Author Archive for Dave Frith

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

 

 

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06
Jan
17

The Day The Roof Fell In

butler-streetTHERE was nothing extraordinary about Stoke City’s 1975 Boxing Day clash with Liverpool at the Victoria Ground. Geoff Salmons cancelled out an early John Toshack strike to earn The Potters a 1-1 draw against the eventual League Champions and most Stokies in the crowd of nearly 31,000 went home satisfied with The Potters sitting comfortably in eighth place in the First Division heading into the new year.

What the vast majority didn’t know was that by the time the next home game would come around, the landscape of the place they’d come to know and love would be changed forever.

Just one week later, as hurricane force winds battered the midlands, a section of the Butler Street Stand’s roof collapsed. Forecasts had worried Stoke enough to call in consultants the day before who’d given the roofing a clean bill of health, but Mother Nature had other ideas. It would prove to be a hammer blow for a club already struggling to balance the books after an ambitious spending spree a couple of years earlier.

The Butler Street Stand disaster is often cited as the sole reason why Stoke City’s exciting team of the mid-1970’s was broken up, but the club had serious financial problems well before the storm clouds gathered over the Potteries on January 2nd 1976.

The near million pounds outlay to add Alan Hudson, Geoff Salmons and Peter Shilton to our already talented squad hadn’t brought the tangible success the club had envisaged, and despite the highest average attendance for a decade, the club announced a loss of almost £450,000 at the end of the 1974/75 season. Problems mounted when, despite a 5th place finish, a rule change saw Stoke miss out on a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup.

Europe’s governing body had a one-city one-club rule in place for the competition, meaning that Stoke pipped fourth placed Everton, whose neighbours Liverpool finished 2nd. The Toffees, stung by the injustice of the rule, lodged a successful protest, and The Potters missed out on a potential money-spinning European campaign in 1975/76.

A poor start to that season, culminating in an embarrassing 2nd Round League Cup exit at 4th Division Lincoln didn’t help matters and the club’s directors were called to their bankers’ regional office in Birmingham to be told of the alarm with which they viewed our financial situation.  Although they were looking for a large reduction in the club’s debt, they agreed to be patient to avoid the necessity of having to sell players.

butler-street2The collapse of the Butler Street Stand roof then hit Stoke like a bomb and matters worsened when the club and its insurers disagreed over the amount of damage the storm had caused. Stoke’s estimate was £150,000, the insurers claimed only £30,000 damage had been suffered and after taking advice the club eventually settled for a sum of around £80,000.

One man who did benefit from the disaster was defender Mike Pejic, who drove his tractor to the Victoria Ground to collect timber to take back to his farm in the Staffordshire Moorlands!

Others weren’t so fortunate though with several workmen suffering injuries – one of whom was hospitalised – during the clear up operation, which led to the FA Cup 3rd Round replay against Tottenham and the league game against Middlesbrough being postponed. Port Vale offered us the use of Vale Park for that Middlesbrough game and on 17th January 1976, Burslem hosted it’s only top flight game to date!

Despite the club’s mounting financial woes, salvation appeared to be at hand when Stoke found themselves in with a real chance of glory in the FA Cup. Following a 2-1 victory in that replay over Tottenham and a 1-0 win in the 4th Round against Manchester City at the Victoria Ground, The Potters were handed a home tie against Second Division Sunderland in the 5th Round. A crowd of over 41,000 saw Stoke huff and puff to a 0-0 draw though and when we were defeated 2-1 in the replay at Roker Park, the writing was well and truly on the wall.

To rub salt into the wounds, we knew we would be facing Third Division Crystal Palace in the last eight had we beaten Sunderland and the trophy was eventually won by Second Division Southampton – truly a vintage Stoke City missed opportunity!

butler-street3Interest waned alarmingly after the cup exit as Stoke’s formed dipped. Average gates during the first half of the 1975/76 season had been around 24,000, and despite the roof damage over 100,000 spectators watched the three FA Cup ties, but by the end of the campaign crowds had plummeted.

Over 21,000 made the trip to Vale Park to watch the Middlesbrough match, but six of our last eight games drew crowds of less than 20,000 and just 15,598 saw the season finale against Norwich City.

By the start of the 1976/77 season work on the Butler Street roof was three quarters finished with the final cost estimated at £250,000. With no way out of the financial predicament they found themselves in, Stoke’s board had little option but to begin a fire sale of their crown jewels, despite raising £125,000 from the transfers of Ian Moores to Tottenham and Sean Haselgrave to Nottingham Forest.

The first of the star players through the door was Jimmy Greenhoff, sold to Manchester United for a paltry £120,000. He was soon followed by Alan Hudson, who’d been angling for a move back to London for almost a year before signing for Arsenal for £200,000. The sale of Pejic to Everton for £140,000 was the final straw for manager Tony Waddington, who resigned in March 1977 after a dismal 1-0 home defeat to Leicester.

The Butler Street Stand’s all new white steel roof was finally completed in time for the start of the 1977/78 season, but by then The Potters had suffered inevitable relegation to the Second Division and the club recouped a further £250,000 by selling Peter Shilton to Nottingham Forest.

These were grim days for Stoke City and despite a return to the top flight between 1979 and 1985, it would be over thirty years before we truly recovered to once again become an established and respected force in English football’s top division.

This article first appeared in Issue 586 of The Oatcake on 26th December 2015

 

 

18
Aug
16

Match to Remember – Stoke City v Manchester City 1982/83

The Potters had started the 1982/83 season in great style, winning games, scoring plenty of goals and entertaining supporters both at the Victoria Ground and on their travels. The star of the show had been winger Mark Chamberlain, whose performances had catapulted him from Fourth Division obscurity at Port Vale and into the England team in just four months!

Though we found it difficult to maintain our sensational early season form, we remained solid enough – particularly at the Victoria Ground – and went into our final seven fixtures in fifth place and in with a chance of qualifying for Europe for the first time in nine years.

The first of those fixtures saw us host struggling Manchester City at the Victoria Ground. The Maine Road club had looked a decent bet themselves for an assault on the European places at the turn of the year, but they were in a real slump by the time they arrived in the Potteries and were beginning to look nervously over their shoulders having won just once in their previous twelve games.

stoke_mancity1983_watsonThe main obstacle Stoke had to overcome if they were to finish in the top six, was a worrying injury list that was threatening to decimate our squad. Mark Chamberlain had suffered from persistent hamstring trouble for much of the second half of the season and both George Berry and Brendan O’Callaghan were ruled out of this fixture.

Sammy McIlroy and Mickey Thomas were both doubts leading up to the game, but to our relief they both lined up alongside Chamberlain and 20 year-old Paul Bracewell to form our regular midfield quartet.

Centre half Dave Watson – whose future with the club was in some doubt after agreeing to move to Vancouver Whitecaps before the end of our season – had suffered a cut eye in our previous game at Everton, and his wound was quickly opened as the game got under way. The former Manchester City defender gamely battled on though and required stitches at half time.

There was too much at stake for both teams for this game to be a classic, and Stoke in particular were struggling to get into their rhythm with so many walking wounded in their starting eleven. Our front two of Ian Painter and Peter Griffiths were proving too lightweight up against the experienced Manchester City defence, but Chamberlain was giving left back Bobby McDonald plenty of problems and the ubiquitous Bracewell was putting in quite a performance in the centre of our midfield.

The young midfielder came close to opening the scoring in a tight first half when he forced visiting ‘keeper Alex Williams to tip a dipping 20 yard shot over the bar and Chamberlain cut inside McDonald but saw his left foot shot flash just wide.

Picture1But it was The Potters, attacking the Stoke End in the second half, who broke the deadlock on the hour. Chamberlain skipped past McDonald once again to cross low into the box, Bracewell dummied the ball smartly and Sammy McIlroy was on hand to bury his right foot shot past Williams from twelve yards.

It was time now for the character of the Stoke team to show through, and they didn’t let their fans down. The magnificent, blood soaked Watson continued to dominate at the back as the visitors frantically sought to get back into the game, Bracewell covered every blade of grass as his midfield partners struggled in the closing stages and despite continually holding his troublesome hamstring, Chamberlain still troubled the visitors.

The tension was unbearable as the game reached its finale. Griffiths’ lob just cleared the bar as The Potters went in search of a decisive second goal and at the other end, we were indebted to left back Peter Hampton who was on hand to nod a David Cross diving header off the line, but The Potters held on to maintain their position of fifth in the league and keep their European dream alive.

Sadly though, that was as good as it got as our tired squad ran out of steam. Draws against Swansea and Southampton more or less ended our hopes and after bidding farewell to the Canada-bound Watson we fell to heavy defeats at Aston Villa and Tottenham and at home to Coventry, a result which saved their skin and had far reaching consequences for Manchester City.

Having beaten Brighton at the Goldstone Ground on the penultimate Saturday of the season, they needed just a point against Luton at Maine Road to stay up and condemn The Hatters to Division Two. Hilariously though, a goal five minutes from time by Raddy Antic led to David Pleat’s famous jig of joy on the Maine Road pitch and sent Manchester City down instead.

This article first appeared in Issue 473 of The Oatcake on 16th February 2010

 

 

16
May
16

Andy Wilkinson – Stoke City Hero

This tribute to Andy Wilkinson appeared in Issue 590 of The Oatcake…

new-1HAVING said a fond farewell to Andy Wilkinson at the end of last season, and wished him every success in finding a new club and continuing his career for another few years, it is with considerable sadness that we heard last week of his enforced retirement from the game.

Due to the concussion injury he picked up at Blackburn last season, he has been advised to retire and at the age of 31 he now finds himself out of the game and looking forward to the next stage of his life.

The best thing we can find to say about Andy Wilkinson is that he played for Stoke City in the same way that any supporter thinks they would. Whenever he pulled on the club’s colours he never gave anything less than 100% and he was clearly prepared to run through the proverbial brick wall for the team.

We can’t think of any higher praise we can heap upon the shoulders of any footballer. Some spend a career working on their skills, a few were blessed with extraordinary ability and there are those who manage to bluff their way through what is nothing more than a living to them without ever truly committing to the game and what it stands for.

Andy though played with spirit and heart. He played with courage and he’s truly earned every last penny that’s come his way. The way he approached the game is the way every single player – regardless of their ability – should approach it. He stuck his head where many would be afraid to dip a toe and there was no drama and no diving. Show us another player, just one, in this day and age who would get straight up to their feet after the crude and savage tackle which Wilko took from Sunderland’s Craig Gardner a few seasons ago.

And that’s why, more than any other player, Stoke supporters respected what Andy brought to the team. That’s why everybody wanted him to score; because if he scored then we knew he’d feel and celebrate in the same way we feel we would if we’d ever been blessed with the opportunity to play for Stoke City.

We’re glad that our wonderful club did the most decent thing of all and gave Wilko a temporary contract when it became apparent that he had a problem and we’re pleased that a testimonial game has been granted. We can think of no other player from the past 20 years more deserving of that type of recognition.

10
May
16

Stoke City and the Boleyn Ground

This article appeared in Issue 585 following Stoke’s away match at Upton Park last December.

BARRING the two teams being paired together in this season’s FA Cup, last Saturday’s trip to London was the final time Stoke City will ever face West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground.

From the start of next season, The Hammers will play at the Olympic Stadium, bringing to an end a one hundred and eleven year stay at their famous old ground. And it’s a ground on which Stoke have forged quite a few memories down the years.

Our first game at Upton Park was a 1-1 draw back in 1919 with both sides in the Second Division. It might surprise you to learn that the first top flight meeting between the clubs didn’t come until the 1963/64 season when we were thumped 4-1 in a Good Friday clash. We didn’t have to wait long until we got our revenge though, with Stoke settling the scores in a 3-0 victory at the Victoria Ground just four days later!

Two of the most memorable games between the clubs at the Boleyn Ground came in the late sixties.  Our trip there in 1967/68 saw World Cup heroes Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters put the home team into a seemingly unassailable three goal half time lead, but a marvellous second half come back saw Stoke win 4-3, courtesy of a brace each from Peter Dobing and Harry Burrows.

Two seasons later, Stoke again went in 3-0 down at half time as Clyde Best, Trevor Brooking and John Sissons put a young West Ham side, this time without  Peters and Hurst as well as England skipper Bobby Moore, well into the ascendancy. The Potters hit back though and claimed a point in the last twenty minutes as Burrows (again) and two Denis Smith headers sealed another amazing comeback.

It was little wonder then that Hammers manager Ron Greenwood publicly warned his team that despite their 2-1 victory in the 1972 League Cup Semi-Final first leg at the Victoria Ground the tie was far from over. The return leg at the Boleyn a week later stands out as our most memorable game at the ground as a battling Stoke side dug in to take the tie to extra time after John Ritchie’s late goal had brought the teams level on aggregate.

With the match deep into extra time though, it looked as though it was going to be heartbreak for The Potters when Gordon Banks and Mike Pejic got into a tangle and Banksy hauled Hammers winger Harry Redknapp to the turf. Despite our protests, the referee pointed to the spot and it was left to Geoff Hurst to send West Ham through to the final…

What followed was one of the most iconic moments in our history as Banksy atoned for his mistake with a quite breathtaking save to deny his England team mate and give Stoke the opportunity to go on and take their place at Wembley for the very first time after another couple of replays.

Games between the two teams yielded little for Stoke between that semi-final and our relegation from the First Division in the Holocaust season.  We won just once in 1973/74 and drew three times (74/75, 78/79 and 82/83) before a 5-1 thumping in what would be our last top flight away fixture for 23 years in May 1985. That 1982/83 clash was most memorable for Steve Bould’s comical own goal when he lobbed ’keeper Peter Fox from 25 yards!

Peter Fox3Foxy has better memories of his trip to West Ham in 1989/90. Though The Potters would eventually be relegated at the end of the season, his fabulous save from a Julian Dicks penalty earned us a credible 0-0 draw against Lou Macari’s Hammers.

A 3-0 drubbing in the League Cup the following season would be the last time we’d visit the Boleyn for 13 years and by that time the ground had been redeveloped on three sides and the famous ‘Chicken Run’ terracing was now an all-seated stand.

With Stoke struggling at the wrong end of the Championship in 2003/04, Gerry Taggart was brought in to shore up a leaky defence and he made an instant impact, proving to be an impregnable force at the back as The Potters shocked the home team with a 1-0 victory courtesy of full back Frazer Richardson’s first half winner.

A forgettable 2-0 Championship defeat in 2004/05 in which 38 year-old Teddy Sheringham proved too good for us would be the last time the two teams would meet until The Potters clinched promotion in 2008.

Our first Premier League visit to the Boleyn Ground will be remembered for all the wrong reasons though. An early Abdoulaye Faye header had put The Potters ahead but when Carlton Cole equalised for the home team early in the second half, Ricardo Fuller was shown a straight red card when an argument ensued and he slapped his captain Andy Griffin!  An 88th minute Diego Tristan winner left The Potters in the relegation zone and Fuller’s Stoke career in doubt.

The Potters stayed up and Ricardo remained at the Britannia Stadium, totally redeeming himself on the same ground fifteen months later with a magnificent solo winner, leaving several West Ham defenders in his wake before smashing the ball past Robert Green in front of an ecstatic Stoke following.

Two defeats in 2010/11 – 3-1 in the League Cup and a dog of a performance in a 3-0 Premier League drubbing – have been followed by an unbeaten run at the Boleyn Ground with three draws and a victory in 2013/14 thanks to a stunning Jermaine Pennant free kick. Marco Arnautovic’s injury time equaliser last season was a truly magical moment on this ground, but sadly Mame Diouf couldn’t put away his 89th minute chance last week and leave us with one last great memory of the famous Boleyn Ground.

BoleynGround

 

 

09
Mar
16

The Forgotten Tragedy – Burnden Park March 9th 1946

The 1945/46 season had seen the resumption of competitive football after the Second World War in the form of the FA Cup. That season, it was decided that all ties from the First Round onwards would be played over two legs to extend the competition, and after accounting for Burnley and the two Sheffield clubs, Stoke were drawn to face Bolton Wanderers in the quarter final.

The Trotters ran out 2-0 winners at the Victoria Ground in the first leg on March 2nd 1946 in front of a crowd of 50,735, and so we faced a real uphill task in the return leg at Burnden Park a week later.

Interest in that return leg was huge and both Bolton officials and journalists confidently predicted a similar size crowd for a game that would feature Stoke’s England international stars Neil Franklin and Freddie Steele as well as Bolton’s gifted young centre forward Nat Lofthouse, who would go on to enjoy a distinguished career for both club and country.

The star attraction though was of course The Potters’ wing wizard, Stanley Matthews, by far the most exciting and celebrated player of the era. His presence helped draw massive crowds wherever he played; in the two previous rounds over 50,000 had been in attendance at Bramall Lane and 62,728 had squeezed into Hillsborough to see City progress to the last eight.

Bolton’s estimate of a 50,000 plus crowd then wasn’t at all extreme, especially considering their fourth round tie against Middlesbrough had attracted a gate of 43,553, and with a capacity of 69,485 at Burnden Park, there was no apparent cause for concern. This was, after all, the post-war boom period for attendances, clubs gave little thought to packing fans in to their ground and supporters didn’t seem too troubled by the conditions they were subjected to. They were just happy to be watching real football again after the war!

Bolton were however aware of the need for more spectator accommodation and during the week leading up to the game sought permission to open up the 2,800 capacity Burnden Stand, which had been requisitioned by the Government during the war. The stand was still full of food and other supplies though and Wanderers’ request was turned down.

The club announced that 14,000 tickets had been sold for the game, with the main stand and Burnden paddock both sold out, but emphasised that there was plenty of room elsewhere inside the ground. Indeed the local newspaper ran a story on the eve of the game under the headline “Plenty of Room for Spectators Without Tickets.”

Whilst fitting 50,000 people into Burnden Park may not have been a problem, getting them inside the ground most certainly was. The 9,000 fans who’d bought tickets for the Burnden paddock had to gain access through the main stand’s turnstiles on the opposite side of the ground and were then escorted around the pitch by police to their section.

Then there was the problem of admitting fans to the Railway Embankment, a shallow, 28,000 capacity arc shaped bank of terracing behind the goal at the north end of Burnden Park. Turnstiles to the enclosure on the east side of the ground had been closed since 1940, so fans could only access that area through fourteen turnstiles adjacent to the main stand on Manchester Road.

 

10769th March 1946 dawned to a bright, sunny day and thousands of fans descended upon Burnden Park. Bolton were the only team left in the FA Cup from the north west, so, along with the local Bolton support and a hefty number of Stoke followers, football fans from all over Lancashire who’d been starved of this kind of big match atmosphere for six long war years, turned up to savour the occasion.

From the very early afternoon though, it became apparent that far too many fans wanted to get inside the ground, and congestion outside the turnstiles on Manchester Road became a major problem, particularly as most of the area between the turnstiles and the road was used as a car park.

Eventually, around twenty minutes before kick off, the turnstiles were closed with 65,419 fans officially inside the ground and estimates of up to 20,000 outside. Though most of the disappointed supporters made their way home, a large number of frustrated fans – many of them servicemen –  started to find other ways of getting into the ground, climbing over the boys’ turnstiles or onto the railway line at the top of the embankment where many broke into the ground by removing sections of fencing. Some even clambered on top of a stationary engine wagon to watch the game.

Inside Burnden Park, congestion in the area immediately past the turnstiles on the Railway Embankment was becoming intolerable. A frightening human bottleneck had formed as fans tried to make their way through a gangway and up a barrier-less slope onto the main part of the embankment.

Terrified women and children were lifted to the pitch side and many people even tried to get out of the ground. Police ordered spectators to break down wooden pitch-side fences to help alleviate the congestion, and one man, concerned for the safety of his young son, picked the lock of an exit gate to escape the crush. That only added to the congestion inside though, as hundreds of fans took the opportunity to free themselves from awful conditions outside where they had been pressed up against a wall and the gate.

Then, shortly before 3.00 pm as the two teams emerged from the dressing rooms, the crowd on the Railway Embankment started to sway uncontrollably as fans strained for a view of the players. Fans from the back surged forward, and under the sheer weight of people two barriers at the front of the terracing close to the corner flag collapsed causing many fans to fall forward on top of those in front of them. Tragically, 33 people lost their lives, most asphyxiated in the mayhem, and over 500 were injured. The youngest victim was 14 year-old Henry Birtwistle from Blackburn, while the only female to perish in the tragedy, 40 year-old Emily Hoskinson of Bolton, was killed along with her brother after helping pass her young son over the heads of the crowd to safety. She was attending just her second football match.

The game had already kicked off with hundreds of people on the pitch side, having freed themselves from the crush, when at 3.12, a police officer marched onto the pitch to inform referee George Dutton that there had been fatalities in the crowd and that he should bring the game to a halt. Both teams returned  to the changing rooms, where the Bolton players were horrified to witness the bodies of several of the dead being carried past them and into the medical room which was to act as a temporary mortuary.

Burnden1

Soon after, a decision was made to resume the game, with police concerned that the atmosphere in the ground would turn ugly if the game was abandoned. Some fans who’d witnessed the tragedy were furious, but the overwhelming majority inside Burnden Park had no idea that people had died in a small corner on the Railway Embankment and the police were worried that there could be rioting if the match didn’t continue. There was no public address system to inform supporters about the tragedy and senior officers felt that they had little choice other than to resume the game.

As it turned out, the cup tie ended goalless, with Wanderers going through, but as far as the players were concerned, it hardly mattered. They had been asked to compete for a place in the FA Cup semi final with the covered bodies of some of the dead just yards away from them and many broke down in tears at the final whistle as the full horror began to sink in.

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The Mayor of Bolton organised a relief fund for the bereaved which raised over £50,000, and a benefit match between England and Scotland was played at Maine Road, but in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy there was a huge clamour to apportion blame. Club officials, police and the media nailed their colours firmly to the mast, pointing the finger at those fans they had considered to have gained entry to the ground illegally. In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Sir Jocelyn Lucas demanded to know if prosecutions for manslaughter against the fans who’d broken into the ground through the fencing were being considered by the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede.

Chuter Ede appointed Justice R Molewyn Hughes to head an official enquiry into the disaster, and though the Bolton secretary Walter Rowley and the Chief Constable of Bolton William Howard hardly wavered from their initial stance that the tragedy was the fault of fans breaking into the ground, Hughes described the invasion through the fencing at the top of the Railway Embankment as “irrelevant to the disaster”. “Given the configuration of the terracing”, he reported, “it would not have brought any pressure onto the section where the barriers collapsed and the fatalities occurred.”

Though Hughes commended police officers on the day for their efforts under severe pressure (incidentally, less than 120 officers were on duty that day!), he was critical of their superiors was well as club officials who, he said, were slow to recognise that the Embankment was beyond capacity. Although turnstiles had mechanical counters, these were only used after games to calculate figures for the benefit of tax. On match days, Bolton employed a “head checker” whose responsibility was to estimate the numbers in each enclosure. Twenty minutes before the disaster, a concerned police officer went in search of the head checker to warn him that the turnstiles should be closed, only to find him under the main stand!

The enquiry concluded with many recommendations, most notably that clubs would have to more thoroughly inspect their grounds, and in particular the strength of crush barriers. During the enquiry, it was revealed that metal tubing at the base of the collapsed barriers had rusted to as little as a third of its original thickness, despite an inspection of the terrace by Rowley days before the game. Hughes also urged clubs to improve the condition of entrances and the means of uninterrupted movement from one part of an enclosure to another, a concern that was to have much significance some four decades later.

Hughes’ final recommendation was that no football ground should be allowed to host matches without a licence granted by the local authority. However, by 1949, the Government had abandoned planned legislation, preferring that clubs adopted a voluntary code of safety.

Bolton, doubtless remorseful after the tragedy, spent over £5,000 modernising the Railway Embankment. New crush barriers were erected, fencing was secured and turnstile access improved, but many clubs were dismissive of the recommendations of The Hughes Report and, despite raking in countless thousands of pounds as the post-war attendance boom continued, did little, other than repair bomb damage, to improve their dilapidated grounds.

It wasn’t until the mid-seventies and as a result of another awful disaster, this time at Ibrox Park in 1971 when 66 people died after barriers collapsed on a stairway after an Old Firm game, that clubs were required by law to be in possession of a safety certificate before their grounds could be opened to the public.

By 1986, Bolton found themselves in severe financial difficulties and on the verge of relegation to the Fourth Division. To raise money, their directors sold off part of the ground and a Normid Superstore was built at Burnden Park on the site of the tragedy. In 1992, a commemorative plaque in memory of the 33 who had died 46 years earlier was finally unveiled at the ground by Nat Lofthouse and Sir Stanley Matthews.

Given the events of 9th March 1946, it is beyond belief that a disaster on an even greater scale should occur in an English football ground over 40 years later. That it did shames those who ran football in this country and will forever remain a slur on the memories of those who lost their lives at Burnden Park.

This article orignally appeared in Issue 455 of The Oatcake, on 4th March 2009 when Stoke City played Bolton Wanderers.

LIST OF PEOPLE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE BURNDEN PARK DISASTER

Wilfred Addison 68 Stockton Street, Moss Side, Manchester.
Wilfred Allison (19) 11 Selborne Street, Leigh.
Fred Battersby (31) 16 Argyle Street, Atherton.
James Battersby (33) 23 Worthing Grove, Atherton.
Robert Bentham (33) 96 Bolton Old Road, Atherton
Henry Bimson (59) 86 Leigh Road, Leigh.
Henry Ratcliffe Birtwistle (14) 10 June Street, Blackburn.
John T Blackshaw 11 Norman Street, Rochdale.
W Braidwood (40) 96 Green Lane, Hindley.
Fred Campbell (33) 49 Garstang Avenue, Bolton.
Fred Price Dearden (67) 61 Florence Avenue, Bolton.
William Evans (33) 90 Glebe Street, Leigh.
Winston Finch 50 Deneside Avenue, Hazel Grove, Stockport.
John Flinders (32) 2 Clough Terrace, Littleborough.
Albert Edward Hanrahan 21 Cambria Crescent, Winton, Eccles.
Emily Hoskinson (40) 49 Garstang Avenue, Bolton.
William Hughes (56) 28 Byrom Street, Poolstock, Wigan.
Frank Jubb 103 Greenbank Road, Rochdale.
John Livesey (37) Collins Road, Bamber Bridge, Preston.
John Thomas Lucas (35) 13 Arthur Street, Leigh.
Harold Mcandrew 13 Sharp Street, Wigan.
William Mckenzie 2 St Paul`s Villas, Bury.
Morgan Mooney (32) 167 Escrick Street, Bolton.
Harry Needham (30) 41 Bella Street, Bolton.
David Pearson 66 Brimrod Lane, Rochdale.
Joseph Platt (43) 34 Thwaites Street, Bolton.
Sidney Potter (36) 10 Charles Street, Tyldesley.
Grenville Roberts 5 Foy Street, Ashton-In-Makerfield.
Richard Robey (35) 24 Lower West Avenue, Barnoldswick.
Thomas Robey (65) 118 Upholland Street, Billinge, Wigan.
T Smith (65) 2 King Street South, Rochdale.
Walter Wilmot (31) 175 Crescent Road, Bolton.
James Wilson 1210, Ashton Old Road, Higher Openshaw, Manchester.

 

 

 

 

04
Mar
16

The Boys of ’72


March 4th 1972 is a date etched into the very psyche of Stoke City supporters and one which still stands as the greatest single event in the long history of our wonderful football club.

The 12 players who wore the red and white stripes that day, and who contributed to that unforgettable 2-1 victory over a strongly-fancied Chelsea, stand as symbols of everything that it good about Stoke City. They are untouchable. They are legends.

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Tony Waddington

There are some cynics and detractors who sneer at how much we revere that great Stoke team of Tony Waddington’s and how much we like to talk about that wonderful day. Let them get on with it, we don’t care.

We may not always have the things other clubs have had to cheer about but we treasure the history of our club. We’re proud to be the second oldest club in the world. We’re proud to be founder members of the Football League. We’re proud of the many founding events in football in which we’ve been involved. We’re proud of the many great players who’ve worn our famous colours and we’re proud of the boys of 1972.

Winning a trophy is one thing, but winning it in the way we did that season made it extra special. There was no cushy draw, no bye to the third round, no going to spot-kicks at the end of the first tie and no easy route to the final. We did it the hard way.

We had four consecutive away draws to get to the semi-finals, three games against Manchester United, four against West Ham and eleven games in all before we finally made it through.

These who do try to detract will often claim that many teams didn’t take the competition seriously and that nobody cared about the League Cup back in those days, which is utter nonsense. After the three games against Southport and Oxford the combined attendance for Stoke’s eight matches against Manchester United, Bristol Rovers and West Ham was 335,091 (an average of 41,886 per game!).

The 4th Round tie against Manchester United proved to be an epic endeavour, going to a second replay as it did. Fans who’d hardly caught their breath after that drawn out tussle then had the four incredible games against West Ham, where Stoke lost the first leg at home and then seemed to be on the brink of elimination at Upton Park as Geoff Hurst stepped up to take a late, late penalty, only for Gordon Banks to pull off what is probably the single most important save in the entire history of Stoke City FC.

It was such a long time ago and yet even now, forty years later, it’s impossible not to recall, with almost crystal clear clarity the excitement which gripped the city after beating West Ham at Old Trafford and finally making it to Wembley for the first time ever.

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The Cup Final programme

The national stadium still had a special aura about it back then which is impossible to fully appreciate these days. It was hard to get to Wembley in those days; there were no play-off finals, no Autoglass Trophy competitions and the idea of holding semi-finals at this most hallowed arena was just laughable. Going to Wembley was something special.

The team was therefore measured up for their suits and a special Wembley song (written by Tony Hatch – who also wrote the theme to ‘Neighbours’!) was recorded. We still sing the song to this very day.

We were finally getting to do all of the things which we’d watched other clubs do for so long.

One thing which is impossible to forget is the mad scramble for tickets. It’s entirely possible that the club could have sold them two times over and the queues which formed at the Victoria Ground have become the stuff of legend.

Those who were lucky enough to get one made their way down to Wembley and for many of them it would have been their first trip to the most instantly recognisable football stadium in the world.

Being there was made even more special by the fact that back in those days the League Cup was not actually shown live on TV. That was something which was reserved for FA Cup Finals only, and important England internationals.

Those who couldn’t go to the match had to make do with live coverage on the radio and then wait for the extended highlights on ‘Star Soccer’ on Sunday afternoon!

There’s no need for a full match report here. Most of you have probably got it stored away in your memory banks and can recall all of the major incidents with almost 100% precision accuracy. For those who can’t, well, the DVD is available in the Club Shop and you have absolutely no excuses whatsoever for not owning it.

As a quick recap though, we got off to the best possible start when Terry Conroy headed home after only five minutes. Chelsea equalised right on the stroke of half-time. John Ritchie had a goal disallowed for offside. George Eastham slammed home what proved to be the winning goal after a Greenhoff shot was saved and then, right at the death, Gordon Banks was the hero of the hour as he saved a one-on-one after a Mike Bernard backpass fell short.

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Peter Dobing lifts the trophy

The scenes that followed the final whistle are the sort that could bring a tear to the eye of any Stoke fan. Peter Dobing became the first Stoke captain to ever go up and collect a trophy and the team celebrated deliriously around the side of the pitch as they did their lap of honour.

A mark of respect for Stoke’s achievement came when the Chelsea chairman came into our dressing room afterwards and congratulated Tony Waddington, stating: “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer club.”

The final chapter of this unforgettable story was provided on the day after the game when the team returned home with the trophy, getting off the train at Barlaston and getting onto an open-top bus for the journey to the Kingsway in Stoke.

The streets were packed for the entire route and so many people were packed into the Kingsway that it seemed ready to burst. Like a fisherman’s tale the size gets bigger with each re-telling of the story but estimates for the total number of people who turned up to see the team bring home the trophy range from more than 100,000 right up to 200,000. It seemed as though all of North Staffordshire and quite a few people from other areas were there to see it all.

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Denis Smith celebrates

Time moves on and it’s now 40 years later. In that time we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of more Stoke City games and we’ve experienced unbearable lows and incredible highs along the way.

The boys of 1972 have grown old now and we’ve grown old alongside them. In that time new generations of Stoke City supporters have joined the ranks and each of them has learned about the great team who wrote their names into the history books and who still represent the only Stoke City side ever to have won a major honour.

It is wonderful that eleven of the players who made us so proud on that glorious March day four decades ago day are still with us. Unfortunately, we lost Tony Waddington back in 1994 and Big John Ritchie in 2007. The main hospitality suite at the Britannia Stadium is named after Waddo and fittingly so. Outside the Boothen End there is a statue of John Ritchie.

All that is left for us to do is to say thank you to the men who made 4th March 1972 possible and let them know that we’ll be with them every step along the way.

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The Stoke City team proudly pose with the League Cup

Tony Waddington, Gordon Banks, John Marsh, Mike Pejic, Denis Smith, Alan Bloor, Mike Bernard, Peter Dobing, Terry Conroy, George Eastham, Jimmy Greenhoff, John Ritchie and John Mahoney – your place in our hearts is permanent and your place in the history books indelible.

The article first appeared in Issue 514 of The Oatcake on Sunday 5th March 2012 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Stoke City’s League Cup victory.