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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
In some respects, the 1982/83 football season had much in common with the season that is now drawing to a close. At the top of the First Division table, the most successful club of recent years was steamrollering its way to another championship victory – the difference, of course, being that it was Liverpool rather than Manchester United destroying all before them – whilst, at the bottom of the table, a desperate scramble occurred over the last few weeks of the season as clubs sought to avoid relegation which included one club which had, just a few weeks prior to the last day of the season, been in what had looked like a comfortable position in the middle of the table: Manchester City.
The decline of a club which had, as recently as 1977, finished just point behind Liverpool in second place in the First Division has a number of sources, but the accepted narrative over the years has been that it started with the decision to replace manager Tony Book with the returning Malcolm Allison in 1979. Allison had been present and correct at the beginning of the most successful period in the club’s history, which had lasted from the late 1960s on, but his return to the club was conspicuously not the success that chairman Peter Swales might have hoped for. Allison’s team laboured to seventeenth place in the table by the end of the 1979/80 season, losing to Fourth Division Halifax Town in the FA Cup in the process, and Allison’s expensive rebuilding of the team not only brought in players that didn’t live up to expectations but also saw the departure of several players that had flourished under Book, such as Gary Owen and Peter Barnes.
The arrival of John Bond at Maine Road in 1980 brought a little stability to the club. Bond hauled Manchester City to a position of mid-table safety and took it on something of a surprise trip to Wembley in the FA Cup, where his team was only narrowly beaten after a replay by Tottenham Hotspur, whilst the following season saw the club finish in a mid-table position after starting the season badly before seeing its form improve, including a three-one win away to a Liverpool side that would go on to lift the First Division championship that season. Still, though, there was little to indicate the problems that the club was to have during the 1982/83 season, and the club started that season well, even leading the First Division briefly after winning its first three matches of the new season against Notts County, Stoke City and Watford.
It wasn’t until the end of January 1983 that the club’s problems began to mount up. There had been tensions between Bond and Swales a couple of years earlier regarding Bond’s desire to bring the England striker Trevor Francis to Maine Road when, during negotiations to sign the player from Nottingham Forest, Swales had informed Bond that City couldn’t afford the £1.2m required to sign the player. Bond had threatened to resign over that issue and had got his way in the end, although the injury-prone Francis would only play twenty-six matches for the club during the 1981/82 season and would go on to be transferred to play for Sampdoria in Italy. The tensions at management level within the club, however, remained long after his departure.
A 4-0 defeat at Brighton in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup had signaled the start of the club’s problems, and a defeat by the same margin at the hands of Coventry City two weeks later left the club in fourteenth place in the table, and in February 1983 Bond left to take over as the manager of Burnley. His replacement, John Benson, had been Bond’s assistant at Norwich City and had gone to Maine Road with the now-departed former manager. Supporters joked that he had been offered the job primarily so that the club didn’t have to change the initials on their tracksuits, but Benson later revealed that he had reservations about his own appointment from the outset:
I had no choice really. Once Bondy had left, either I had to become manager or I would, in all probability have to move on. I had nowhere to go to, so I took the job. I kept my old wage – no increase – and tried my best. I never wanted to be manager. I was too young. Too inexperienced, and managing City is inevitably an enormous job. You have to know your strengths in football, and I know that my strength was as a number two.
On the pitch, Benson’s team lost six of its seven matches following the defeat at Coventry City before rallying a little to win by two goals to nil at West Bromwich Albion at the start of April 1983. This result had kept the club in seventeenth place in the First Division table, three places above the relegation zone, but below them their opponents at the foot of the table had, somewhat ominously, started to win matches. Brighton & Hove Albion and Swansea City had started to slip adrift at the bottom of the table, but with six matches of the season to play Birmingham City, who had been six points clear of the safety zone, started winning matches and they ended the season in sixteenth place, having won five of those last six matches, whilst newly-promoted Luton Town, who might have considered themselves safe after wins against Birmingham City and Swansea City in April, found themselves dragged back into the mire following heavy defeats at the hands of Manchester United and Everton.
City, meanwhile, managed wins against West Ham United and at Brighton – a result which relegated the FA Cup finalists – but defeats elsewhere and the quirks of the fixture list planners meant that Maine Road would play host to a shoot-out between Manchester City and Luton Town to avoid that third relegation place. City went into the match a point ahead of Luton, meaning that a draw would be enough to keep them up, and a crowd of almost 43,000 people flocked to the ground, along with the cameras of the BBC’s Match Of The Day, to see which one of the two sides would avoid the drop. Then, as this year, the destination of the league title had already been decided well before the last day of the season, so all eyes were on Maine Road instead.
City needed a point to stay up whilst Luton needed all three, and what followed has since entered into the folklore of both clubs, though not, in the case of Manchester City, for reasons that many people would wish to remember. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 1983, with the air hanging heavy with the tension of the occasion, the two teams played out a scrappy match which seemed destined to head for the goalless draw required to keep City up. With five minutes to play, however, goalkeeper Alex Williams could only tamely paw out a cross from the the right from Brian Stein and Raddy Antic put a low, first time shot into the bottom corner of the goal to put Luton into the lead. There was no time, just our minutes, for Manchester City to come back from this, and at the full time whistle the cameras of the BBC picked up one of the season’s defining moment, lingering on the Luton manager David Pleat as he gambolled across the Maine Road pitch and into the arms of his captain that day, Brian Horton.
John Benson’s spell as the manager of the club ended shortly afterwards, but his replacement, the former Celtic manager Billy McNeill, would not be able to take the team straight back up, and City finished in fourth place in a very competitive Second Division at the end of the following season, behind Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United. It wouldn’t be until the last day of the 1984/85 season the club would eventually win its place in the top division back, with a handsome win against Charlton Athletic on a day otherwise scarred by the deaths of fifty six people at Bradford City’s Valley Parade. Having clung onto their hard-earned place in the First Division, meanwhile, Luton Town would go on to stay in the top flight until 1992, missing out on a place in the Premier League by just one season. Thirty years on, however, the fortunes of the two clubs could hardly be much more different. Luton Town collapsed under the weight of serial mismanagement and a subsequent horrifically harsh punishment by the Football Association, and still ply their trade in the Conference Premier, whilst Manchester City, fuelled by Middle Eastern petro-dollars, remain likely to be Premier League title challengers for the foreseeable future with one eye on becoming the champions of Europe. The club is now almost unrecognisable from that which Swales, Bond and Benson oversaw thirty years ago this year, and Manchester City supporters preparing for this weekend’s FA Cup final are unlikely to have to endure what their counterparts did three decades ago again.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.