The movers move, the shakers shake, the winners rewrite history (New Model Army, High, 2007)

Having a teenage son take me to Loftus Road since 2013 has encouraged me to look again at a few things. One of those things is the 1975-76 football season when Liverpool pipped QPR to the title. For a born and bred Liverpool fan like myself, that season has always been the story of Bob Paisley’s maiden title triumph and his first step on the road to greatness. And, as Bill Shankly once said, ‘second is nothing’. So that’s all that most people remember. 

Perhaps that is why there is no biography of the manager of the second placed team, QPR. Despite being a path breaking football manager, Dave Sexton is only remembered in print for his less successful stint at Manchester United and, even then, he is not the main story. Wayne Barton, author or Que Sera Sera: Manchester United Under Dave Sexton and Big Ron compels him to share the stage of that particular period in football history with a much larger than life figure. 

And what about Sexton’s QPR team? Our collective football memory has space for the likes of Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis. But who talks about the revolutionary attacking full back play of Ian Gillard and Dave Clement? Liverpool weren’t the only team writing football history in the 1975-76 season, you know. 

Having spent the last 7 years following Queens Park Rangers with my son, Charlie, I have come to appreciate these things. It has compelled me to look again at the 1975-76 season. Liverpool might have won the title but that is merely the headline. It is not the story. Dave Sexton and QPR wrote the story of that season with their groundbreaking and captivating football. Liverpool actually learned from them. 

Few outside Loftus Road remember or even know this because the winners tend to write the history. But QPR deserved to win the title in 1976 (so says a Liverpool fan) and could have gone on to greater things as a result (as Liverpool did). This is the story of the 1975-76 season written from a QPR perspective because the story needs to be re-told. QPR’s second place wasn’t nothing – a mere footnote. Dave Sexton and his QPR team are worth remembering as history makers.   

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Summer 1975. 

Shepherd’s Bush, West London. 

The winds of change are stirring. 

Malcolm McLaren is busy creating the Sex Pistols from the core of two of Shepherds Bush finest – Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Meanwhile, a collection of musicians, including Sid Vicious, are using Joe Strummer’s Bush squat to experiment with music. Mick Jones and John Lydon are on their way and the seeds of punk are being sown. It’s a cast of loud and abrasive characters that have got little time for the established order or the English way of doing things. Wordly wise, and culturally astute, they are going to do things their way. Fusing the loud guitars of punk with musical genres such as reggae, The Clash and Lydon’s Public Image Limited will soon unleash a wave of innovation that will change the rules of music forever.

Meanwhile, a few roads away, Dave Sexton is sitting in his Loftus Road office. Quiet and unassuming, but no less revolutionary and nonconformist, he is busy with his own innovative plans to upset football’s established order. QPR have only been back in the First Division for two seasons and are playing only their fourth ever season in the top flight. Sexton is about to make his division novices a force to be reckoned with and he’s going to do it his way. 

Football’s first punk manager

Sexton first walked into the Manager’s Office at Loftus Road in October 1974. He inherited an exciting side from Gordon Jago who had used his four year QPR reign (1971 – 74) to bring Stan Bowles, Don Givens, Dave Thomas, Frank McLintock and Dave Webb to Rangers whilst bringing through the homegrown talents of Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, Mick Leach and Gerry Francis. 

Sexton felt he only needed a couple of extra players to upset English football’s apple cart. One was Don Masson (a player with no previous top flight experience) who he introduced to the ranks in December 1974. He liked Masson because he possessed ‘a magnificent range of passing’ that would be the perfect foil for the dynamic attacking prowess of Gerry Francis. 

It was a signal of philosophical intent. 

Sexton was English football’s first punk manager; a worldly wise student of the game who had little time for the English way of playing or its tactical conventions which, at the time, over-emphasised defensive solidity. 

According to his obituary writer on QPR fan site Loft for Words, the astute Sexton was one of football’s great innovators who did things his own way by creating a cultural fusion of ideas that changed the way the game was played in England. In pursuit of this footballing vision he took “every possible opportunity [to] go and watch matches in Europe returning with new ideas to put into practice”. 

He used the remainder of his inaugural 1974-75 season to slowly introduce and fuse Dutch and Germanic attacking ideas into his very British Rangers squad whose:

“… passing was sharpened, their movement enhanced and awareness of space heightened. New coaching drills and tactics from Sexton’s frequent trips to Europe were frequently added to the teams repertoire as Sexton’s interpretation of “total football” was developed. 

The team finished the 1974-75 season in a respectable mid-table position (11th), having finished the previous 1973-74 season in eighth place. With a couple of unbroken seasons in the top flight now under their belts, Sexton’s QPR were considered to be an exciting side but that’s about all. 

West London calling

When Rangers lined up to play their first game of the 1975-76 season against Liverpool on Saturday 16th August 1975, in front of 27,113 people, few imagined the two teams entering the final game of the season battling it out for the title. 

Except Sexton. 

In summer 1975 he had added the experience of John Hollins to an exciting and fluent team that triumphed in pre-season friendlies over West German reigning champions, Borussia Monchengladbach, 4-1, and Potuguese champions, Benfica, 4-2. He felt Rangers were heading for a special season and believed his team were capable of winning the championship in only their 4th ever season in the top flight. But the revolutionary-yet-modest Sexton would keep those thoughts to himself for a while yet.

Bob Paisley arrived at Loftus Road after a trophyless first season in charge of Liverpool. His solution to his first season disappointment had been radical. Chris Lawler and Alec Lindsay were dropped to make way for Joey Jones and Phil Neal in a new and more dynamic defence. Paisley wanted more from his full backs and felt the youthful Jones and Neal would give him pace up the flanks that would add a more attacking edge to his team. But the system didn’t work on its maiden appearance on Saturday 16th August 1975.  

A key problem was Emlyn Hughes. Hughes assumed he was still playing with the rock solid Smith and Lindsay so took it upon himself to go wandering higher up the pitch, along with Jones and Neal, leaving Phil Thompson exposed at centre back. It wasn’t a wise thing to do when up against the flair of Rangers which, that day, consisted of the accumulated talent of Gerry Francis, Dave Thomas, Don Masson, Stan Bowles and Don Givens. And so it was to prove. 

With 44 minutes on the clock, a ball played out of central defence found Stan Bowles in the centre circle. He flicked it to Gerry Francis who played a 1-2 with Don Givens around the exposed Phil Thompson, leaving Francis clean through on Ray Clemence in the Liverpool goal. Francis duly dispatched the ball into his right hand corner to give Rangers a 1-0 half-time lead. According to the fan site Loft For Words it was a move that was as ruthless as it was beautiful and it perfectly set the scene for the season ahead.” 

For his part, Paisley was more concerned about the defensive errors that led to the goal. Once inside the Liverpool dressing room, he lambasted Emlyn Hughes for leaving his defence exposed to the Rangers attack. “What the fuck? What the fuck were you doing?” he shouted at Hughes. But there was more to come in the second half. 

With 72 minutes gone, Gerry Francis received the ball on the right hand edge of the penalty area and immediately sent a teasing cross into the corridor of uncertainty between Clemence and his back line. Mick Leach took advantage of hesitancy in the Liverpool defence by throwing himself at the ball and heading in Rangers second goal. It was enough to give them a 2-0 opening day win. 

In his autobiography, Stan Bowles provides an insight into the players’ thinking after a performance that The Times described as full of ‘wit and invention’. 

We beat Liverpool 2-0 but the scoreline did not reflect the game – we should have won at least 5-0 …. After the match you could sense that the fans and the players knew that something exciting was happening. It was not just the 2-0 scoreline, but the way we beat a side packed with internationals. We were literally taking in Mickey by the end …. We reckoned if we could beat Liverpool, we could beat anybody.”  

As good as anybody

Although the Rangers dressing room believed they could be heading somewhere special, few people outside W12 took their 2-0 win over Liverpool as a signal of title intent. They were still merely regarded as a good team so weren’t taken seriously. Dave Mackay’s Derby, the reigning champions, were the next to underestimate Sexton’s charges. “He really thought we would be a walk over” Bowles recalls of the run up to the match. It was to prove a fatal mistake.

Despite being without Frank McLintock and Dave Webb, their two best defenders, Rangers  stunned the Baseball Ground crowd by inflicting a 5-1 demolition of the reigning champions thanks to a Stan Bowles hatrick and goals from Dave Clement and the mercurial Dave Thomas. 

Despite taking two massive scalps in the first three games of the season (the other result being a 1-1 draw with Villa), Sexton continued to keep his own counsel. Bowles recalls him being “very low key about the result. He never bragged about our performances. That was how he was …. Privately, with us, he thought we had slaughtered them …. The thing we had to do was to go on and prove that it was no fluke.” 

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Despite 1-0 wins over Manchester United, Leicester City and Newcastle United, five of their eleven draws in the 1975-76 season came in the early season months of August and September; against Aston Villa, Wolves, West Ham, Birmingham and Middlesborough. 

Despite this abundance of draws, QPR nevertheless found themselves on top of the league on goal difference by the end of September. Liverpool languished in eighth place. After losing to Rangers at Loftus Road, the Reds won just four of their first nine matches, leaving them well off the pace.  

Title challengers

Although Rangers had drawn five games before the end of September, they had shown themselves to be head and shoulders above all of their opponents. West Ham had escaped Loftus Road with a 1-1 draw in September but had been torn apart by a skilled and adventurous Rangers display that could have easily delivered a 5-1 win. Manchester United also got off lightly with a 1-0 defeat, thanks to a series of brilliant saves by Alex Stephney. Rangers were simply miles better than any of the opponents they had met so far, including Liverpool. 

But there were sterner tests to come. 

The first of these came at Elland Road where Jimmy Armfield’s Leeds inflicted Rangers’ first defeat of the season in front of 31,000 fans. Rangers were desperately unlucky to lose the game, 2-1. One of the Leeds goals came from a poor Frank McLintock backpass which Alan Clarke intercepted and dispatched into the Rangers net. The question was ‘who was going to pay?

After the Leeds game, the team met to discuss what went wrong at Elland Road. The conclusion was that not much had gone wrong at all. The Super Hoops had matched Leeds in every department. They had just been unlucky. If anything, they came out of the Leeds defeat more confident than ever that they could win the title. And they were going to prove it; first, by beating Everton.     

Everton arrived at Loftus Road on 11 October 1975 with some pundits wondering whether QPR were flattering to deceive and would ultimately disappear back into the pack. They were wrong. Rangers produced a spectacular display of football. Goals from Don Givens, Don Masson, Dave Thomas and Gerry Francis (2) left the Sunday Express journalist, Alan Hoby, in awe of the Rangers’ performance which he described as “triumphant …. I loved every minute of it.” 

However, it was the last big win that the R’s would register for a while. The rest of October and most of November turned into something of a struggle. Opponents were now beginning to recognise the threat Sexton’s team presented. Scarred by the spectacle of Everton’s humiliation, other teams were determined not to let Rangers play their swashbuckling brand of football at their expense.  

Sexton’s team suddenly found themselves facing opponents who would put eight or nine players behind the ball. Bowles recalls that “with so many men behind the ball it was becoming increasingly difficult to break them down by clever passing through the middle of the field.” 

Seven days after the demolition of Everton, a workmanlike Burnley knocked QPR off the top of the league by inflicting a 1-0 defeat thanks to a breakaway Frank Casper goal at Turf Moor. It had been a classic smash and grab. Next up, Sheffield United came to Loftus Road to defend but Rangers were clever enough to see them off by a single goal thanks to Don Givens. Still, they were finding it difficult to register the kind of scoreline their adventurous performances merited. 

When the going gets tough

Despite October defeats at the hands of Leeds and Burnley, Rangers remained top of the table at the close of October but were now on the same points as Man United and West Ham. Things were also getting tighter. Seven clubs were now within 2 points of each other.    

November’s schedule opened with disappointing draws against Coventry (away), Spurs (home) and Ipswich (away). But at least Spurs had respected Rangers by turning up at Loftus Road armed with cagey tactics; a triumph of sorts that signalled a change in the established London order.  

Although the month ended with home victories over Burnley (1-0) and Stoke City (3-2) Rangers had now drawn 8 of their 17 league games. They could not afford to keep drawing this many games if they were to challenge for the title. Moreover, Liverpool had started to hit their stride. 

After registering 2 defeats and 2 draws in their first 7 matches, Liverpool went on a 10 game unbeaten run stretching from 20th September until 29th November; including a 3-1 victory over the then joint league leaders Manchester United. Rangers’ other problem was Derby County who had also recovered from a poor start to emerge as the front runners at the end of November. 

Winter of discontent 

Although Liverpool’s ten game unbeaten run was ended by Norwich on 29th November, the setback merely stimulated the Merseyside men to even greater heights. They embarked on another (this time 12 game), unbeaten run in December, January and most of February that took in victories over Spurs (4-0), West Ham (4-0) and Leeds (2-0). So when Anfield staged the return match between Liverpool and QPR on 20th December 1975, Toshack and Neal (pen) were on hand to deliver a 2-0 win for the Reds. The result saw Liverpool climb to the top of the league and QPR slip from first to fourth place; two points off the pace.  

Cracks were beginning to appear in the QPR title project but they had been evident even before Anfield. A trip to Main Road on 6th December had produced a highly credible 0-0 draw but it was without the talented Stan Bowles. Bowles was in a habit of asking his avuncular chairman, Jim Gregory, to clear his gambling debts. Although usually obliging, Gregory was running out of patience and, on this occasion, refused to bail out his talismanic forward. Bowles’ responded by handing in a transfer request resulting in Sexton sidelining him for the City game. Although the team secured a point at Maine Road, as well as a point the following weekend against Derby, the absence of Bowles in both matches potentially robbed the team of vital extra points. 

Yet these two early December draws were the calm before the storm. The team went on to lose 4 of their next 6 matches. After two draws and their late December defeat at Anfield, Rangers also went on to lose against Arsenal (0-2), Manchester United (1-2) and West Ham (0-1); all before the end of January. The Super Hoops were now in fifth place; three points behind third placed Liverpool and four points off leaders Manchester United. 

Some fans blamed ‘a tough winter of heavy pitches’ for inhibiting their free flowing style of football. But Rangers’ winter of discontent wasn’t just down to pitches. Bowles’s antics were becoming a recurring factor. An ill-fated photo shoot with a topless model produced a second fall out in as many months resulting in Sexton dropping him for the West Ham game; one of the string of four defeats in their Winter of Discontent.  Rangers were fast turning into also rans.