Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Second Division, tough as it was, provided some food for thought: Sunderland finished first. Sunderland was relegated from top flight in 1970 and so far was unable to return to 1st Division. Winning the FA Cup in 1973 suggested better days, which were slow to come. Confident winners Sunderland were not – they finished 3 points ahead of anybody else, but lost 10 championship games – ¼ of the total. Behind them on 2nd place finished Bristol City – ‘the Robins’ did not play 1st Division football so long, they probably had no living fans with memories of those days. Neither of the top two finishers looked like exciting addition to the finest league. The third one, edging Bolton Wanderers by a point, was West Bromwich Albion.
WBA came down from First in 1973 – and were returning after relatively short absence. What was a bit strange was their squad – it was far more interesting and promising than those of Sunderland and Bristil City.
Standing, from left: Wright (?) – physical condition trainer, Willie Johnston, Robert Edwards, Bryan Robson, Len Cantello, John Osborne, Gavin Ward, Tony Brown, Wilson, John Trewick, John Glover.
Sitting: Ally Robertson, Mick Martin, Dave Rushbury, John Wile, Johnny Giles – playing manager, Joe Mayo, Gordon Nisbet, Alistair Brown, Paddy Mulligan.
One interesting feature was the legendary Johhny Giles – playing managers were and are a rarity, and clubs usually avoid such risks. On this occasion the risk was justified: the Irishman delivered. Another Irish veteran, Paddy Mulligan, not so long ago a key Tottenham player, was helping along. Two more players were well known as well – Willie Johnston, Scottish international, and yet another Republic of Ireland international – Mick Martin. The rest of the squad was mostly local heroes – experienced and quite good to make a solid team. There was also one very young player named Bryan Robson, 19 years old, but already at his third season with the professionals. After a few years the world will know him well enough as captain of England and Manchester United. WBA was by far the most interesting side among the newly promoted clubs and, most importantly, it was a club building a momentum and eventually becoming better and better.
Yet, WBA is interesting in another aspect: it was usual practice of lower division clubs to use stars at the end of their careers – Giles and Mulligan were not exceptional at all – Bobby Moore, George Best, and Rodney Marsh played for Fulham this same season. Fulham finished 12th… old – or unruly – legs were hired to provide some class, stability, help the gates, but hardly anything more. Fulham was more or less the typical case: veterans were not enough for promotion. Giles and Mulligan, however, were… most likely because it was not only them, but rather a generally strong squad – the other teams looked like a few tired veterans and additional rag-tag bunch. Like Chelsea, who ended just a place above Fulham.
Back, from left: John Dempsey, Micky Droy, Derek Richsrdson,Steve Sherwood, Bill Garner, Ian Hutchinson.
Centre: Ron Harris, Martin Hinton, Garry Stanley, Ken Swain, Gary Locke, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Teddy Maybank.
Front: Ian Britton, Charlie Cooke, Graham Wilkins, Ray Wilkins, Steve Finnieston, Brian Bason, Steve Wicks.
True, Chelsea was plunging into finacial troubles and Second Division was shock to the system, for a club which not so long ago was beating Real Madrid, but it was tired squad too. The team depended on players who never really delivered – Hay, Hutchinson, Hollins, Garland, Houseman. Peter Bonetti was well beyond his prime and so was Ron Harris. Young talent seemed repeating the pattern of bright, promising beginning followed by years of disappointing mediocrity – Micky Droy and Ian Britton. By now, the front row, where traditionally apprentice players sat, was pretty much giving a list of the hopeless - players to avoid, if you are manager scouting talent. One Ray Wilkins sits there…