‘This is a very important year for you all. Whatever happens going forward, you’ll all remember this year – your last at primary school – so be sure to make some good memories’.
As I regularly impart these pearls of wisdom to the students unfortunate enough to find themselves in my charge as a Year Six teacher out here in sunny Asia, my mind is cast back some 44 years to 1979 and my final year of primary school. It was a historic year all around with some dynasties coming to an end, some being established for the first time, and others simply continuing unabated.
With the Village People still extolling the virtues a stay at the YMCA might bring, 1979 was ushered in.
The (freezing) winter of discontent
The year kicked off with Liverpool leading the way by a single point over Merseyside neighbours, Everton, with Ron Atkinson’s West Bromwich Albion side in third a further point back but having played a game less. Defending champions, Nottingham Forest, led by the legendary management duo of Clough and Taylor, were five points behind Bob Paisley’s side courtesy of having drawn eleven of their 20 games so far.
The 1978-79 winter was particularly harsh, with match postponements happening every week. In fact, during January, only 12 First Division matches were played in total.
Ron Atkinson contends to this day that West Brom would have won the league had it not been for the terribly harsh winter that year. He maintains that the turning point of the season was the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on 3 February 1979. Before this match, he claims, Liverpool had been playing regularly while West Brom had had weeks out of action and so Liverpool were match fit while his side were struggling to gain their touch.
A look through the record books finds ample evidence to dispute Big Ron’s claim, however. Although it is true that West Brom did only play two league matches in January, plus another two in the FA Cup, Liverpool were out of league action totally during the first month of the year and had just three FA Cup matches to keep them ticking over.
As Terry Wogan introduced the nation to a new television show titled, Blankety Blank, the British transfer record set two years earlier when Kevin Keegan left Liverpool for SV Hamburg for £500,000 was about to be broken. For some reason, somebody somewhere came up with the figure of £516,000 and so David Mills was transferred from Middlesbrough to West Brom to aid Big Ron in the Baggies title push.
Strikes were hitting Britain’s economy in the public sector, prompting the media to label the period ‘The Winter of Discontent’. With an election due to be called in the spring, the Labour government, headed by Jim Callaghan, was on a sticky wicket with Margaret Thatcher sharpening the knives and metaphorically eyeing up the curtains at Number 10 Downing Street.
The FA Cup got underway in January with Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest and the holders Ipswich Town all safely negotiating the third round. Previous season’s beaten finalists, Arsenal, were handed a tricky tie away to Third Division Sheffield Wednesday, then being managed by England World Cup winner, Jack Charlton, in one of the few ties to beat the big freeze.
A 1-1 draw at Hillsborough meant the sides had to meet again at Highbury for a replay. Again the sides could not be separated due to a 1-1 scoreline, so they trooped off to neutral Filbert Street, home of Leicester City in an effort to sort matters out and decide who would meet Notts County in the fourth round. Still no dice, as the sides drew 2-2 after extra time. Then they drew 3-3 at the same venue two days later. Finally, after a break of another 5 days, Arsenal prevailed by a 2-0 scoreline, also at Filbert Street.
Robin Hood’s finest and a million reasons to celebrate
The League Cup moved into its final stages in January as Watford met holders Nottingham Forest and Leeds clashed with Southampton in two-legged semi-final matchups. Forest prevailed and progressed to Wembley courtesy of a 3-1 home victory and a scoreless second leg, while Southampton came back from two goals down at Elland Road to force a draw before winning the second leg by the only goal of the game.
In European competitions, only Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town and West Bromwich Albion survived until the New Year reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup, respectively.
Nottingham Forest were also through to the fifth round of the FA Cup where they awaited the visit of Arsenal and so were in the hunt for a quadruple of all three domestic trophies plus the European Cup. They had somewhat surprisingly dismissed holders Liverpool from the tournament in the first round but it was now that Messrs Clough and Taylor felt the side needed further strengthening.
Trevor Francis had burst onto the footballing scene some nine years earlier as a sixteen-year-old at Birmingham City and had been tipped to leave the Blues for the last couple of seasons at least. Despite rumoured interest from Liverpool among other clubs, Francis had been persuaded to hang on at St. Andrews but now with the Midlands-based club involved in the mire of another relegation fight, it was finally time for him to move on. Birmingham manager, Jim Smith, was understandably not keen to lose his prized asset and so to dissuade most potential suitors a price tag of a cool million pounds was placed on Francis’ head.
Such a move had its desired effect to a degree, with most clubs indeed deciding they did not fancy paying double the existing transfer record for the soon-to-be twenty-five-year-old striker. When the dust had settled, only Coventry City and Nottingham Forest were left in the hunt and making serious offers. With Coventry being backed by the ambitious Jimmy Hill as Chairman, Francis had an alternative, but in reality, the choice was a straightforward one and so he signed on the dotted line and became the British game’s first seven-figure transfer.
As we shall see, Francis’s time would come spectacularly in just a few months, but in fact, his time at Forest was to prove relatively short-lived with him making less than a hundred appearances over the next two-and-a-half seasons before being transferred to Manchester City – pretty much against his will – in 1981.
Francis was ineligible to play in the 1979 League Cup Final in March, and so was an interested bystander as his new club defeated Southampton by a 3-2 scoreline after trailing by the only goal of the game at half-time.
Also in March, the British TV-watching public was treated to a swathe of new shows. Making their debut on the nation’s small screen were such belters as Mork and Mindy, Sesame Street and the Dukes of Hazard.
Ah, the Wonder Years!
Back into Europe and West Bromwich and Ipswich Town bowed out of the quarter-final stages of the UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, while Forest made it through to a last-four clash with Cologne of West Germany.
Liverpool pushed on in the league and opened up what would prove to be an unassailable lead in the First Division and prepared to meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Maine Road, while the previous season’s beaten finalists, Arsenal, were doing battle with Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park.
FA Cup Semi-Final Day and the end of an era
A cracking match in Manchester on Grand National Day saw the sides share four goals and so head back to Merseyside and Goodison Park for the replay five days later. A late Jimmy Greenhoff winner sent United to Wembley to meet the Gunners, who had triumphed over John Barnwell’s Wolves by two goals to nil.
The defeat at Goodison spelt the end of the line for Liverpool stalwart Emlyn Hughes. An inspirational captain and fantastic player, Hughes had been a mainstay in the side the entire decade and had been instrumental in Liverpool’s success at that time, but with the emergence of Alan Kennedy and Alan Hansen in the Liverpool team, alongside the established Phil Thompson and Phil Neal, there was no room for sentiment, and Hughes would leave the club at the end of the season.
With Gloria Gaynor informing all and sundry that far from being a broken soul, she would ‘Survive’ and Art Garfunkel falling in love with some bunny rabbits and thus waxing lyrical about their ‘Bright Eyes’ (or something), Cloughie’s Merry Men took on Cologne, and in an epic first-leg at the City Ground, shared six goals equally.
Up against it in the second leg, a single Ian Bowyer goal twenty-five minutes from time was sufficient to see Robin Hood’s finest into the Munich final against Malmo of Sweden.
The home nations were concentrating on attempting to qualify for the European Championships to be held in Italy in 1980, and England – now led by Ron Greenwood after the risible Don Revie era – were making good progress in a group also containing Denmark, Bulgaria, and the ‘two Irelands’ (Northern and the Republic of).
Scotland were trying and failing to get out of a group containing Portugal, Belgium, Austria and Norway, while Wales were suffering similarly in their attempts to navigate a way past West Germany, Turkey and Malta.
Kevin Keegan, England’s permed-up captain, was currently playing his football in West Germany and would lead his Hamburg side to the league title and pick up the gong for European Footballer of the Year in the process.
On May 4th 1979, Margaret Thatcher made history by becoming the first nation’s female Prime Minister when the Conservative Party won the General Election.
So, to the conclusion of the season and with Liverpool duly crowned as league champions for the eleventh time with a record 68 points from 42 games, all that was left to be decided was the issue of relegation and promotion as well as the end-of-season cup finals.
Being ushered out of the First Division door sharpish were Chelsea, Birmingham City and Queens Park Rangers, while Terry Venables’ “Team of the ‘Eighties” Crystal Palace won the Second Division and were joined in the promotion stakes by Stoke City and Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Five-Minute Final and a million chickens come home to roost
On May 12th, Manchester United and Arsenal squared off at Wembley in the FA Cup Final and in a rather nondescript game Arsenal swept into a 2-0 lead and looked to be heading for the most straightforward of victories with just five minutes remaining. It was then that goals from Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy turned the game on its head and sent the game seemingly hurtling towards extra time. Arsenal, however, had different ideas and Alan Sunderland swept in at the very death to secure the cup for the Gunners.
Two-and-a-half weeks later and Nottingham Forest took on Malmo in the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Another uninspiring match unfolded which was settled on the stroke of halftime when million-pound man, Trevor Francis, got his head on the end of a John Robertson cross to nod in the only goal of the game.
With the football done and dusted, the summer beckoned and highlights included the battle between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett who both fancied being the best middle-distance runner in the world. They spent the summer months making themselves nad the rest of us dizzy by running round and round in circles, smashing world records almost at will but never actually meeting each other on the track.
No matter, Bjorn Borg won his fourth straight Wimbledon men’s singles title, beating Roscoe Tanner in five sets in the final, while the women’s title was taken by Martina Navratilova courtesy of a straight-sets victory over Chris Evertt Lloyd.
I personally bowed out of primary school and looked ahead to the vagaries that secondary education and adolescence would bring in equal measures of anticipation and trepidation, while Bob Geldof and his Ratty friends had a good summer with ‘I don’t Like Mondays’ and Blondie hit the top for the second time in the year with ‘Sunday Girl’.
Before we knew where we were, the 1979-80 season was upon us.
But that’s a tale for another day.