Look Away Now: The Big Match, 26th August 1978
It’s August 1978, and all media eyes are on Tottenham Hotspur. In May 1977, the club had been relegated from the First Division in bottom place in the table, but this didn’t tell the entire story of the battle to avoid the drop that season. Just two points ended up separating the bottom five clubs in the division at the end of the season, and Spurs’ leaky defence – they conceded seventy-two goals – more than fifty of which came away from White Hart Lane – ended up costing them a top flight place that they’d held since 1950, with a goalless draw between West Ham United and Liverpool ultimately sending them down, despite the fact that the staggered end of the season meaning that the season didn’t actually end until ten days after their final match against Leicester City.
Their stay in the Second Division, however, proved to be brief. Spurs were promoted back to the First Division at the first attempt in third place in the table, with their goal difference this time proving to be the difference between them and fourth placed Brighton & Hove Albion, the feeling of curious optimism around the club following relegation probably being best summed up by a nine-goal shellacking of Bristol Rovers in front of the Match Of The Day cameras in September of that season. With eighty-three goals they were the division’s top scorers, although the title was lifted by Bolton Wanderers, with Southampton finishing the season in second place.
In July 1978, though, Spurs pulled off the transfer coup of the summer. Manager Keith Burkinshaw had been tipped off the the availability of Osvaldo Ardiles by the Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam, who’d been looking at an unknown teenager by the name of Diego Maradona before being put off by the asking price, and Burkinshaw flew to Buenos Aires to tie up the deal shortly after that summer’s World Cup final, whereupon Ardiles alerted him to the availability of Ricardo Villa, a talented midfielder who was a personal friend. After a few quick phone calls back to London, a fee of £750,000 was agreed to take both Ardiles and Villa back to White Hart Lane for the new season.
Tottenham’s return to the First Division, however, had a chastening start, with a draw at defending champions Nottingham Forest on the opening day of the season followed up with a four-one thrashing at home against Aston Villa. This episode of London Weekend Television’s The Big Match turned out to be the new players’ UK television debut. As we might expect, the broadcasters are all over this one, showing the players arriving at the ground and in the tunnel before taking to the pitch for a match against Chelsea, who themselves had been in a state of some decline since the ruinously expensive construction of a new East Stand at Stamford Bridge, and who would end this season by getting relegated themselves. The Big Match, meanwhile, would round up this episode with a Second Division match between Leicester City and Cambridge United and an Edinburgh derby match between Hearts and Hibernian.