Thirty years ago a west London club very nearly won the title – and it would have been a popular success, too. Graham Dunbar recalls QPR's finest 42 games
It is April 17, 2006, Easter Monday, and Queens Park Rangers lose 3-2 at Norwich in the definitive meaningless and mediocre end-of-season game. Two teams playing second-rate, second-tier football in what could be the worst five-goal affair anyone has seen; a match with no significance beyond reminding both clubs that the Premiership is a distant dream.
Flip back 30 years and it is April 17, 1976, Easter Saturday in the old Division One, and QPR again lose 3-2 at Carrow Road, with rather more at stake. On a blazing hot holiday weekend, the top-flight title is on the line and, if you buy even slightly into the arguments of chaos theory, the future of European club football is about to be shaped.
A hugely popular QPR team would lose the title by a single point to Liverpool, who, trophyless the previous year, would beat Wolves in a controversial last game, finish the season by winning the UEFA Cup and, 12 months later, hoist the European Cup for the first time. For want of a win in Norfolk, chaos theory says, the Reds’ rule over Europe was allowed to happen.
Gerry Francis was Rangers captain in a season that kicked off with a 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Loftus Road. He was their inspiration during a glorious final 15-match run of 13 wins, a draw and that single defeat on the penultimate Saturday. Francis would recall: “Those points lost at Norwich could have been the difference. You can’t believe we lost the game.”
The game has lost plenty in the last three decades. Comparing the state of our football nation in 1976 with today is fairly banal and pointless, but let’s have a go – what QPR achieved perhaps compares with what Wigan did for the first half of this season.
A decade before becoming every neutral’s delight, QPR had meandered round 15 home grounds and settled in Division Three when Jim Gregory, a real-life Arthur Daley before the fictional one, joined the board. Money began to be spent, on Les Allen, a Double-winner at Tottenham, and Rodney Marsh from Fulham – the start of a series of raids on London rivals that served Rangers spectacularly well.
Alec Stock’s side won Division Three in 1967 at a stroll, just weeks after leaping into the nation’s living rooms in maybe the best League Cup final of all, the first at Wembley, before a live television audience – when that actually meant something. First Division West Bromwich Albion’s 2-0 half-time lead was brushed aside by goals from Roger Morgan, Marsh after a mazy dribble and Mark Lazarus.
Another promotion the next year just set up QPR as the next Northampton Town, for a debut top-flight season even Sunderland fans would count as disappointing. But Gordon Jago arrived and built his 1972-73 promotion team by selling Marsh and gambling on the genius of Stan Bowles. A procession of apprentices were blended with wise old heads such as Frank McLintock, two years on from leading Arsenal to the Double, then David Webb (whose barrel chest hardly suited being wrapped in hoops) and John Hollins, downsized from Chelsea to Shepherd’s Bush.
When Jago went early in 1974-75, another King’s Road refugee, Dave Sexton, spent most of his first season in charge dealing with Bowles’s tantrums and assembling a midfield even Stan would be mad to turn away from. Francis started and bare-shinned winger Dave Thomas came on in Don Revie’s first England game – a 3-0 qualifying group win against eventual European champions Czechoslovakia – and full-backs Dave Clement and Ian Gillard soon joined them. At Revie’s time of greatest need, the World Cup qualifier in Italy in November 1976, he turned to Bowles. (It didn’t work, but that’s not the point.)
Francis was 23 when Revie made him captain after humiliating Scotland in 1975. “Just to get in the England team you were competing with Bell, Ball, Hudson, Brooking and Currie for just two places in midfield. It was an honour for a QPR player to be England captain.” Gerry announced his authority with the goal of the season past Ray Clemence as Rangers started the season by beating Liverpool; Stan weighed in with a hat-trick in a 5-1 demolition of Derby County, the reigning champions, a week later.
Quite how and why QPR did not win the title is a football tragedy. They were the best and most entertaining team, were unbeaten at home, never slumped and beat every side in the division except West Ham. Frankly, Norwich fans should be ashamed of their club – and their good fortune on the day – for spiking Rangers’ champagne.
Francis has a vivid recall of the game that should be disturbing in a grown man with a long and successful career, and is actually painful to hear. “We totally dominated but you have games where nothing seems to go right. In the first half I was sent through by Stan and lobbed Kevin Keelan from 25, 30 yards but it landed on top of the net. Keelan made a couple of great saves from me.” Match reports detail Keelan, himself a loveable Seventies maverick, laughing when a close-range Webb header hit him and bounced away.
At the other end, a ludicrous mix-up gifted Ted McDougall a goal before a manically determined Thomas equalised. While Liverpool were beating Stoke City 5-3 at Anfield, Norwich scored two more – a fluke shot from Peter Morris and Phil Boyer’s header while offside – before giving Rangers a late own goal.
Rangers finished with home wins against Arsenal and then Leeds on the last Saturday, as Liverpool put their feet up while John Toshack played for Wales in a European Championship quarter-final against Yugoslavia. Ten days later, Francis and co watched in a Thames TV studio as Liverpool struck three times in the last 13 minutes at Molineux.
“The bad taste in our mouth wasn’t necessarily from losing the Norwich game, though people point the finger at it, but the way Liverpool didn’t have to play their last game on the same day. They should have played under the same pressure – we were in a television studio watching our season slip away. When Kevin Keegan scored most of us walked out.”
The last hurrah for Sexton’s side was a goal-strewn run to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, before losing on penalties at AEK Athens, while Liverpool took the European Cup road leading to Rome and immortality against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Francis says: “We could have gone a long way in the European Cup. We played the sort of football that was equipped for European competition, but there’s no doubt Liverpool were an outstanding side. Quality-wise, we were a match for Liverpool, but they could strengthen and we were a small, selling club.”
So QPR almost matched the Derby side of 1972 in winning the league three seasons after getting promoted. In 1978 Nottingham Forest would do it a year after coming up in third spot. Instead, Rangers joined Ipswich Town at club level and Holland on the world stage as vibrant sides in the total football era who fell just short of a defining triumph but are all the more beloved for it. “Everyone says QPR were their second-favourite team at that time, a nice, family club – like Ipswich and Norwich – who were consistent and could beat anybody on their day,” says Francis.
A generation on and a world away, QPR, Derby and Ipswich are all mired in the second division having spent parts of the 21st century in administration. And whatever happened to Liverpool in Europe?
From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month