The 1970s seem a long time ago now and much has changed in society as well as in the footballing fraternity in the intervening decades. Players, clubs, pitches, stadiums, styles of play, and of course, finance in the game have all changed unrecognisably over the past forty years and some of the changes have been for the better and some for the worse.
One aspect that seems to have permanently altered and almost certainly not for the better is the unpredictability and competitiveness of English football.
There have only been seven winners of the Premier League in the 28-year history of the competition while in the 1970s alone, there were five different champions in the first half of the decade and one more in the second half.
Notwithstanding the one-off anomaly of Leicester City’s 2015-16 success, and to a degree Blackburn Rovers’ title victory 21 years earlier, the days of provincial clubs challenging for, much less taking, the title regularly seem to be a thing of the past.
Back in the 1970s, the situation was much more flexible with a side’s performance or achievements fluctuating seemingly at whim. Except for Liverpool, who remained at or very near to the top of the table for every season in the 1970s from 1972 onwards, and to a lesser extent Don Revie’s Leeds United team that came close to dominating the first half of the decade, clubs’ fortunes varied considerably over the decade.
Let’s now first of all look at the examples of the sides who were champions in the 1970s. Everton took the inaugural title of the decade in 1970 but from then on failed to finish again in the top two, only really challenging once more at all – in 1974-75 when the Toffees finished in fourth place after leading the way for large sections of the season.
Arsenal, the next league champions, saw an even greater inconsistency as they began by winning the double of league and cup in 1971, reached the cup final again in ’72, were league runners-up and beaten FA Cup semi-finalists in ’73, and then almost got relegated in 1975 and 1976, finishing 16th and 17th respectively in the First Division. A change of manager saw the Gunners rally and two further FA Cup finals were reached before the dawn of the 1980s.
Derby County famously took the title in 1972 under the enigmatic Brian Clough and then following his controversial departure in 1973, the title was won again by his successor Dave Mackay in 1975. Things quickly unravelled for the Rams though, and a 19th-place finish in 1979 was followed by relegation the following season.
Liverpool proved to be the exception to the rule as they followed up their 1973 title success by remaining in the top two for the remaining years of the 1970s, winning the title on a further three occasions in addition to the half-and-half 1979-80 season.
Leeds United lost Don Revie to England in the summer following their capture of the 1974 crown, and although the European Cup final was reached (and lost) a year later, never again did Leeds challenge for league honours until Howard Wilkinson led the Elland Road side to an unlikely triumph 18 years later.
The other side to take the title between 1970 and 1979 was, of course, led by the man who masterminded Derby’s 1972 success. Brian Clough, working in tandem with Peter Taylor, guided Nottingham Forest to the 1978 title and kept them at the very forefront of English and European football for the next three seasons.
It was not only the fortunes of the league champions that tended to vary during this period. Several other sides’ supporters must have wondered what each season had in store for them as the decade unravelled.
Take Ipswich Town, for example. A strong side under Bobby Robson, Ipswich made several concentrated league campaigns without breaking through the glass ceiling. 1974-75 and 1976-77 were good cases in point whereby strong campaigns that looked likely to yield silverware ended in the club remaining empty-handed. The one trophy that was attained during this period, the 1977-78 FA Cup, was achieved in a season in which Ipswich finished just two places and three points above the relegation zone.
Queens Park Rangers, led by Dave Sexton who had started the seventies with FA and European Cup Winners’ Cup success at Chelsea, enjoyed their best-ever season in 1975-76 where only a late Liverpool comeback deprived the Loftus Road side of the title. Finishing the 42-game season on top of the pile, Rangers had to hope that Wolves beat Liverpool in the last match of the season to deprive Bob Paisley of his first title. With 15 minutes remaining and the score at 1-0 to Wolves, Sexton and his men could have been forgiven for raising their hopes. Unfortunately for them, late goals by Keegan, Toshack and Kennedy brought decided the destiny of the trophy.
Never again did QPR come anywhere near repeating this feat. Within a year Rangers had finished in 14th place and Sexton had moved to Manchester United. Relegation just two years later in 1979 was how the club ended the decade.
The 1970s was also the decade when Manchester United spent a season in the Second Division, while future champions and European Cup winners, Aston Villa, spent time in the third. United had begun the decade in relatively good shape if not quite at previous levels. Sir Matt Busby stepped down as first-team manager in the summer of 1969 and reserve coach, Wilf McGuiness took over. Eighth place in the league and the FA Cup and League Cup semi-finals were reached.
Things rapidly deteriorated past this season with McGuiness being demoted back to the reserve team and Busby moving back into the hot seat. Frank O’Farrell came and went, and then after a close call in 1973, the Old Trafford club was relegated under Tommy Docherty a year later. This is when United’s fortunes turned around dramatically and relegation turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
United swept through the Second Division and once back in the top flight, came close to securing the double in 1976 before taking the FA Cup twelve months later. Docherty departed that summer and under his successor, Dave Sexton, a further FA Cup final was achieved in 1979 and a second-place league finish in 1980.
Aston Villa, another one of Docherty’s former clubs, suffered relegation to the third flight in 1970, a few months after Docherty had been sacked with the club at the bottom of the table. Although perhaps a little harsh, Docherty then holds the accolade of managing to get Manchester United relegated to the Second Division and having more than a decent hand in getting Villa relegated to the third.
Following their spell in the third tier, Aston Villa then made a return to the top flight by 1975, winning the League Cup along the way and again in 1977. By the end of the 1970s, Villa were in such good shape that they would win the league title and European Cup in the first two full seasons of the 1980s.
Other ‘big’ sides to suffer relegation in the 1970s include Tottenham Hotspur, who spent the 1977-78 season in the Second Division, and Chelsea who were relegated in 1975 and again in 1979. As stated before, the Stamford Bridge side opened the period with two major trophies and also reached the League Cup final before things started to go wrong. Spurs also won the League Cup and UEFA Cup in the early part of the 70s prior to the bottom falling out of their world.
Finally, it is perhaps worth having a look at the 1974-75 season in a bit more detail. That season was an incredibly tight one with only four points separating champions Derby from Sheffield United in sixth spot. Also in the top six were Stoke City.
Sheffield United would finish rock bottom of the table and be relegated the next year while Stoke would go down in 1977.
The sheer unpredictability of the decade was what perhaps made it stand out from others, and for a while, this trend continued into the 1980s albeit not to the same extent. In the 1980s four sides would take the title and only twice would it leave Merseyside. While sides such as Ipswich, Watford and Southampton would finish in top two, and Wimbledon, Coventry City, Norwich City, Oxford United and Luton Town would enjoy domestic cup success, perhaps the times were changing significantly due to financial differences.
Once the clubs stopped sharing the league gate money, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots was always going to widen and thus make concentrated and extended league title pushes far rarer. There have been exceptions, such as the case of Leicester City four years ago, and Norwich City in the early years of the Premier League, but these are somewhat few and far between. Nowadays the most that a ‘smaller’ club seem capable of aiming for is a top-six finish or at an extreme push, a Champions League place.
It’s a pity.