10
May
17

Villa of Tears – 1976/77

THOUGH the previous season had tailed off disappointingly, there was little to suggest that Stoke City’s 14 year stay in the First Division was under threat as a strong team kicked off the 1976/77 campaign. Alan Hudson returned to the team following a broken leg suffered at Derby in the spring to join the likes of Shilton, Pejic, Smith, Salmons, Conroy, Greenhoff and a young Garth Crooks as The Potters faced newly promoted Sunderland.

That somewhat star-studded line up masked major problems at the Victoria Ground however. The spending spree of 1974 had failed to bring major success and the club found itself faced with mounting debts and an impatient bank manager. The club had suffered some major bad luck with European football being denied them by a new UEFA ruling which allowed two clubs from the same city to play in their competitions, Everton therefore taking Stoke’s ‘place’ in the 1975/76 UEFA Cup. On top of that, money had to be found to bring the Victoria Ground into line with the 1975 Safety at Sports Grounds Act and, of course, the Butler Street Stand disaster had added further to our financial woes. Stoke had spent around £250,000 by the time much of the stand had been covered by a new steel roof in August 1976, with only £80,000 forthcoming from insurers.

Form on the pitch in 1975/76 hadn’t helped either. A potentially lucrative FA Cup run seemed on the cards when Stoke knocked out both Tottenham and Manchester City, but, with a quarter final tie at home to Third Division Crystal Palace up for grabs, The Potters were knocked out in a Fifth Round replay at Sunderland, who themselves went on to face Second Division rivals Southampton in the Semi-Final. In the League Cup, Stoke were humbled at Sincil Bank by Fourth Division Lincoln in Round Two!

With manager Tony Waddington stressing that the team needed to improve its goal output, fans were disappointed not to see the squad strengthened as the 76/77 season approached. Indeed the only movement of players were outgoing ones, with the departing Ian Moores and Sean Haslegrave bringing in around £125,000 and keeping the wolves, temporarily at least, from the door.

The resultant 0-0 draw against Sunderland was to set the tone for much of the season, and Waddington reiterated the need for more goals after that game by declaring an interest in Newcastle United striker John Tudor. The veteran forward certainly knew where the goal was having scored 80 goals in around 250 appearances for Coventry, Sheffield United and Newcastle, but had missed most of the 75/76 season through injury. By the time he eventually arrived at the Victoria Ground, initially on a month’s loan, Stoke were 14th in the table having won 5 points from as many games.

Tudor’s impact was instantaneous. He scored inside two minutes (above) and grabbed his second goal with a magnificent diving header as Stoke beat Ipswich 2-1 in front of the Match of the Day cameras at The Vic. Waddington hadn’t been able to sign a player since bringing Peter Shilton to the club nearly three years earlier, but it looked like he’d worked his old magic again with this one…

Though Stoke’s away form was poor, the Victoria Ground was proving to be something of a fortress. The two points against Ipswich came in a run of seven consecutive home wins which also included victories over West Ham, Aston Villa, Derby, Middlesbrough and Birmingham, as well as Leeds United in the League Cup. All was not well within the corridors of the Victoria Ground though and with the bank piling on the pressure, the Stoke board accepted a bid of £100,000 for Jimmy Greenhoff from the hated Manchester United.

The Stoke fans were stunned, hurt and angry. Greenhoff had just scored twice in the 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough and it was clear to see from a BBC ‘Football Focus’ interview alongside his brother Brian, that he hadn’t wanted to leave Stoke. Tony Waddington too had unsuccessfully appealed to the club not to accept Tommy Docherty’s bid and wrote in his following programme notes that he would always regret the sale of Jimmy Greenhoff.

It was Waddington and not the board who bore the brunt of the fans’ frustrations though, and even though a fantastic Garth Crooks winner against Birmingham in the first game after Jimmy’s departure put Stoke in 9th place there were calls for the manager’s head.

The sales weren’t to end with Greenhoff’s departure. Before Christmas, it was Alan Hudson’s turn to leave after the club accepted a £200,000 bid from Arsenal. Though a blow to Waddington, this sale wasn’t the bolt out of the blue that Jimmy’s departure had been. Hudson had been struggling with a niggling stomach injury and had intimated his desire to leave for London several times before he packed his bags for Highbury.

Nevertheless, the heart had been ripped out of the Stoke team and form plummeted. From a top ten position after that Birmingham victory, Stoke scored just one goal in eight games during a weather ravaged winter, and even that came courtesy of a fluke at Carrow Road when a defensive clearance cannoned off the chest of Geoff Salmons and into the Norwich net to earn The Potters a fortuitous point. The early form of Tudor had disappeared and he was looking a busted flush, adding just one more goal to his tally, in the 1-0 win against Derby.

Stoke were in desperate need of strengthening, but despite the board’s insistence that money was available for new signings if the right players became available, the signing of Alan Suddick from Blackpool for £12,000 on New Year’s Eve undoubtedly painted the true picture. Suddick had been a fine player but was well past his best and was on the verge of signing on loan for a Third Division club before accepting Tony Waddington’s offer!

He would play only six games before injury forced him to miss all but the last three games of the season.

The Potters managed to briefly rally with three wins during February and early March, including their only away win of the season courtesy of a David Goodwin goal at Ipswich, but another sale – this time left back Mike Pejic leaving for Everton for £135,00 – further weakened the squad.

Tony Waddington and Chairman Albert Henshall

Things came to a head on March 19th when a late Frank Worthington goal gave Leicester both points in an appalling game at the Victoria Ground. Again it was Tony Waddington who was signalled out by the irate crowd and following calls for his head, Waddo ended his 25 year association with the club by handing in his resignation.

The board turned to Waddo’s assistant, League Cup Final hero George Eastham to revive the team’s flagging fortunes. Stoke lay five points clear of the bottom three and with thirteen games remaining and some eminently winnable games against teams near the foot of the league, fans still expected the team not to be drawn into the relegation scramble.

Things were looking up briefly following a hard-earned 0-0 draw with champions Liverpool at the Victoria Ground on Easter Monday and the following evening Garth Crooks scored both goals in a 2-1 home victory over Leeds.  The rest of April proved to be a disaster for Stoke though as points were alarmingly dropped against their rivals. A late Chris Garland goal saw bottom of the table Bristol City escape from the Vic with a 2-2 draw, and three days later Stoke couldn’t break down third from bottom Spurs on home soil.

A crushing 2-5 defeat at Coventry along with two more home draws against Norwich and Manchester United – the latter an exciting 3-3 affair in which Garth Crooks again scored twice – left Stoke needing at least one victory from two tough away games in the West Midlands to save themselves.

The first, at The Hawthorns against Ron Atkinson’s emerging West Bromwich Albion, started well, with Alan Suddick netting his first – and only – Stoke goal from a free kick, but Albion hit back to win by three goals to one against ten man Stoke who had young defender Brian Bithell sent off.

Even though there were still games involving our rivals to be played, our poor goal difference meant that nothing other than victory would do in our final match of the season away at the League Cup winners Aston Villa, a tall order if ever there was one for a team with just one victory on the road all season.

Stoke go down 3-1 at The Hawthorns in their penultimate match of the season

Stoke got off to the worst possible start when Villa were awarded a controversial twelfth minute penalty for a push by Alan Dodd which only the referee saw. Peter Shilton had saved a Ray Graydon penalty in the reverse fixture earlier in the season, but Footballer of the Year Andy Gray drilled home the spot kick this time for his 25th goal of the season – three less than the entire Stoke team had managed in the league all season!

The Potters toiled gamely and saw efforts from Salmons and Conroy cleared off the line, but even against a Villa side going though the motions at the end of a long season, we couldn’t find the winning touch. Stoke were relegated and faced life in the Second Division for the first time since the early sixties.

Our season had been an unmitigated disaster. Several of our star players and the manager had left the club, others were disillusioned and couldn’t wait to get away, we scored just 28 goals, failed to find the net in 24 of our 42 games and won just one of our last fifteen matches. Attendances plummeted with games against Newcastle and Coventry attracting less than 13,000 spectators to the Victoria Ground.

The tears flowed on and off the Villa Park pitch and we were left to reflect on the fact that a team who, just two years earlier had gone toe-to-toe with Dutch giants Ajax and had been so close to lifting the First Division Championship, would now be facing the likes of Mansfield Town, Orient and Bristol Rovers! It truly was the end of an era.

Just to add insult to injury, Manchester United’s winning goal in their 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup Final at Wembley five days later came courtesy of a certain Jimmy Greenhoff!

This article first appeared in Issue 554 of The Oatcake

The depleted Stoke City squad of 1976/77. Inset: Alan Suddick

 

 

Advertisements

0 Responses to “Villa of Tears – 1976/77”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: