When the Football Pink asked for someone to review â€˜71/â€™72 by Daniel Abrahams â€“ in which he argues that the 1971/72 football season is the greatest of all-time â€“ I just had to put my hand up, for it was during this campaign that my club â€“ Stoke City â€“ won its one and only major honour, and weâ€™re fast approaching the fiftieth anniversary.
Setting aside the fact that it was a few years before my time, I know all about those glory years from my dad. For him, the early 1970s were the best of times when it comes to football, and I know he wouldâ€™ve greatly enjoyed Danielâ€™s book. And I did too; it was an enthralling read.
So what made the 1971/72 season the greatest? The rise of Total Football and Catenaccio? The emergence of the superstar manager? The English mavericks that lit up the game? It was all of this and more.
Prior to the start of the campaign, the big news came out of Old Trafford. Matt Busby had taken charge once again for the second half of the previous season, and after United finished eighth for a second successive season, they approached Celticâ€™s Jock Stein with a view to reviving the clubâ€™s fortunes. However, Stein rejected Unitedâ€™s advances and he instead chose to remain in Glasgow where he built a second great Celtic team. United instead turned to Leicester Cityâ€™s Frank Oâ€™Farrell, who was hand-picked by Busby.
Oâ€™Farrell wasnâ€™t to last long at Old Trafford and was perhaps a bit of a comedown following the approach to Jock Stein who was a managerial superstar. And â€˜71/â€™72 saw the rise of the manager as a star in their own right, with the likes of Bill Shankly, Malcolm Allison, Don Revie, and Brian Clough all becoming household names.
The biggest of those was arguably Brian Clough, who lifted his first major trophy when he led unfancied Derby County to the First Division title in what was the closest championship race in history, with just one point separating the top four, and algebra required to work out the possible permutations going into the final fixtures. Manchester City went top on 22 April when they beat Cloughâ€™s Derby in their final game of the season, but they couldnâ€™t finish top as both Derby and Liverpool had games in hand, had still to play each other, while both had a better goal average.
Derby beat Liverpool to go above Manchester City, but Liverpool and Leeds United both still had a game to play, and so could still leapfrog Cloughâ€™s side. But both blew it. â€˜71/â€™72 marked the centenary of the FA Cup, and Don Revieâ€™s Leeds United lifted the trophy â€“ for the first time in their history â€“ beating Arsenal 1-0 in the Wembley final. If they had avoided defeat against Wolves in their final league game of the season, Leeds wouldâ€™ve clinched the title and the Double. They lost 2-1. And if Liverpool had managed a win over Arsenal, they wouldâ€™ve been champions. Instead, their season ended with a goalless draw meaning that Derby won the title by a single point.
Daniel describes â€˜71/â€™72 as the season â€œthe League Cup came of ageâ€, and Iâ€™m not going to argue with him on that point, given that Stoke City brought the trophy back to the Potteries after a marathon run to the Wembley final. There, they beat Chelsea 2-1 thanks to goals from Terry Conroy and George Eastham. The Potters played an incredible twelve games on their way to lifting their first major trophy, including marathon ties with Manchester United in the Fourth Round who they beat in a second replay, and West Ham United in what is arguably the League Cupâ€™s greatest ever tie.
The first leg was at the Victoria Ground which the Hammers won 2-1, seemingly ending Stokeâ€™s interest in the competition. However, Stoke won the second leg at the Boleyn Ground thanks to a John Ritchie goal and late heroics from Gordon Banks. Ritchie scored with 20-minutes remaining to level the score on aggregate, but with just 3-minutes remaining, West Ham were awarded a dubious penalty leaving Banks furious. His England teammate Geoff Hurst took the spot-kick, striking a thunderous shot goalward. But Banks pulled off a remarkable save, one described by the great man himself as the best of his career.
The â€˜71/â€™72 season saw the inaugural UEFA Cup, the competition replacing the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the football calendar, as European footballâ€™s profile continued to rise. And the competitionâ€™s first final saw the first all-English European final when Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves faced off in a two-legged affair in May 1972. The first leg was at Molineux, and Spurs triumphed 2-1 thanks to two goals from Martin Chivers; the second finished in a 1-1 draw, meaning a 3-2 aggregate victory and a second European trophy for the men from White Hart Lane.
It was also a playersâ€™ season. It was the start of the Mavericks Era, with players such as Tony Currie and Alan Hudson starting to make names for themselves, though the biggest mavericks story came from Second Division Luton Town.
Graham French began his career with hometown club Shrewsbury Town, but despite a growing reputation as a precocious talent â€“ he became an England youth international, and Chelsea showed an interest in taking him to Stamford Bridge â€“ he eventually drifted into non-league football with Wellington Town. Luton Town gave him another chance in 1965, and despite often turning up for games with massive hangovers due to his Friday night antics, he delivered the goods on the pitch, developing a reputation as one of the best wingers outside the top-flight while helping the Hatters to two promotions, while scoring what is regarded as the clubâ€™s greatest ever goal.
French was to miss Lutonâ€™s entire â€˜71/â€™72 campaign. Not because of injury. But because he was in the middle of a 3-year jail sentence following a bizarre shooting incident in a nightclub during the summer of 1970. French was sentenced in December 1970 with the Hatters second in the Second Division, pushing for promotion. In Frenchâ€™s absence, their promotion bid faltered.
On his release from prison, Luton gave French a second chance, but he wasnâ€™t the same player, and he eventually joined Reading on loan. However, French failed to settle at Elm Park, and a month after French left, Reading replaced him with another hellraiser â€“ Robin Friday. As Abrahams puts it, â€œit was like The Who replacing Keith Moon with Ozzy Osborneâ€.
â€˜71/â€™72 is one of the best footballing books Iâ€™ve read in a while and is very hard to put down. Itâ€™s a detailed and comprehensive effort, but itâ€™s not simply a monologue-style commentary of the season; itâ€™s a lively and entertaining account of an incredible campaign that has genuine depth.
Brian Clough won his first major honour during the 1971/72 season, and as the original Special One might have said, â€œI wouldnâ€™t say the 71/72 season was the greatest of all-time, but itâ€™s in the top oneâ€.