In Part One, QPR started the season well with big wins over the likes of Liverpool, Everton and reigning champions Derby County. Those wins saw them take an early lead in the title race. However, their title challenge hit the buffers in the one-month period between 20th December and 24th January, when they lost four times. Those defeats left them languishing in fifth place, with their title hopes in the balance. Part Two tells the story of what happened next.
Back on track
Although four defeats in the short space of December and January had been traumatic for Rangers, they ultimately proved the stimulus that would take the team to the brink of greatness.
Sexton responded to Rangers’ Winter malaise with a clear-the-air meeting where he outlined an audacious ten-match ‘win or bust’ strategy designed to take maximum points and, ultimately, the title. There was no room in his strategy for ‘credible draws’ against the big teams who simply had to be beaten.
Speaking privately to Bowles after the team meeting Sexton confidently asserted that “we wouldn’t lose another game for the rest of the season which, coming from him, was an outrageous statement.” But Bowles believed him. And the team believed in him.
Rangers went on an unbelievable run between the end of January and Mid-April which saw them win 11 out of their next 12 games; the odd game out being an incongruous draw away to relegation strugglers Sheffield United.
The winning run included a string of brilliant victories, such as a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane where Rangers took Spurs to pieces. Bowles and co. also put three past Ipswich and four past Wolves, Coventry and Middlesborough in a run that also saw Everton (2-0), Aston Villa (2-0), Manchester City (1-0) and Leicester City (1-0) all put to the sword.
Rangers’ impressive 12-game unbeaten run stretching from the end of January to Mid-April yielded 23 out of a possible 24 points to put them back in title contention:
- By the end of February, they had drawn level on points with Liverpool and Manchester United at the top of the table with Derby only one point behind.
- Come the end of March they had moved one point clear of Manchester United in second place, with Derby in third. Liverpool trailed in fourth place by three points (albeit with a game in hand) thanks to unlikely defeats at lowly Arsenal and at home to mid-table Middlesbrough.
- With the winning run continuing into mid-April, Rangers found themselves in top spot with only three games to go. They led Division One on 55 points with Liverpool trailing in second on 54.
The league title was there for the taking. The only teams that now stood between Rangers and glory were Norwich City (away), Arsenal (home) and Leeds United (home). The Super Hoops were confident, even convinced, of their destiny.
Three games to glory
When QPR made the trip to Carrow Road on 17th April, Rangers fans were beginning to dream so they fully expected Sexton’s swashbuckling team to brush Norwich aside: “I was 18 in 1975 and the world seemed a wonderful place” Rangers fan ‘Kingo’ remembers. “I was at college in High Wycombe and had just seen a really different band at the student union called The Sex Pistols. Coming up to Easter, all of a sudden the impossible looked possible, we had an away trip to Norwich and West London was buzzing. Literally everyone was going. Two specials from Wembley were packed, we got to Norwich and it was a sea of blue and white.”
Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. Twenty-six minutes into the match, a cross into the Rangers’ box saw centre half, Dave Webb, inexplicably send a weak looping header towards Phil Parkes in the Rangers goal. It gave Norwich striker Ted MacDougal plenty of time to intercept and redirect the ball into the back of the QPR net. One-nil.
A lightning flash of speed from Dave Thomas saw him skip through the Norwich defence and smash the ball into the roof of the net to bring the scores level just before half-time. But a thumping Phil Morris shot from 25 yards out, followed by an ‘offside’ goal by Phil Boyer, put Norwich 3-1 up against the run of play. Gerry Francis recalls: “We totally dominated but you have games where nothing seems to go right.”
Although a Tony Powell own goal brought the scores back to 3-2, it was not enough. “Disaster struck”, Kingo says. “I will never forgive Norwich or the referee and never forget the scene at the end with hundreds of Rangers fans sitting on the grass bank behind the stand with their heads in their hands.” Liverpool were now back in the driving seat.
But it wasn’t over.
The only thing that Rangers could do now was to win their two remaining games and hope that Liverpool dropped points. Rangers beat Arsenal 2-1 on 19th April to leave only Leeds standing between them and potential title glory at Loftus Road on 24th April 1976. The Leeds of 1975-76 were not the all-conquering team of the Revie era but they had been in the European Cup final only 12 months prior. They also had the best away record in the division (eight wins), bar Liverpool.
Commentating on The Big Match, Brian Moore summed up the size of Ranger’s task: “A harder side to beat would be hard to imagine.” That task had been placed in the hands of Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, John Hollins, Frank McLintock, Dave Webb, Dave Thomas, Gerry Francis, Don Masson, Stan Bowles, Don Givens and Mick Leach on the bench.
Yet Rangers never looked overawed by their task. They snapped at the heels of Leeds all the way through the first half which they dominated with slick passing moves that put their illustrious opponents on the back foot. Alas, their endeavours came to nothing so the first half finished 0-0. The opening minutes of the second half were a different story. Leeds laid siege to the Rangers goal but, thankfully, Phil Parkes ensured that their pressure came to nothing.
Just when Rangers looked like they had lost momentum, Frank McLintock stepped up. From wide on the right-hand side of the Leeds box, McLintcok floated a ball into Don Givens. He knocked it the path of the oncoming Dave Thomas who converted it with his head. After sixty-three minutes, Rangers had taken the lead in the match. And with Liverpool out of action, they had also taken a one-point lead in the First Division table.
Although it was the last day of the season, Liverpool weren’t playing their final fixture at the same time as Rangers. The authorities had given them permission to play their final fixture of the season, away at Wolves, 10 days later on 4th May. Still, with Rangers now one point clear as things stood, the vocal tones of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ could be heard emerging from the Loft.
Suffice it to say that the game was far from over.
Rangers were the kind of team to live dangerously, whereas Leeds were not the type of team to visit London for a day out. Both teams turned on the style. Leeds had numerous chances to equalise only to be persistently thwarted by the brilliant Parkes.
With Leeds piling on the pressure, Rangers switched to counter-attacking and, sure enough, caught Leeds out in the 82nd minute. Following some intense Leeds pressure, Francis cleared Rangers’ lines as far as Don Givens who laid the ball off to Frank McLintock inside the Rangers half. Observer journalist, Julie Welch, describes what happened next with a sense of awe:
“In the 82nd minute, McLintock spotted Bowles racing in solitude down the right and reached him with a pass of hair-splitting precision. Bowles collected, controlled and cut inwards with that priceless fluidity of movement; Francis gestured and beckoned, but in vain, for Bowles, choosing his spot, drove left-footed into a distant, billowing corner of the net; breathtaking”.
Rangers were 2-0 up with time running out. The premature cry of ‘Champions’ went up from the Loft. A few minutes later, the referee’s whistle was greeted with scenes of celebration. QPR fan Andy recalls:
“We’d never won anything apart from ‘67. And the odd playoff final since (laughs). So when Rangers beat Leeds to go top on the final day of the season the fans couldn’t contain themselves.”
Alas, Rangers’ fans would have to wait 10 days to see if Wolves – fighting for their lives against relegation – could beat Liverpool to formally hand the title to their heroes.
The fat lady sings
Relegation-threatened Wolves had every incentive to beat Liverpool. They had to win, and hope Birmingham lost at Bramall Lane on the same night, to stay in the First Division. Moreover, their chances against Liverpool were better than reasonable.
Some commentators thought Liverpool were showing signs of fatigue. In the last three weeks, Stoke City had put three goals past them in a 5-3 thriller at Anfield, whereas Club Brugge had raced into a 2-0 lead after 15 minutes in the first leg of the UEFA Cup final at Anfield; the reds eventually came back to win that match 3-2. Aside from that, the Reds’ impressive points haul over the last couple of months had actually come from a less than convincing set of results. Apart from a 3-0 win over Manchester City, their results stretching back to 17th March read: 1-0, 1-0, 2-0, 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 5-3.
Recognising their need for support, thirty thousand Liverpool fans are said to have made the journey to Molineux that night to help them over the line. Some Rangers fans also made the Midlands trip whilst the remainder, like Kingo, stayed in London where they made their own arrangements to keep up with events:
“Some of the blokes I knew decided they had to go to Molineux but I, like many, sat in a pub with mates and a transistor radio.”
Andy was too young to go to the pub so he tuned into “a radio station in London. I was 14 or 15 at the time. I liked to isolate myself so I was in my bedroom and I had my little transistor radio and was laying on my bed. I preferred to listen to radio commentary rather than football commentary on TV because they were craftsmen. The people commentating created an atmosphere where you were actually there and they tailored it in such a way that you knew exactly what was going on even though you couldn’t see it so I was just engrossed in it, you know. It was high hopes, you know”.
High hopes turned to expectation when Dave Thomas’ ex-Burnley teammate, Steve Kindon, broke through the Liverpool defence and smashed the ball beyond Ray Clemence and into the corner of the Liverpool net. Thirteen minutes had gone and, unbelievably, Wolves were 1-0 up.
In his piece, ‘The Ten Day Champions’, football writer Indro Pajaro observes that “on a boggy pitch, Liverpool seemed dead on their feet. To give Wolves even more heart, Birmingham were losing at half-time to Sheffield United; if the scores stayed like this, Birmingham would be down, Wolves would survive, and QPR would be champions.”
The title really did seem to be on.
But Liverpool dug deep to find extra reserves of energy. They began to put the Wolves goal under intense pressure, but the Midlanders’ held out. With the score still registering 1-0 going into the last quarter of an hour of the game Andy and thousands of other Rangers fans started to get carried away: “Wolves were one up and needed to win to stay up so they were having a go. And at 1-0, well, you think you’ve done it don’t you, yeah, in a naive sort of way. There were 15 mins to go and Wolves are 1-0 up and you think it’s over don’t you and I know from talking to people and friends who were buzzing too.”
The clock continued running down until, with 14 minutes to go, everything changed. Phil Neal sent a ball into the Wolves penalty area where Toshack knocked it onto Keegan who put it away. A classic Liverpool routine. Meanwhile, news of a Birmingham City equaliser came through from Bramall Lane. Birmingham had saved themselves and, at the same time, condemned their Black Country neighbours to life in Division Two whatever now happened at Molineux.
Wolves were demoralised. Liverpool took advantage. Toshack followed up with an 85th-minute goal, and Ray Kennedy with a goal in the 89th minute, to take the title to Anfield. Liverpool fans invaded the pitch and began a huge party which lifelong fan, Alan Harrison, says continued on the M6 on the way home:
“Oh what a night that was. The best bit was dancing the night away on the M6 coming home. The traffic was stopped for hours and there were footy games going on, music, drink, the lot! It was a happy day and night. We got home about 3:30am and in to work for 8. I can remember it like yesterday. I swear there must have been 40,000 Reds there that night.”
The title triumph set Liverpool on the road to a period of dominance that would last until 1990. Meanwhile, Andy was left “totally devastated” like a lot of other Rangers fans: “We had moved back to Ireland in June ’75. I remember me and my Dad listening to that game on crackly BBC radio. And crying.”
Indeed there was something about distance (being apart from the comfort of the QPR fan community in West London) which seemed to make the title loss much worse, as this Vancouver Hoop describes:
“I watched all the home fixtures and the London away matches that season until the middle of March when I moved to Canada. What sticks in my mind is having to read about Liverpool’s final result in the Vancouver Sun while sitting in a restaurant crying into a cold cup of coffee. The despair was just profound.”
Rangers might have come up short but devastation and despair were not the only emotions flying around West London. Andy also remembers “being awfully proud going into school. Everyone knew I was a QPR supporter and I was the only one in school. It was just a case of at that age you could hold your head up high and that we’ve got the England captain playing for us which was a big deal in those days. Stan Bowles was arguably the best, most skilful player not just in Britain but in the world. Of course, he wasn’t but that’s how you portray it isn’t it. It was just great. I was on my own as a QPR fan but I was so proud of what they had achieved.”
To this day the 1975-76 team is regarded at Loftus Road as ‘QPR’s greatest team’. Fan site Loft for Words remembers the team for delivering “the greatest, but possibly most heartbreaking, season of them all. Rangers played the most entertaining style of football ever seen at Loftus Road. QPR’s free-flowing style was at times breathtaking as the players revelled in the roles that Sexton allotted to them. Liverpool were swept aside, Champions Derby County humiliated on their own ground and Everton destroyed at Loftus Road.”
Looking back on the 1975-76 side, lifelong fan Andy, now in his mid-50s, asserts: “I don’t think there’s anyone of my age that couldn’t tell you the team and even the substitutes: Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, Frank McLintock, David Webb, Gerry Francis, John Hollins, Mick Leach, Don Masson, Stan Bowles, Don Givens and Dave Thomas”.
The legacy is not confined to the collective memory of Loftus Road either. Sexton’s innovations had a profound impact on English football in the 1970s. In an era of defensive football, a key element of the ‘total football’ approach Sexton instituted at Loftus Road in 1974 involved the use of Dave Clement and Ian Gillard as attacking full-backs that would push high up the pitch. Having attacking full-backs allowed wide players such as Dave Thomas to drift inside which allowed Stan Bowles a free role from which he could cause chaos. According to Loft For Words, it all amounted to:
“… a team that would have graced the Dutch league that [Sexton] so admired. He managed to infuse the skill and technique that is a hallmark of the Dutch game into the work ethic and determination that typified the best English teams of those times. QPR’s passing and movement was unparalleled in the English league and wouldn’t be seen again until foreign coaches started to permeate into English football.”
It was an exhilarating style of football that Andy says “elevated QPR into everybody’s second team, the one side that football lovers all around the country would rush home early from the pub on Saturday nights to watch if they were on Match of the Day.”
Bob Paisley had certainly been watching them. According to his biographer, Ian Herbert, Paisley introduced Phil Neal and Joey Jones to the Liverpool side in 1975-76 to give it more of an attacking edge starting with the full-backs. Paisley was essentially copying Sexton’s approach which, in the cruellest of ironies, took him to European Cup triumph one year later … at Sexton’s expense.
That 1977 European Cup win was an achievement that Gerry Francis thinks might have belonged to Rangers’ had they won the league in 1976: “We could have gone a long way in the European Cup. We played the sort of football that was equipped for European competition.”
But it wasn’t to be.
Rangers did make a splash in Europe the following season when Sexton masterminded a heroic goal-strewn run in the UEFA Cup, which only ended when AEK Athens knocked them out on penalties in the quarter-final. But the history had now been written.
Reflecting on the achievements of Sexton’s side in When Saturday Comes 30 years later, Graham Dunbar refers to 1975-76 as a “football tragedy”. In Dunbar’s view “QPR were the best and most entertaining team” that season but, in the end, “joined Ipswich Town at club level and Holland on the world stage as vibrant sides in the total football era who fell just short of a defining triumph but are all the more beloved for it.” That is more than he can say for Norwich whose fans he says “should be ashamed of their club – and their good fortune on the day – for spiking Rangers’ champagne”!