The 2010/11 run proved to be a stressful one, with the results of the FA investigation into the Alejandro Faurlin transfer announced barely 90 minutes before the kick off of the final match of the season at home to Leeds United on 7th May. This year also saw the 35th anniversary of the tensest end of the season that I, and most other R’s fans over the age of 40, can recall before now – the final 2 weeks of the 1975/76 season. Ironically the Championship trophy awarded after the Leeds game this year was the same one that slipped from our grasp back in May 1976, the old First Division Championship trophy awarded to the Football League Champions prior to the creation of the FA Premier League in 1992/93.
Here’s the story of the conclusion to that epic 1975/76 season, now also captured on a DVD just released by the club co-incidentally on the same day as the Leeds match.
Over the course of the 1975/76 season, the classic Rangers side of Bowles, Francis, Thomas, Clement, Masson, Parkes, Givens and co. had played some of the very best football seen in England for many years. They were admired and respected by a great many of the leading lights of the game at the time – from Brian Glanville, the lead footballer reporter of ‘The Times’ to Don Revie, the much maligned England Manager who had created a ruthlessly efficient and successful Leeds United team after he had succeeded the former QPR Manager Jack Taylor at Elland Road in 1961.
Rangers had opened the season strongly with the 2-0 home win versus Liverpool that included the BBC Match of the Day “Goal of the Season” from Gerry Francis, as well as a great second goal from unsung hero Mick Leach. Rangers did not lose a game until 11 matches into the season, a 1-2 defeat at Leeds United on 4th October. The team continued to steadily pick up points, and were invincible at home (ending the season unbeaten), but slowly slipped down the table over the Christmas/New Year period until 24th January when they were fifth after a 0-1 defeat at West Ham, four points behind leaders Manchester United who had a game in hand of Rangers.
The following Saturday saw a 2-0 win at Villa Park with goals from John Hollins and Gerry Francis. That game proved to be the turning point. From then onwards, Rangers incredibly grabbed maximum points until the Norwich away game 11 weeks later, with the exception of a 0-0 draw at bottom of the table Sheffield United at the end of February.
The 2-3 away defeat at Norwich on Easter Saturday, 17th April 1976, was witnessed by a crowd of 30,895 of whom around one third were Rangers fans. Much has been written about this game and I am not going to dwell on it – suffice to say the initiative that Rangers had held over Liverpool up until that time (if the team won every game then the Championship belonged to Rangers) was lost in that 2-3 defeat and a slip up by Liverpool was thus needed to enable a club, that only 9 years previously had won the Third Division title and League Cup double, to win the Football League Championship. After the defeat at Carrow Road everyone made their way back to London to prepare for the Easter Monday 11am kick off game versus Arsenal on 19th April at Loftus Road, in front of the biggest home attendance of the season so far – 30,362.
A tense game saw Arsenal take the lead in the 52nd minute when Phil Parkes uncharacteristically allowed a Brian Kidd shot to skid under his body and into the net. Frank McLintock however equalised 2 minutes later with a chip from a Don Masson free kick versus McLintock’s old club – the side that he had captained to the League and FA Cup double 5 years previously. Rangers then threw everything forward and, with 3 minutes to go, Richie Powling brought down Stan Bowles in the penalty area and referee Derek Nippard awarded the kick. Gerry Francis, the regular Rangers penalty taker, realised that the cover of that days match programme had a photo of him taking a penalty earlier in the season versus Wolves and that the Arsenal keeper Jimmy Rimmer might well have noticed it. Just in case, Francis struck the kick the other way, inside the right-hand post. Many of his team mates could not look as the kick was taken. Francis scored ! Loftus Road erupted. Francis admitted after the game that it had been the most nerve wracking moment in his career to date. Rangers had done enough to keep the dream alive. After the match, Alan Ball was quoted in the Times as saying about Rangers winning penalty: “You could have accepted it if anyone else had been involved, but Bowles is always acting.”
Five days later, on Saturday 24th April, an all ticket crowd of 31,002 filled Loftus Road to its then maximum capacity for Rangers final game of the season versus Leeds United. It was a must win game – draw or lose and the Championship was Liverpool’s. The Leeds team, managed by Jimmy Armfield, were not the mighty force that they had been earlier in the 1970’s under Don Revie, but they were still a strong team and were most certainly not going to roll over for Rangers. They eventually finished 5th that season, having won 8 away games – 1 more than Rangers and 1 less than Liverpool.
Many observers did not fancy the R’s chances, including the local ‘Willesden and Brent Chronicle’ and the Loftus Road crowd was tense as the players ran out in their orange Gola tracksuit tops. The team was at full strength and before the match, goalkeeper Phil Parkes was presented with the QPR Player of the Year trophy by WBC Welterweight Boxing Champion John H Stracey. The match then kicked off on a sunny but windy afternoon in front of the ITV cameras with Brian Moore commentating for ‘The Big Match’, to be broadcast the following afternoon. This was of course the era when the only live TV games each year were typically the England v Scotland match, the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final and league match coverage was limited to just the highlights.
An early back header by Dave Webb at the School End was well saved by Leeds goalkeeper David Harvey. Webb had developed a knack of scoring vital goals for Rangers during the course of the season – probably the best remembered being his last minute winner in Rangers 3-2 win over Stoke City on 29th November. Rangers continued to press with Leeds looking very sharp on the counter -attack. One light hearted moment came when Leeds hard man Norman Hunter split his shorts and had to change them in full public view to a chorus of ‘Nice One Norman, Nice One Son’ from the Rangers crowd. Rangers overall had the better of the first half, but it finished 0-0. The crowd were in good voice and the Loftus Road terrace was absolutely packed with a great many flags on display plus people wearing the new ‘Beaney’ hats that the club had just started selling in the Club Shop situated in the old Pools Office in South Africa Road, close to the site of the present one.
Early in the second half, Duncan McKenzie forced a good save from Phil Parkes in front of the School End where the majority of the Leeds fans were gathered. Trevor Cherry also had a good effort saved by Parkes just before Frankie Gray was replaced with substitute Peter Lorimer. Rangers started to get back into the game and Don Givens had a shot saved before Dave Thomas at last opened the scoring with a headed goal at the Loftus Road end of the packed stadium in the 62nd minute. The whole ground celebrated and the tension was relieved. Stan Bowles then scored the second goal with just a few minutes to go after a jinking run down the right wing before beating Harvey with a low shot.
At the final whistle, thousands of Rangers fans poured onto the pitch, many carrying flags that they then unfurled underneath the television gantry of the Ellerslie Road Stand. A few minutes later, the players then made their way to the Director’s Box with some of them throwing their shirts into the crowd. Some champagne was in evidence and Rangers were top of the table having played their final game of the season. However, Liverpool had reached the two-legged UEFA Cup Final v FC Bruges and had been given permission to play their final league game, away to Wolves on Tuesday 4th May, so all Rangers could confidently celebrate was a place in Europe for the very first time. An agonising ten day wait was therefore going to have to be endured and celebrations were therefore a little muted, although after the game several of the players did visit the Crown and Sceptre to pull pints for the fans !
(Part Two will follow very soon)