A running theme in our new series is the number of clubs who hit upon hard times shortly after delivering European success to their fans. Firstly, we looked at the case of Manchester United in which the Old Trafford club somehow managed to get itself relegated a mere six years after finally attaining the Holy Grail of winning the European Cup; then we considered the case of Aston Villa who managed to repeat this awesome feat and in doing so cut a year off the time span with a 1987 relegation following the 1982 ‘Big Ears’ success.
We then had a look at Chelsea who managed to get relegated just four years after winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971, and now it is the turn of Chelsea’s neighbours, Tottenham Hotspur, to come under the spotlight.
In 1972, Tottenham Hotspur were still managed by the legendary Bill Nicholson, who had led the club to the League and FA Cup ‘Double’ in 1961. Further trophies had followed in the decade in the guise of two more FA Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup,
Into the 1970s, and Nicholson built a new team and in doing so continued to have success in the cups. In 1971 the League Cup was added and through this success, qualification for the 1971-72 UEFA Cup was secured. In those days, of course, the UEFA Cup was a straight knock-out competition played over two legs and the winners would have to battle through six rounds in total.
After brushing aside the Icelandic side, Keflavik, 15-1 on aggregate in the first round, Tottenham then found progress a lot harder going with tight matches against Nantes and Rapid Bucharest in the next two rounds. Scraping through each round by one aggregate goal, Spurs then overcame UT Arad of Romania to set up a semi-final clash with AC Milan.
A nervy but glorious 2-1 home victory in the first leg gave Spurs something to defend away in Italy and a 1-1 draw was sufficient to set up an all-England clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final.
Playing the first leg at Molineux, Spurs emerged victorious with a 2-1 scoreline and when the return leg at White Hart Lane resulted in a 1-1 draw, Tottenham’s second European trophy was secured.
Just five years later, however, Tottenham were in the Second Division.
How was this state of affairs allowed to come about? The answer can perhaps be gleamed from a closer look at some of the events happening in the background at White Hart Lane at the time.
As well as winning the UEFA CUP in 1972, Spurs also finished a healthy-looking sixth in the First Division and were to enjoy another successful season in 1972-73 when the League Cup was once again won and the UEFA Cup semi-finals reached again. In 1973-74, there was a slip down the table to 11th spot but the UEFA Cup Final was once again reached. A 4-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of Feyenoord was disappointing but showed no sign of the malaise about to engulf the club.
Bill Nicholson had by now been in managerial charge of the club for sixteen years and nobody would seriously dispute the matter had he laid claim to being the most successful manager in the club’s history, yet in that summer he seriously considered stepping down as manager. The UEFA Cup Final defeat had been a bitter blow but what had made the matter much worse, according to Nicholson, was the rampant hooliganism displayed by significant numbers of Tottenham supporters in Holland. He had become disillusioned with the modern game and when Spurs got off to a bad start in the 1974-75 season, he had had enough and decided to resign.
It was said that at the time Nicholson had wanted the right to choose or at least groom his eventual successor, and had mooted the idea of a Danny Blanchflower and Johnny Giles managerial team to the board. The board did not agree and were less than happy that Nicholson had approached both men in advance, and so Nicholson left the club under a cloud. The Tottenham board then churlishly refused Nicholson a testimonial until many years later.
When the Tottenham board did finally get round to making an appointment, it mystified and angered supporters in equal measures. Terry Neill was better known for his Arsenal connections, having been a player there for 11 years, before leaving to take over as player-manager of Hull City. To be fair to him, he had been reasonably successful at Hull, but it’s fair to say that he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the White Hart Lane faithful.
The 1974-75 season was a pretty disastrous one which culminated in Spurs finishing just one spot and one point clear of the relegation places. Somehow, Neill kept his job and the following season saw a considerable improvement and a ninth-place finish, but in the summer Neill resigned to move into the manager’s chair at Highbury vacated by the retiring Bertie Mee. Thus Neill became known as the man who succeeded both of the first two ‘Double’ winning managers of the twentieth century.
Stepping up as manager was First Team Coach, Kieth Burkinshaw, who would go onto become the club’s second most successful manager ever in terms of trophies. Before he acquired such heights, however, he had to suffer the indignity of relegation in his first season in charge.
On paper there should have been no problems as the squad Burkinshaw inherited was in no way short of quality. In goal, Pat Jennings, despite being in his thirties, was still at the very top of his game, and with other talented players such as Don McAllister, Steve Perryman, Glenn Hoddle, and England’s Peter Taylor, the immediate future dd not look particularly alarming.
Yet the season just seemed to lurch from one crisis to another and Tottenham were unable to get any run of form going. The season started poorly with just one point from the opening three games, but in the fourth match of the season a 2-0 half-time deficit at Old Trafford was turned into an unlikely 3-2 victory and when Leeds United were defeated in the next match, it looked like a decent season could be on the cards.
However, that is when the wheels started to fall off and only four points were taken from the next ten games. Amid this poor run of form, Tottenham travelled to Derby who had also started the season badly. A lively first half saw Tottenham still in the game at 3-2 down, but the second half was a different story as the home side ran in five further goals without reply.
This humiliating defeat was the nadir of Pat Jennings’ Tottenham career and although he was to stay until the end of the season, the board refused to offer him a new contract and so he made the short journey across North London to arch-rivals Arsenal the following summer.
As the year of 1976 came to a close, Tottenham were in the bottom three and firmly entrenched in a relegation fight for the second time in three seasons. Unlike the 1974-75 season, though, there was to be no reprieve this time out. As winter turned to spring, so Tottenham’s form remained at best erratic and worst downright poor.
There were the occasional spurts of form, as when both title-chasing Ipswich Town and Liverpool were defeated at White Hart Lane, but in the main Tottenham never really looked like pulling clear of the pack and it was to nobody’s real surprise when they were relegated at the end of the season.
Supporters were shocked and dismayed and yet still defiant. An end-of-season pitch invasion once relegation had been confirmed was one of support rather than anger and perhaps it was this backing that persuaded the Tottenham board to stand by Burkinshaw and back him for the Second Division campaign that was to follow.
If Spurs thought they would sweep through the Second Division, they soon had to think again as they found it all a whole lot harder than they had expected. However, a promotion challenge was launched and maintained throughout the season, and come the culmination of the 1977-78 campaign Spurs had finished third on goal difference above Brighton and Hove Albion.
Determined to never sink to such depths again, the Tottenham board backed Burkinshaw in the transfer market and he famously signed Argentine internationals, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa, in the summer of 1978 and Tottenham steadily became a force to be reckoned with in the English game once again.
Over the next six seasons, Burkinshaw secured two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup for the White Hart Lane side before leaving after a dispute with the board in 1984. Post-Burkinshaw, Tottenham would briefly challenge for the league title under successors Peter Shreeves and David Pleat, and add a further FA Cup success under the leadership of Terry Venables.
In 1992 with the club in serious financial trouble, another relegation battle loomed but a late-season run of form finally saw the side steer clear of the drop zone.
Since these long-forgotten days, Spurs have often flattered to deceive and have developed a reputation for being flaky, or in common parlance, ‘Spursy’. Despite their current and ongoing woes, however, things could be much worse.
Just ask those supporters who remember the bleak days of the mid-seventies.