arsenal and Chelsea).
However, as stated, these are the exception to the rule.
Times Gone By – 1970’s
Time was when multi-club scraps for the title were almost commonplace, though. Going back to the 1970’s, and just prior to my footballing consciousness, every other year seemed to involve a titanic three or four-way battle for the title.
Standout examples here include the 1971-72 season, when the league table looked like this coming towards its conclusion:
Similarly, the 1974-75 campaign approached its climax showing a league table thus:
Both campaigns were played under the old ‘two points for a win’ rule, of course.
Into the ‘eighties, and although there was the occasional large field of runners and riders, more often than not campaigns were run as either two-horse affairs (Liverpool and United in ‘80, Villa and Ipswich in ’81, and so on) or else with one side running away with the title (Liverpool in ’83 and ’88, and Everton in ’85).
In the midst of the decade, however, came a season of such unpredictability that no less than five sides approached the final month of the season all with realistic hopes of being crowned champions.
Step forward the 1985-86 season.
1985 and Football Looking into the Abyss
This was the season that kicked off with football on its knees and in which it was supposed to die a natural death. The ‘seventies and ‘eighties had been blighted with hooliganism and racism on the terraces and attendances were falling.
Events at the tail end of the preceding 1984-85 season seemed to push our national sport ever near the abyss. A riot at Luton by Millwall followers in March was particularly violent and disturbing but very fortunately caused no loss of life.
A running battle at Birmingham City on the last day of the league season between home supporters and those of Leeds United, however, resulted in the death of one supporter, and then on May 29 the wicked tragedy of Heysel unfolded when hooliganism was responsible for the deaths of thirty-nine football fans prior to the Juventus – Liverpool European Cup final.
Added into the equation was the terrible disaster at Valley Parade, home of Bradford City, where a fire took the lives of fifty-six people on the same day as the Birmingham riot.
Yes, English football was in bad shape.
English sides were pulled out of European competition by Margaret Thatcher’s government, which also wanted to bring in a membership card scheme for supporters.
In addition, the clubs and the television companies were unable to reach agreement on fees for the new season, and so the August kick-off and autumn matches remained un-screened.
Football needed a great season. Luckily, it got one.
Off to a Flyer!
That the season was to turn out to be such an exciting one with five sides still going strong well into the spring was somewhat a surprise back in the autumn, however. This was the season Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United came flying out of the blocks with ten straight wins and a ten-point lead at the top of the First Division by the end of September.
Unfortunately for them and their supporters, nobody except those present at the grounds were able to witness the scintillating football being played by the Red Devils due to the television dispute.
Nevertheless, the Merseyside duo of Liverpool and Everton were left in their wake, as was the challenge coming from London in the early season shape of Chelsea and Arsenal.
Everton, the reigning champions, started particularly slowly, and after a dozen games sat no higher than sixth, a whopping fourteen points behind United at the top. Near neighbours, Liverpool, under the new player-management of Kenny Dalglish, started stronger and were at the head of the chasing pack, but still way behind the Old Trafford side.
That Manchester United capitulated and were drawn back into the pack is well-documented, but two points are perhaps less well-known.
Firstly, the speed in which things turned around was remarkable. Going into their away game at Sheffield Wednesday on November 9, 1985, United still held a ten-point lead after fifteen games. By November 30 and game number nineteen, the lead was down to just two points.
The second point often overlooked when recalling that season is that United actually held the lead at the top of the table for another two months before finally being replaced by Everton on February 1, 1986, albeit having played two games less.
By this time it was also clear that both Chelsea and West Ham were making real and sustained title challenges.
Playing only their second season back in the top flight after promotion, Chelsea, under novice manager John Hollins, were surprising many with both their progress and style of football on the then-notorious cabbage patch of a Stamford Bridge pitch.
Fuelled by the goals of David Speedie and Kerry Dixon, Chelsea were riding high in third place, just two points off the top with over half the season gone.
It was around this time that Chairman Ken Bates was at his acerbic peak. Never short of a quote or a publicity stunt, Bates seemed to spend at least as much time on the back pages of the papers as his talented team did.
Making less noise but proving just as impressive was the team from East London. Enjoying perhaps the first (and only) real title challenge in their entire history, West Ham had climbed into fifth place and, as with their West London rivals, were largely dependent on a goal scoring strike force duo.
In West Ham’s case the goals were being supplied by 26-year-old Frank McAvennie, a summer signing from St. Mirren, and his 20-year-old strike partner, Tony Cottee, who had risen through the Upton Park ranks.
Backed up by such stalwarts as Ray Stewart, Alvin Martin and Phil Parkes, West Ham were proving to be the real deal, and although they sat eight points off the top they did so with three games in hand.
At this stage the season was really beginning to shape up to be something out of the ordinary. All five teams: United, Liverpool, Everton, and the two London clubs, were battling it out at the top without really looking like pulling away from the pack.
It really was anyone’s guess as to which of them was going to put a run together and get the pip on the others.
‘The Worst in Twenty Years’
Everton seemed to then get into their stride and after they had won 2-0 at Anfield in the Merseyside derby, which marked the thirtieth game of the season, moved three points clear of Manchester United at the top, and eight ahead of Liverpool.
It had taken some time for Howard Kendall’s side to really hit their stride following their all-conquering season the year before, but now they appeared to be firing on all cylinders and were installed as the new favourites for the league.
Liverpool for their part were dismissed in some quarters as being ‘the worst Liverpool team for twenty years’ and their chances as good as written off.
Two months and eight games or so later and the pendulum had swung back a little once more. A charge of seven victories and a single draw had put Liverpool back in contention, and with four games to go they were sharing top spot with Everton, who had played a game less. Manchester United were still hanging on in third, while Chelsea were fourth six points behind Liverpool with a game in hand, and four points ahead of West Ham in fifth who had played two games less.
The FA Cup had also been an exciting one so far. Liverpool and Chelsea had clashed in round four, while Manchester United and West Ham had played out a titanic battle a round later. Through now to the semi-finals were the Merseyside clubs, and as they had been kept apart in the draw, an all Merseyside final was a distinct possibility.
Also still on the agenda at this point were league clashes between Chelsea and Liverpool, and Everton and West Ham.
Something had to give, and finally it did.
Five Become Three
First Manchester United and then Chelsea hit a run of bad form at an inopportune point in time, and so the title challengers were reduced in number from five to three.
For Chelsea this was a disappointing but not devastating state of affairs. They had not been expected to mount a challenge, and the fact that they had lasted the course for so long was seen as a cause for celebration.
For Manchester United however this state of affairs was little short of catastrophic. It had been eighteen long years since United’s last title victory, and while their autumn form had seemed to suggest their long await for a title was nearing its end, the failure to maintain a challenge was ultimately to cost manager Ron Atkinson his job.
Everton still had their noses in front as the clock ticked into the final three games of the season, but suddenly their wheels came off altogether and momentum was passed across Stanley Park.
Locked on the same number of points but with a game in hand, the title was Everton’s to lose with just four games to play, and lose it they most certainly did.
First a goalless draw at Nottingham Forest allowed Liverpool to jump two points ahead, and then came a night of high drama.
On Wednesday 30 April 1986 three First Division matches were played. The three title challengers: Liverpool, Everton and West Ham, were in action against three teams battling relegation: namely, Leicester City, Oxford United, and Ipswich town, respectively.
At this stage Liverpool had two games remaining while Everton and West Ham had three each. The Hammers were a further two points behind the Toffees, but what made things even more interesting was the fact that West Ham and Everton were due to meet in the final game of the season at Goodison Park. Depending on how results went in the next few days, that match now had the potential to be a title-shootout.
At Leicester, Liverpool took early command of the match and after twenty-five minutes were cruising at 2-0. It was all ears to the radio and events at the Manor Ground and Upton Park. West Ham made hard work of defeating a stubborn Ipswich side, but were finally able to do so courtesy of a late Ray Stewart penalty.
Meanwhile, Everton were finding Oxford an equally tough nut to crack on their homely and tight ground. With a few minutes remaining, the game was still scoreless – a result that would put the destiny of the title into Liverpool’s hands.
Just as Liverpudlians were praying that Oxford could hold out for a draw, Les Phillips popped up on the stroke of full-time to go one better and write himself into Anfield folklore by netting Oxford’s winner.
Onto the final Saturday of the season and Liverpool led the way by four points over West Ham who had climbed into second, a point ahead of Everton. The scenario was simple: a Liverpool win away to Chelsea would see the title return to Anfield irrespective of what happened elsewhere, while a draw would open the door to West Ham, and a defeat would also give Everton an opportunity to hold onto their crown.
Ultimately, the title was settled by 4.45pm that Saturday evening in May, courtesy of Liverpool player-manager Kenny Dalglish scoring the only goal of the game.
The Title-decider That Never Was
This result meant that the final game of the season between Everton and West Ham, who both won their games on the Saturday, was now consigned to being the decider for runners-up rather than champions.
It is interesting to note, though, that had Chelsea beaten Liverpool then the Goodison clash would have had the potential to have become the most dramatic match of all time. A positive result for either side would have confirmed them the title, while a draw would have given it to Liverpool.
In the end an Everton victory meant a Merseyside 1-2 was achieved for the second consecutive season.
The following weekend the two sides met in the FA Cup final for the first time, and Liverpool clinched the Double thanks to two Ian Rush goals in a 3-1 victory.
On a personal note, the 1985-86 season was one of great significance for me even without the dramatic chain of events on the pitch. It was my first full year in the workplace, and also the winter I learnt to drive.
Most of my driving lessons took place on Sunday afternoons, and so when the TV companies and the Football League finally reached agreement and live football returned to the screens in the second half of the season, I invariably missed most of the Sunday live games.
Most of the Liverpool games I did manage to get to involved defeats. I was a particular bad-luck charm at a 2-1 defeat to QPR back in September, a 2-0 reverse at Highbury when Niall Quinn scored on his debut, and a ridiculous 2-1 humbling at relegation-bound Ipswich.
All things considered, though, 1985-86 was the season football had to have after the horrors and misery of the previous campaign.
Such an enthralling season going right up to the wire as it did helped to generate interest in the game once more, and things have never since returned to the bleakness of the mid-1980’s.