In the last six months there has been a number of new books looking back at what football was like before it became transformed by television and I have reviewed a couple of those previously. The latest by Daniel Abrahams takes us back to the 1971/72 season and he provides a well-written and engaging account of how the campaign unfolded with observations to highlight the changes of the past fifty years, in particular since the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.
Although his book covers key events in the Football League as well as in Scottish, European and international football, the focus is on the leading sides in England and the chase for league as well as cup glory. However the case for 1971/72 being football’s greatest season is based on more than nostalgia and he highlights the fact that the fight for the FL Championship was the closest in history, the last time when any team in the top half of the top division could conceivably have finished first. Likewise, the champions that season – Derby County – were the seventh different title winners in seven seasons. (Had Leeds defeated Wolves when they played shortly after the FA Cup Final they would have won the Double.)
Daniel Abrahams’ narrative is chronological and the reader is emersed in a thriller of unfolding twists and turns that were undoubtedly exciting. It was a season of drama and surprises yet there were no more than four live games on TV with reliance instead upon radio commentary as the means to follow the drama. As he writes, ‘TV enhanced the football as opposed to ruling it.’ The leading managers – the likes of Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Don Revie and Malcolm Allison – were also household celebrities and in contrast with the modern game, the leading players were exclusively British and Irish and with the notable exception of Clyde Best at West Ham they were also white. European competition was secondary not just to the league but also the FA Cup and even the FL Cup. There was no shortage of domestic competitions, for example the Watney Cup (in which Halifax Town secured a famous victory over Manchester United at The Shay in front of 19,965) and the Home Internationals.
The 1971/72 season was likewise the first when I became interested in football and that probably had a lot to do with my class teacher who needed little persuasion to talk about the events narrated in this book. In fact it’s probably more pertinent to say that the only thing I remember about school at that time was learning about football and I still have my Soccer Stars sticker album and Bartholomews football map from that season. Collecting and swapping those stickers was a big part of school life and the album provided the necessary reference to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night or Yorkshire TV’s Football Special on a Sunday afternoon.
I still have my Soccer Stars album for the 1971/72 season, albeit only 90% complete and it was the likes of George Best and England’s World Cup heroes who were the elusive stickers, reflecting the imbalance of supply relative to the demand among collectors for the celebrity players. Included in the book are anecdotes about the football memorabilia and collectables released during the season and for those who remember them it is great nostalgia, for example the Esso coins of that season to commemorate the FA Cup Final centenary.
Without exception, mainstream media coverage at that time was about Division One (the first division, that is) and mention of Bradford football in those days was virtually non-existent in other than the Telegraph & Argus – and even in Bradford’s own paper there were more column inches reporting Leeds United. It was left to the classified results and league tables to find anything about Bradford City and in that regard, 1971/72 could hardly be described as having been a classic season given that the Paraders finished bottom of Division Three.
It was a salutary lesson for me that Bradford was excluded from the glamour of English football and existed in a parallel but distant universe. There was at least a degree of consolation when Bradford City was featured in the centre spread of the Football League Review in April, 1972, a series of team photographs from all four divisions of the Football League and it is all that I can remember of my first visit to Valley Parade with my father. The only other highlight that season was for the club flag to be represented at the Centenary FA Cup Final at Wembley as former cup holders.
As for Bradford Park Avenue, that club was already virtually forgotten outside the district although playing in Division One in 1971/72 were Avenue alumni Kevin Hector (Derby County), Terry Dolan (Huddersfield Town), Kenny Hibbitt (Wolves) and Dave Lawson (Huddersfield Town). (In June, 1972 Lawson was transferred to Everton in a then record £85,000 fee for a British goalkeeper.)
Kicked out of the Football League in 1970 in place of Cambridge United, Bradford laboured in the Northern Premier League and finished the 1971/72 campaign in 18th position. The club had applied for re-election in June, 1971 and received just one vote, trailing other applicants including Hereford United (22), Wigan Athletic (14), Cambridge City, Telford United and Yeovil Town (2 apiece). It did no better the following year and at the AGM of the FL on 2nd June, 1972 managed a solitary vote falling well behind others in the election: Northampton Town, [49 votes, re-elected); Crewe Alexandra, (46, re-elected); Stockport United, (26, re-elected); Barrow and Hereford United, (22 apiece – Hereford elected on a revote) but the same as Cambridge City and Wimbledon although better than Wigan Athletic (0 votes).
Affairs at both Bradford clubs were dominated by the challenge to remain solvent. At Park Avenue there were ongoing discussions to vacate the ground and its potential development as a sports centre. Options for the club included relocation to Odsal or potentially sharing a junior ground at Parry Lane (home of Bradford Rovers AFC) but the prospect of a move to Valley Parade was likely the least preferred. In the event, Bradford spent another campaign at Park Avenue and ended up as tenants in Manningham for the 1973/74 season which also proved to the club’s final prior to liquidation in May, 1974.
Unfortunately, Daniel Abrahams’ coverage of lower division clubs is superficial (albeit more extensive than that afforded to Scottish football) and his mention of Workington Town (as opposed to Workington FC – the former being a rugby league club) is unfortunate. Whilst he narrates the circumstances of Barrow losing FL membership at the end of the 1971/72 season – replaced by Hereford who had famously defeated Newcastle in the FA Cup in February, 1972 – his portrayal of English football fifty years ago would have benefited from more content about other unfashionable sides who struggled to exist in the shadow of the celebrities. (To be fair, such a task would have been difficult with the paucity of historic mainstream media coverage making research into the affairs of lower division clubs less straightforward.)
As to whether 1971/72 was English football’s greatest season is questionable. Undoubtedly there was plenty of excitement but in hindsight it seems more appropriate to describe it as the end of an era, an end of innocence before the game became subsumed in crises of terrace violence, loss of life and financial failures, ultimately to become dominated by commercialism and TV. As Daniel Abrahams has recorded, those themes were already present in 1971/72 (ominously with the immediate aftermath of the Ibrox Disaster) but I doubt that anyone could have predicted the extent of change by 2021/22. It is however poignant that fifty years later, Derby County – the League Champions in 1971/72 – now face potential liquidation given the extent of the club’s financial difficulties.
His book is a fascinating and thought-provoking read and I believe it is equally accessible to younger fans who did not live through the era. Inclusion of league tables and more photographs would have been welcome to complement the narrative but it’s a minor gripe and does not prevent my recommendation.
71/72 Football’s Greatest Season? by Daniel Abrahams is published by Pitch (2021), price £16.99
Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour