FAMOUS FIVE: Relegation in pre-Premier League days

Look, you weren’t expecting us to write about anything else, were you? It might be painful for those of you who witnessed any or all of the campaigns detailed below, but at least it reminds us that there were times when relegation from the top flight (which we’ve now managed three times in less than a decade) was once something we would have killed for…

1: 1995/96F59596Statistically, City could hardly have been poorer than in 1995/96, the nadir of the Terry Dolan era which saw relegation to the Fourth Division become inevitable from Christmas onwards. Only five wins in total, only one of which was away and 21 points adrift of safety by the end, City were just hideous from start to finish.

Before Christmas, the ever-potless City flogged their two major assets in Dean Windass and Alan Fettis, with next to none of the cash generated given to Dolan for proper strengthening – not that anyone trusted the now actively loathed City manager to do anything about it. City used 33 players through the season, many of whom were kids from the ranks or loanees or freebies, and on the last day handed over the South Stand to Bradford City supporters, the one act for which Martin Fish – irrespective of the pressure he received from a politically-motivated, football-hating local constabulary at the time – will never be forgiven.

Before that farcical end to the campaign, the actual relegation was confirmed mathematically when promotion-chasing Crewe came to Boothferry Park and won. This was a team that City had thrashed 7-1 the season before, but the chance of a repeat of even the result, let alone the scoreline, was nil. The visitors struck twice, including a howitzer from one Danny Murphy, before teenager Gavin Gordon pulled one back.

Now that the sums were done, the recriminations could take over, and they lasted a very long time.

Wins: 5. Goals: 36. Top scorer: 7 (Richard Peacock). Points: 31. Margin from safety: 21 (plus a quite awful goal difference). Relegated with four games to go.

2: 1990/91
This was such a weird season. Relegation in the end was conclusive, with City bottom of the table, five points from safety in Division Two during a campaign when only two teams would go down.

Defensively, the Tigers were absolutely dire, something telegraphed in August when the depressingly unambitious board accepted an inexcusably paltry bid from divisional rivals Oldham Athletic for superstar defender Richard Jobson. Any number of centre back combinations were tried and the gap simply went unplugged for the whole campaign and a massive 85 goals were shipped, a total aided by two teams hitting five and one – West Ham – plundering seven.

Yet at the other end, we had a strike partnership that was the envy of the division. The antipathy on a personal level between Andy Payton and Peter Swan was well known but there was little doubt they were effective together, despite Swan preferring to play in defence (something he never did during this season). Between them they shovelled in 37 goals (next highest goalscorer: Leigh Palin with five, mainly penalties).

City won ten games, and at least one of Payton and Swan scored in eight of them, including one for Swan in Terry Dolan’s first game in charge after replacing the hateful Stan Ternent at the end of January 1991. It wasn’t even close to enough, thanks to the lousiness of the defence, and City went down in the pre-penultimate game of the campaign when Brighton, chasing a play-off place, came to Boothferry Park and won by a single goal.

Dolan didn’t pick the strike pairing for the remaining two games and played a load of youngsters, who made big contributions to a brace of wins – the only ones of the season when Payton or Swan didn’t score.

Wins: 10. Goals: 57. Top scorer: 25 (Andy Payton). Points: 45. Margin from safety: 5 (and a far larger goal difference). Relegated with two games to go.

3: 1980/81
The signs were there, as City finished the previous season one place and one point off a first ever relegation to the Fourth Division. Bullet dodged, you’d think? Not a bit of it.

Mike Smith was the manager, having started on day one of the decade, and his training methods were somewhat peculiar and not exactly popular with the players, who complained later of too much endurance work (leaving them shattered on match days) and not enough ball work or on tactics. Smith also made a lot of alterations to the squad, releasing long-serving high-earners and bringing in youngsters from the ranks.

Ultimately, the problem was a basic lack of quality. The brilliant but temperamental Keith Edwards played like he’d rather be anywhere but Boothferry Park, and his return of 13 goals was poor by his high standards. Smith signed Welsh striker Nick Deacy as a partner, but he was awkward and ineffective. Unperturbed, he signed two more awkward and ineffective strikers from northern non-league teams and though their time would come, both Billy Whitehurst and Les Mutrie struggled to make an impact. At one point during the campaign, City scored just two goals in 12 matches.

Smith sold popular clubmen Gordon Nisbet, Paul Haigh and Stuart Croft mid-season and, again, didn’t seem to know how to replace them. By the end of a truly humiliating campaign, Deacy was in defence. A goalless draw at home to Swindon Town, which saw members of the newly-formed Action Group walk out of the game after unfurling ‘surrender’ flags and carrying a symbolic coffin along North Road, largely rubberstamped a horrible, historic drop, though results elsewhere in the interim completed the maths.

Typically, City then won 2-1 at home to promotion hopefuls Huddersfield courtesy of a Deacy goal that went in on the ref, the kind of good fortune that could have been far more useful earlier in the campaign. In the end, the Tigers lost just one of the last six but the damage had been long done.

Wins: 8. Goals: 40. Top scorer: 13 (Keith Edwards). Points: 32 (two for a win). Margin from safety: 9 (and a huge goal difference). Relegated with five games to go.

4: 1977/78
The season of three managers. And the popular opinion from those who were there remains that had the directors not panicked over the loss of form under John Kaye and stuck with him, City would have been fine.

A 12 year run in Division Two, with a couple of mild toys with the possibility of top-flight football, had been largely a consolidatory one, though it had stagnated a lot through the mid 70s and City, while not going backwards, were treading a lot of water. Kaye, initially a player-coach on arrival in 1971, had taken over from Spurs-bound Terry Neill in 1974 and had proved to be steady and unspectacular.

He worked hard on bringing youngsters through while seeking star quality that could come close to adequately replacing the legendary forward line of the late 60s, with Ken Wagstaff still at the club but approaching an injury-induced retirement in 1976. Kaye achieved an eighth and two 14th placed finishes in his three full seasons but had a poor run in 1977/78 that led to his sacking eight games into the campaign, with senior players angling for moves and a glut of them in contractual disputes that required tribunals to step in.

When Kaye left, straight after a rancorous home defeat to Mansfield, City had won two and lost four, and heaven knows managers have survived with worse records than that.

First team coach Bobby Collins took over after skipper Billy Bremner, the assumed successor, turned the job down out of perceived loyalty to Kaye, and instantly beat title favourites Tottenham at Boothferry Park. Later, a 4-1 win over Cardiff seemed to vindicate the appointment but Collins inexplicably decided to criticise his players after the game, and the fallout was massive. He was sacked in the February after a record of one win in his last 12 games and with City 18th in the table.

Ken Houghton took over but couldn’t halt the slide and City won just two of the last 15. The strangest thing about the season was that while City were abject at scoring, they were also not conceding stacks of goals; a lot of their defeats were in single goal games, and a brace of 3-0 reverses in the spring were their heaviest defeats. Relegation was nonetheless confirmed by a 2-1 loss at Orient in the pre-penultimate game and, to just rub extra salt into the wound, City slid to the very bottom of the table on the last day after losing at home to Bristol Rovers. It was the only time they’d been there all season.

Wins: 8. Goals: 34. Top scorer: 7 (Alan Warboys). Points 28 (two for a win). Margin from safety: 10 (though no less than seven teams finished ten points ahead and all had slightly better goal differences). Relegated with two games to go.

5: 1959/60
A case of not being ready for the step up. Regionalisation of the lower divisions had ended and the Tigers were promoted in 1959 from the new pan-English Third Division but couldn’t cope with what it brought.

Bill Bradbury, who rifled in 30 league goals in the promotion campaign, had peaked. He struggled to outwit better and more cynical defences at the higher level, and City in general simply couldn’t score goals. Bradbury was sold in February 1960 with just six goals next to his name for the season and City went down with a game to spare thanks to a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth.

The Tigers beat Ipswich on the last day to ensure they at least (unlike all of the above) didn’t finish bottom, and Bradbury’s replacement was found in the youth team as a tall, toothy centre forward called Chris Chilton was summoned from the ranks by manager Bob Brocklebank at the start of the next season. Brocklebank was then replaced by Cliff Britton and under his tutelage, City would use the division to regroup and rebuild, and then eventually take by storm.

Wins: 10. Goals: 60. Top scorer: 8 (Roy Shiner). Points: 30 (two for a win). Margin from safety: 2 (along with a bad goal average). Relegated with one game to go.

These were the last five relegations suffered by City in the days before Premier League football was achieved. City were also relegated in 1929/30, 1935/36 and 1955/56, all from Division Two, finishing bottom of the table on two occasions.

2 replies
  1. Rich
    Rich says:

    Great piece Matt. 77/78 was my first. Seemed inevitable in a way…goal scoring legends not replaced etc.

  2. gjhdurham
    gjhdurham says:

    Interesting article. The start of the teenage Chilton is when my mother’s uncle first took me and a mate to see the Tigers. Was ok to use that name then…and a good chant!
    If Swan wanted to play defence and the side are conceding goals, then….not rocket science you’d think. Who says armchair managers don’t know better than than a real manager…

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