Back to the 70s: Matters come to a head – 1972 part two

Rodney Marsh

Last time round we had a gander at the first part of the year that was 1972. We marvelled at the cup exploits of ‘plucky little Hereford’ and also fondly reminisced of the time of the first all-English European final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. We also spent a little time, pausing to ponder in admiration at Glasgow Rangers’ stunning victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and in doing so totally neglected to mention Stoke City’s famous 2-1 victory over Chelsea to secure the Football League Cup.

This time out we are going to go over the embers of the second half of the 1971-72 Football League season, a season that saw a battle for the title go down to the very wire like no other before or since – with any due apologies to Sergio Agüero and Michael Thomas.

A New Year and United lead the way

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The New Year saw Manchester United under their new manager, Frank O’Farrell, sitting atop the First Division and seemingly on course to recapture some of the glory days that had slipped away over the past three seasons since the semi-retirement of the legendary Sir Matt Busby. After achieving his lifelong dream of capturing the European Cup in 1968, Sir Matt hung around for another season before stepping down and handing over the reins to Reserve Team coach, Wilf McGuiness. When that particular appointment did not work out as hoped, Sir Matt was dragged out of retirement in a caretaker role before Frank O’Farrell could be prised out of Leicester City.

The season started well for O’Farrell and United, and as the autumn nights drew in, they found themselves top of the pile, and at one point had opened up a five-point lead over the chasing pack. However, by the turn of the year, while United still led the way, the lead was down to just a couple of points and the pack was closing in.

Two of the contenders, Liverpool and Leeds United, met at Anfield on January 2, 1971, and the visitors prevailed by a 2-0 scoreline to go third in the table. Bill Shankly’s men were down in ninth spot at this stage but only seven points behind United at the top. Also in the running were Manchester City, Derby County, Sheffield United, Wolves and the two North London clubs.

Leeds United were trying to make up for the previous season’s disappointments when they had finished second in the race for the championship behind Arsenal after looking odds-on favourites to take the crown in the spring. Due to crowd trouble in the infamous home game against West Bromwich Albion the previous April, Leeds had been forced to play their opening four ‘home’ league games away from Elland Road and had only picked up two points from the games involved. Despite starting the season under this handicap, a good run of form had seen Don Revie’s men pull themselves back into contention.

Also going well were Derby County under the dual management of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. After taking over the club in 1967, promotion had been earned in 1969 and since then steady progress had been made. A strong fourth-place finish in 1970 would ordinarily have resulted in European football, but due to financial irregularities admission to the forerunner of the UEFA Cup had been denied. By the turn of 1972, Derby were sitting in fourth spot in the table with 31 points from 24 games.

While Frank O’Farrell was struggling to meet expectations at Old Trafford, across the City Malcolm Allison was doing his best to keep Manchester City in a position of strength. Appointed as assistant to Joe Mercer in 1965, Allison had been instrumental in City’s success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the league title, FA Cup. League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup had all been secured. In this time, he had reportedly turned down overtures from Juventus to take over as manager of the Turin giants on the understanding that Mercer would move aside and allow him to take over as manager at Maine Road in his own right.

The Marsh effect

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Mercer reportedly was dragging his feet on this arrangement but by 1972 Allison was the de-facto manager at least and was making the major decisions. With the side playing fast-flowing football and closing the gap on United at the top, City were considered favourites to take the crown at this stage.

A good run of form saw City take over the leadership and with 34 games played, they were sitting five points clear of Derby County, six ahead of Leeds United and seven in front of Liverpool and the chase was on. With City seemingly in a position of strength, Rodney Marsh became available on a transfer from Queens Park Rangers and Allison snapped him up for a club-record fee of £200,000.

Marsh’s effect on the team was sudden and dramatic with the side going into freefall. With Marsh seemingly upsetting the balance and cohesion of the side, City were caught by the chasing pack as the battle headed into the final weeks of the season. Writing many years later in his autobiography, Marsh held his hands up and took responsibility for City’s capitulation.

“Right, no beating about the bush, I have to hold my hands up – I cost Manchester City the 1972 league championship,” he wrote.

With two matches of the season to go, the top of the table looked thus;

With Liverpool still to play Derby County at the Baseball Ground, it meant that Manchester City could not finish top of the pile and that the Anfield Men were favourites to take the crown. Derby knew that only a win against Bill Shankly’s men would keep them in the hunt, while Leeds were still in with more than a shout and also had an FA Cup Final to prepare for.

On 1 May 1972, Liverpool and Derby County squared off at the Baseball Ground while Leeds United did battle with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool were coming in on the back of a tremendous run since January with thirteen wins and a draw in their last fourteen games but on the day, their form deserted them and the only goal of the game was scored by Derby’s John McGovern on 62 minutes.

Exciting finale

Meanwhile, Leeds United were running out comfortable 2-0 victors over Chelsea and so the league table now looked like this.

With the FA Cup Final to be played on the following Saturday, the last two league matches would be played simultaneously two days after that with Arsenal hosting Liverpool and Leeds United travelling to Wolverhampton Wanderers. The onus had once again shifted, with Leeds now being overwhelming favourites to snatch the title, needing just a point at Molineux to do the honours. Liverpool were still in with a chance if they could win at Highbury if Leeds were beaten by Wolves, but the Anfield men were pretty much judged to have blown their chance.

Leeds United complained bitterly that they were being forced to play the deciding league encounter just two days after their hard-fought FA Cup Final victory over Arsenal, but the FA were unbending and so the sides took the field in Wolverhampton to a packed ground and high anticipation.

Leeds’ form had been slightly rocky coming into the game, the win over Chelsea and the FA Cup success notwithstanding, but they were expected to have too much in the locker for Wolves who had had a decent season themselves, reaching the UEFA Cup Final.

Just like Liverpool at Derby a week earlier, Leeds chose the worst possible timing to put in one of their most lethargic displays of the season and try as they might, a 2-0 deficit could not be retrieved, with just a single consolation strike being the best Revie’s men could manage.

So, it was all eyes and ears over to Highbury where Liverpool were still plugging away at the Arsenal goal with the scoreline goalless. As the match entered injury time, Liverpool pushed forward one last time and the ball was swung into the home area only for John Toshack to prod it over the line and seemingly snatch the title for Liverpool. As Shankly’s boys celebrated, however, a linesman’s raised flag cut short the jubilations and denied Liverpool the title in the cruellest of manners.

It wasn’t to be the last time Liverpool would suffer last-minute title heartbreak at the hands of the Gunners, but that’s a story for another day.

So, finally, it was all over. After one of the most exhilarating and heartbreaking seasons of all time, Deby County were crowned league champions for the first time without even playing.

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Meanwhile, England had qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Championships but after a 3-1 shellacking by old foes, West Germany, they probably wished they hadn’t bothered. It was England’s second successive setback at the hands of the Germans, following the 1970 World Cup quarter-final defeat in Mexico, and six years on from his own World Cup triumph at Wembley, the knives were beginning to be sharpened for manager Sir Alf Ramsey. He would need a better World Cup qualifying campaign due to start the following autumn if he were to keep the mob at bay for much longer.

As the summer months arrived, T.Rex enjoyed their second chart-topper of the year with ‘Metal Guru’ and Sesame Street was shown on British TV for the first time. The Men’s Wimbledon Singles tournament was won by Stan Smith who defeated Ilie Năstase in five sets, while Billie Jean King defeated Evonne Goolagong of Australia to take the women’s title.

However, the summer would be marred by the tragic events at the Munch Olympics where eleven innocent Israeli athletes and coaches along with a West German policeman were murdered by terrorists.

In our third and final look at the year that was 1972, we will take a gander through the second half of the calendar year and take note of how Derby’s defence of their hard-worn title started along with reporting on early rounds in Europe.