THERE 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.
The 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!
Interest 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