The Great Escape

Coventry City spent thirty-four seasons in English football’s top flight. When they went down in 2001 only three other clubs had a longer unbroken spell in the top division, Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool. But their run very nearly came to an end back in 1977. This is the remarkable story of a relegation battle which went right down to the wire.

Everyone loves a good relegation battle, don’t they? Oh come on, admit it. Although it’s far better when your team isn’t involved. But the nerves, the tension, the anticipation can be unbearable sometimes. Yet like all good disaster or horror movies you just cannot turn your eyes away, can you?

The season is 1976-77 and things are hotting up down at the foot of the First Division. Two of the promoted sides from the season before, Sunderland and Bristol City, are fighting to stay in the top flight. The other side, West Brom, are having a fantastic season and pushing for a European place.

The nine clubs involved from the beginning of this story were;

Bristol City, Coventry City, Derby County, Everton, QPR, Stoke City, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United

Sunderland won the Second Division by three points, and three years after their famous FA Cup Final win over Leeds United, finally made it out of the second tier and into the big time. Bristol City finished second and ended their sixty-five-year wait to be back amongst the elite.

Their adventure had taken on fairy-tale proportions as they arrived at Highbury on a sun-kissed Saturday in August and won their opening match of the season 1-0. Paul Cheesley scored the only goal of the game, but unfortunately for him, injury would soon rule him out for the rest of the season. Goals were hard to comevertone by but the signing of Peter Cormack from Liverpool helped.

For Sunderland, their fortunes were far worse as they failed to win any of their first ten matches, including going down 1-4 at Ashton Gate. When they came from a goal down to beat Tottenham at home, 2-1, in mid-November they’d picked up five points from a possible eight from their previous four matches. But they then went on a disastrous run of nine successive defeats. Then in February they finally turned things round thanks to goals from Mel Holden and Bob Lee. They won four in a row, including 6-1 and 6-0 wins over West Brom and West Ham, respectively.

Tottenham were the club in most trouble. They’d just missed out on a UEFA Cup place by goal average (the method used to separate sides before goal difference came in) the season before, but with Terry Neill taking over Arsenal, new boss Keith Burkinshaw was certainly having a baptism of fire. For a club the size of Tottenham relegation was unthinkable.

QPR were another club seemingly unprepared for a battle against the drop. This was their fourth season in the top flight, having finished second in Division Two in 1973. They finished runners-up to Liverpool the season before, losing out on the title by one point. But now they were staring Division Two in the face. The season before only two clubs scored more than them, but this time round by mid-April only Bristol City had scored fewer.

Derby County were in a similar position to QPR. They’d won the title in 1975 and yet two seasons later they too were struggling. Without a win away from home all season, goals from players like Kevin Hector had disappeared. They were proving hard to beat, but had the least amount of wins in the whole division.

West Ham were in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final the year before, yet now they were also deep in the mire. The 1975 FA Cup winners were another club short of goals, heavily reliant on Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson as Alan Taylor had been missing for most of the campaign.

Stoke City, Coventry City and Everton had all finished mid-table the season before, but were now in need of points.

Coming into this story, Coventry were ten games without a win. For some reason in Februrary and March they played seven straight away matches. This left them with seven on their final ten matches at home.

Stoke City were the lowest scorers. They had just ended a run of six games without a win. Terry Conroy was top scorer with just five goals.

Everton were the top scorers of the clubs in the bottom nine, with Bob Latchford in great form. Their league form was in stark contrast to their cup fortunes. They were into the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup where they would meet Liverpool. At the point where we pick this story up, they had just narrowly lost in the League Cup Final to Aston Villa. These were the days when replays decided the outcome and after two tedious draws, the two had produced a thriller with Villa winning 3-2 after extra time.

We start our story in mid-April. Here is the table on 13th April 1977. Don’t forget this is when there were two points for a win, and forty-two matches for each side to play. Things were extremely tight with five teams locked on the same points and just five points separating nine clubs.

Pos P GD Pts
14 Stoke City 34 -15 30
15 Everton 32 -8 29
16 Derby County 33 -8 28
17 Sunderland 36 -8 27
18 QPR 31 -8 27
19 Coventry City 32 -10 27
20 West Ham 34 -20 27
21 Tottenham 36 -22 27
22 Bristol City 33 -10 25

Here is how the season panned out, game-by-game

Saturday 16th April

Birmingham City 2 : 0 Stoke City
Coventry City 2 : 3 Aston Villa
Derby County 2 : 3 Everton
Middlesbro 0 : 2 QPR
Newcastle United 3 : 0 West Ham United
Norwich City 2 : 1 Bristol City
Tottenham 1 : 1 Sunderland

Three days after their League Cup Final defeat, Everton bounced back and won a crucial game against Derby County. Two goals in the first half from Gerry Daly had put the visitors 2-0 up at the break. But Bob Latchford, Mike Pejic and Duncan McKenzie pulled the home side back for a vital victory.

QPR was the only other side in the bottom nine to win when goals from Ron Abbott and Don Masson beat Middlesbrough away at Ayresome Park.

Tottenham and Sunderland played out a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. The point was welcome for both sides, as Spurs were now out of the bottom three but, as with Sunderland, now only have five matches to go.

ji were 2-1 up at half-time against Aston Villa, before goals from John Deehan and Brian Little gave the visitors the points.

West Ham made the trip all the way up to Newcastle but were well beaten, 0-3. Paul Cannell, Alan Gowling and Geoff Nulty scored.

Bristol City were at Carrow Road to take on Norwich City, but eventually lost 1-2 despite Peter Cormack’s goal. Martin Peters and Kevin Reeves scored for the home side.

At Birmingham, Trevor Francis and Kenny Burns formed a good partnership up front. They were both on the scoresheet as they beat Stoke City.

Pos P GD Pts
14 Everton 33 -7 31
15 Stoke City 35 -17 30
16 QPR 32 -6 29
17 Sunderland 37 -8 28
18 Derby County 34 -9 28
19 Tottenham 37 -22 28
20 Coventry 33 -11 27
21 West Ham 35 -23 27
22 Bristol City 34 -11 25

Tuesday 19th April and Wednesday 20th April 1977

Aston Villa 2 : 1 Tottenham
Coventry City 1 : 1 West Brom
Derby County 1 : 1 West Ham United
Everton 3 : 1 Norwich City
QPR 4 : 0 Manchester United
Stoke City 2 : 2 Bristol City

This was a day when many of the sides picked up at least a point. Everton made it back-to-back wins when they beat Norwich City 3-1 and were now looking safe. Ken McNaught, Andy King and Jim Pearson scored the goals.

QPR also made it back-to-back wins when they thumped Manchester United 4-0 at home. Peter Eastoe scored twice, with Don Givens and Eddie Kelly also scoring. They were three points ahead of the drop.

The big game was at Victoria Ground as Stoke City took on Bristol City. Bristol struck first through Tom Ritchie, but Stoke came back with goals from defenders, Alan Bloor and Dennis Smith. and the two shared a 2-2 draw.

The Derby v West Ham match at The Baseball Ground was a game of two penalties. Gerry Daly scored the home side with Geoff Pike equalising for the visitors.

Coventry were held at home by one of their Midlands rivals, West Brom. Mick Ferguson scored for the home side but John Wile equalised to ruin any hopes of a vital win. Coventry had now gone twelve matches without a win.

Tottenham now dropped into the bottom three as they were beaten at Villa Park. Goals from John Deehan and Brian Little put the home side ahead at the break. Gerry Armstrong got a goal back for Spurs in the second half, but they were now four games without a win.

Everton were now pretty much safe, so they were now out of this story.

Pos P GD Pts
15 QPR 33 -2 30
16 Stoke City 36 -17 29
17 Sunderland 37 -8 28
18 Derby County 35 -9 28
19 Coventry City 34 -11 28
20 Tottenham 38 -23 27
21 West Ham 36 -23 27
22 Bristol City 35 -11 25

Saturday 23rd April 1977

Arsenal 2 : 0 Coventry City
QPR 1 : 2 Newcastle United
Stoke City 0 : 0 Tottenham
Sunderland 1 : 1 Derby County

The Saturday was FA Cup Semi-Final day, so not every club had fixtures. Nerve rackingly for both West Ham and Bristol City fans they had to sit it out and hope their rivals didn’t gain a further advantage.

Two of the fixtures that day involved sides deep in trouble. Stoke entertained Tottenham at Victoria Ground, whilst Sunderland took on Derby County at Roker Park.

Pat Jennings had missed the last fourteen matches in Spurs goal, but he returned for this one and kept a clean sheet. Peter Shilton in the Stoke goal did the same as the two sides played out a 0-0 draw. A point apiece at least but Spurs now had just one win in their last seven and only five matches left. Stoke were in worse form with one win in their last ten and had only scored in three of those matches.

Steve Powell gave Derby a first-half lead at Sunderland, only to see Tony Towers convert a penalty and the points were shared there too. Sunderland were showing some fight and were unbeaten in six. Derby had drawn three of their last four.

Nobody else picked up points. Coventry travelled to Highbury and were beaten 0-2 by Arsenal. Malcolm MacDonald and Frank Stapleton scored the goals, taking their tally to thirty-four between them for the season. Thirteen games without a win now for Coventry and time was running out.

Don Givens gave QPR a first-half lead at home to Newcastle, but goals from Tommy Craig and Irving Nattrass saw them lose. The memory of their big win over Manchester United already fading.

Pos P GD Pts
15 QPR 34 -3 30
16 Stoke City 37 -17 30
17 Sunderland 38 -8 29
18 Derby County 36 -9 29
19 Coventry City 35 -13 28
20 Tottenham 39 -23 28
21 West Ham 36 -23 27
22 Bristol City 35 -11 26

Eight clubs separated by just four points. Join us in Part Two when the excitement really starts to build.