Our 1976-77 First Division campaign can best be described as one which consisted of two rather distinct periods. For roughly the first two-thirds can best be described as disastrous overall, when at times we couldn’t even muster a goal for neither love nor money, let alone a win(s). All of which left us rooted to the bottom of the First Division table, and seemingly without little if any hope of avoiding the drop back to the Second Division. Then suddenly, out of the blue, came a period which surely even the most optimistic of us at the time couldn’t really have envisaged, when we scored goals for fun, and recorded some great wins. All-in-all, a run of “Championship form” which gave us a real fighting chance of retaining our top-flight status.
However, in spite of this, and as had been so often the case so many times previously (and indeed many times since), our eventual fate in 1976-77 all hinged on the outcome of our very last game, this time at Goodison Park against Everton, on 19th May, 1977. And the scenario was that with Spurs and Stoke City already down, one of three clubs, namely ourselves, Bristol City and Coventry, would fill the remaining relegation spot. All three clubs were locked on thirty-four points, but we had the best goal difference, though to make the issue a bit more intriguing, Coventry actually met Bristol in a rather crucial clash at Highfield Road, on the same night as our “game of destiny” at Goodison.
But providing we could get a win against Everton, then we’d be safe no matter what the outcome was at Coventry. A draw would even suffice, providing the other vital game also ended all-square, while even if we lost, if either Coventry or Bristol emerged victorious, we’d still survive. Though really, we needed to go all-out for the two points, thus the scene was then set for a rather gripping conclusion to the First Division relegation issue of 1976-77.
So backed by a fair-sized contingent in the crowd of just over 36,000, we began brightly, but were dealt a blow after just ten minutes. For following the award of a free-kick, Bob Latchford sent in a backward header which left Barry Siddall helpless on it‘s way into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Not the start we’d have hoped for, but we battled back gamely, and twice in the space of a few minutes came close to an equaliser. Firstly, Mel Holden headed just wide following a cross from Gary Rowell, then a corner from Bobby Kerr picked out Jackie Ashurst, whose own headed attempt just cleared the bar.
Undeterred by these near misses, we kept up the pressure, but in spite of the best efforts of Kevin Arnott, Shaun Elliott, Mel Holden, Bobby Kerr, Bob Lee and Gary Rowell in particular, nothing would seem to go right for us in front goal. A point perhaps emphasised just before the break, when a fine pass from Joe Bolton picked out Mel Holden, who beat Neil Robinson, only to see his well-hit drive saved at the foot of the post by Everton keeper Dai Davies. But Everton had still had further chances, though thanks to some fine work in the main from Barry Siddall and Jackie Ashurst, we went in at the interval only one goal worse off, and with the game, and indeed our First Division status, still very much retrievable.
Could we then retrieve the game after the break? Well, we began the second period in determined style, and both Shaun Elliott & Bob Lee had fine efforts blocked, and while we continued on the offensive, we just couldn’t find a way through a somewhat resolute Everton rearguard. Then ten minutes from the end, we looked as if we might grab a priceless equaliser, when a powerful effort from Joe Bolton rebounded off the chest off Dai Davies, but the keeper was able to pounce on the ball before Gary Rowell could try and take advantage.
It was now more or less do-or-die stuff, as the game entered injury time, but with us having committed so many men forward in search of that vital leveller, we were made to pay the price, when Everton grabbed a killer second goal. A long ball through the middle picked out Bruce Ricoh, who went on to easily beat Barry Siddall. Truly sickening!
So the game ended 0-2, we’d given everything we had, but sadly, our efforts had ultimately proved to be in vain, though there was one last hope. For that crucial game at Highfield Road still had fifteen minutes or so to run, it’s start having been delayed due to apparent crowd/traffic congestion. However, by the time our own game had ended, the Coventry vs Bristol City clash stood level at 2-2, a draw of course being the only possible result which could send us down. Would either Bristol or Coventry then do us a favour?
Unfortunately not, for what actually happened was rather controversial/farcical to say the least. For the news of our defeat at Goodison Park was made known to all at Highfield Road, including of course the players, who now know knew exactly what they had to do in order to achieve safety. And what followed amounted to nothing more than a “Sunday morning kickabout”, with both sets of players seemingly putting in the minimum of effort, safe in the knowledge that if the score remained at 2-2, both their clubs would be safe. Which is exactly what happened, thus after an agonising fifteen minutes or so wait, our players, fans and management began the trip back to Wearside, no doubt not only gravely disappointed at our all-too-brief stay in the top flight, but also bitter at the controversial/farcical manner in which our fate had been sealed.
Not surprisingly, this rather sad and controversial episode provoked an outcry on our part, and prompted one or two rather relevant points. For in view of the fact that there was roughly the same gate at both Goodson Park and Highfield Road, i.e. around 36,000, it seemed a bit strange that our game still kicked-off on time, yet the start of Coventry vs Bristol game was delayed, due to the aforementioned reasons. Also of course, the fact that once the result of our game became known at Highfield Road, neither Coventry or Bristol made any real attempt to win, and this rather unprofessional/competitive end to their own meeting, surely went completely against the spirit of the game (amongst other things).
Sadly, and after the football authorities had been inundated with letters of complaint, all Coventry received for their rather controversial actions was merely a reprimand, which in all truth amounted to nothing more than the proverbial “slap on the wrist”. Which perhaps led us to wonder just what penalty we’d have faced, had we been guilty of a similar offence. As it happened, we did have to endure a punishment of sorts, i.e. no reprieve, and our third top-flight relegation. The conclusion of our 1976-77 campaign had been oh, so cruel indeed.