For members of the Tiger Nation whose devotion to the black and amber cause extends much farther into the past than Wembley or the Emirates, the question “Were you there?” would, for the best part of 40 years, most probably have been a reference to only one of two fixtures (OK, maybe if you’re old enough you could include the Crook Town game, but let’s not complicate matters). The first of those was Boxing Day 1970, by a happy coincidence so admirably recalled in the most recent AN “Nostalgia” slot.
The other was, of course, 10th November 1984, when the Tigers travelled to Brisbane Road to face Orient (as they were simply known between 1966 and 1987) in a Division Three (League One in new money, kiddywinks) fixture, an encounter recently and entirely without hyperbole described in another AN piece as “never to be forgotten”.
The Tigers were in the middle of their first spell since the mid-1960s that could realistically be described as anything remotely approaching a purple patch. Don Robinson had taken over as chairman in 1982, steering the club out of receivership and breathing new life into the old beast. After ten or eleven years of gradual but inexorable decline which saw City end up in the bottom flight for the first-ever time, promotion out of Division Four was achieved in 1983 under Colin Appleton’s management, and, as well we all know, we then missed out on a second successive promotion the following year by a solitary goal to the Blunts, whereupon Appleton slung his hook. Robinson took the audacious step of replacing him by the vastly-experienced and respected (on the field) but completely untried (off it) Luton captain Brian Horton as player-manager, and when the 1984/85 season got under way City carried on where they had left off without so much as a hiccup.
By the time the Orient fixture came round City were tucked in nicely at the rear of the leading pack, while it had been a difficult season for the home side. City had not won at Brisbane Road (none of this “Matchroom Stadium” nonsense in those days) for 14 years, albeit that this had not been an ever-present feature on the fixture list in the intervening period, and this seemed a good opportunity to end that run.
The build up to the game wasn’t particularly inspiring. Football was very much in the doldrums at that time (and this was before Bradford, Hillsborough and Heysel) and teams were struggling to get bums on seats or, to be more accurate in those days, feet on terracing. Brisbane Road is not the most uplifting of venues, not least because much of it is caked in pigeon shit. It was a cold, miserable day in East London, it wasn’t exactly a fixture to stir the blood, and when referee Hodges blew his whistle to start the game (after, of course the strains of Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi”, the customary pre kick-off music for many years down Leyton way, had died down), fewer than 2,400 souls were in the ground, of which the Tigers support, huddled on one of the two open terraces behind the goals, comprised a mixture of around 200 die-hards and London-dwellers. Nobody had an inkling of what was to come.
The teams lined up as follows:-
Orient: Wilmot, Hales, Stride, Corbett, Banfield, Cunningham, Silkman, McNeil, Jones, Cornwell, Godfrey.
City: Norman, McNeil, Swann (sub Pearson), Skipper, McEwan, Horton, Flounders, McClaren, Whitehurst, Askew, Massey.
So, a strong City line-up. But the concept of “typical bloody City”, far from being a 21st century phenomenon, has been hard wired into the club’s DNA since time immemorial, and seemed to have manifested itself with a vengeance well before the half-hour mark, by which time the home side had, more by dint of being unable to do anything wrong on the finishing front than of having dominated the proceedings, stormed into a 3-0 lead. Around the quarter hour Kevin Godfrey headed in from close range, soon to be followed by a Chris Jones strike, and when, another seven minutes or so on, John Cornwell poked home a Kevin Hales cross it seemed all up for City.
Horton was not, as those who saw him play will remember, the most composed of individuals on the field (or off it, for that matter), when things were going as badly wrong as they were for City in that first half, and one can visualise him, red faced, head craning forward aggressively, veins prominent on his neck, berating the men in amber and black. One has to feel for the City players.
More by virtue of good fortune than by way of positive reaction to Horton’s rantings, City pulled one back shortly before the break when Orient netminder Rhys Wilmot made a hash of trying to collect a Billy Askew corner. A glimmer of hope, perhaps?
Not a bit of it. City failed to stamp any sort of authority on the game following the restart, and when Orient midfielder Barry Silkman (what a shame he never played for Macclesfield) fired home out of the blue from 25 yards that seemed to be it for the travelling City support: 4-1 down to a struggling team within less than an hour, further humiliation possibly still to come, and a miserable November day in equally miserable surroundings. Little wonder that many were harbouring – openly or otherwise – thoughts of sparing themselves further misery and adjourning to a nice warm pub. Another shitty day on the road, or so it seemed.
Even when Steve Massey pulled one back, finding the net from a Billy Whitehurst cross, with 25 minutes left on the clock it didn’t seem as though it would be more than a consolation, especially as the Tigers’ play still seemed curiously to be lacking in urgency. And maybe that’s how it would have stayed but for another piece of butterfingertude from Wilmot five minutes later, the Orient keeper this time spilling a Horton header, allowing Andy Flounders to bundle the leather over the line.
Now suddenly the Tigers were transformed. Blood was well and truly scented. One of the greatest comebacks in the Club’s 80-year history was on, and the players knew it. The City support was also re-energised by the realisation that they might be about to witness something remarkable, and kept up a constant roar of encouragement.
Tellingly, this seemed to spread the home side themselves: the confident composure that had marked their play at 4-1 had now well and truly evaporated, and they were all over the place. As if in confirmation of this, the equalising goal that now seemed inevitable came courtesy of yet another helping hand from Orient. Ex-Spurs defender Pat Corbett was the guilty man, his handball allowing Stan “the Man” McEwan to crack home from the penalty spot in characteristically lethal style.
City had now scored a remarkable three times in twelve minutes: although not quite as swift as the comeback against Wednesday – when the three-goal deficit was wiped out in either four or six minutes depending on which report you read – this was truly pulsating stuff. Thirteen minutes remained, and still City pressed forward in the hope of a memorable victory.
The minutes ticked by. The tension was gut-wrenching. This really was an experience to relate one day to your grandchildren, and there had been not the slightest inkling of it twenty minutes earlier. Suddenly Orient rallied one last time, and the leather bounces off the top of the City bar.
This is getting unbearable now and, the levels of excitement among the City support notwithstanding, the fans had been conditioned by many long, hard and largely success-free years of Tiger watching to moderate their expectations, and had you taken a straw poll at that moment the overwhelming majority would have taken a point.
Oh ye of little faith, as it is very easy to say with hindsight. Two minutes remained. Massey got the ball out on the right in space, pulled it back, and incredibly Flounders was there again to react the quickest and poke it home: not spectacular, more of a real goal poacher’s effort, but rarely has a City goal evoked such scenes of pandemonium on the terraces. In a mere 23 minutes a 4-1 deficit had been turned into a 5-4 lead: a lead that was protected without further incident and one of the most incredible victories in City’s history had been achieved.
Back in those days, even when visiting grounds like Orient, you had to watch your step a bit outside the ground after the game – keep your voice down, don’t draw attention to yourself, that kind of thing – as virtually every club had at least a handful of ne’er-do-wells among its support who would seek to pick off members of the away support, especially when sparse in number. Well, there was none of that on Leyton High Street or on the Central Line around 4.50 to 5pm on 10th November 1984: any neutral bystander would have had no difficulty in picking out the City fans. They simply couldn’t contain themselves, and little wonder, having witnessed something they might never see repeated, either for many years or at all.
Just to complete the story, City clinched the third promotion spot at the end of the season (this was two years before the introduction of play-offs) and were back in the second flight after an absence of seven years. Coincidentally, and as a final bit of trivia, in the return fixture at Boothferry, which took place during the final run-in to promotion, City again hit Orient for five, but on that occasion the scoreline was an altogether more comfortable 5-1. How many other times, if at all, have we scored five in both League fixtures against the same team?
Thanks to Robert Thomson and Stephen Weatherill for their assistance.