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Bottoming out – Stoke

In a dark season for the game as well as Stoke, Ken Sproat saw Newcastle inflict one of the Potters’ 31 defeats of 1984-85 – but can now see it wasn't all gloom

A football team cannot get much worse than Stoke City during the 1984-85 season. There, in the all-time records for being hopeless, they skulk alongside such Victorian disasters as Darwen, Loughborough Town and Glossop. The fewest points in a season (17), the fewest wins (three – all at home), the most defeats (31) and, with 24, the fewest goals (the leading scorer was Ian Painter with six, of which four were penalties). They failed to score in 25 of the 42 league matches. They suffered mathematically definite relegation with eight miserable matches still to play.

It seems somehow appropriate and indeed inevitable that this trough of performance should happen during football’s darkest hour. Depressingly low attendances everywhere (over five per cent of top flight crowds were in four figures, and that was before Wimbledon got there), precious little en­thusiasm for the game other than from the active sup­porters and, just weeks around the corner, the twin disasters of the Bradford fire and Heysel.

I had no reason to hate or even mildly dislike Stoke City when I went to see my team Newcastle play at the Victoria Ground on May 4. In fact, I sort of liked them for being high-profile FA Cup victims of Blyth Spar­tans seven years earlier. Also, though looking pathetic compared to today’s towering arenas, the aerial photo of the Victoria Ground in Simon Inglis’s Football Grounds of Britain book impressed me no end.

Though my reasons for travel were a bit more esoteric than the norm, perhaps it was the chance to see Newcastle get a rare double that prompted so many oth­ers to travel down. Good job too. The crowd nudged over 7,000, whereas for the previous home match against Nor­wich, the first after relegation was con­firmed, a mere 4,500 turned up.

The Newcastle United of the era were hardly big box office. Managed by Jack Charlton and playing an austere long ball game that largely floated over the frustrated, soon-to-be-leaving Chris Waddle and the not-yet-fully-recognised talents of Peter Beardsley, Newcastle would just lamp the ball up to the “twin battering rams” of Tony Cunningham and George Reilly. Seeing as neither could hope to keep their first touch within five yards of themselves, and the midfield was “bossed” by Gary Megson, whom Brian Clough famously described as being unable to control a medicine ball, it is no surprise that the crowds at St James’ Park had dwindled since the previous term’s exciting promotion.

We arrived at the Victoria Ground and, after walking around it, I was struck that the general atmosphere seemed like a Newcastle reserve match. Such was the paucity of home support that it was easy to get into the Stoke club shop. How we laughed at the George Berry mirror.

In the ground, the Newcastle fans became quite exuberant, wedged into the terracing of the newish stand. Opposite, the home end had the population and appearance of a queue at a bus stop: bored looking, the odd person holding shopping bags, with an almost tangible wish to get home as quickly as possible. Knots of fans would occasionally draw the eye in the otherwise empty seats. Higher to our left, on seemingly warping wooden benches, was a small old man. Sitting by himself he remained a dignified spectator, as he probably had done on much better afternoons there watching Stanley Matthews and Gordon Banks. Now he had to be content with – and these were the better players – the zombie-haired Sammy McIlroy, Seventies “golden age” throwback Alan Hudson (though he was injured, or, rumour had it, pissed, for this game) the emerging Steve Bould and his partner in defensive crime, Paul Dyson. Incredibly, the next season, Dyson would return to another First Division relegation freakshow with the almost-as-bad-as-Stoke West Brom. It is hoped that the payment of his mortgage was not dependent on win bonuses.

Just for the old bloke, and for the faithful few who had crept into the ground, I secretly wished that Stoke would score, on the proviso that Newcastle secured an easy victory, of course. My wish only came half true, however, as Newcastle kept a clean sheet and didn’t really look threatened by the lame Keith Bertschin or Painter. Newcastle won 1-0, though it took a Stoke player to slide it in from a corner for us. Who else but Dyson? How desperate it must have been for the Stoke fans to watch this sort of carry-on on a fortnightly basis as their team slipped out of the top league, so far never to return?

So we did our double over Stoke, like 11 other teams that season. An own-goal winner at their place, a penalty winner at ours – very fitting. Both games in the middle of two separate Stoke losing streaks of ten consecutive games. When Stoke scored at Newcastle on December 1, 1984, it was only their second away goal of the season. Two days after the return match, on May 6, Stoke were to score their first away goal of 1985 in losing 5-1 at Ipswich.

It occurred to me at the time that football would always be like this, that the crowds would get lower and lower till it became like watching a Sunday morning game. But this most pointless and torpid of matches had within it some important components of the forthcoming footballing big bang. Jack Charlton would leave Newcastle in a huff and ended up managing the Republic of Ireland. Waddle would move to Tottenham and his skills would soon make him a star in Europe. Peter Beardsley would play so well the following season even England couldn’t ignore him. On the Newcastle bench, as a non-playing substitute yet to make his full debut, was a certain podgy thighed, curly haired kid – Paul Gascoigne.

Steve Bould would leave Stoke to become part of a legendary Arsenal back four. The Victoria Ground, like so many other decaying, inadequate stadiums, would disappear as new grounds, built with new money, would house bigger crowds. Stoke, even when playing in “the new Division Two”, would often get twice as many in as they did for this match. You see, this apparently tepid non-event was actually a white hot crucible, where the catalysts for the explosion of the footballing interest of 1990 were being moulded. The basic ele­ments were lying around here and there. It’s just that people had forgotten.


Points failure The top division’s other worst teams

Leeds Utd 1946-47 (18 points)
Set the then lowest total for a 42-game season in the top division and a still unmatched away record, of just the one point (a 1-1 draw at Brentford). Comparatively respectable home form included a 5-0 derby win over Huddersfield.

Queen Park Rangers 1968-69 (18 points)

Bottom at the halfway stage but only a point adrift of safety. Seven points from their last 21 games, however, left them equalling Leeds’ record and no doubt supplied Rodney Marsh (22 games, four goals) with plenty of anecdotes. Eighteen away defeats included an 8-1 thrashing by Manchester United

Chelsea 1978-79 (20 points)
Relegation that led to a five-year exile from the top level. The 92 goals conceded has only been beaten since by Swindon’s statistically neat ton in 1994. Still, Peter Osgood did at least score on his return to the club after four years away, in a 7-2 defeat at Middlesbrough.

Crystal Palace 1980-81 (19 points)
Like QPR 12 years before, drew three away games and lost all the rest. Terry Venables departed in October to be replaced briefly by Malcolm Allison, before chairman Ron Noades arrived from Wimbledon, bringing Dario Gradi with him. Gradi’s one win, 3-1 against Birmingham, was watched by 9,820 – Palace’s lowest crowd in the top division.

Watford 1999-2000 (24 points)
Set the Premiership record low of 24 points shattered by the Black Cats this season. Managed three wins in their first eight games, including 1-0 away to Liverpool, but only another three all season. Heidar Helguson top-scored with six, one ahead of Michel N’Gonge (remember him?).

From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month

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