You can’t forget your first promotion can you? The games stick in your memory, important landmarks in a formative personal history.
Mine came in 1994/95 and while my story is that of a team that went up through the playoffs, the Division 2 season as a whole was as memorable as any I can remember. The title race was fabulous, the players were memorable and the teams involved were as classic as one can imagine.
It was perfect.
As you will be aware, no story has a beginning or an end. You have to start somewhere in the middle, and each football season really takes shape as the previous one concludes. So it was in the summer of 1994.
While all eyes in our corner of West Yorkshire were on the new Kirklees Stadium, the teams who were due to visit it provided no little interest either.
Promoted to Division 1 were Reading and Port Vale, while Burnley followed them up after a playoff victory against Stockport County. In their place came Birmingham City, Oxford United and, on the second leg of their perennial ‘yo’, Peterborough Utd.
Gone down to the basement were Fulham, Exeter City, Hartlepool Utd and Barnet, who had inflicted a Leeds road humiliation on Town the season before.
In their place came four much more exotic replacements. Champions Shrewsbury Town, with their beauty spot of a ground arrived. They were pursued by Chester City and Crewe Alexandra, two clubs who seemed at least pleasant to visit.
Lastly, through the playoffs, arrived Martin O’Neill’s Wycombe Wanderers. They were an unknown quantity, but they were not to remain so.
Birmingham City were big news in that division. They had signed Steve Claridge for £350,000 from Cambridge Utd, and Jose Dominguez and Louie Donowa were a fabulous and rapid creative force. Off the field, David Sullivan had bought the club the year before and installed Karren Brady as CEO.
Brady was still cutting her teeth in the world of business, and it was beyond unusual for a woman to be installed at that level. Whether her youth counted against her or not, her tenure at St Andrew’s was a memorable one.
Birmingham paid £500,000 to Southend Utd for Jonathan Hunt before the season and stumped up more cash as the campaign went on.
Meanwhile, down the M42, Oxford Utd wanted to bounce straight back as well. They were expected to be joined in the mix by a host of familiar faces. Neil Warnock’s Huddersfield Town had shown signs of improvement, and strengthened over the summer as well.
There was to be restructuring of the league at the end of that campaign, with the Premier League dropping from 22 to 20 teams, meaning the extra 2 had to be absorbed into Division 3. That meant just two promotion places were up for grabs in Division 2, and five relegation spots loomed. It was always going to be eventful.
August – The Early Pace-Setters
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Birmingham didn’t start firing on all cylinders. Barry Fry’s Blues won just two of their first four matches, losing to both Leyton Orient and Wycombe Wanderers. Martin O’Neill’s side kept rolling on their success from the previous campaign. After their first four games ever at Division Two level, they sat third with three wins and a draw, goalkeeper Paul Hyde still unbeaten by that stage.
Above the Chairboys were Oxford Utd and Crewe Alexandra, both with 100% records. Crewe were led by Dario Gradi as ever, and represented perhaps their most potent squad ever. The Gresty Road faithful could feast on a midfield of Robbie Savage, Neil Lennon and Danny Murphy, with Ashley Ward and Dele Adebola up front. When Ward moved on to Norwich later in the season, Mark Rivers stepped into the breach with aplomb.
Their defenders did not go on to scale such heights, but when you can go to Peterborough and come away with a 5-1 victory, it doesn’t matter so much. They were joined at the summit by Denis Smith’s Oxford, who took to Division 2 like ducks to water. Starting the season with a 4-0 win over Hull might usually put out a statement, but they still ended the day behind Brentford 5-1 victors at Plymouth.
By the time Bradford City repeated that scoreline, at Home Park, it was already shaping up to be a spectacular season full of peculiar results; and a bad season for the Pilgrims. Despite conceding thirteen goals in just four games by the end of August, Plymouth were still not bottom of the table.
That dishonour went to cash-strapped AFC Bournemouth, with just one goal to their name in four matches, who were pointless alongside Chester City. Worse, for both, was to come.
September – The Goals Cometh
While Huddersfield might not have been pre-season favourites, their games in September caught the eye. Neil Warnock’s side month began with a pulsating 3-3 draw with Oxford Utd. On their first visit to the new Kirklees Stadium, the Yellows raced into a two goal lead, only to be pegged back by Andy Booth and a scorching Phil Starbuck penalty, before combative midfielder Darren Bullock put the hosts ahead. Unwilling to give up their unbeaten record, Oxford pulled level late on.
Booth was just getting started. He added another three goals in a demolition of Plymouth at Home Park, two more in a home win over Stockport, and ensured that all three points came back from Valley Parade after another fabulous 4-3 victory over Bradford City.
One of those quirks that demonstrates how each season seems to span different eras of the game has teamsheets that show the Bantams scorers that day included both Paul Jewell and Chris Kamara.
Huddersfield hitman Booth was quickly becoming one of the most feared strikers in the division, though his main competition for the golden boot had an uncharacteristically quiet September.
With five goals in five games going into the month, Wrexham’s Gary Bennett looked as dangerous as anyone. He failed to find the net once as Brian Flynn’s side endured a difficult month, having to wait until a win at Cambridge in early October to get rolling again.
An aberration in a spectacular year, Bennett finished the campaign with 29 league goals, just one ahead of Booth. Behind those two sat Brentford’s Nick Forster and Robert Taylor, combining for 48 strikes between them. Both found the net a 2-0 win over Crewe to close out the month, a result that left both sides outside the playoff places in a league table that was beginning to take shape.
That shape was as apparent at the foot as much as the summit. Chester City visited Bournemouth’s Dean Court on 17th September with both sides locked pointlessly in rock bottom spot after seven matches.
Perhaps a draw was inevitable, Chris Leadbitter saving the Welsh side’s blushes in what was to become a desperate campaign. Bournemouth, facing bankruptcy, put together a little bit of a run, beating fellow strugglers Cardiff City to close out the month and ensure they weren’t cut adrift.
October – The Unlikely Lads
One of the benefits of Division 2 sides not generally being wealthy is that heroes could spring from the most unexpected places.
October was a vintage month for a couple of such cult stars, the most noticeable being Stockport County’s Kevin Francis. With his side entering October in fourth spot, the giant striker entered something of a purple patch.
He found the net in a 4-2 win at Bootham Crescent against York and at home in a surprising 4-2 reverse by Plymouth. Crucially, he was the only scorer in a couple of priceless victories over Leyton Orient and Rotherham, as Danny Bergara’s side climbed to second by the end of the month, behind only Huddersfield Town.
Also on the rise in October were Blackpool, the Tangerines settling into a groove under Sam Allardyce. Cutting his English managerial teeth, the Seasiders kept pace for the majority of the season, only to fall away badly at the death.
This month was typical Allardyce; they scored twice in each game they won, Tony Ellis and Andy Watson scoring in three of those, and James Quinn replacing the latter in the other. The Bloomfield Road faithful was perhaps unaware at this point of the danger behind the scenes at the club.
While Owen Oyston was splashing the cash on a team to succeed; Allardyce being able to count on £245,000 defender Andy Morrison as well as a £165,000 striker in Ellis. This month was his best of the campaign, but he remains well thought of at Bloomfield Road.
Money eventually caught up with Oyston, but this season represented the formulation of a dream that was to play out more fully in the next campaign. October was the high water mark for this Allardyce outfit.
Chester and Bournemouth, despite their slight upturns, ended October nine and 11 points away from safety respectively. Heading into November, things looked bleak.
November – No Messing About
There is a historical trend in the third tier that eventually a tranche of clubs will pull away at the top of the table. Sometimes it is just three, but more often five or six begin to put daylight between themselves and the rest of the division. This tends to happen over the winter months as the games are regular enough that bigger, more quality squads, find their strength tends to tell.
So it was in November 1994. Barry Fry’s Birmingham, Neil Warnock’s Huddersfield and Denis Smith’s Oxford all cemented their good starts to the season with an impressive period.
Blues, for whom the investment of the summer was beginning to pay off, went through the month unbeaten and without conceding a goal. Birmingham, despite their improvement, were still looking to part with David Sullivan’s money.
Kevin Francis, still banging them in at Edgeley Park, was firmly on their radar. He moved to St Andrew’s in January for £800,000, though failed to find the net – as did his team – for the whole of November.
Further East, the Terriers continued in their erratic vein, combining their routine home victories over Brentford and Wrexham with a walloping at York. Oxford Utd, meanwhile, interspersed their four victories with an improbable FA Cup defeat at Marlow.
The Diadora League side ran out 2-0 victors courtesy of two John Caesar goals, which gave the headline writers a nice treat. The FA Cup was not a particularly happy hunting ground for Division 2 sides this season. Only Swansea City and Wrexham made it to the fourth round, with Kingstonian’s defeat of Brighton and Enfield’s elimination of Cardiff both notable giant killings.
December – The Turning of the Blue
Truly finding their groove by now, Barry Fry’s side issued some statement performances over the festive period. A 4-0 victory over Chester might not have been a huge surprise but indicated that his side were ready to start steam-rollering opposition.
It was an afternoon to remember for Liam Daish in particular. Not only did he score with a bullet header, but after Birmingham’s fourth goal he picked up a toy trumpet that had found its way on to the pitch in the celebrations and mimed playing it to the supporters. He was booked.
That warning was brought to scintillating effect on the last day of 1994, when Blackpool visited St Andrew’s and were given a 7-1 hiding. The Seasiders took an early lead, but found themselves overrun by the end.
Birmingham’s dominance that afternoon can best be appreciated by the fact that Steve Claridge scored a wonder-strike from outside the box, and two second half goals were assisted by back-heels. With Oxford losing at Brentford on the same afternoon, that meant that 1995 would begin with Blues top of the pile.
With their shooting boots now in fully working order, it is also worth noting that at this stage the league leaders had conceded just 14 times in the first 23 games of the campaign. Ian Bennett had provided a formidable base to work from.
It was quite a contrast to the way that halfway through the campaign, and with just two victories to their name, Bournemouth sat bottom of the table on just 11 points. With five teams set to be relegated, that made their predicament worse as they not only had to pull 11 points back, but to leapfrog a whole host of clubs that had gathered above them around the trap door.
January – West and East
Just as Birmingham put their foot down in December, so Brentford used the winter period to rev up their title aspirations. A couple of hefty wins before the turn of the year (including a 7-0 trouncing of Plymouth) were cemented by a good run in early 1995.
Despite the Bees’ small squad, they managed to maintain positive form at a time when a lot of teams around them were dropping points. Furthermore, when players went down to injury, loanees came in. Dennis Bailey had a positive effect in January his three goals in six games came at just the right time.
Two of those came in a 6-0 win over Cambridge Utd at Griffin Park that propelled David Webb’s side to the top of the table. West London was enjoying its moment in the sun while, across the capital, East London’s Division 2 residents were struggling.
January hit Leyton Orient hard. Following news late in 1994 that Tony Wood was willing to sell the club for just £5, Barry Hearn had not yet taken over at Brisbane Road. As such, with attendances dwindling and a weak squad, things looked bleak.
Three games in January brought Orient just one point. The low point was a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Wrexham, the only bright spot came in that 0-0 draw with Rotherham. They did manage to keep their Auto Windscreens Shields Trophy campaign on track with victories over Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury Town, but they were crumbs of comfort. Birmingham awaited in the two-legged semi-final.
The top six were beginning to look secure by the end of the month, though with only one automatic promotion spot available, it was inevitable that something had to give. Six into five won’t go, and there were plenty of teams ready to pounce. Bristol Rovers looked perhaps the best of these, with games in hand.
February – City Ennui
With the battle at the top beginning to sort itself out, and some woeful teams falling away at the bottom, mid-table obscurity was the fate of a number of teams by this point. Swansea City, Bradford City and York City all sat between 11th and 14th and were very unlikely to trouble either end of the table.
Obscurity is never quite the whole story. All of those sides contributed to the season in their own way as it progressed. York inflicted a third defeat of the season on Birmingham, although February saw Blues return the favour with a 4-2 win at St Andrew’s.
Swansea actually won at St Andrew’s, but their cup run was more memorable. After dispatching non-league opposition in the first two rounds, Frank Burrow’s side were rewarded with a home tie against eventual Division 1 champions Middlesbrough.
After a draw at the Vetch, the Swans pooped the party of the last ever cup match played at Ayresome Park. In the end it took a Paul Kitson hat trick at St James’ Park to bring an end to their adventure in the Fourth Round.
Bradford were just not quite the finished article. They were able to run the best teams close but didn’t quite have the ability to finish them off. Having already lost 4-3 at home to Huddersfield earlier in the campaign, February saw them repeat the same scoreline at Griffin Park. The Bantams also managed to avoid defeat against Birmingham in either encounter, perhaps pointing the way to their success the next campaign.
March – Having a Gas
There is always one team, so the adage goes, that comes from nowhere to challenge for the playoffs. In the instance of 1994/95, that team was Bristol Rovers. Defeat at Edgeley Park, Stockport, in early March was one of only two defeats the Pirates suffered in their last 17 games of the season.
Marcus Stewart’s emergence as a credible goal threat was one of the big catalysts for this improvement. Although a City fan as a boy, Stewart had been on the books with Rovers since 1991. This season was very definitely his breakout year, and by March, he was already being talked about as a genuine star for the future.
Aided in attack by Paul Miller and Gareth Taylor, Rovers were gathering clear momentum at just the right time. Climbing up into the top five put them clearly in the playoff picture and, when a team is in form like that, teams are always scared to face them.
Another side who were beginning to frighten those around them were Bournemouth. After entering 1995 with just two wins to their name, the Cherries’ form had bounced back in spectacular fashion. The second half of the campaign saw them beat Birmingham, Oxford, Bristol Rovers and Brentford, amongst plenty of others.
What had seemed like an impossible mission looked almost as if it was likely to happen. With Mel Machin masterminding from the sidelines, having replaced outgoing Tony Pulis after a dismal start to the campaign, Bournemouth picked up momentum.
As the ‘Great Escape’ progressed from possibility to probability, the fans at Dean Court got behind their team of journeymen and unrecognised pros. Steve Jones and Scott Mean don’t have names that set football fans alight outside of the South Coast, and this season and this run was the reason why.
Safety was not sealed by the end of March, but the Cherries were looking sweeter.
April – The Power and the Glory.
April, as TS Eliot noted, is the cruellest month. This counts in football as well as the Wasteland. For in April dreams are shattered while none are completed. Hopes are dashed and what might be becomes what is not. For me, for Huddersfield Town, April was the month that any hopes of our being champions died.
Points dropped in four games without a win put paid to our chances, though perhaps steeled us for the playoffs ahead. By contrast, Brentford and Birmingham were slugging it out until the last day, though the definitive blow was struck by Blues when the sides met in the penultimate match of April. They won 2-0 at St Andrew’s and the Bees were knocked off the top of the table. They would not return.
The week before, Brentford had beaten Cardiff at Griffin Park to consign the Bluebirds to the bottom tier. There they would join Leyton Orient and Chester, whose seasons had ebbed away like winter frost. When the Spring came, it was too late for either to bloom.
Meanwhile, Bristol Rovers had all but assured themselves of a playoff spot leaving just one up for grabs; early season pace setters Wycombe, Oxford and Crewe were set to fight out for that last spot. In the end, the Railwaymen found the pace. Seven wins in their last nine games were enough to lift Dario Gradi’s side from seventh as high as third, and render the other two contenders worthless.
May – The Dust Settles
At the top, initial business was settled easily. Birmingham won their last game of the season, a match that looked at one stage to be a title decider at Huddersfield, and went up as champions. For Karren Brady and David Sullivan, the grand plan had come off at the first time of asking.
For the Terriers, Brentford, Crewe and Bristol Rovers, the playoffs lay in wait.
Meanwhile, at the foot of the table, Bournemouth secured their safety with a victory in their last game of the season in the midweek before the remaining fixtures were completed. Below them, Cambridge and Plymouth joined the doomed, the latter having conceded 82 goals. Their misery was finally over, although Neil Warnock joined them the day after Huddersfield’s season ended.
That departure came at Wembley. Having seen off Brentford in a penalty shootout after two 1-1 draws, the Terriers faced Bristol Rovers in the final. Rovers had also drawn twice with Crewe, progressing on away goals only after both had scored in extra time at Gresty Road.
The Terriers took the advantage at what is supposed to be the best time to score, on the stroke of half time. Andy Booth scored that one, only for Marcus Stewart to prod home an equaliser before the break. Stewart tormented Town throughout the second period, but was unable to find a winner.
That came from a cross from Huddersfield substitute Iain Dunn, a header down from Booth and a diving effort from Chris Billy. Neil Warnock had yet another promotion to his name, and Huddersfield joined Birmingham in Division 1, waiting a season before adding Stewart to their ranks. Rovers, meanwhile, have never finished so high again; all their promise that year eventually coming to nothing.