This is where the story ends
It was May 1977, Knowing Me, Knowing You topped the charts and Britain was about to be gripped by a bizarre cultural clash between Elizabeth II and the Sex Pistols. But never mind the street parties – for football fans the warm spring of Jubilee year was all about Liverpool v Borussia Moenchengladbach, Tommy Docherty scoring with Mary Brown and a contentious climax to the First Division season.
This campaign had a ragged conclusion. A snowy winter meant stray fixtures were still being swept up on the Thursday preceding the Cup Final. At the foot of the table Tottenham and Stoke were already relegated and Coventry, Bristol City and Sunderland remained deep in trouble – all three were level on points, with the plot of their final games thickened by the first two playing each other at Highfield Road. Sunderland’s superior goal difference, meanwhile, meant they were uncatchable if they won their own closing fixture at Goodison Park. They were also safe if both games finished level. A defeat, however, would put them down if the two Citys contrived somehow to draw.
Neither Sunderland nor Bristol City had been entirely comfortable since coming up together from Division Two in 1976. The Robins made a valiant start as the excellent Paul Cheesley scored a headed winner at Arsenal on the opening day, but Cheesley’s season – and ultimately career – was ended in the very next match by a collision with Peter Shilton on an Ashton Gate pitch still rock-hard from that year’s record-breaking summer. For their part Sunderland lost 4-1 to City on September 4th, continuing a patchy start that ultimately cost Bob Stokoe his job. Replacement Jimmy Adamson oversaw nine consecutive defeats. By the start of February his team looked dead and buried.
City travelled to Roker Park on the 11th. In a rare Friday night fixture Mel Holden’s goal was Sunderland’s first since November and the catalyst for 16 more in the next three games. Four straight wins became a run of just two defeats in 15, while in Bristol the same match heralded a sequence of defeats that saw City slump to the foot of the table with ten games to go. But Alan Dicks’ side were battlers whose resilience and workrate came to their rescue now. Out of those ten matches they squeezed a double over QPR, a draw with Manchester United, a vital two points at White Hart Lane and Ashton Gate victories against Leeds and Liverpool. The escape was on.
This revival owed much to the feathered locks of Chris Garland. The one-time City junior had been an astute mid-season signing from Leicester and joined fellow strikers Peter Cormack and Tom Ritchie in a settled line-up. John Shaw played most of the season in goal behind a regular defence of Gerry Sweeney, Geoff Merrick, Gary Collier and Norman Hunter, while the usual midfield options were Trevor Tainton, Gerry Gow, Don Gillies, Jimmy Mann and Clive Whitehead. With the exception of experienced heads Hunter and Cormack and Scottish acquisitions Gow, Gillies and Ritchie the majority of the squad were Bristol-born products of City’s youth programme.
Barring their path to safety was a Coventry outfit a long way removed from the glitzy days of Jimmy Hill’s Sky Blue Revolution. Hill had resigned as manager in 1967 after his team secured promotion to the top flight. He became first a TV executive and then a pundit, presenting Match of the Day in a style that was sometimes inimitable but mostly just annoying. He went back to Highfield Road in 1974 as managing director – and this, combined with his undoubted influence within the game, would prove a fulcrum for the enduring controversy of that sultry Midlands evening.
The facts are these.
- Kick-off was put back by fifteen minutes due to heavy traffic and crowd congestion outside the ground, meaning the game at Everton started – and finished – sooner.
- Coventry scored quickly and went 2-0 up just before the hour, Tommy Hutchison scoring both. Gow pulled one back immediately and then Gillies equalised on 79 minutes.
- With five minutes to go a result of Everton 1, Sunderland 0 was announced over the tannoy and displayed on the electronic scoreboard, encouraging both teams to play out the remaining time with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. It was, as Andy Lyons memorably observed in When Saturday Comes, “a situation that just cried out for one maverick to seize the ball and make a dash for goal, shouting ‘To hell with mediocrity, you’re all whores’.”
This tame conclusion to what had hitherto been a ruggedly combative game still rankles with Sunderland fans. They have blamed Jimmy Hill ever since for behaviour they regard as tantamount to match-fixing. The Coventry chairman’s part in the delayed kick-off has never been properly established, but it’s a matter of record that when the game at Goodison Park finished he raced into the announcer’s box screaming “Get it on the board”. Hill and Coventry were later found guilty by the FA of “influencing the outcome of a game by erroneous or foul means.” The club were fined and Hill was reprimanded.
Half the 37,000 crowd travelled from Bristol. It was the biggest exodus ever from the city for a football match. These – with thanks to www.otib.co.uk – are their memories.
If you don’t tell then I won’t
“I was at Hartcliffe School. Our Maths teacher was a Gashead and used to get terrible stick for it. We had him last lesson on Thursday afternoon. He asked who was going to Highfield Road that night, and when six of us stuck our hands up he gave us all a two hour detention.”
“My school (Chase in Mangotsfield) was forced to close as hundreds of kids and teachers knocked off early. I bumped into one of my teachers going into the ground and he said ‘If you don’t tell then I won’t’.”
“I was at King Edmund’s in Yate and one of our teachers borrowed the school minibus to take 12 of us to the game.”
“I bunked off school for the day and got filmed by HTV boarding the coach at Ashton Gate.”
“I was at Whitefield School which was rock solid Gas. We had double science on the afternoon of the match and our teacher (who used to get loads of stick for being Red) was desperate to go to the game. He announced at the start of the lesson that we should raise our hands if we were going to Coventry and we would be allowed to leave through the field at the back. We all looked at each other for a second so he said ‘Boys, if you put your hands up we can all leave now.’ Every one’s hand went up, he went to Highfield Road and we all went down Vassall’s.”
You’re bloody everywhere
“I was 17 and had been in my first job for about a year. I worked with four or five other City fans of the same age and at lunchtime that day we still didn’t know if the boss was going to let us go early to get the train to Coventry. We all made a pact that if we weren’t allowed we would go anyway and say ‘stuff your job’.”
“I decided to go on the morning of the game, picked up my girlfriend from work at 1pm and set off. I had no idea where Coventry was and simply followed the convoy of red and white up the Fosseway.”
“Five of us got off work early and drove to Coventry in my clapped out old 850cc Mini. We were among many who arrived late due to the heavy football traffic.”
“My girlfriend at the time picked me and my mate up from the Railway Tavern in Charfield after some breakfast rough cider and dropped us in Wotton to get the Jenkins’ coach. The run up the M5 was incredible with massive numbers of City fans heading up there.”
“We had a coach from Bristol Telephone Exchange where we all worked. I managed to get a ticket for my brother in law who was a docker. He turned up with about 50 cans of beer and our foreman told him it was a dry coach and only let him on after confiscating the beer and putting it in the boot of the coach. I never heard the last of it.”
“When we arrived I asked a policeman where we should go as we were from Bristol. He said ‘Anywhere mate, you’re bloody everywhere’.”
Farcical but wonderful
“We filled the large open terrace behind the goal, the stand opposite the main stand was pretty much all red and the home end under the double-decker stand was half City.”
“I paid on the turnstiles at about 5.30. There were already massive queues and when we got in the ground was rammed. City fans were on three sides, there must have been over 15,000 in there.”
The local bobbies marched us train travellers down a dead end street and so we got in the ground late.”
“We got in having heard that the match was delayed and made it to the top of the terracing just as the game was kicking off.”
“There seemed to be a collective holding of breath from all 36,000 in Highfield Road as Donnie Gillies steadied himself and then cool as a cucumber smashed the ball home.”
“We were all convinced we were doomed. We were 2-0 down at half time and being played off the park. Amazing when we got two back in the 2nd half and watched the last 10 minutes elapse with no competition. If I remember correctly it wasn’t just a case of the two teams passing the ball around unchallenged, I think they were actually passing to the other team’s players too.”
“When we equalised there was only going to be one winner, and with all four sides of the ground bouncing away to ‘Drink Up Thy Zider’ Jimmy Hill couldn’t wait to get that score up.”
“Geoff Merrick had to sit the game out injured. He was an occasional smoker and got through 20 of his own fags and 20 of a friends’.”
“The players stopped competing. The ball would be passed out from the keeper to a defender who would pass it to a teammate whilst the opposing forwards watched on with no attempt to close down or intercept. It was farcical but wonderful. It was one of the most memorable matches I ever witnessed.”
“I certainly only noticed the lack of competitiveness, tackling etc for the last few minutes. Mind you, the emotion amongst the City fans was such that it was hard to concentrate on what was going on on the pitch.”
“At one point the ball crossed the halfway line to boos from both sets of fans and was quickly withdrawn to our side of the centre circle.”
“Ian Wallace was the only player who tried in the last ten minutes. If he’d scored a lynching would have ensued.”
“The length of time has become exaggerated over the years. According to Jimmy Hill the City match actually kicked off just five minutes after the Everton-Sunderland fixture and the final score of that match was put up with about 4 minutes remaining at Highfield Road. But those minutes were indeed a farce, bar Ian Wallace who somehow didn’t seem to have got the message.”
“At the final whistle there was jubilation from both sets of supporters and then on the electronic scoreboard came the words ‘Everton v Sunderland – score correction”. A hush fell and everyone stopped and looked up at the board. Then it flashed up ‘Everton 2 Sunderland 0’ and the place went mad.”
“There were grown men standing on the barriers, supported from below by other fans, arms outstretched to the skies with tears rolling down their faces.”
“I got thrown over the railings onto the pitch at the end by some chap shouting ‘Get on there then, babber’.”
“At the end we charged on the pitch and celebrated alongside the Coventry fans even though there had been a lot of trouble during the game.”
“I don’t remember how or why, but I was sat in the stand next to a Coventry fan. Throughout the game we argued to the point of almost coming to blows on several occasions. Then at the final whistle we both stood and hugged each other before going onto the pitch together, singing and dancing.”
“We were in the packed upper stand with Coventry fans in the enclosure below us. The banter was fierce. Then when it went up on the scoreboard that Sunderland had lost we were almost blowing kisses to each other.”
“The final ten minutes were amazing and at the final whistle the two sets of fans that had wanted to kill each other for the previous couple of hours were literally dancing around on the pitch, hugging each other with high fives, handshakes and crazy excitement.”
“I managed to get on the pitch thanks to a rather large chap standing by the fencing and offering leg ups to all and sundry. It didn’t matter what scarf you had tied on your wrist, it was just plain celebration.”
“After the shot of Alan Dicks in the dressing room the camera pans out to the pitch and there’s me with my kid brother on my shoulders. The club did a ‘where are they now’ article and we had to send them a picture of him on my shoulders again. Gert lump weighs a ton these days so we had to cheat with him sitting on a wall.”
“At the end of the game the City players threw their kit to the crowd. I ended up with Peter Cormack’s socks and had to hang them out of the window on the way home as they smelled terrible.”
“I recall walking across the park after the game with thousands of others and seeing a City fan holding a gert big bottle of champagne in his mouth with one hand while pissing with the other, all as he walked without breaking stride. A very skilled act, I thought at the time.”
“After the game City and Sky Blues fans were partying together in the streets and pubs for hours and hours.”
Memories, good days, bad days
“I spent the night hiding behind the sofa, listening to Radio Bristol and finding the whole thing unbearable.”