After today’s Boxing Day results, a five team log jam sits atop the Premier League table. This is the most competitive the top flight has been in the Premier League era. But in the 1970s, an era when each win was worth just two points, there’s a remarkable story to tell.
Derby County, under manager Brian Clough, had stormed the First Division (the old top flight in England), winning promotion to the First Division in May 1969 and finishing fourth in 1969-1970. The Rams were denied a place in the UEFA Cup due to “financial irregularities,” which prevented the club from making its European debut for a few more seasons.
Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester City were among the great teams of the era. And Leeds, as immortalized in The Damned United, in particular irked Clough. It was also an era when Spurs and Chelsea were very strong, though neither contended for the title this particular season.
Leeds United of the Don Revie era was a slicker side than many of their critics claimed, and were led by the dynamic trio of Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner and Peter Lorimer. Revie’s sides were physical but also very adept at getting the ball forward and taking on the opposition with their largely Scottish core.
Liverpool, towards the end of Bill Shankly era, were in the process of developing Kevin Keegan into one of the greatest footballers England has produced. Welshman John Toshack was the side’s leading goal scorer but Keegan provided the excitement and often times the killer balls to free Toshack. The Reds were in the midst of a six year major trophy drought at this time and had fallen behind the likes of Leeds, Manchester City, Spurs and Chelsea in recent seasons. This season would prove to be a near-miss for Liverpool but one that foretold the era of dominance that was to come in the very near future.
In March of 1972, cruising atop the table with a seven point lead and led by the unstoppable goal-scoring force of Franny Lee, Manchester City Assistant Manager Malcolm Allison (who was acting the de-facto Manager as manager Joe Mercer had taken the wrong side in a takeover fight of the club) thought that signing Rodney Marsh from QPR would seal the title and an era of blues dominance. Manchester City had won four trophies in three years culminating in 1970 but had gone trophy less in the 1970-71 season, and Allison in his colorful style had promised Blues supporters big success in the 1971-72 season.
Marsh was signed in late March for a then world-record £200,000 transfer fee from QPR. And the integration of the flamboyant Marsh proved troublesome for City. The Blues collapsed and, despite beating Derby late in the season, would finish a point behind the Rams, in fourth place tied on points with Leeds and Liverpool.
From Sky Sports description of the season:
“At the end of March 1972, Manchester City were edging a four-horse race for the trophy that also consisted of Leeds United, Liverpool and outsiders Derby County. Cruising on the back of four straight wins, the Blues were on course to repeat their title-winning antics from four years earlier. However, City stumbled into an untimely bad patch, collecting just seven points from seven games in a slump that proved extremely costly. They managed to beat Derby 2-0 in their final game of the season but by then it was too little too late and Brian Clough’s men took advantage of their game in hand to claim victory at home to Liverpool and clinch a first ever league championship.”
Derby’s season had ended a week before that of Leeds and Liverpool. But both chasing sides failed to win. And Clough, on a family vacation in Sicily, learned of Derby’s League triumph. Assistant Manager Peter Taylor and many of the Derby players had gone to Majorca and learned of the title via radio there.
The 1971-72 title victory over stronger, better established and better supported sides was a crowning achievement of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s reign. After Clough’s eccentric behavior got the duo fired from Derby seventeen months later and his failure at Leeds, Nottingham Forest came calling.
The rest is history. Clough and Taylor won back to back European Cups with Forest, becoming the second English team to achieve that feat.
In the 1971-72 season, the twists and turns of the league campaign ended with four teams within one point of one another. With intriguing characters like Clough, Allison, Marsh, Keegan and Revie providing the storylines, it goes down as one of the most fascinating campaigns in English top-flight football history.