You may have thought clubs getting into financial difficulty was a recent phenomenon. The plight of Portsmouth, Luton, Chester City, Bury, and Halifax Town are well documented, as well as many other clubs who have entered administration over recent years, including Southampton, Swansea, Crystal Palace and Derby County. But this is not a new feature of a post-Premier League English football industry, as the circumstances surrounding Bristol City in the early â€™80s, illustrates.
In 1975-76 the club finished second to Sunderland in the old Second Division to earn promotion to the First Division for the first time in over 60 years. They engineered an amazing escape from the jaws of relegation in their first season. By 1979, they had their best league finish since the First World War when they ended 13th. But the story after that was one sorry tale after another as the club fell alarmingly into freefall. Three successive relegations followed and soon the debts mounted up. But these were days when clubsâ€™ finances werenâ€™t common knowledge. The board tried desperately to put on a brave face but eventually, it became too much and the cracks started to show.
One aspect which was undeniable was the falling attendances. Their final home game of the 1976-77 season saw a record 38,688 turn up to watch the newly-crowned champions, Liverpool. Not bad for a Monday night. Two weeks before, 23,587 witnessed the visit of Leeds United. But barely five years later there was just 6,586 turning up to see a game against Doncaster. Even the lure of a local rival, Plymouth Argyle could only encourage 7,471 to turn up. It was clear the club would not be able to maintain the spending of their First Division days. During their time at English footballâ€™s top table, the PFA announced a change that would have disastrous consequences for City.
In 1978 the PFA announced a playerâ€™s right to move at the end of his contract would be fully recognised and a proper, more efficient procedure was put in place to accentuate this. Clubs like City relied heavily on the transfer income some of their best players would command. But the prospect of losing a player who they couldnâ€™t convince to sign a new contract sent shockwaves through many clubs the size of City.
The club was desperately trying to make the most of their playing squad. In 1979 one of their most promising defenders, Gary Collier, moved to Coventry for peanuts and this deal infuriated manager, Alan Dicks. Collier, the clubâ€™s Player of the Year in 1975, had already won England honours at U23 level and was touted as a good prospect capable of playing for a big First Division club. As Coventry had escaped relegation on the same day City had in 1977, they were a long way from being the sort of club many people saw Collier potentially playing for. Bristol City were annoyed they hadnâ€™t been able to cash in on a young player theyâ€™d invested much time in, when a season or two before they had more control over the playerâ€™s destination. The shockwaves forced Dicks to make some decisions which almost sent the club into oblivion. They didnâ€™t realise it at the time, of course, but the consequences were fatal. It lead to a famous incident in the clubâ€™s history where several players sacrificed their own careers to save the club.
Dicks, determined not to have another â€˜Collier-effectâ€™ signed six of the clubâ€™s best players onto eleven-year contracts. His reasoning was this would give the club complete control over these players and if they still decided to sell them, they would no longer run the risk of missing out on a fat transfer fee. It must be remembered these were pre-Bosman days.
At the end of the 1979-80 season the clubâ€™s flirt with the First Division was over.
Once they dropped out of the First Division, the man who had masterminded their rise to the top, Alan Dicks, was dispensed with. They drew the first three games of the new season, then lost the next six and so Dicks had to go. Enter Roy Hodgson. Hodgson was working in Sweden alongside Bobby Houghton, who had taken Malmo to the European Cup Final in 1979, losing to Nottingham Forest. Houghton was brought back to England by the City board and he asked Hodgson to help him. Hodgson had been considering an offer from Dallas but decided on City where he, rather ironically, claimed;
â€œI had to decide whether to stay on in Sweden or not. Bristol City seems well organised so I hope to be able to concentrate on the coaching side with Bobâ€.
Unfortunately, in hindsight, these words seem incredibly naive but perhaps theyâ€™re a measure of how much the City board were able to hide the problems inside. Houghton and Hodgson were confident in their own ability, but just didnâ€™t have enough magic to halt the slide and further relegations ensued. Houghton seemed rather oblivious to the parlous state of the clubâ€™s finances and the critical effect large long-term contracts could have in years to come.
The two enthusiastic coaches were keen to talk a good game. Theyâ€™d transformed Swedish football during their five years there and firmly believed they could resurrect City. 1980-81 saw a second successive relegation.
The club was in freefall and the fans stayed away in their droves. Only 4,832 turned up to watch a home defeat to Burnley in November 1981 which left the club sixth from bottom in Division Three.
This was the lowest attendance at Ashton Gate since the War and a sign things were going hopelessly wrong. But Houghton and Hodgson seemed intent to paint a positive picture and in some way, they were probably guilty of either being duped by the board or simply choosing not to face facts. Hodgson would later admit.
â€œWhen we came the club was rock bottom and the first thing we had to do was sell players. We ended up with a junior team playing in a league of men. We were not made aware of the situation before we arrived. The club had only just been relegated from the old First Division. We thought it canâ€™t be that bad, weâ€™ll get them promoted. We were very confident in our coaching ability and thought we could turn the club aroundâ€.
Further evidence of the boardâ€™s efforts to paper over the cracks was the signing of Mick Harford in August 1981. Harford, a big traditional centre-forward had made his name at Lincoln City, earning him a big-money move to Newcastle United, then a Second Division side, at the beginning of 1981. After just eight months Harford moved to Bristol City for Â£160,000. It was a strange move for the player, who left a Second Division club to join a club whoâ€™d just been relegated to the Third. Moreover, it was a suicidal move for City themselves, although no one really knew it at the time. Yet around this time, one or two people started to ask questions.
Local journalist, Peter Godsiff, had started to make noises about the fact the club had been spending far more than they were bringing in. He even reckoned the operating costs were probably five times the money earned at the gate. In October 1981 two local businessmen, Ken Sage and Deryn Coller, got together to find out more about the clubâ€™s finances. They attended an AGM and asked enough questions to eventually persuade the board to conduct an independent financial report. Actually, Coller had managed to have a quiet word with Chairman, Archie Gooch, and he agreed Coller and Sage would pay for the report. The club had targeted gates of 8,000 to pay their way but they were struggling to get anywhere near that. In October they sold young striker, Kevin Mabbutt (Garyâ€™s brother) to Crystal Palace for Â£100,000. This was a big blow for the club as they had pinned their hopes on the Mabbutt/Harford partnership. Clive Whitehead was then sold to West Brom for Â£100,000. Whitehead had been an instrumental part of the promotion side of 75-76 and the subsequent First Division years.
The club finally admitted their plight, telling shareholders theyâ€™d made a loss of Â£400,000 the previous year. In November, Gooch wrote in the programme appealing for help. 1981 ended with a defeat at bitter rivals, Bristol Rovers. City were fourth from bottom having won just five out of 16 matches.
In January 1982 the bottom club, Wimbledon turned up at Ashton Gate and promptly came away with a 3-1 win. That was the last straw for Houghton who resigned, and Hodgson took overall management control.
Off the pitch, the financial report had identified the huge debt the club had and suggested various options open to them to deal with it. This included unloading the biggest liabilities, doing a deal with creditors, doing a deal with the Football League, doing a deal with the old company on the sale of the ground and doing a deal with the eight players who were on the biggest contracts and comprised the largest part of the liability. It must be said the Football League were unused to this sort of situation. Clubs had gone bust before this, but they had generally fallen out of the league first. Bristol City was a club who just 18 months before had been competing in the First Division. Now oblivion beckoned.
Hodgsonâ€™s first match in sole charge was a trip to Peterborough in the FA Cup Third Round. They won 1-0. His first two League matches were creditable draws at home to Huddersfield and away at Newport County. In between those two matches, they played host to Aston Villa in the FA Cup. Over 20,000 turned up for the game, a crowd not seen at Ashton Gate since the glory days. Gary Shaw scored the only goal of the game to knock City out. Attention soon reverted to their league plight.
At the end of January 1982 City were still in the bottom four, two points from safety when it all came crashing down around their ears. The Football League imposed a selling ban on the club, mainly due to the fact they still owed Newcastle Â£100,000 for the Harford deal. At this point, the club announced eight players had to leave for the club to continue. These eight players became known as the Ashton Gate Eight.
They were – Geoff Merrick, Gerry Sweeney, Trevor Tainton, Julian Marshall, Peter Aitken, Chris Garland, David Rodgers, Jimmy Mann.
Merrick, Sweeney, Tainton and Mann had been in the promotion side of 75-76 and throughout the First Division years. Garland had been the inspiration for their great escape in their first season in the top-flight and Rodgers had been the replacement for Collier, whose transfer to Coventry was possibly the precursor to many of the problems.
The choice was clear. The eight players must leave or the club goes bankrupt. For a player such as Merrick, this must have been a desperate position. A local boy whoâ€™d only ever played for the club. He was club captain in their greatest post-war years, yet here he was now being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the club he loved. Goodness only knows what went through his mind when he first discovered the plight of the club. He had turned down lucrative moves in previous years out of loyalty for the club and the players heâ€™d grown up with.
â€œWe have families and mortgages and are obviously reluctant to give up the protection of our contracts, although we appreciate the seriousness of Cityâ€™s plightâ€, he said at the time.
Interestingly it was the PFA who intervened to help rather than the Football League or The FA. The negotiations resulted in â€˜The Eightâ€™ ripping up their contracts and thereby dissolving their debt from the club. Management now passed to a new company, Bristol City (1982) Ltd and this ensured the jobs of other PFA members and those employed by Bristol City, were protected. During the longest week in the clubâ€™s history, there were daily updates in the local press and radio. Many supporters have spoken of the stress and pressure of never knowing whether there would be a club to go and watch at the weekend. The players came under increasing pressure too. Merrick later spoke of being bitter about his loyalty towards the club;
â€œLoyalty is a complete and utter waste of time. Loyalty is a dirty wordâ€, he said.
â€˜The Eightâ€™ were making the ultimate sacrifice in football terms, yet some of them received abusive phone calls and many fans accused them of holding the club to ransom.
Itâ€™s true you could argue they wouldâ€™ve received nothing anyway as the club had nothing. But they would still have had a debt against the club and this wouldâ€™ve caused the new company problems when they were trying to move on. According to Coller, â€˜The Eightâ€™ walked away with Â£10,000 each but were unemployed. For a player of Merrickâ€™s age, he would never find another professional contract.
â€œItâ€™s wonderful to see the club survive and tremendously emotional for us at the same time. Thereâ€™s also got to be some bitterness at the way the eight players have almost been held responsible when everyone else seems to blame bad managementâ€, announced Merrick.
Many of the other creditors had to accept much lower settlements just to make sure the whole deal went through with some of them taking as little as 10% of the amount they were due.
But then had they refused, the club wouldâ€™ve gone bankrupt and they wouldâ€™ve received nothing.
The club began a massive advertising campaign to get people to invest in a share issue which would purchase the ground. They needed to raise Â£600,000 and everywhere around the city you could see stickers â€œSupport Bristol City Football Club, Now or Neverâ€.
Coller revealed â€œat one minute past 12 on Wednesday 3rd February, the club was going into liquidation if the players had not signed that documentâ€
Coller and Sage found two other people willing to raise Â£12,500 each to come up with the Â£50,000 needed to set up the new plc. Coller later spoke of the stress he was under too. He nearly lost his house and his wife. who thought all the hours he was spending in meetings were actually being spent with another woman. At the beginning of February 1982, the new BCFC (1982) Ltd was incorporated and set about buying the ground, making the club the tenant. They had to act fast as there were rumours flying around of other interested parties who would buy the ground and not necessarily for the benefit, or future of the club. The directors kept putting in money to get the project up and running and Coller admitted to funding the club to a personal total of Â£70,000 for the first six months. A sum which was all he had in the world.
6th February 1982 and the first match at Ashton Gate for the new club. Fulham were the visitors, who were sitting in second place in the table behind Chesterfield on goal difference. Bristol City were a much changed side from the previous match.
30th January 1982 away to Newport County â€“ Moller, Stevens, Williams, Aitken, Boyle, Sweeney, Tainton, Mann, Chandler, Harford, Musker
Next match at home to Fulham â€“ Moller, Stevens, Hay, Newman, Williams, Nicholls, Musker, Bray, Chandler, Harford, Economou, sub: Smith
In a strange coincidence, the Fulham side that day contained Sean Oâ€™Driscoll, who later managed City. It also contained Ray Lewington, who worked alongside Roy Hodgson with England, and of course, Hodgson was the Bristol City boss that day.
Hodgsonâ€™s programme notes for the game are particularly revealing;
â€œLast Saturdayâ€™s match at Newport came at the end of one of the most traumatic weeks in the history of Bristol City. The events off the field overshadowed the normal weekâ€™s training. Everyone at the club was uncertain about the future and the game at Newport was played under the shadow of redundancies and closure of the club. It was hardly ideal preparation and I must admit I was a little worried about how the players would react as we were going across the Severn Bridge.â€
City fans have spoken about their team being â€œfull of kidsâ€, yet they received a rapturous welcome from a relieved home crowd of just over 9,000. The game was a goalless draw which, given the circumstances leading up to it, was a great achievement for City. In the week they were beaten at Plymouth but then travelled to Walsall, sixth in the table, and came away with a 1-0 victory. It was their first win in the league since early November (nine matches) and the start of a run of three wins in four matches. But the optimism didnâ€™t last and they went through March and April without another win, a run of 12 games where they picked up just two points. They lost six games in a row, scoring just once. Mick Harford was sold to Birmingham City and goalkeeper, Jan Moller, had moved to Toronto Blizzard.
When City lost at Chesterfield towards the end of March they only had 12 available players. By then, City were second from bottom and another relegation seemed on the cards.
4th May 1982 they went to Huddersfield and were thumped 0-5, consigning them to a third successive relegation, a record at the time.
15th May 1982 at their final home game of the season, 1,034 turned up to see City beat Chester City 1-0. Hodgson was sacked and went back to Sweden. His replacement was Terry Cooper, who had been part of â€˜the greatâ€™ Leeds side of the â€™60s and â€™70s and had recently been player-manager at Bristol Rovers. Cooper is credited by City fans as reviving the club by working miracles in finding youth players, doing loan deals and scouring free transfers to keep the club going on a shoestring.
The following season (1982-83) things got worse before they began to improve. They lost six of their opening 10 matches, including a 1-7 hammering at Northampton. They finally won a game when they beat Wimbledon 4-2 at home. Yet there was only one club below them in the whole League. Having only won two matches in the first half of the season, they turned things around finishing a worthy 14th. The following season they had something to cheer about at last as they won promotion from Division Four.
It was a nightmare ride and one which few clubs have ever experienced. It was the first and only deal of its kind as the Football League changed the rules afterwards.
Whether you believe The Ashton Gate Eight held the club to ransom, what cannot be denied is they sacrificed their careers and home lives to make sure the club continued. Had they not done so, people under the age of 30 today may never have heard of Bristol City. Think about the recent incidents at Portsmouth or Glasgow Rangers and consider whether those players were prepared to rip up their contracts. In addition to â€˜The Eightâ€™, the four directors are also worthy of remembering. They worked tirelessly, regardless of personal cost both financially and mentally, to keep the club going. Deryn Coller, Ken Sage, Les Kew and Ivor Williams.
What Happened Next?
Geoff Merrick (aged 30) â€“ Never played professional football again, but had a brief spell at Gloucester City.
Gerry Sweeney (aged 36) â€“ Moved down a division to York City but only made 12 appearances before playing non-league football at Gloucester City. Later managed City in 1997.
Trevor Tainton (aged 33) â€“ Moved down a division to Torquay, but made just 19 appearances and dropped out of league football at Trowbridge in 1983.
Jimmy Mann (aged 29) â€“ Moved up a division to Barnsley then brief spells at Scunthorpe and Doncaster before dropping out of League football at end of 1983 at his hometown club, Goole Town.
David Rodgers (aged 30) â€“ Moved down a division to Torquay, playing just five times before an even briefer spell at Lincoln, then to non-league with Forest Green Rovers.
Chris Garland (aged 32) â€“ Was re-employed by City for one more season, before dropping out of league football with Gloucester City and Minehead.
Julian Marshall (aged 24) â€“ Moved up a division to Blackburn Rovers but never played for the first team. Joined Worcester City in 1983.
Peter Aitken (aged 27) â€“ Moved down a division to York City, but at the end of the season left league football to move to Bath City then Trowbridge Town and Forest Green Rovers.
And what of the players who came in for that historic game against Fulham;
Allan Hay (aged 23) – Joined in 1979 had already played several games during the 1981-82 season. Left in August 1982 for York City
Rob Newman (aged 18) – Signed as an apprentice in October 1981, became club captain. Sold to Norwich in 1991, played in a team that finished third in Premier League and beat Bayern Munich.
Alan Nicholls (aged 18) – Made his debut in this game. Broke his leg a year later and retired only 22.
Wayne Bray (aged 17) – Only spent two years at the club before moving to Bath City.
Jon Economou (aged 20) – aged 20 for this game, promising midfield player, left in 1983.
Russell Musker (aged 19) â€“ Started at the club as an apprentice. Moved to Gillingham in 1984.
To understand the emotions which went through the club and its supporters at that time here is the view of BBC commentator, Jonathan Pearce
â€œIn 1982 I saw the club I worshipped as a boy, Bristol City, climb through legal and financial loopholes to survive. The ‘Ashton Gate Eight’ affair went into football infamy. The Robins had been bobbin’ along nicely in the old First Division, but they seriously over-extended. Players were signed on staggering 10-year contracts, the big slide came and it was a record for English football.
From the top flight to the bottom in successive seasons, it was Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in football terms. Bankruptcy loomed and a survival plan was dreamed up. The old club would be wound up and a new company would take over the club’s title and fixtures. The League approved but it could only happen if eight players agreed to tear up their contracts.
The professional careers and the home lives of those eight heroes, many of whom I’d known since the age of 12, were the acceptable collateral damage for the suited boardroom money men who’d allowed the chaos to loom in the first place.
The pain in those playersâ€™ eyes when I sat there and had to record them on my little tape machine was something that will haunt me forever.
My dad, who worked for the club, continued on for a couple of years for a pittance. His love affair had turned sordid.â€
Reflecting back on the time years later, Merrick elaborated on his own personal cost;
â€œI had a family, three kids and a mortgage. I think I lost about a stone in weight, it was devastating. None of us wanted to leave â€“ but everybody wanted Bristol City to remain.
The press came and took pictures of our houses, they sort of portrayed us as being very wealthy and the reason Bristol City were going under,” he explained. “But the last contract was the best contract I had ever signed. We weren’t earning a fortune whatsoever.
But we didn’t want Bristol City to go out of business. We were all ardent City fans. We were kids who had grown up and spent all our life at Bristol City so, obviously, we sort of went along with it.”
Tainton, whose business he was running alongside his football career eventually went bankrupt, told BBC Sport;
â€œA lot of nasty things went on behind the scenes, families were threatened and everything else, and it was quite a sad, rough time for us all.
It wasnâ€™t my family, Iâ€™ve got to say, but it went on because some other people were thinking in terms of their own side of things.â€
Bristol City survived, although they have yet to make it back to the First Division/Premier League. They reached the League Cup Semi-Finals in 1988-89 and have won the Johnstoneâ€™s Paint Trophy twice, in 1986 and 2003 and were beaten finalists in 1987 and 2000.
Bristol City has never forgotten â€˜The Eightâ€™ and the Supporters Club has erected a plaque in their honour. On 24th March 1982, there was a special match at Ashton Gate between Ipswich Town and Southampton where a crowd of 6,020 turned up to help raise money for them. At the time both clubs were in the top five in First Division. The players concerned have since spoken about their experience and have all said they were completely unaware of the financial state of the club, although Peter Aitken said he â€˜was not surprisedâ€™ given the falling attendances and salaries of some of the players. There is clearly some bitterness amongst The Eight who feel they still receive bad press from some quarters. Given only Garland played much league football after 1982, the whole business was clearly something they never got over.
Deryn Coller Story 1982Â http://www.bcfc3lions.co.uk/page106.hml
Marxism Today April 1982 http://www.amielandmelburn.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/82_04_02b.pdf
Bristol City Fans Forum (otib.co.uk)
My wife for programmes and memories