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An Avoidable Relegation: Is History Repeating Itself?

Who remembers the Jack Mansell side of 1970/71?

Elm Park, 1998 Photo by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

This piece comes from guest writer EBiscuit.

Whilst it would be great to relive my teenage years again, but with the wisdom of adulthood (obviously), who remembers 1971? What a year, eh? In my mind, the start of the “modern” era. All that Sixties idealist silliness finally put to bed, as we stumbled into a time of strikes, power cuts, decimalisation, inflation, terrorism and, eventually, something called The Common Market.

And then there was Reading. We went into the 1970-71 season on a tide of optimism. Jack Mansell’s free-scoring team found themselves entered into the pre-season Watney Cup – England’s first ever sponsored football tournament – with that game against Manchester United, which was actually on the telly the day after. I missed it, naturally, but heard it live on BFBS whilst on the beach in Cyprus. A plucky 3-2 defeat, but a decent performance nonetheless against a top side, with nothing even remotely to envisage what was to follow over the next nine months.

Now my rationale behind this spurious piece was originally to suggest that this season, 2017-18, is in fact shaping up to be a modern repeat of 1970-71: a totally unexpected, unfortunate, and ultimately avoidable relegation, where:

  • Defensive weaknesses were ruthlessly exploited (check),
  • Ineffectual and rigid tactics failed time after time (check),
  • Incompetent referees (check),
  • And just sheer bad luck (check) all combined to deliver the shock of relegation.

I say “would be”, because when you actually look at the results and the statistics for that season, you can see when it actually played out there’s very little to compare then to now. For example, we won 10 and drew seven home games. Not bad in a normal season. This year we’ve already lost seven at home, and it’s still only January. Despite Mansell’s team having a reputation of free-scoring, they actually struggled in front of goal, so I suppose there is a parallel there, ending the season on just 48 goals. With 85, yes 85, going in our net – GD of a mere -37. We went down that year on goal average, but even if you apply the modern format of three points for a win, we still get relegated against Walsall’s equal number of points (53, usually good enough to stay up) and their not massively unhealthy goal difference of -6. Strewth.

Just looking through the results that season there were some real stinkers in there:

0-4 at Chesterfield

1-4 at Preston

0-4 at Bristol Rovers

1-5 at home AND away to Bury

0-4 at Halifax

0-4 at Plymouth

0-5 at Swansea

And a relatively mild 0-3 at home to Brighton followed three days later by another 0-3 at Barnsley.

That’s before we mention that unforgettable game at Elm Park 3-5 to Aston Villa in which we scored two own goals. Well done lads.

So, again, this season is panning out differently to that one, with no real thrashings being meted out to us (unlike last season when we still somehow finished third – I mean who gets beaten 7-1 just six weeks before getting to Wembley for the play-off final?).

Actually, what really did it for us was the total capitulation in the second half of the season. And this is possibly where the real similarity is going to begin. The run-in, going from 10th March to the end of that season shows a stunning record of P16 W2 D3 L11 F7 A33. I say “run-in”; what I really perhaps mean is “staggered-in”, bit like a first-time marathon runner who collapses, pisses himself, and is helped across the line by a well-meaning spectator. Technically it’s a “finish”.

And in the final act of that season, the luck that constantly curses our club (you know, the same lady luck where, for example, we finish second in 1995 but still have to go through the play-offs; or perhaps starting the 1939-40 season with two wins and a draw, top of the table, only for other “events” to get the league immediately called off; or maybe Walsall’s unbelievably absurd winning goal in Cardiff, a tiny Harry Hill still going off in my head to this day with his “What’s the chances of that then, mm?”), struck once again as the ball from a dubious corner bounced off Terry Bell’s bonce, as both he and it were bundled into the net in the 81st minute at Villa Park. Goal.

Relegated by a disputed, late, own goal from the Player of the Year! A game we were only playing because the original fixture had been postponed as Villa made it to the League Cup final in February, and everybody else had finished. No pressure, then. It denied us the single measly point that would’ve kept us up. Talk about “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”. Starting to sound vaguely reminiscent of what happened on Saturday? I thought my friend Roger had been there at Villa Park, but it turns out he wasn’t and instead rang the Reading Chronicle “goal line” at 9.15pm to find out the awful news.

In all seriousness, the more sinister similarity for me is the (potential) consequences of relegation. At the time, the 1971 relegation was almost unprecedented, the only previous time being in 1931 when (even though it was “only” forty years earlier) the pre-war years had nevertheless seemed like another century. Beyond living memory for most inside the stadium back then I’d say. Funnily enough, the word “stadium” was never one that was ever associated with Elm Park. It was always referred to as a “ground”, or, to us at least, “the football ground”. When you think of some of the lower league “stadiums” as they were in those days (the Shay at Halifax for example, Bristol Rovers’ Eastville, Vale Park, and even the Valley) that’s probably no bad thing. And yes, Stamford Bridge was a karzi back then too.

Anyway, that relegation in 1971 set the club back 15 years in my view, and nearly killed us in the process with all that Thames Valley Royals nonsense. I fear a relegation in May (possibly before then at the current rate) would do a similar level of damage to the club, and could even possibly prove terminal should things really spiral out of control. Hence why I’m beginning to see an uncomfortable parallel to that year and the original point of this ramble.

Injunction
The man who almost made Thames Valley Royals a reality.
Photo by Tim Graham/Fox Photos/Getty Images

The thing is, it seems all subsequent relegations have had an air of inevitability about them. 1977: who was the idiot that sold Friday? 1983: the biggest home crowd that season was still under 6500 and that was for the Oxford game. 1988: we all knew we couldn’t survive at that level. And in 1998. And 2008 – as early as that game at home to West Ham, although losing at home to Bolton and Fulham is what really did it. And 2013, despite “manager of the month” in January, and Zingarevich’s brilliant idea of sacking Brian in March.

But 2018 seems different, despite there looking to be a 10-year cycle of relegation (we just got 1978’s in a year early). It seems like an age ago we were down in the third tier. The current grade of football seems to be at least our “normal” level these days. Relegation, with this current team, looks wholly avoidable and (obviously) unnecessary. And if there’s any truth in the rumour of a revived effort to get Premier League 2 going, being on the wrong side of the cut could well ultimately kill the club.

1971 really did it for me. I completely lost interest in football, with the aforementioned other distractions of the time. Together with getting my first job (at the Oasis Restaurant in Minster Street – anyone remember it? How cosmopolitan!), I have to confess to you all, here and now, I didn’t set foot inside Elm Park again until I was lured back towards the end of 1975 by the prospect of watching this crazy centre-forward everybody was talking about. And yes, I was there on Wednesday 31st March 1976 to see THAT goal! If we go down, and fail to immediately bounce back, I fear we’ll lose another whole generation of fans who’ll find far better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than watch a bunch of teenagers and free transfers try to play football inside a, largely silent, three-quarters empty blue bowl.