On this day thirty-five years ago, two matches took place in English football which both created headlines in their own contrasting way. Apart from their own unique position in history, one of the reasons for focusing on them is down to the equally contrasting fortunes of each club now thirty-five years later.
Derby County met Fulham in a game which could decide one of the promotion spots. Now both clubs are fighting it out in the play-offs to again try and get into England’s top tier.
Manchester City and Luton Town battled it out in a winner-takes-all clash where the loser went down. Thirty-five years later, Manchester City is one of the richest clubs in the world, winning the Premier League breaking a host of stats records, whereas Luton Town, yet to play in the Premier League despite being a founder member, have just won promotion from the fourth tier on their long road back from being a conference club in 2009.
The one common denominator between these two matches was the invasion of the pitch of non-footballers afterwards. The images have lingered on even to this day.
Saturday 14th May 1983
Manchester City v Luton Town
The final day of the season for First Division clubs and we had, what amounted to, a play-off for survival at the bottom. It was a David v Goliath clash as little Luton Town travelled to Manchester City.
City had been First Division champions in 1968 and runners-up in 1977. They had won the FA Cup in 1969 and lost in a replay in 1981, they’d won two League Cups in 1970 and 1976, losing in a final too in 1974. Their one European trophy was the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970 and yet here they were on the brink of Second Division football. They were about to trade in the lush green pitches of Anfield, Old Trafford and Highbury for wet Tuesday night trips to Grimsby, Carlisle and Shrewsbury. None of which was pleasing chairman, Peter Swales.
City had been through a fair amount of upheaval since the days of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison in the late ‘60’s. In 1981 he brought in John Bond from Norwich to turn things around after Allison’s fateful second spell at the club. Bond’s influence brought immediate results and the Cup Final side of 1981 looked to be set for bigger and better things. But Bond fell out with Swales in February and they appointed ex-Bournemouth player-manager, John Benson. This was Benson’s first full-time post and City had managed just three wins in the sixteen games he was in charge before the visit of Luton.
When Bond left City they were fourteenth, 11pts off second place but also 10pts above safety
Benson’s first game in charge was a 2-2 draw at home to Tottenham, who had beaten them in the famous FA Cup replay in 1981. On the same day Luton were beaten at home, 1-3 by runaway leaders, Liverpool. Luton had come a long way from the heady days of the previous September when they arrived at Anfield and for the first forty-five minutes seemed to run their illustrious opponents, ragged. They drew 3-3 that day, and it was further evidence they were one of the most exciting sides in the Division.
Luton really were minnows in English football, although they had spent a few seasons in the top division at the end of the fifties. When City were winning their title in 1968, Luton were down in the Fourth Division, albeit as Champions. They spent one season in the mid-seventies in the First Division before eight long years in Division Two. The eventually became Division Two Champions in 1982, with Graham Taylor’s Watford in second place. David Pleat had taken over as manager at the beginning of 1978, and after surviving the drop a year later continual improvement over the next three seasons saw them storm the table and find their way back to the First Division.
Their first nine games in the First Division saw them score twenty-four goals and concede twenty-one. If it was goals you were after then go and watch Luton Town. This cavalier approach threatened to undermine the hard work they had put in to reach England’s top Division again. Everton put five past them in both meetings, Arsenal, Coventry and also local rivals Watford all scored at least four times. But they had pulled off a famous1-0 win at Nottingham Forest, European Champions just three years previous, in March but then lost their next four, including the ignominious defeat at Watford, to find themselves in the bottom three.
A run of six games unbeaten had seen them rise to sixteenth but then Everton and Manchester United thrashed them and they were hanging on for their lives. Luton were last in the First Division in 1975 when they had just one season in the big time. Their final match of that season was a 1-1 draw with Manchester City, but the point was not enough to keep them up. The goalscorer for City that day was Dennis Tueart, who was still in the City side eight years later. Lining up against him on this day was future City manager, Brian Horton, who was in charge of the club between 1993-1995.
The first meeting this season between these two was at Kenilworth Road in December, and goals from Paul Walsh, Brian Stein and an own goal from Asa Hartford, gave Luton a 3-1 win. At that stage Luton were nineteenth and Manchester City were up in tenth. Goals had been City’s problem, scoring just eleven in the sixteen games since Benson took over, conceding twenty-nine.
Luton’s manager David Pleat gambled on his top goalscorer Brian Stein, who had been troubled with a foot injury which had seen him start just one match in the previous five months. His fifteen goals that season were proving vital in keeping them in the fight for safety.
What you need to understand about the two clubs is that Luton had come into the First Division, along with Watford, playing exciting football. Both clubs were unfashionable, yet Watford were pushing for a European place, eventually finishing second to Liverpool. Luton, for all their exciting, attacking play, were now staring down the barrel of another one-season-wonder, and were desperate to keep the dream alive. The Manchester City of the eighties were far removed from the oil-rich global package of today, and spent most of their time flitting between the top two divisions. Often struggling to find Manchester United’s shadow, let alone stay in it. Which in itself is ironic as the eighties were only marginally better for the Red Devils than the seventies, yet they rarely challenged for the title. This was the biggest crowd Luton played in front of all season, and for City only the Manchester derby saw more in the ground.
The match kicked off with both teams visibly nervy. Former Chelsea striker, Trevor Aylott, was busy for Luton causing the home defence some concern. Towards end of first half, a long ball from City right back, Ray Ranson in his own half, went beyond the Luton defence for Kevin Reeves to run onto but he dragged shot wide of far post. The first half had very few real clear-cut chances and ended all very even at 0-0. That would be enough for City but not Luton.
The second half began with Luton on attack forcing Kevin Bond to have a nervy moment as his touch only just took ball out for corner. The resultant corner saw Paul Walsh force a good save from Williams. Luton were beginning to get a grip in the game and Pleat decided to make a substitution. Raddy Antic, a 35-year old Yugoslav had joined Luton in 1980 from Real Zaragoza and played an important part in the club’s Second Division Championship win in 1982. His form had been patchy during the season fuelling speculation of a transfer. He was brought on to replace Wayne Turner in midfield.
City tried to create chances of their own as they put Luton keeper, Tony Godden, under pressure. Godden missed a cross and the ball was cleared, but when it came back in Tueart couldn’t convert a chance before Godden bundled it out for a corner. Luton moved the ball from left to right in midfield, to find Kirk Stephens as the overlap. His cross-cum-shot into the area was pushed out low down by Williams and it rebounded back off Nicky Reid and onto the bar. A nervous moment for the home side who were starting to make mistakes. The game was getting really frantic as both sides realised time was running out.
Asa Hartford showed some trickery beating several players, before back heeling to Paul Power whose cross Dennis Tueart couldn’t convert. Then down at the other end there was a desperate scram in the City area as the players now seemed as nervous as the fans.
Luton began to push up more, with just five minutes to go. Brian Stein had the ball wide on the right and his initial cross was easily blocked by Tommy Caton, but it went back to Stein and he gave his second cross more air, right into the six-yard box. Rather than leave the clearance to two of his defenders, Williams elected to come and punch the ball which he managed but his momentum caused him to fall to the ground. He got enough of a punch to take the ball to the edge of the area. Who does the ball drop to? Raddy Antic. He hit the ball on the volley and with Williams not able to get up quick enough, City had two defenders on the line but they were helpless to stop the ball going into the net and Luton had a priceless goal late in the game. The view from behind the goal shows Williams just get a hand to the shot as he tries to get up, but that is enough to take the shot past the two City defenders.
The place went mad. Pleat was off his bench trying to calm his players telling them to hold on. City looked stunned as it hits them they could be going down. Benson made a substitution bringing on striker, Steve Kinsey for Baker. City were frantic now and had to score or else it was relegation. Hartford tried to create an opening but his pass was grabbed by Godden. Godden was again called into action to deal with a cross which he could only push out for a corner. He missed his punch from the resultant corner and the ball dropped for Kinsey who shot straight at a crowd of players.
But that was City’s final chance. The final whistle blew and Luton had survived, cue the most ridiculous skip onto a pitch from anyone, especially a manager. David Pleat skipped onto the pitch to celebrate with his players, desperately trying to do the button up on his suit which only added to the comedic factor. But the joy on his face could not be hidden and, in an era before play-offs this was as dramatic a match as you could hope to witness in League football.
What happened next?
City spent the next six years yo-yoing from First Division to the Second and back again. They spent two years in the Second after this relegation to go back up on goal difference in 1985, only to return two years later. They finished second to Chelsea in 1989 to return to the top where they would remain until suffering another relegation in 1996. The trip back that time, would be much longer and more painful than before.
For Luton they were able to build on their fortune, although for a few years they seemed to have a perennial fight against the drop, before 1986, 1987 and 1988 saw them record top ten finishes. They won the League Cup in 1988, beating overwhelming favourites Arsenal, losing to Nottingham Forest in the final the following season. But what followed was another three seasons finishing perilously close to the drop before finally succumbing in 1992. Within ten years Luton were back down to the third tier of English football. A mini-revival saw them return to the Championship but then financial turmoil then saw them competing in the Conference.
David Pleat took Luton to the FA Cup Semi-Finals in 1985 and the Quarter-Finals the season after, before leaving the club to take over at Tottenham and overseeing one of their most attacking sides for many years.
Of course the day’s hero was Antic. He went onto manage several clubs, mainly in Spain including both Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as Atletico Madrid, Real Zaragoza and Real Oviedo. More recently he was manager of the Serbian national team.
Saturday 14th May 1983, First Division, Maine Road, Manchester. 42,843
MANCHESTER CITY (0) 0
LUTON TOWN (0) 1 (Antic)
Manchester City: Williams; Ranson, Bond, Caton, McDonald; Baker (Kinsey), Hartford, Reid, Power; Reeves, Tueart
Luton: Godden; Stephens, Elliott, Donaghy, Goodyear; Hill, Horton, Turner (Antic); Stein, Aylott, Walsh
If you enjoyed this blast from the past check out some more articles here on: Alan Ball and Fabio Cannavaro.