As Bad As Things Got: Tottenham Hotspur, 7th May 1977

by | May 24, 2020

It could hardly be said that Tottenham Hotspur were in uncharted territory, as the 1976/77 season drew to a close. The club spent all bar two of the twenty years from 1930 to 1950 in the Second Division, and their first Football League Championship in 1951 came at the end of their first season in the First Division since 1935. By the second half of the 1970s, though, football had changed. It wasn’t quite the requisite for any chance of solvency that it is today, but top flight status still mattered at a club whose identity had been shaped by the two league championships a decade apart, the latter of which was matched with an FA Cup, a club which had won the UEFA Cup as recently as 1972.

A smattering of trophies throughout the first half of the decade did a good job of masking the decline that seemed to be sinking in at White Hart Lane. Bill Nicholson had been the manager of the club since 1958, but by the start of the 1970s, the man who delivered the double to White Hart Lane had started to become disillusioned with the game. Escalating wage demands and hooliganism ground Nicholson down, and from finishing in third place the First Division in 1971, the team declined year on year throughout the rest of the first half of the decade.

That light sprinkling of silverware did an outstanding cover-up job, though. Spurs won the League Cup in 1971 against Third Division Aston Villa and again two years later against Norwich City, and intersecting these two wins was their 1972 UEFA Cup win, which came after beating Wolverhampton Wanderers by four goals to three in a two-legged final. But when Spurs were well-beaten by Feyenoord in the 1974 UEFA Cup final and Spurs supporters rioted in Rotterdam, it was the end of the road for Nicholson. In September 1974 he resigned, later saying, “The simple truth was that I was burned out, I had no more to offer.”

Nicholson’s departure cast a pall over White Hart Lane. He’d wanted his replacements to be Danny Blanchflower, the captain of the double-winning team who’d been on the coaching staff at the club for some time, and Johnny Giles, who was coming to the end of a lengthy and successful playing career with Leeds United and who had been overlooked in favour of Brian Clough by Leeds that summer as player-manager that summer. Club chairman Sidney Wale, however, was angry at Nicholson contacting Blanchflower and Giles independently of the club. Not only was Nicholson denied a position as an advisor to the club, but he was also declined a testimonial match after his departure. 

The career path of Nicholson’s successor, Terry Neill, was, if nothing else, idiosyncratic. He’d made 275 appearances for Arsenal over eleven years between 1959 and 1970, becoming the club’s youngest ever captain at just 20 years of age in 1962 and chair of the PFA in 1967. In 1970, though, he was transferred to Second Division Hull City as a player-manager, and by the time he retired from playing three years later, he was also the manager of the Northern Ireland team on a part-time basis. Even at the point of his arrival a White Hart Lane in the autumn of 1974, he was only 32 years old.

With a young manager previously associated with their closest rivals, a young team that hadn’t seen much successful investment for several years, and such rancour behind the scenes at the club, it’s no great surprise that Spurs struggled throughout the 1974/75 season. They did go eight matches unbeaten between the middle of October and the end of November, but after the new year began with a home defeat against Second Division Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and a surprisingly emphatic 5-2 win at Newcastle, the wheels fell of the wagon again, with the team picking up just a single point from their next ten league matches.

Just in time, though, Neill’s team pulled something out of the bag. With seven games to go, they were second from bottom in the table and four points from safety. Three straight wins, one of which was against fellow strugglers Luton Town, put them back in sight of safety. After losing at Burnley came a critical win against Chelsea, 2-0 at White Hart Lane, a match pock-marked with serious disorder. A trip to Arsenal and a defeat later, it all came down to their last home match of the season, at home against Leeds United. The European Cup finalists and defending league champions didn’t put too much of a fight, though. Spurs won 4-2 in front of a crowd of almost 50,000 people. They’d kept their heads above water, just.

Considerable improvement followed, the following season, with the team finishing in ninth place in the First Division, but at the end of the season Neill quit, to make the short journey across London to take over at Arsenal. That there doesn’t seem to have been much outrage at this decision says something about the brittle sense of detente to have descended over the club during the period following his appointment. Neill’s replacement was Keith Burkinshaw, the head coach who’d joined the club in May 1975 after having lost his position as a coach at Newcastle United. In replacing Bertie Mee as the manager of Arsenal, Neill became the first – and to date only – manager to have replaced double-winning managers at two different clubs in England.

Despite the previous season’s ninth placed finish, though, Spurs still weren’t the team they had been three or four seasons earlier. Mike England, Martin Peters, Alan Gilzean and Martin Chivers had all departed from White Hart Lane, but replacements such as Keith Osgood, Jimmy Neighbour, John Duncan and Ian Moores didn’t seem to gel, and introducing younger players such as Glenn Hoddle and Chris Jones into this mix at this time didn’t seem to improve the team’s performances a great deal either. Burkinshaw’s only previous managerial experience had come more than a decade earlier as a player-manager, in the lower divisions at Workington and Scunthorpe United. His naivety would show at points throughout his first season at White Hart Lane.

Despite one of Burkinshaw’s first acts being to bring back Bill Nicholson as an advisor (amongst the players that Nicholson would recommend would be Gary Mabbutt, Graham Roberts and Tony Galvin, and Nicholson would stay with the club in a consultancy position until 1991), the new season started poorly with two straight defeats, but successive wins at Manchester United – where they came from two down at half-time to win 3-2 in front of the Match of the Day cameras – and at home against Leeds United seemed to steady the nerves a little. This, however, turned out to be something of a false dawn. The Leeds win turned out to be their last for more than a month. They were bundled out of the League Cup at home by Wrexham and, on the 16th October, the full extent of their defensive problems were laid bare when they were beaten 8-2 at Derby County. A win in their next match against Birmingham City proved to be their last until the last weekend in November.

And this was the pattern of so much of that season. Wins were dotted about over the course of it all, but when they did turn up they were never built upon. The win against Stoke City at the end of November 1976, for example, was their last until New Years Day 1977 and that win, against West Ham United, was followed up a week later by getting dumped out of the FA Cup, at home by Second Division Cardiff City. It was extremely tight in the bottom half of the table, and it was clear by the start of the spring that the relegation places would end up being taken by whichever clubs found themselves out of form as the season drew to a close.

At the start of March, Spurs beat Norwich City away from home, followed by a 1-0 home win against the eventual champions, Liverpool. This was their best win of the season. It was also, however, the last time they would win consecutive league games that season. Spurs followed the Liverpool win with a run of just two in their next eleven matches. Four matches in seven days over Easter seemed to sum up their season as a whole, though. On Easter Saturday they beat Queens Park Rangers at White Hart Lane, but then lost at Arsenal the following Monday, a crucial relegation match at Bristol City the following day, and then could only pick up a point at home to Sunderland the following Saturday.

The midweek round of fixtures the week after this saw Spurs drop back into the relegation places. They lost at Aston Villa, while QPR put four goals past Manchester United, and fellow strugglers Coventry City, Sunderland, Bristol City and Stoke City all picked up a point. It was the last time that Spurs fall into the relegation places all season. The problem, by this point, was that Spurs had played three or four games more than most of the team around them at the bottom of the table. As those other teams kept picking up points around them, their own safety was taken further and further from their own control.

The following Saturday saw the return of Pat Jennings in the Spurs goal. Jennings had missed their previous fourteen games through injury, and his return saw a goalless draw with another relegation-threatened side, Stoke City. Another point drop, another glimmer of hope extinguished, as the teams around them continued to pick up points here and there. A win against Aston Villa the following Saturday kept their increasingly fragile looking chances of staying up on a ventilator, but on the 14th of May 1977 they travelled to second-placed Manchester City needing at least a draw, and preferably a win, to have any realistic chance of staying in the First Division. They lost 5-0, whilst elsewhere everybody else at the bottom had picked up at least a point.

Their last match of the season saw a hollow 2-0 win against Leicester City at White Hart Lane, but the game was already up. Spurs’ goal difference was so bad by this time that relegation was already more or less confirmed. They needed a five goal win just to close that goal difference gap, and events elsewhere – even when they’d completed their games, the two teams nearest to them still had games to play – would send them to the bottom of the First Division table. Spurs were down, for the first time since 1950.

The defence had been the biggest problem throughout the season. Spurs had conceded 72 goals in their 42 matches, seven more than anybody else in the division, including more than 50 away from home. The loss of Pat Jennings for much of the season with injury had turned out to be a season-defining blow. A young defence with back-up goalkeeper Barry Daines or rookie Mark Kendall behind them had conceded eight at Derby, five at Manchester City and West Ham, and four at Everton and West Bromwich Albion. They also suffered for the fact that it was so tight at the bottom of the table, with everybody taking points from everybody else. Spurs finished the season with 33 points from their 42 games, with just five points separating them from thirteenth placed Birmingham City. This points total would have been enough to keep the up, the year before and under three points for a win it would have equated to 45 points.

The Spurs directors kept faith with Keith Burkinshaw, even though many felt that they shouldn’t have done, and reaped their reward accordingly. Spurs lost Jennings to Arsenal for £45,000 that summer, a small fee for a goalkeeper of such ability, but also a fee reflective of the fact that Burkinshaw believed Jennings, who had played almost 600 games for the club, to already be past his best, at 32 years of age. In September of the same year, by way of comparison, Nottingham Forest paid £250,000 to prize Peter Shilton from Leicester City. Shilton was only four years younger, and Jennings would go on to play for Arsenal for eight years. 

Burkinshaw took Spurs back up the following season at the first attempt, in third place in the Second Division behind Bolton Wanderers and Southampton, and in the summer of 1978 was involved in the audacious signing of Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, both members of the Argentinian World Cup winning squad, that summer. Burkinshaw’s Spurs team, bolstered by new players such as Steve Archibald and Garth Crooks, would go on to win the FA Cup in 1981 and 1982, and the UEFA Cup in 1984, although they would remaining frustratingly inconsistent in the league until they’d been back in the First Division for a couple of seasons. Keith Burkinshaw, for all his mis-steps, remains fondly-remembered at White Hart Lane. After all, he is the second most successful manager in the club’s history after Bill Nicholson, in terms of delivering the club trophies. 

The directors who’d hired him, though, didn’t even last as long as the manager, this time. Spurs demolished their West Stand in 1980, but its replacement wildly overran its budget, took fifteen months to complete, and left Wale and Arthur Richardson, the head of the other family who controlled the club, struggling to stay in charge. In November 1982, with Spurs £4m of debt, Wale and Richardson were swept out, replaced by a new group led by a thirty-five year old property developer by the name of Irving Scholar. Within two years, Spurs would become the first club to float on the stock market, placing themselves as a wholly owned subsidiary of a holding company in order to ensure that FA rules could be bypassed in the process. When Burkinshaw left the club in the summer of 1984, shortly after that UEFA Cup win, it is said that he gestured back towards the stand and remarked ruefully to an assembled pack of journalists, “There used to be a football club over there.” 

There was no really dramatic moment with Spurs’ relegation from the First Division, as there had been with Manchester United’s three years earlier, or as there would be with Manchester City’s six years later. With that lack of definition, that absence of an iconic moment to be replayed over and over on the television in the years since, the fact that it even happened at Spurs sometimes feels as though it has become half-forgotten. And perhaps the fact that older supporters could remember Spurs as a Second Division club in the 1930s and 1940s helped with the feeling that this was a temporary blip rather than the start of something far more severe and long-lasting. Yet this was a story that began, not on a warm and mildly defiant afternoon in May 1977, but several years earlier with the bungled succession to a club legend. Relegation set in motion a chain of events that would come to change the entire nature of the club irrevocably within just a few years, for better and for worse.