As Bad As Things Got: Bristol City, 1st February 1982

by | Aug 3, 2020

The early 1980s were a desolate time for English football. Crowds had slumped and revenues had plummeted, though transfer fees continued to shoot up, leaving a large number of clubs living on the breadline. And one club came to symbolise the agony of the era more than any other, a club that had led a fairly trouble-free existence for the previous nine decades or so but which peaked as the game’s economics took a serious downward turn and who almost paid the ultimate price when things went sour.

Bristol City’s previous sojourn into the First Division had been brief, but spectacular. Elected into the Football League, they reached the top tier in 1905 after winning the Second Division title, and finished as runners-up in the First Division in their first season at that level. They also reached their only FA Cup final in 1909, losing narrowly to Manchester United after a lengthy run which saw them face a replay in every round bar one, but relegation back to the Second Division followed in 1911, and the club hadn’t returned, by the middle of the 1970s.

The city of Bristol may be the fifth biggest in England, but it’s also long been something of a footballing black hole. With the popularity of rugby union in the region, and in particular Bristol RFC (who share Ashton Gate with City), it’s reasonable to say that in Bristol and other cities in the area, such as Gloucester and Bath, the oval-shaped ball has a higher profile relative to the respective round ball clubs. And on top of this, Bristol is, of course, a two club city. City and Rovers have traded barbs and places many times, but City, the first of the two to get into the Football League by nineteen years, have (largely, but not always) historically been the higher-placed of the two, certainly since the start of the 1960s.

The decision to hire Alan Dicks as the manager at Ashton Gate in 1967 was shrewd. Dicks had finished his playing career five years earlier at just 28, but while he had no managerial experience, he had used that five years wisely, as an assistant manager and coach under Jimmy Hill, at Coventry City. Coventry had just been promoted to the First Division under this team, and Hill’s recommendation was a significant factor in the appointment.

It was not a decision that Bristol City would come to regret. They’d been promoted into the Second Division in 1965, but after a strong first season back which ended in 5th place in the table, the following season they’d struggled. Dicks slowly managed to turn things around. After a first season which saw them only avoid relegation by a single point, league positions slowly started to improve, and there were a couple of cup highlights, too – a run to the FA Cup Fifth Round which took in beating Rovers after a replay in the Third, while in the 1971 League Cup they beat Rotherham United, Blackpool, Leicester City and Fulham before losing the semi-final over two legs to Tottenham Hotspur.

Improvement came throughout the first half of the following decade, with City finishing fifth in the Second Division in 1973 and 1975. The following year, however, came the breakthrough. Despite there only being two promotion places, even a faltering finish to the season, which ended with one win, two draws (one against Rovers) and a defeat on the last day, wasn’t enough to prevent them from going up on goal difference from West Bromwich Albion, and Bolton Wanderers in fourth place, a point behind them. They’d left themselves too much catching up to do by losing their third last match of the season to the champions, Sunderland.

Bristol City would come to spend four seasons in the First Division. The first was a desperate fight to the death which ended in controversial circumstances. Coventry City, Sunderland and Bristol City were all battling to avoid that final relegation place, and on the last evening of the season, all three of them were level on points, with Sunderland having the worst goal difference of the three. Coventry City and Bristol City playing each other at Highfield Road, while Sunderland were travelling to Everton. The crowd at Goodison Park was 36,000, 16,000 up on their previous home match, but the kick-off at Highfield Road was delayed due to crowd congestion.

When the Sunderland’s 2-0 defeat was confirmed, there was still time left to play at Highfield Road, and Jimmy Hill authorised the score to be announced over the club’s tannoy and on the electronic scoreboard. With the score at 2-2 – which relegated Sunderland whilst keeping both Coventry City and Bristol City safe – the game slowed to a crawl. A news report the following morning described the closing minutes of the match as having “dissolved farcically.” Jimmy Hill was reprimanded by the FA, but the result stood, and Bristol City were staying up. The following season, they finished comfortably clear of Leicester City and Newcastle United, who were well adrift at the bottom of the table, with a strong end to the season seeing them haul themselves to 17th place.

By this time, there were plenty of familiar names in the Bristol City team. The indomitable Norman Hunter arrived at Ashton, leaving Leeds United after 14 years for £40,000. Peter Cormack, who’d played more than 100 games for Liverpool over the previous four seasons, joined a month later for £50,000. Everton (and occasionally England) striker Joe Royle joined the following year. But by the time of Royle’s arrival at the club, the seeds of its downfall had already been sewn.

In 1978, an Independent Tribunal was established to deal with out-of-contract professional players who sought to move to a new club having declined a retaining contract from their current club, and their valuations were occasionally troubling, to selling clubs. Bristol City experienced this when Gary Collier, a defender who’d been one of the key players in the promotion team of 1976, left for Coventry City in 1979 and the club were unhappy at the tribunal’s valuation.

The directors of the club reacted to this, however, in about the least healthy way possible. They began to sanction the use of 10 year contracts, in order to tie players down to the club. It was a policy that made sense for the first few seconds you thought about it. Long-term contracts would ensure a healthy sell-on fee, and players wouldn’t be lost to other clubs for less than their true market value. No-one seemed to have thought through the possibility that players might deteriorate, and furthermore just to undertake to this sort of financial commitment was vast, and wholly dependent on the club’s financial position not deteriorating.

Bristol City were relegated at the end of the 1979/80 season in 20th place in the First Division, four points adrift of fourth from bottom Everton. After a reasonable start, their form fell off a cliff after the end off October, picking up just six league points between the second weekend in November and the end of February. By the time something approaching a recovery started, they were just too far adrift, and a run of just one win in their final five matches sealed their fate. Bristol City’s four years as a First Division football club came to an end with a listless 0-0 draw away to Tottenham Hotspur on he 3rd of May 1980.

Match attendances were falling, across the board, but losing a lot of matches didn’t help. Bristol City’s average attendance for the 1978/79 season was 22,406. The following year, it dropped to 18,932, a fall of 15%. At a time when gate receipts took up a considerably greater proportion of bigger clubs’ revenues than they do now, this was a significant amount of lost money. Bristol City had to start their first season back in the Second Division with a bang, but by the end of September they were out of the League Cup and, after drawing their first three league matches of the season. After thirteen years in charge of the club, Alan Dicks left Bristol City at the start of October 1980.

On paper, Bristol City’s choice to replace Dicks looked like something of a coup. Bob Houghton had won the Swedish league championship three times in his first four seasons in Sweden with Malmö FF after taking over as the club’s manager in 1974. In 1979, they’d become the first Swedish club to reach a European Cup final, losing narrowly to Nottingham Forest. Houghton had left Sweden for the Greece with Ethnikos Piraeus earlier in 1980, but the opportunity to return to England as the manager of a Football League club eight years after leaving for Sweden because of his perception of a lack of opportunities in this country proved to be too great. He brought with him from Sweden another English coach with a point to prove by the name of Roy Hodgson.

Matters only mildly improved on the pitch, though. They started well enough, with wins against Luton Town and Newcastle United, followed by a draw against Bolton Wanderers. It couldn’t last, though. With consternation starting to grow about the club’s outgoings and attendances collapsing, Bristol City’s biggest problems came in front of goal, where they scored just 29 in their 42 league matches. They were relegated for a second successive season, with just six wins and thirty points. Arguably the only consolation from it all was that they had finished second from bottom in the table, with the only team below them being Bristol Rovers.

That summer brought Houghton and Hodgson an opportunity to rebuild, but one further decision was taken by the club that seemed to seal its fate. Attendances had fallen by 48% with relegation to the Second Division, to less than 10,000. Despite this and depressed revenues from two successive relegations and football’s more general recession, the club splashed out a reckless £160,000 to take Mick Harford from Newcastle United. The young striker had impressed towards the end of the previous decade at Lincoln City, and Newcastle, who themselves had been relegated from the First Division in 1978 and weren’t exactly flush with case, were happy to sell him for almost as much as they’d paid for him.

The club’s AGM, held in October 1981, confirmed what everybody knew had been going on but not talking about. The club’s debt was in excess of half a million pounds, compounded by the fact that they were still losing around £3,000 a week and having to pay First Division wages to players on ten year long contracts. City had signed these players onto these lengthy contracts without believing that successive relegations might follow. Kevin Mabbutt was hastily sold to Crystal Palace for £100,000 plus a player, Terry Boyle, while Clive Whitehead, another player who’d been with the club right the way through its ascent to the First Division and stay there, left for the same amount of money for West Bromwich Albion. These were short term solutions only, though. Crowds had dipped below 5,000, and the club was only being slept anywhere near solvent by money being poured onto the fire of debt by directors of the club.

When City lost 3-1 at home to Wimbledon on the 2nd of January 1982, Bob Houghton resigned, his desire to test his mettle in the Football League in tatters as a result of his decision to join a sinking ship. Hodgson stepped in as manager and managed to get at least a handful of points on the board, and an FA Cup Fourth Round match against the reigning First Division champions Aston Villa brought a little more money in, but when the players returned to Ashton Gate following a 1-1 draw at Newport County at the end of the month, eight of them received a handwritten note from the directors of the club. They wanted a meeting with them all.

Jimmy Mann, Trevor Tainton, Gerry Sweeney, Geoff Merrick, Julian Marshall, David Rogers, Peter Aitken and Chris Garland were the players invited, and the directors of the club had a stark message for them. These weren’t necessarily the players on ten year contracts, but they were the club’s highest earners, and the club couldn’t afford them any more. If the players, who would become known as the “Ashton Gate Eight” didn’t tear up their contracts, the club would definitely fold. The PFA and the FA were brought into negotiations, but the scale of the club’s problems were clear. The debt was estimated at around £850,000, and £500,000 of that was owed to the players. The PFA initially questioned whether the club might be trying to simply evade their contractual responsibilities, but a look at the accounts book confirmed the worst. The club’s position really was that bad.

The matter was made public and there was considerable pressure on the players to agree to the terms. Little attention was given to the fact that most of these players were little more than skills tradesmen and would have to step back out into football’s labour market at a time when a lot of clubs were struggling, financially. Having said that, though, the situation was stark. The eight concerned were owed a total of almost £300,000 on their remaining contracts. They were offered £100,000 to walk away, or face the inevitable situation of receiving nothing when the club was liquidated. The club’s total debt was more than £850,000. It was functionally insolvent. The eight eventually agreed, with the PFA finding all eight new clubs, though only two made a step up a level.

With this immediate crisis averted, work could now turn to how to save Bristol City. Roy Hodgson, suddenly shorn of eight of his best players, had to draft in youth and reserve team players for their next match, a home match against Fulham. The highest crowd of the season, more than 9,000 people (almost double that which had attended Bob Houghton’s last match against Wimbledon at the start of the year) turned out, and Hodgson’s team scrapped its way to a creditable goalless draw against a team that would end the season by getting promoted.

This wasn’t enough on the pitch. City had a brief purple patch in the second half of February, with three wins from four matches against Walsall, Exeter City and Preston North End, but behind scenes the fire sale continuing apace. Mick Harford, who had scored eleven goals in his thirty games for City, was sold to Birmingham City for £100,000 in March, a 40% reduction on what they’d paid for him just eight months earlier. Goalkeeper Jan Möller, who’d played for Malmo under Bob Houghton in the 1979 European Cup final, left for Toronto Blizzard in the NASL.

With the first team squad still atrophying, though, form collapsed. From the start of March Hodgson’s team took just two points from twelve matches, and by the time their form started to recover again it was too late. A 5-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town at the start of May sealed their fate. Two wins and two draws from their final four matches wasn’t enough to keep Bristol City in the Third Division. Just 2,696 people turned out to see their penultimate home match of the season against Millwall. Relegation was confirmed in 23rd place in the Third Division, a third successive one. Roy Hodgson wasn’t there to see it. He’d left at the end of April and was replaced that summer by Terry Cooper, the former Leeds United defender who’d spent the some time at Ashton Gate as a player in the late 1970s before having spells as the player-manager of Bristol Rovers and Doncaster Rovers.

By the end of the 1981/82 season, though, Bristol City had effectively been saved. A new company had been incorporated in June 1980, shortly after relegation from the First Division, as Ovalshelfco Ltd”, and this was renamed as BCFC (1982) Ltd on the 24th of March 1982 and repositioned as a public rather than private limited company. Two directors of the club, Deryn Coller and Ken Sage, oversaw the club through this rocky period, putting in money when needed, calling off a share issue when it became clear that the Bristol Greyhound Stadium group, who owned Rovers’ Eastville home and were looking to redevelop it, were interested in buying the stadium and either keeping City there as tenants or, worse, merging them with Rovers to play there. Rovers eventually left Eastville in 1986, playing ten years at Bath City’s Twerton Park before returning to the city to play at the Memorial Ground.

Many City supporters credit Coller and Sage with having been the true saviours of Bristol City that spring, and there is no question that they received nothing like the attention that the Ashton Gate Eight did over ripping up their contracts with the club. But the actions of the eight did make a significant difference to Bristol City’s prognosis at the time. By reducing the club’s financial liabilities they made it possible to reach agreement with other creditors which ensured that the club could continue. Most agreed to between 10 and 20p in the pound, including a lot of local businesses. None of this is intended to diminish the importance of the role played by the Ashton Gate Eight, but a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices to keep Bristol City alive.

By the start of the 1982/83 season, a little colour had returned to Bristol City cheeks. 4,800 turned out for their first ever match as a Fourth Division club, a 2-1 win against Hull City, but another dismal run of form followed this decent enough start. Bristol City won only two further matches in all competitions before Christmas, including a 7-1 loss at Northampton in September. On the 28th of December 1982, though, they won 3-1 at Hereford United, and from there form picked up, particularly from March, when they went on a nine match unbeaten run to a respectable fourteenth place in the final Division Four table.

The following season they finished in fourth place in the Fourth Division, and were promoted. It would take the club until 1990 to get back to the Second Division, and by then they’d achieved a first ever trip to Wembley in 1986, still under Terry Cooper, to beat Bolton Wanderers by three goals to nil to win the third Associate Members Cup in front of a crowd of 54,502 people at Wembley. Since 1990, they’ve spent seventeen years in the second tier and thirteen and the third. They still haven’t been to the basement since 1984, and they haven’t been to the top flight since 1980. That they should still be here at all is a result of the hard work of all who made sacrifices to ensure that the club might flourish again.