The year is 1981 and it’s the latest in our look-back series.
Forty years on and memories and recollections of this particular calendar year remain not particularly endearing or wholesome on either a footballing or societal emphasis.
It was a bleak twelve months and a period in which the very future of the game, seemingly together with basic fabrics of society and community were at threat.
Britain in 1981 was a grim place. Post-war austerity was long a thing of the past and unemployment and disenfranchisement were on the rise, giving scope to a desolate wasteland of inner-city riots, crime, and, in some cases, a feeling of entire abandonment of total communities.
The 1970s had cast a long shadow over the nation’s economy and Thatcher’s government, elected in 1979, were now – depending on your political viewpoint – either hell-bent on making matters worse, or else implementing a number of medium-range ‘tough-love’ policies designed to undo the folly of previous administrations.
Either way, January 1981 was welcomed in with mute appreciation.
Football-wise, matters bore little difference or improvement. Although English sides in the form of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had won the four previous European Cups, the domestic game was seen to be in the doldrums with defensive football and falling gates the norm throughout the country.
Matters came to a head with a decision being taken to introduce three points for a win in time for the 1981-82 season in an effort to open up matches and sides a bit more.
Before all that was to come, however, the 1980-81 season was in full swing and January 1st saw Liverpool in their common position, leading the table from the chasing pack that included fancied outsiders, Aston Villa and Ipswich Town, managed by Ron Saunders and Sir Bobby Robson, respectively.
Struggling at the bottom of the table at the dawn of the new year were Crystal Palace, Norwich, Sunderland, Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The decline of Crystal Palace, in particular, had been most marked and telling
Billed as the Team of the Eighties after winning promotion in 1979 and briefly leading the First Division table the following season, a bright future had been tipped for The Eagles under their young and innovative manager, a certain Terry Venables. However, the 1980-81 season got off to a poor start and in the autumn of 1980, Venables quit and decamped for Queens Park Rangers.
Aston Villa and Ipswich Town had an early chance to flex their and each other’s muscles when they met in the third round of the FA Cup at Portman Road. A single goal scored by Paul Mariner was enough to secure progress for Town, and mean that even at that stage of the season Villa were free to concentrate on the league. This was to prove significant as the season wore on and injuries began to take their toll.
On the international front, England came into the season on the back of a poor showing in the European Championships of 1980 and by the new year, qualification for the 1982 World Cup was underway. Wins against Norway and Switzerland at Wembley had been countered by a surprise 2-1 defeat in Romania as England attempted to negotiate a group also containing Hungary.
On the same day Ipswich and Villa were squaring off at Portman Road, Liverpool and Everton were both playing at home simultaneously for the last time ever. Arsenal were defeated 2-0 at Goodison Park, while non-league Altrincham put up a good showing at Anfield before being overcome 4-1. A combined attendance of over 80,000 spectators watched both matches.
The fourth round saw 53,000 looking on as Everton won a Merseyside cup clash by a 2-1 scoreline.
As the spring came around, the title race had developed into a two-way battle between the clubs from East Anglia and the Midlands, as Villa and Ipswich broke away from the pack. Liverpool fell into an unlikely slump and although progress was made in the European Cup and the League Cup was secured for the first time, the Anfield men’s title challenge after Christmas was practically non-existent with fifth place being the best they could manage.
As Ipswich chased a treble of League, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, Ron Saunders’ men kept snapping away at their heels in the league. A seemingly pivotal week in April saw Ipswich visit Villa Park twice in four days and emerge with one victory and one loss. The loss came first when Manchester City pulled off an unlikely victory in the semi-final of the FA Cup after extra-time, but the 2-1 league victory over Aston Villa the following midweek looked to have landed the ball firmly in their court as far as the race for the championship went.
Unfortunately for Ipswich, this was when injuries and fatigue began to catch up with them and they went into a tailspin with their form deserting them at the worst possible time of the season.
A run of only two points in the next four games once more opened the door for Villa and they made no mistake, eventually winning the title by a flattering four points. Ipswich did have the consolation of succeeding in Europe, where English sides took two of the three major pots on offer. As well as Ipswich securing the UEFA Cup, Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Real Madrid in Paris ensured the European Cup stayed on these shores for the fifth successive year.
Ossie had a dream, evidently.
His dream was to play at Wembley and in the spring of 1981, he finally achieved his ambition twice in five days as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City met in the FA Cup Final and subsequent replay. The first game was a relatively entertaining 1-1 draw, but the second was a classic decided by Ossie’s Argentine compatriot, Ricky Villa, who scored twice, including the winner, in a 3-2 victory.
At the close of the season, England continued with their efforts to qualify for the World Cup with matches against Switzerland and Hungary both away from home. A pretty disastrous 2-1 defeat against the Swiss was followed a few days later by a surprising but welcome 3-1 victory in Budapest, and England’s progress was back in the balance.
Dropping out of the First Division, to no one’s great surprise, were Crystal Palace, Leicester and Norwich City, while making the return journey were runaway Second Division title-winners, West Ham United, together with Notts County and surprise package, Swansea City who secured their third promotion in four years.
The spring and summer of 1981 was a desperate one in many inner cities. Riots raged in places such as Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side as youths took to the streets to protest against unemployment, racism, brutality and social inequality. The mood on the streets and throughout the country, in general, was dark and there appeared to be very few chinks of light on the horizon.
Some light relief was gained, perhaps, in the Eurovision Song Contest when the UK combo of Bucks Fizz prevailed as winners with a ditty entitled, “Making Your Mind Up”.
I think a few people already had by that stage, though, and that was indeed where the general problems of society lay.
In August 1981, the new season kicked off with three points for a win now in place, and also in situ was a new character between the sticks for Liverpool. Supposedly bored with winning too often, Clemence declared himself in need of a new challenge and so took himself off to FA Cup winners Spurs. In his place, Liverpool signed the legend that was to become Bruce Grobbelaar.
It is fair to say that the transition wasn’t exactly a smooth one, and by autumn both Grrobbelaar and Liverpool were struggling.
England were struggling too, and a rank dire defeat to Norway in September 1981 left them on the brink of elimination from the World Cup for the third successive tournament. By now England had become a laughing stock as a footballing nation as evidenced by the legendary commentary of one Norwegian correspondent who detailed the final whistle in Osle thus:
“We are the best in the world! We are the best in the world! We have beaten England 2-1 in football!! It is completely unbelievable! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana–we have beaten them all. We have beaten them all. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, I have a message for you in the middle of the election campaign. I have a message for you: We have knocked England out of the football World Cup. Maggie Thatcher, as they say in your language in the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden in New York: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”
Anyway, somehow snatching a lifeline from the burning embers of defeat, England were offered a branch when Switzerland won in Romania and so a draw at home against the already qualified Hungary in the final match of the group would be enough to see England snake through. This was finally achieved courtesy of a nervy 1-0 victory.
In the title race, Ipswich once more made the running while Villa were this time nowhere to be seen and Liverpool continued their poor 1981 form. A bad winter weather-wise saw a large number of postponements by the half-way mark of the season. By Christmas, the unlikely leaders of the pack included Southampton, Swansea and Manchester City as well as Bobby Robson’s men.
Away from football and inner-city riots, the problems in Northern Ireland, euphemistically labelled, ‘The Troubles’, continued. The Maze Prison in the province saw a number of deaths of republican prisoners who starved themselves to death in a bid to be treated as political rather than criminal prisoners.
Elsewhere, Bob Marley lost his fight against cancer while President Reagan and Pope John Paul II both survived assassination attempts and shootings. Prince Charles ploughed his troth with Lady Diana Spencer in a lavish ceremony watched by hundreds of millions across the globe and the two of them lived happily ever af…..oh, wait a minute.
Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, was finally caught and after a trial declared him sane, sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum recommendation to serve thirty years.
Bjorn Borg was defeated at Wimbledon for the first time since 1975 when he lost in the final of the Men’s Singles to John McEnroe. The ZX81 computer was launched and was an immediate success. Ronnie Biggs, the “Great Train Robber” who escaped from prison in the 1960s was kidnapped in Brazil with the intention of being returned to the UK to serve out his sentence before being released by order of a Brazilian judge.
In the charts, Roxy Music, Shakin’ Stevens and Adam and the Ants all had their moments in the sun. The Human League and Depeche Mode were breakout new acts, alongside Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Queen joined forces with David Bowie in an epochal collaboration entitled “Under Pressure.”
As Bowie and Mercury’s talents coalesced together never to announce they were ‘watching good friends scream “let me out”’, many in society found themselves singing along, both literally and metaphorically.