Saturday, June 23, 2012

The grueling English season ended badly for three clubs: Sunderland, Stoke City, and Tottenham Hotspur. They finished at the bottom of the table and relegated. Well, one of the best qualities of the English game was precisely in that: no one, big or small, was safe. Glory went hand in hand with peril and often it was impossible to trace a pattern of real decline – a team may have been champion one season and bottom last the next. Yet, there were patterns – Sunderland was a likely candidate for relegation, for the club moved between 1st and 2nd Divisions most of the time. Unsettled, not quite strong and consistent, Sunderland were the usual suspects and generally battled for survival when in 1st Division. No surprise here – they finished 18th and went down.

To a point, Stoke City were no big surprise either: they were modest midtable club, lacking core of great players. Their biggest star was the goalkeeper – Gordon Banks at the beginning of the 70s, eventually replaced by Peter Shilton. How long a goalie can keep a club afloat? It was not that Stoke City did not fight – they finished with only 4 points less than the 13th placed Birmingham City, but in the fierce race for survival these 4 points were the whole difference between life and death.

And after 14 years playing with fire in 1st Division Stoke City moved down. Peter Shilton was going down.... well, not him, as it happened.

At the very bottom finished Tottenham Hotspur. Only few years back the Spurs looked great, winning UEFA Cups. Most of the players were still in the team and perhaps precisely that was the reason for the decline: it was typical English problem during the 70s, although not uniquely English or spesiphic characteristic of this decade. It is classic problem: how to replace a team of great stars, who inevitably aged? Hesitation leads to decline. The English clubs were particularly bad at replacing squads getting old – Manchester United suffered from that and went down, but by 1976-77 there were more following the disastrous example: Leeds United, Manchester City, the Spurs, West Ham United, Chelsea. On paper, they looked fine, but results were increasingly meager. Someone retires and familiar reserve, not very young by now, becomes a starter – but reserves were not going to sufficiently replace the outgoing stars and eventually big crush happens, requiring total makeover. Time was needed to build new efficient team – Manchester United was good example – but there was no guarantee – Chelsea went into a long painful slump. The Spurs evidently came to the point of no return, the crush occurred, they were down, big names and all. The only question was for the future – were they to follow Manchester United's path or Chelsea's? The Spurs had to find the answer in the 2nd Division.

Dead last: sitting from left:Naylor, Coates,Stead, Perrymann, Pratt, Conn, Neighbour, McAllister.

Standing: Jones, Armstrong, Walford, Daines, Burkinshaw – manager, Jennings, Young, Hoddle, Osgood.

Keith Burkinshaw failed in his season with the Spurs. Glen Hoddle, 19-years old, was to experience 2nd Division well before European fame and glory. Poor Pat Jennings...

Up the scale life was brighter: West Bromwich Albion finished 7th, starting a spell of strong years. Aston Villa was getting stronger too, ending at 4th place and scoring the most goals in the league – 76.

Ipswich Town continued their shrewd, consistent improvement - 3rd place this year, only 1 point behind the champions and losing silver medals on goal difference. Ipswich was bettered by Manchester City, who finished second. Their best position since the champion title in 1968. A sweet revenge on their enemy Manchester United, who were 'only' third placed a year earlier.

Tony Book, City's legend from just a few years back, was the manager and everything looked just great: young manager tightly connected with the club seemingly successful. A revival? Escaping the fate of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur? At the moment, it appeared to be just that... from the distance of time it was an illusion. The core of the team was still made of veterans Tony Book played with – Colin Bell, Joe Corrigan, Mike Doyle, Gary Owen, Tommy Booth, Glyn Pardoe. Getting old and therefore no better than before. None interested the manager of the English national team anymore. To them were added players with solid reputations: Brian Kidd and Joe Royle. Alas, they were similar to the veterans: experienced, but no longer getting better, just aging. Younger additions – Dave Watson, Dennis Tueart, and Asa Hartford – promised much more, for they were at the peak of their careers. But... with the possible exception of Watson, they were not to be leaders like Colin Bell. Not of the same caliber, particularly Tueart. Peter Barnes was the greatest young hope, only to fade away in the next few seasons. Impressive squad only on paper and not one to carry on for long: retirement and moving to USA and West Germany (Watson) happened to be the near future. In a way, it was the last spurt of greatness for the Citizens, masking for the moment the real story – decline. If the boys were five years younger... but they were not. At least they 'died' in style.