Almost a year to the day we were walking out at Wembley to face Liverpool in the FA Cup Final, we emerged at Meadow Lane knowing that relegation to the third tier was a very real possibility,
After the brilliant work Denis Smith did to get us up only five years before, we were staring down the barrel once more.
While at Wembley there’d been optimism and hope, at Notts Country there was despondency and desolation.
Malcolm Crosby had been replaced as manager by his own summer signing, former England skipper, Terry Butcher. Where once we had John Byrne, we now had the ageing Mick Harford. Paul Bracewell had been replaced in the centre of midfield by Shaun Cunnington – ‘the new David Platt’ they told us. As it turned out, he played football more like the Corrie character than the England skipper.
It was a tight battle at the bottom of Division Two as we entered the last game of the season. Only Bristol Rovers had been officially relegated, while three points separated Birmingham in 22nd and Luton in 17th.
Seven teams could finish in the final two relegation spots, including Sunderland and Notts County, but a win for Terry Butcher’s men would guarantee survival.
It had been a thoroughly miserable season, compounded by the fact that a football team had been formed north of the Tyne. A ridiculous 4-1 win the previous weekend over promotion-chasing Portsmouth had given us a bit of hope, but a midweek defeat to Tranmere (the rearrangement of the game that had seen Crosby sacked by virtue of a Pools panel defeat) had brought everyone crashing down to earth with a bump.
But you always think, don’t you: today they’ll ‘get it’. Today they’ll understand the importance of the game. Today they’ll do the business. They’re not as bad as all that.
It was a game we simply had to win. A game against a team below us in the table. And, on a blisteringly hot day in Nottingham, backed by more than 7000 away fans in a crowd of 14,000, we got the game underway.
After 38 minutes, we were 3-0 down.
The crowd left the team in no doubt as to their feelings.
At half time, we crowded around people with radios, listening intently for score updates. With defeat almost guaranteed, a win for either Cambridge or Brentford would send us down.
West Ham were one up in a very tight game against Cambridge – David Speedie for once doing Sunderland a favour. Bristol City were also beating Brentford.
They were ‘welcomed’ back for the second half, Bally pulled a consolation back, but we were never going to get back into the game. The team looked out of it.
As we entered the closing minutes, it looked like we were going to survive by the fact other teams had lost, too. The final whistle went at Meadow Lane – Notts County celebrated, but we fell silent, attentions turning back to the old fellas with the radios.
Brentford had got beat, they were down. Birmingham had won - they were safe. As were Notts Country.
All of a sudden we were waiting for West Ham – they were still one up, but there was still a decent amount of time to play. A draw wouldn’t be enough for Cambridge – we’d stay up on goal difference – but a win would send us down.
And then, there’s been a goal at Upton Park...!’ We all waited with bated breath, straining to hear the Radio 5 report. Clive Allen had scored for the Hammers. We were safe.
The away end exploded. Celebration? No. Relief. Mass relief. The crowd invaded the pitch. The crossbar was snapped. Police horses came on the field to restore some semblance of order. Somewhat bizarrely, Kevin Ball was chaired from the field, looking seriously embarrassed. He was, however, the one player who never gave up.
We’d gotten away with it, and the players, trudging off the field. knew it only too well.
It ended up being Butcher’s last game as a player – a very low end for an excellent player who’d had a stellar career.
Butcher told The Journal after the game:
My playing future is something I need to have a long, cold think about over the summer.
I have played 40 games this season on legs that maybe should not have played one.
If I can buy the players I want to over the summer I might not have to play anyway.
There has got to be a change in personnel. I have got to rebuild, get new faces in and turn the club around. I have a lot of work to do this summer.