Great Football League Teams 49: Bristol City 1975-6
For Number 49 in our Great Teams series, we are pleased to welcome back close friend of the blog Paul Binning, head honcho of the fantastic The Exiled Robin. Paul’s post centres upon a promotion winning team but is more than usually long in providing context to that year both before and after – and I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fascinating read that makes the typical trajectory of a rollercoaster seem rather humdrum. Paul can be followed on twitter at @TheExiledRobin.
Sometimes, events occur that make you realise your true standing in life. When the emotional mask of expectation is removed and those rose-tinted spectacles are lowered onto the brow of the nose, you can realise that things aren’t quite all they seem.
And so it was for me, a lifelong Bristol City fan, when I was asked to talk about our greatest ever team. For when it came down to it, there was only one real choice. One genuinely great team that I could write about even in the perspective-bending world of football and this was one I hadn’t even had the privilege of seeing in person.
For over the past thirty years, it’s got to be said Bristol City have been distinctly average. Since promotion from the basement division in 1984, City have spent the subsequent three decades yo-yoing between the middle two levels, primarily in the bottom half of that grouping. They did much the same in the 65 years prior to that. Ultimately, I’ve come to realise we are a prime example of a middle-of-the-road-always-promising-more club. In fact, we’re almost as middling as it gets.
Yes we’ve had some fun moments, plenty of excitement and some times of huge promise. Terry Cooper took teams including David Moyes and Keith Curle to Wembley twice in the mid 1980s and, coming as it did just a few years after our near-extinction (this tale will end with that particular footnote later), gave some truly special moments to the suffering supporter base.
Soon after, Joe Jordan’s team were to appear in a (then-rare) televised League Cup semi-final against the (then-mighty) Nottingham Forest – Ol’ Big ‘Ead, son Nigel, Des Walker, Neil Webb, Franz Carr ‘n’ all – and were a few agonising inches away from beating them to Wembley. The year after saw Joe seal promotion back to the second tier with Super Bob Taylor scoring a bucketload of goals to bring joy to Ashton Gate. That team eventually evolved into the one Russell Osman took to Anfield and defeat the (then-mighty) Liverpool in one of our finest moments of the last 30 years.
Were any of these teams great? No, not really. Some fantastic moments but ultimately they’re all also-rans in the grand scheme of football where the top flight’s shiny golden promise attracts glamour like light to a moth.
Once relegation came around again, Danny Wilson gave us a few years of the most entertaining football we’ve seen in recent times, using a bunch of young local lads to good effect alongside some astute signings. Alas, year after year would see us fail to achieve the promotion that the team – and Wilson – probably deserved. Many fans would argue this was their favourite team but, again, they weren’t great.
Then there was Gary Johnson and the oh-so-improbable near miss. The promotion team, in 2007, was great to watch. Neat and tidy, playing football in the right way and with creative forces such as Alex Russell and David Noble entertaining the crowds, our momentum carried us through a more attritional, but equally successful, year back in the Championship. Many will remember that Dean Windass volley which propelled the Tigers of Hull to the promised land of the Premier League and set our two clubs on starkly different paths.
Don’t get me wrong, the last thirty years could have been a whole lot worse – but they could certainly have been better.
As it is, the only side I can really write about, assuming the 1909 FA Cup finalists are slightly out of scope, is Alan Dicks’ great side of the 1970s – a team that is still adored, revered and can largely be individually named by supporters who didn’t even grace the earth until many years after their successes. And even this is a tale that ended in heartbreak, finger-pointing and devastation.
It was a team which had its roots in youth and in a relatively revolutionary scouting policy from Dicks. He had arrived at City with a reputation as a modern manager, having been assistant manager to Jimmy Hill at Coventry in the time they gained two successive promotions to Division One. His style didn’t always endear himself to the hats and suits of the Boardroom. He signed striker John Galley from Huddersfield whilst his left ankle was in plaster, to much chagrin. Galley eventually made his debut six weeks later and scored a hat-trick in his first match. Dicks also appointed a chief scout who lived in Rochdale – his argument was that half the clubs in the league were within a 90 minute drive of there, so why does the chief scout need to be based in Bristol? Sensible, perhaps, but certainly not ‘the done thing’. This policy was also put in place to specifically attract players from the north of England and Scotland; as Dicks recognised,the big London and Midlands clubs seemed to be sweeping up all the southern talent outside of Bristol.
For a few years Dicks battled to survive. He cites a relegation-surviving win against Charlton Athletic in his first season as the best in his career as he believes it, and the goals of Galley and young Bristol boy Chris Garland – saved his job. In retrospect it was clear that during this time Dicks’ policies and plans were visibly evolving. His instinct was to create a young squad of local payers, supplemented by experience in key positions and alongside Garland, as far back as 1968, Dicks gave a debut to 18-year-old England and Bristol Boys skipper, Geoff Merrick.
That season City finished nineteenth in the old second division, the following November they were struggling again and cries of “Dicks must go” were first heard – for some reason “Dicks out” wasn’t seen as appropriate by a largely gentlemanly crowd!
Dicks survived this scare and over the next couple of years his northern scouting focus uncovered a full back named Brian Drysdale at Hartlepool, a pair of brothers named Ritchie – including Tom – and a terrier-like young Glaswegian named Gerry Gow. Having introduced Merrick as an 18-year-old, Dicks saw enough in Gow to go one better and gave him his first start at just 17 years of age.
Helped by the uncovering of such raw talent and by adding the likes of local lads David Rodgers, Keith Fear and a young left-back named Ray Cashley, a young coach by the name of John Sillett – who famously went onto win the F.A. Cup with Coventry – was beginning to turn the youth team into something worth watching. More than 10,000 were at Ashton Gate to see this talented group – including seven of the team who would win promotion some six years later – beat Leeds United in the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals.
By the way, you did just read ‘left-back named Ray Cashley’. He was a paint-making apprentice and realising he wasn’t looking to be cut out for professional football, he took a turn in goal when the regular youth ‘keeper got injured. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the next few years City bounced up and down the second division, surviving relegation (again!) by just one point in 1970-1 and then finishing eighth the following season. In the 1972-3 season there were the first indications that this group of youngsters were on the verge of achieving something special, when a fifth placed finish raised expectations amongst all involved.
It was during this time that the first warning signs of what lay ahead started to poke their head above the surface. Chairman Harry Dolman had built a fantastic new stand but at a quarter of a million pounds, it had plunged the club into heavy debt. Dolman, and Dicks indeed, were both chasing the dream of turning City into the giants of the West.
It was also in these years that Cashley made his first-team debut in goal, whilst the likes of Gow and Tom Ritchie had established themselves as regulars, Gow’s goals from midfield somewhat compensating for the sale of local hero Chris Garland to Chelsea for the impossible-to-refuse offer of £110,000.
The Scottish scouting network turned up trumps yet again when £22,000 was spent on Morton midfielder Gerry Sweeney and, a little later, striker Donnie Gillies from the same club, whilst Trevor Tainton joined his former Bristol and England Boys teammate Merrick in the first team.
Merrick, being touted as the new Bobby Moore locally, had by this time become the club’s youngest-ever captain three months shy of his twenty first birthday – another sign of Dicks’ rare sense of man-management and slightly maverick nature!
Merrick and co. had been replaced in the youth team by eighteen-year-old Gary Collier, and he led the youth team to their only appearance in the FA Youth cup final, as well as a trophy win in the Blauw Wit tournament in Amsterdam, after which they signed a young and lanky petrol pump attendant who had impressed them, on professional terms. It was to prove momentous – that young man was Clive Whitehead.
Despite the seemingly burgeoning team spirit and youthful enthusiasm, that fifth-place finish was followed by a disappointing season in the league where Dicks again found his job under pressure. However, it was also that year which provided an occasion when the club and fans alike began to think and act like they deserved better.
An unremarkable FA Cup third round replay win at Hull City was followed by a scrappy win on the mud heap of Hereford, which in turn earned a home tie against Don Revie’s great Leeds United team – a chance for the players to show their true quality, but also a critical boost for the clubs wavering bank balance. 37,141 packed into Ashton Gate paying much-needed gate receipts of £28,000 and saw City battle to a well-deserved 1-1 draw.
The replay was played on a Tuesday afternoon due to the mass national power strikes and the three-day week ensured fans could attend, so more than 8,000 fans travelled north to see the making of Gow, Merrick and the rest. Gow was irresistible, snapping into tackles so quickly and ferociously even the great Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter could have little impact, whilst Merrick marshalled his back line to such effect that Peter Lorimer and the rest had just one chance of any note. In the seventy third minute Donnie Gillies burst through to score, and City held on for a truly famous win – big enough to warrant an appearance on the front page of The Times for the goal scorer the next morning!
It was a genuine milestone. It was a game the players could use as a benchmark and most remarkably, ten of the eleven that faced Leeds that afternoon were regulars in the side that would eventually attain that long-awaited First Division status more than two years later. Dicks’ side was moulding together nicely.
An increasingly impressive Liverpool side, managed by Bill Shankly, awaited in the quarter-finals and although John Toshack won the game with a fortunate goal, another 37,000+ crowd helped pay off another chunk of the overdraft and, crucially, allow the club to reject six-figure offers for Merrick and Collier soon afterwards.
The cash, plus the omnipresent youth policy which meant many players were on lower-than-average wages, also allowed Dicks to have an impressive 32 players in his first-team squad the following season, giving him the flexibility to try new things and test his youngsters without over-exposing them. The cup success also gave Dicks the platform to negotiate a unique contract for himself worth £7,000 a year, which would automatically be renewed for two years each season, meaning a full years pay should he ever be sacked. It was another sign of Dicks’ modern thinking, but also of the club’s fear of losing their top talents outweighing the respect for financial prudence.
Buoyed by the Leeds and Liverpool performances, the following season City were in the promotion spots after a win at Southampton on Good Friday but then faced rivals Norwich City, who hadn’t had a game that day, 24 hours later. The Canaries’ extra freshness helped them to a victory that would ultimately prove decisive and they, not City, finished third and gained that treasured top-flight spot.
However, the seed had been truly sown this time and Alan Dicks’ confidence in one of his more recent signings, forward Paul Cheesley (yet another local lad), eventually paid off. The bean-pole Tom Ritchie played up-front to partner Cheesley, who was shaped more like a traditional rugby forward, and a brilliant partnership was born. It was to prove the final piece in the jigsaw.
Goals flowed as City swept into the top two with Ritchie’s hat-trick particularly eye-catching in front of the Match of the day cameras in the second 4-1 defeat of York City of the season – Cheesley had notched three in the first match.
Aside from the headline grabbing duo up front, Cashley was solid between the sticks, Merrick and Collier were masterful and both showing leadership in abundance whilst Gow and Tainton controlled games from the centre of the pitch, meaning City had as strong a central core as any team in the division. Drysdale, Gillies – converted by the brilliantly-eccentric Dicks from striker to right-back – Sweeney, Whitehead and Jimmy Mann played the supporting roles with hard work and no little talent on the flanks.
A sure sign of the priorities came when a third-round FA Cup defeat was seen as an opportunity, rather than a disappointment. For Dicks, it gave him the chance to nag and harry his Plymouth counterpart into switching their Easter Saturday fixture to late January, mindful as he was of the impact of the Norwich game the previous season.
Right in the middle of this promising season, however, the financial reality again bit home as Arsenal bid £250,000 for Ritchie and Merrick. For two weeks the fans and Dicks tried to persuade the Board not to sell, who in turn had to explain to the bank why they weren’t meeting the ultimatum they’d been set on clearing the overdraft with the opportunity presented. Compromise was eventually reached with fans asked to stave off the bank by buying their season-tickets for the following season a couple of months early and £66,000 was raised in just a few days.
Ritchie continued scoring goals and proving the Board had made a wise decision and thousands of Bristolians were by now following City everywhere. When a trip to old rivals Bristol Rovers yielded a solitary point on Good Friday, City went into their final two games knowing just two points were needed to secure their long-awaited promotion.
On Easter Tuesday, lowly Portsmouth arrived at Ashton Gate expecting to be lambs to the promotion-party-slaughter. The ground was full and expectation feverish – especially when Clive Whitehead – that former petrol pump attendant who was offered a second chance by City – scored after only three minutes.
Both sides seemed overwhelmed by the atmosphere and a scrappy match ensued, however, and it wasn’t for another 87 long minutes – as fans were already clambering over the barriers and engulfing the touchlines – that City were certain of the victory and the all-important points.
Dicks had been afforded time all too rarely granted even in those days and had stuck to his guns on the way he wanted to do things. His local policy had produced true heroes in the likes of Merrick, Tainton, Collier and Cheesley, whilst his well-established scouting network had unearthed Scottish gems such as the irrepressible Gow, Ritchie, Sweeney and Gillies.
He’d given youth its chance whilst producing a spine of the team that was strong, providing goals and robustness in defence in equal measure. To this he’d added the still-fashionable flair of old-fashioned wingers but ensured they worked with the rest – there were no fancy-dans or tantrums with this City team.
65 long years after their last appearance in the top flight, City were back.
Of course, as alluded to earlier, the story naturally didn’t end with years of unbroken, glorious football! As if to indicate the fact the club had reached its ceiling, Dicks struggled to make the signings he wanted over the summer and no-one came in to bolster the ranks.
Cheesley , by then an England under-23 international and being talked about as a future full international, scored the only goal in a famous win at Highbury on the opening day, with City nullifying Arsenal’s huge summer signing Malcolm ‘Supermac’ MacDonald. In the following game – City’s first at home in the First Division – Cheesley challenged Stoke City’s Peter Shilton in the air but landed awkwardly and tore ligaments and cartilage in his knee.
He never played for City again.
Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter arrived during the season and from reputation alone I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been to be an opposition player with Hunter and Gow snapping at your every move!
The first season ended in truly sensational and unusual style and is well remembered. City travelled to Coventry City for the last game of the season with both teams threatened by relegation. More than 15,000 fans went for the evening game, with a judge at Bristol Crown Court even adjourning early so members of the jury could get there in time! The congestion of so many fans arriving at once, crucially, caused the game to start around ten minutes late.
Sunderland were also under threat and their 2-0 loss at Everton meant both City and Coventry would survive with a point each. Scores were level at 2-2 when the final whistle went at Goodison Park so, with ten minutes left, Coventry chairman Jimmy Hill, perhaps partly in a nod to his former protégé, Dicks, forced the score to be flashed up on the big scoreboard, this being of course in the days prior to live score apps, Twitter and smartphones. Cheers from all four corners of the ground alerted the players to the scenario and they soon realised what they needed to do and the game became a farce. City had the ball and just kept possession – unchallenged – in their own half whilst everyone else on the pitch and on the side-lines shook hands and wandered around celebrating survival until the referee put everyone out of their misery.
City were staying in the first division and there was huge optimism that, with a couple of big-name signings, progress could be made. And it was, finishes of seventeenth and thirteenth represented progress and consolidation but the club began to unravel off it. Boardroom coups, Extraordinary General meetings and legal fights provided a backdrop no-one needed and it unsettled the whole club.
The promotion team naturally broke up over those few seasons but it was events at the end of the 1978-9 season that proved pivotal and so nearly fatal. Hunter decided to go back to Yorkshire which was a blow, but the departure of Gary Collier, who had come to the end of his contract, really stung City.
The Football League had just revised its rules so that players out of contract could freely talk to other clubs, and Collier became the first player in the country to leave in such a manner, his fee being decided by the tribunal system we all grew to love in the eighties and nineties before Jean-Marc Bosman’s landmark ruling stretched this particular rules tweak irreversibly.
The club were shocked and hurt and reacted without due consideration. Dicks – backed by his super rolling deal – decided he couldn’t afford to lose his best players again (despite the tribunal fee being a record fee of £350,000) so persuaded the Board to sign up most of the regular first-team squad on lucrative, long-term contracts in an attempt to ensure they all ended their careers with City. Clive Whitehead got handed an incredible 11-year deal.
However, relegation followed and the attendances dropped. In the days before parachute payments there was no fall-back position and there were no relegation clauses in the long-term deals. City were paying first division wages in the second division and the club was mired in in-fighting and desolation at the loss of the hard-earned top flight place. Dicks paid the price for a poor start with his job late in the autumn, but the change in manager proved fruitless and another relegation followed. Another year later, with many of the players who had featured in the top flight just 27 months earlier still playing, City were relegated yet again, to the bottom division.
Having taken 65 years to achieve relative greatness, City had become the first side to ever suffer three successive relegations from top to bottom division. Crucially, eight of the squad – Gerry Sweeney, Geoff Merrick, Chris Garland, Trevor Tainton, Jimmy Mann, Dave Rodgers, Peter Aitken and Julian Marshall – were still at the club and being paid big money whilst attendances had dwindled to a few thousand and the small amount of TV money had long since disappeared. City had chased the big time and come seriously, spectacularly unstuck.
It came to a head in early 1982 when the creditors – including the Inland Revenue and the football league – forced City’s hand. Massively in debt and losing £5,000 per week, the club had what they saw as little choice. The company would have to be made bankrupt and refounded – but the new company couldn’t afford to have expensive contracts as part of the burden going forward, so the club called in the eight players – most of them heroes of the top flight – and asked them to agree to a cut-price settlement and to walk away.
This wasn’t the era of the mega-rich footballer and the decision was not an easy one. The players were mainly nearing the end of their careers and had expected to see out their time at the club. They fought bitterly, trying to find alternatives and pleading with the club to not have to force them into this ‘best-of-all-evils’ decision. But ultimately no alternative was found and, with just minutes to go until the deadline set, the players walked out of Ashton Gate as free agents, having forgone a significant sum of money that had been promised them.
Eight players with more than 80 years at the club and more than 2,000 appearances between them, cast aside as unwilling saviours and heroes of a different nature than they’d been used to.
And so it was that Bristol City (1982) were formed. A sad, tiny shadow cast where just six years earlier there had been such a great beacon of hope and promise.
Dicks’ team of local lads and committed, hard-working working-class additions had been great and are still remembered as such. They’ll also always be inextricably linked to the disaster that followed.