Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Blackpool, Mansfield Town, and Hull City lost their places in Second Division. Blackpool tried hard to escape relegation – 8 clubs finished with 38 points, Blackpool was unlucky with 37. If they got one more point, they would have been safe – especially with their amusing for relegated club goal-difference of -1 goal: 59-60. There was no club with 38 points with even close goal-difference. One point – the whole difference between life and death. Mansfield Town and Hull City had no bite and took 21st and 22nd places in the final table.

Dead last, Hull City distinguished themselves as the only second-division club finishing with less than 10 wins in the league – their measly 8 victories were precisely three times less than the wins of the league champion.

The season was harsh for almost every team in the league – 18 clubs were more concerned with survival than easy life. At the end 8 points divided Blackburn Rovers, 5th, and the relegated Blackpool, 20th. Blackburn ended with negative – and worse than Blackpool's – goal-difference. In fact, Blackpool had better goal-difference than 13 clubs, 11 of which were better placed at the end. Of the bulk, only three teams finished with positive goal-difference – Sunderland, 6th, Stoke City, 7th, and Crystal Palace, 9th. Fulham, 10th, finished with neutral record – 49-49. Adding the clubs at the very top, only 8 clubs – 1/3 of the total – finished the season on the positive side. With most of the league fighting for survival, only four clubs were concerned with promotion – they were high above the rest: their was 12-point chasm between 4th and 5th at the end. The battle for promotion was fierce – 2 points divided 1st from 4th, and goal-difference decided who was to go up and who was to stay for another year down. Brighton & Hove Albion were the losers, although they had the second-best defensive record in the league. Scoring was not their forte, however, and they finished 4th. Lucky were Tottenham Hotspur – relegated the previous year, the Londoners stayed only a single season in Second Division.

Tottenham obviously were determined to return to their usual place among the best, but it was not easy – to the last moment promotion was not secured. The team lost only 6 matches – the least in the league – and scored the most goals – 83 – but their defense was leaky. They allowed 49 goals in their net – 10 more than the rest of the top clubs and the only top-4 team receiving more than a goal per match on average. The photo is not really the squad of the year, although normally is given as '1977-78 picture' – here is Pat Jennings, who left after the disastrous 1976-77 season and joined Arsenal. Tottenham was one more victim of the eternal problem of replacing great, but inevitably aging team – the transition was not smooth and the club suffered. Three players of the great early-70s squad still remained – Terry Naylor, Steve Perryman, and Ralph Coates – but the manager Keith Burkinshaw was still trying and hardly had even a small group of new players with strong potential. More or less, he had only Glenn Hoddle – 20-years old and at his third season in professional football. No wonder Tottenham barely qualified for promotion, but still they did.

At second place finished Southampton – with a point more than the Spurs, but also a point less than the champions. Southampton was relegated in 1973-74 and so far was unable to reach promotional finish. It was strange, for unlike other relegated clubs Southampton did not lose its stars – Mike Channon in particular, who was essential national team player. Nor they had declining team like Chelsea or Tottenham. Yet, Southampton seemed settled in Second Division – but this year they finally were on the move up. Successfully too.

The winners of the championship were a surprise – Bolton Wanderers.

Bolton missed promotion by a hair in 1975-76 and 1976-77 – both seasons they finished 4th, one point short of the coveted third promotional place. Obviously performing well and getting ambitious – third time lucky – but really the club was climbing up since 1972-73, when they won the Third Division and moved to Second. As for top flight, the last time Bolton played in First Division was 1963-64, when they finished second to last and were relegated. By now they were more or less forgotten and it was even a bit strange they were to play with the best.

Although Bolton won most matches during the season – 24 – and had the best defensive record, allowing only 33 goals, they did not look like a team able of surviving in First Division. Three fading by now stars – Willie Morgan (formerly of Manchester United), Peter Thompson (formerly of Liverpool), and the 36-years old Irishman Tony Dunne, formerly of the great Manchester United squad of the 1960s – and hardly anything else. Thompson, 35-years old by now, actually retired after the end of the season. Dunne did not last either, except in ManUnited history, where he still is one of leading players with 414 matches for the team. Frank Worthington arrived from Leicester City and scored important goals, but... he was Worthington: women and booze were more important to him than football. Sam Allardyce perhaps rings some bells today, but that is the name of the coach, not of the player. Allardyce had no fame in his playing days. For the sake of diversity, it was great to see a modest club going up, but winning Second Division was clearly to be their major success – Bolton had no strength to survive in the First. Not for long anyway. But hope dies last, especially for devoted fans – it was great so far and may be better in the future.