The Great Escape

Welcome back to the final part of this story. We are concentrating on the relegation battle in the First Division in season 1976-77.

We’re into the final week of the season and every game is what Sky would refer to as, huge. Tottenham have already been relegated. Bristol City are hanging on. Above them are five clubs on the same points total.

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 fourth and final part.

Here is the table as it stood.

Pos P GD Pts
16 Sunderland 41 -6 34
17 QPR 39 -6 34
18 Coventry 41 -11 34
19 West Ham 41 -21 34
20 Stoke City 41 -22 34
21 Tottenham 42 -24 33
22 Bristol City 40 -11 32

Monday 16th May

Aston Villa 1 : 0 Stoke City
Bristol City 2 : 1 Liverpool
QPR 1 : 0 Ipswich Town
West Ham United 4 : 2 Manchester United

 

The biggest crowd of the season at Ashton Gate saw the bottom side take on the top. Liverpool were to take part in two major cup finals in the next nine days. With the title already in the bag it would seem the players were a little reluctant to put in too much work for fear of injury. City will not care one jot. David Johnson put the visitors ahead, but just before the break Chris Garland equalised. With fifteen minutes to go the place erupted, as Garland got his second and their dreams of another First Division season now looked likely. City ended up winning a game which had seemed unlikely. It added to the crazy nature of this season.

QPR were trying to fit in a lot of games over a short period, but the win they gained over Ipswich meant they could relax. Don Givens scored his tenth of the season and they were now safe. Not completely, but their goal difference was far superior to those around them.

Having just played Liverpool, West Ham were up against the other FA Cup Finalist when Manchester United arrived at Upton Park. As with Liverpool, United appeared reluctant to really give it a go and West Ham ran out comfortable winners. Pop Robson scored two more to take his total to fourteen and Geoff Pike and Frank Lampard scored the others. Gordon Hill and Stuart Pearson scored for the visitors. Like QPR, West Ham could now look forward to First Division football next season. They’d finished the season unbeaten in their last seven matches.

Stoke City travelled to Villa Park with a record of no win in their last eight. They desperately needed to win. Even a draw might not be enough. They’d beaten Villa earlier in the season but tonight it just wasn’t to be. Andy Gray scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot. It was his twenty-second goal of the season. In contrast, Garth Crooks had been Stoke’s top scorer with just six. Stoke were down. Their form going into the end of the season had deserved it too.

Pos P GD Pts
16 QPR 40 -5 36
17 West Ham 42 -19 36
18 Sunderland 41 -6 34
19 Bristol City 41 -10 34
20 Coventry 41 -11 34
21 Stoke City 42 -23 34
22 Tottenham 42 -24 33

 

QPR and West Ham were now safe, and out of this story. When we began this West Ham were in the bottom three. On 7th May, QPR had dropped into the bottom three, albeit with games in hand.

With Stoke and Tottenham already down, the three clubs battling for survival were Sunderland, Bristol City and Coventry City.

Now here’s the sting in the tail. Coventry and Bristol City were due to meet at Highfield Road. Sunderland’s final game was away at Everton.

Thursday 19th May

The big relegation night. What would Sky call it these days? Terrific Thursday, Titanic Thursday? Well no, they’d have changed the schedule to a weekend. These were the days without one major final Super Sunday.

So, a Thursday night before the FA Cup Final it was.

Sunderland were at Goodison Park to take on Everton, who were in fourteenth. But the big game was at Highfield Road where Coventry City met Bristol City.

Bristol City were at a slight disadvantage as they’d played Saturday and Monday, whereas Coventry had just played the Saturday. But to cushion the effect, Bristol City’s win over Champions, Liverpool, on Monday night had meant they were within touching distance of playing them again the following season.

Bristol City had only come up the season before, after sixty-five years out of the big time. Coventry City were promoted to the First Division in 1967 for the first time in their history. There was a lot at stake for both clubs.

Relegated from the First Division in 1970, Sunderland had spent the last six seasons in Division Two before finishing top of the table the season before this one. They were without Tony Towers, their only international (capped three times the year before). Bobby Kerr, the only survivor from their iconic FA Cup win over Leeds in 1973, came in for him.

Over at Highfield Road both teams were unchanged. Midweek games kicked off at 7:30pm. According to Coventry Chairman, Jimmy Hill, many supporters were caught up in traffic around the ground. So keen was he that everyone who wanted to get in the ground would be able to without missing a minute of action, he delayed the kick-off. This was pretty unusual – the delay not the congestion. But no one questioned this, the referee must’ve agreed so too the Police.

Now remember these were the days before social media, internet, Radio Five etc. Consequently neither ground knew what was going on at the other. So the Sunderland kicked-off not realising Coventry and Bristol hadn’t. Their game was delayed by fifteen minutes.

Everton took the lead through Bob Latchford. His seventeenth of the season. At the break Everton still lead 1-0.

Coventry’s Tommy Hutchison put the home side in front and this too was the only goal of the game when they broke for half-time.

As things stood, Bristol City were going down. Their inferior goal difference to Sunderland meant they would finish below them. But if they could get an equaliser then it would send Sunderland down. If Sunderland then found an equaliser too then Coventry would be relegated. It was all to play for.

In the second half the next goal at Goodison didn’t go to the visitors. Everton, who had nothing to play for, doubled their lead when Bruce Rioch scored. Sunderland were now in trouble yet as long as one of the sides at Highfield Road was winning, they were safe.

Then there was a goal at Highfield Road. Tommy Hutchison scored his second of the game to give Coventry a 2-0 lead. Bristol City now looked unlikely to resurrect their season. Sunderland could now relax a bit. Or so they thought.

A cross from the left to the right-hand side of the Coventry area, was headed back by Don Gillies straight to Gerry Gow. He was unmarked and able to fire home a goal for the visitors. This was Gow’s twenty-seventh game of the season and he was yet to score. Until tonight.

Sunderland were in a precarious position. Another goal for Bristol City and they were down. If there was to be another goal at Highfield Road then they needed the home side to get it. There was little chance of Sunderland getting back into their match.

There was another goal at Highfield Road. Again the ball was crossed to the right side of the Coventry penalty area and once Don Gillies was there but this time he had space and time to volley it past Les Sealey. The travelling support went nuts. From two goals down and going down, they were now back in the race.

The final whistle blew at Goodison Park. Everton had won 2-0. Sunderland fans were now finding out from the few who had transistor radios with them, that the Coventry game was still going on.

In the early days of Jimmy Hill’s management at Coventry, he had been a pioneer by installing an electronic scoreboard in the ground. No other clubs had one. By 1977 few clubs had seen the point. But right now they were able to take full advantage of this. Flashed up on the screen was the final score from Goodison Park.

As if to ram home the fact, Jimmy Hill also raced up to the tannoy announcer and told him to announce the final score. So now everyone in the ground, particularly the players were aware both clubs were safe. Witnesses have declared what followed was mainly two sets of players just knocking the ball around between themselves with no fear of being tackled. No more shots on goal. A truce, if you like. The Guardian reported “what had been an intensely physical contest dissolved farcically”. Therefore the game ended 2-2 and both clubs were safe from relegation.

Coventry City 2 : 2 Bristol City
Everton 2 : 0 Sunderland

 

Pos P GD Pts
16 QPR 40 -5 36
17 West Ham 42 -19 36
18 Bristol City 42 -10 35
19 Coventry City 42 -11 35
20 Sunderland 42 -6 34
21 Stoke City 42 -23 34
22 Tottenham 42 -24 33

The fall out

Sunderland were seething. So was The FA.  Alan Hardaker, Secretary of the Football League sent a letter of reprimand to Coventry. Jimmy Hill was ‘dragged across the coals’ for delaying the kick-off, which basically amounted to a slap on the wrist. But the results stood. Sunderland were relegated. They started the week seventh from bottom but one of five clubs on thirty-four points. Their goal difference was decent for a club so close to trouble. Ultimately, Bristol City did for them. Their victory over Liverpool changed their fortunes. They also came back from two goals down at Coventry in their final game. Something Sunderland couldn’t do at Everton.

Sunderland fans haven’t forgotten it, or forgiven Jimmy Hill. In 2008 when his club Fulham took on Sunderland at Craven Cottage, Hill had to be lead away by the Police for his own safety as a chorus of boos and abuse was directed his way.

Aftermath

Queen’s Park Rangers completed their fixture schedule with draws at Aston Villa and at home to Birmingham City. Manchester United beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. Then Liverpool went to Rome and became only the second English side to win the European Cup.

During the following season, Coventry achieved one of their highest placings in the First Division when they finished seventh, just two points off a UEFA Cup place. Bristol City finished sixth from bottom and QPR escaped relegation by a point.

West Ham weren’t so lucky this time as they went down with Newcastle United and Leicester City. Leicester managed a paltry twenty six goals in their forty two matches.

Neither Sunderland or Stoke managed it back up the next season, but Tottenham did. They finished ahead of Brighton by goal difference.