The season is 1977-78 and our focus is on Division Two, or if you don’t remember football before Sky, the Championship.
These are the days of two points for a win, twenty-two teams in the top two divisions, three automatic promotion places with no play-offs, back-passes etc. Division Two is coloured by the appearance of Tottenham Hotspur for the first time. They suffered relegation from the First Division the previous season, yet rather in contrast to matters today, retained most of the playing staff and manager, Keith Burkinshaw kept his job.
Amongst their squad were Glenn Hoddle and Steve Perryman. They were up against characters such as Sam Allardyce, Peter Reid and Frank Worthington at Bolton. Howard Kendall and Garth Crooks at Stoke City. Ted MacDougall, Peter Osgood and Alan Ball at Southampton. Kenny Sansom, George Graham and Terry Fenwick at Crystal Palace, Mark Lawrenson (Brighton), Derek Fazakerley (Blackburn), George Best (Fulham), Billy Bremner (Hull City), Bobby Gould (Bristol Rovers) and Bryan Hamilton (Millwall).
Our focus for this season is on Blackpool. Blackpool were managed by Allan Brown, a former player who rose to notoriety when he scored the winning goal against Arsenal in the 1953 FA Cup Quarter-Final but broke his leg in the process, thereby missing out on glory in the famous Matthews Final. Former Blackpool legend, Jimmy Armfield declared he was the fittest player he’d ever played with. This was his second season at the helm.
The year before they narrowly missed out on promotion finishing behind Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest by just one point. This must’ve been particularly galling for Brown as he was Forest manager before ‘Old Big ‘Ead’. Up front they boasted a potent strike-force of Bob Hatton and Mickey Walsh, who between them shared thirty-six goals in that season. Walsh got the lion share of them with twenty-six, but this time round Hatton was the more prolific. Five games in and the two had eight between them. Eight games in and Hatton had already scored two hat-tricks.
At the beginning of November, Hatton scored in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United and they were up to third in the table behind Bolton and Tottenham. But four defeats during December saw them finish 1977 in ninth. Hatton’s third hat-trick of the season when they beat Charlton, 5-1 in January was sandwiched with two defeats and being knocked out of the FA Cup by West Brom.
At the beginning of February, Hatton scored four in a 5-2 win at home to Blackburn Rovers. Blackpool were up to seventh. Hatton now had twenty for the season and with Walsh on nine they were bang on form.
Then came the car crash.
After the Blackburn win, Blackpool Chairman, Billy Cartmell, made remarks in a local newspaper about Brown’s job being on the line. Brown responded by calling his Chairman “a backstabbing rat”. The board sat and considered the situation and then encouraged by Cartmell, duly sacked the manager. It was an astonishing move, just two days after the crowd had been singing the manager’s name. At the time Blackpool were in seventh on twenty-eight points, nine off a promotion place. The top three, Tottenham, Bolton and Southampton were separated by one point.
Brown was replaced by Jimmy Meadows who was in for his second stint as caretaker. His first task was to take on the leaders, Tottenham Hotspur. Willie Ronson and Mickey Walsh had given them a 2-1 half-time lead before Don McAllister equalised and the points were shared. They then lost to relegation threatened, Cardiff City before grabbing a draw at home to Notts County.
Still in seventh they then beat Hull City, 3-0 and things looked as if they were no different than in Brown’s days, or so we thought. But given they had not been able to call upon the services of Bob Hatton since the Blackburn win, things weren’t too bad.
They then turned up at Kenilworth Road and got thumped, 0-4 by Luton Town. The Hatters had won just once in their previous nine and so were grateful for the lack of competition.
Back in those days the Easter schedule was as busy as Christmas with three matches in four days, and it began badly for Blackpool as Peter Reid was on target for Bolton who won 2-1. Blackpool had slipped to eleventh. On Easter Monday, they welcomed Hatton back into the ranks after he’d missed the last six matches, but he couldn’t find the net as Dave Tong equalised a Mick Docherty goal for Sunderland. At least it was a point gained. Twenty-four hours later, Mickey Walsh scored as they drew again, at home to Burnley.
Into April and they drew further matches at Sheffield United and at home to Stoke City. With five matches to play they sat in ninth and all looked as if mid-table obscurity was all they could hope for. Four successive draws, no wins in six and just one win in ten since Brown was jettisoned and no goals from Hatton. Things had changed significantly.
Stoke then beat Millwall midweek to move above The Seasiders and worse was to follow as Blackpool were themselves to visit The Den to meet a Millwall side second from bottom. Millwall were three points from safety and looking at a run of one win in their last nine. Goals in each half from John Seasman and Bryan Hamilton gave Millwall a surprise victory and Blackpool were now down to thirteenth.
The following Tuesday, Mickey Walsh scored his fourteenth of the season, but they lost at home to Fulham when a young Gordon Davies scored his first goal for the club on his first start. The following Saturday they welcomed Mansfield to Bloomfield Road. Mansfield were experiencing their only ever season in the second tier of English football and were finding things very difficult. They were rooted to the foot of the table four points from safety. They had lost five successive matches in March but had turned things around with six points from a possible ten in their last five games. At last Blackpool fans could cheer a Bob Hatton goal, his first under the new manager, since he scored those four against Blackburn. But goals from Dave Syrett and John Miller gave Mansfield another crucial away win.
Blackpool had now lost to two of the bottom three sides and were now down in fifteenth. They’d lost three successive games and were now without a win from their last nine. They were just four points off the drop, but with two games to go and four teams between them and relegation, surely they weren’t in trouble, were they?
Another Tuesday night game saw them finally stop the rot when they held Crystal Palace to a 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park. Their away record was shocking with no win in ten, but at least a point saw them move up to fourteenth and three points ahead of Cardiff, who’d now fallen into the drop zone.
Their final match of the season was at the end of April when they travelled all the way down to the South Coast to take on Brighton at The Goldstone Ground. In those days there was none of this all teams kick off on the last day of the season, but both these teams were playing their final fixtures. Brighton were sitting in fourth just a point behind Tottenham and needing a win to try and gain promotion. On the same day Tottenham travelled to second placed Southampton.
Bob Hatton scored his twenty-second of the season but goals from Peter Ward and a penalty from Brian Horton saw Brighton win 2-1. It wouldn’t be enough for them to go up as Tottenham and Southampton played out a goalless draw and Spurs went up on goal difference. Their goal difference was nine better than Brighton’s and this can be traced back to them beating Bristol Rovers, 9-0 earlier in the season.
Blackpool’s season was over, they’d only accumulated thirty-seven points and now had an agonising ten day wait for everyone else to complete their campaigns. Of the sides below them, Millwall and Cardiff had both won with Leyton Orient and Mansfield also picking up points. Hull City were relegated but they were the only one of the six teams below Blackpool who did not have games in hand. It would be a nervous wait.
The following Tuesday saw Millwall beat Mansfield to complete a remarkable escape from what looked like certain relegation. Unbelievably they had won their last six matches to completely turn their season around. What is even more remarkable is when they surprisingly beat Bolton on New Year’s Eve it was only their third win of the season in their twenty-third match. They were now safe, but Mansfield weren’t, and defeat confirmed their drop after just one season in the Second Division.
Blackpool were now down to seventeenth, two points from the drop and there were two clubs, Leyton Orient and Cardiff City, who had two matches still to play.
Twenty-four hours later Cardiff played one of their games in hand when they beat Notts County at home and they moved above Blackpool to safety. To make matters worse Leyton Orient earned a goalless draw against Charlton and all of a sudden in just a matter of weeks Blackpool were perilously close to the drop. They were down to nineteenth, just one place above the relegation zone and one point from safety. The team below them was Orient who had a trip to Cardiff still to play.
After Ipswich Town had shocked Arsenal in the FA Cup Final, Leyton Orient made their journey to Wales to meet Cardiff. By now the home side were assured of Second Division football for the following season. Orient were unbeaten in five, despite their presence in the bottom three. Cardiff had won their last three, including a win over eventual Champions, Bolton. For Leyton Orient they had, had a memorable season reaching the FA Cup Semi-Final where they lost to Arsenal. They’d knocked out First Division opponents in Norwich City, Chelsea and Middlesbrough, but now they had to find that form to stop them going down. The FA Cup had been fruitful for clubs at the bottom of the Second Division as Millwall also reached the Quarter-Finals, losing to Ipswich.
The final game of the season, ten days after most clubs had concluded their schedules, was on a Tuesday night at Ninian Park. The only result Leyton Orient could consider was a win. Lose or draw and they were down, their goal difference was inferior to Blackpool.
Leyton Orient had the better of the early chances, although it was former O’s defender, Paul Went, who hit the woodwork for the home side. With ten minutes of the first half remaining Peter Kitchen stabbed the ball home for his twenty-first of the season. It was only Orient’s forty-third of the whole season, so you could argue Kitchen had kept them up on his own. Clarke then hit the post for the visitors soon after when another goal was required to calm the nerves. Cardiff gave a better account of themselves in the second period but couldn’t get past Orient’s impressive John Jackson in goal. The game ended 1-0 to Leyton Orient and they had pulled off a famous win, a crucial escape in the eleventh hour. They had battered the Cardiff goal and yet still were a goal away from going down.
For Blackpool it meant relegation. For a club founded in 1887, boasted legends as Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Jimmy Armfield and Alan Ball this was the first time ever they would be faced with playing in England’s third tier.
Search some Blackpool forums and many fans consider it a close race between Billy Cartmell and Karl Oyston as the Chairman who did most to damage the club.
There have been plenty of spats between Chairmen and Managers down the years, but there can’t be many which have backfired quite so spectacularly as this one. It would take them twenty-nine years to find their way back.
The final table shows Blackpool finishing on 37pts. An incredible seven clubs finished just one point above them. The top four were separated by two points with the fifth placed side finishing closer to relegation than promotion. Certainly, a crazy season.