Match of the Past: Manchester City vs Luton Town, 14th May 1983
It was one of the defining images of the English football in the early 1980s. David Pleat, in a beige suit and brown brogues, half-running and half-dancing across the Maine Road pitch on the last day of the 1982/83 season after his Luton Town team secured First Division survival at the expense of Manchester City has stuck with us, just as the MOTD director and cameraman stayed with Pleat as he gambolled across the turf.
The end of the 1982/83 Football League season was a curious one. Liverpool had secured the league title two weeks earlier despite losing at Tottenham Hotspur, and excitement over who would get which European places come the end of the season was nothing like what it is today. What, then, for the broadcasters? ITV had chosen to go with the battle to get into the First Division, with many of their regional shows focusing on the match between Derby County and Fulham.
On the BBC, though, all eyes were on the battle to avoid relegation from the First Division. Manchester City had been comfortable looking in mid-table in the middle of January, when they beat Norwich City by four goals to one at Maine Road. They won just three more matches over their final eighteen league matches, sliding into serious difficulties without anybody even seeming to notice.
On the penultimate Saturday of the season, they picked up the last of these three wins. A 1-0 victory at The Goldstone Ground relegated their hosts Brighton & Hove Albion, and kept matters in their own hands, going into the last day of the season. Luton Town, meanwhile, had been scrapping around at the bottom of the table all season, and when they were beaten 5-2 by Watford at the start of April, it looked as though relegation back to the Second Division after just one season was something of an inevitability.
However, Luton then went on a run of six games without defeat, which looked as though it might enough to keep them safe, before losing twice as Manchester City picked up their win. It just so happened that, on the last day of the season, Manchester City were at home against Luton. A point would keep City up, defeat would relegate them into the Second Division for the first time since 1966. It was, therefore, a tense afternoon at Maine Road.
So the following afternoon, Jimmy and Bob are on the case, but what follows is a something of an exercise in false memories. I’d bet that just about anybody who watched this at the time would recall this match being the lead match, but it wasn’t. Somewhat surprisingly, Match Of The Day leads with the match between Southampton and Birmingham City, with Birmingham needing to avoid a four goal defeat in order to to assure their status for the following season.
In effect, this match is used as a device to push the plot forward. Birmingham win by a goal to nil, removing even any mathematical possibility that they might be relegated. Manchester City vs Luton Town is now set up as a straight shoot-out. As even Jimmy Hill admits afterwards, “While all that was taking place, it was apparent that the real drama of the day was at Maine Road, Manchester.” What followed was one of the most dramatic matches in the entire history of Match Of The Day.