Selling a star striker was the worst mistake Scunthorpe ever made. George Young recalls how the Iron threw away their best chance to reach the top flight
Last season West Ham were disappointed by their fourth place in the First Division. Their failure to go up was linked to the sale of their best striker, Jermain Defoe, by an unpopular board. Which is painfully familiar to any middle-aged Scunthorpe United fan, since that fourth position, achieved in 1962, still represents the pinnacle of our achievements. Not only that, but the club’s best striker, Barrie Thomas, was sold mid-season – a decision that still has repercussions for the Iron today.
Back in 1961-62, there were no play-offs offering a second chance to teams who had fallen short of just two automatic promotion places. Promoted in 1958, Scunthorpe had established themselves in the old Second Division and then started to look like having a team capable of promotion. The season started well, including an early 6-1 thrashing of Charlton and 5-1 victories over Southampton and Plymouth. On Boxing Day, United travelled up to Leeds and beat them 4-1, with Thomas scoring all four. That took his tally to an astounding 30 goals in 22 appearances, making him the leading goalscorer in the whole country.
With that sort of form, First Division clubs began to take note and a host of them, including Manchester United, Bolton and Fulham, were reported to be watching the young forward. Leeds had gone one better than that before their mauling and in December made a bid of £30,000. This was rejected by the board, who released a statement saying: “The directors considered the fee, but decided… it would not be fair to the supporters to transfer Thomas.” They added: “We have got to be loyal to supporters, who are loyal to us.” Kind words, but Leeds reported later that the bid had been rejected because Scunthorpe wanted a player in exchange and Leeds had no one suitable.
Meanwhile, it was clear that United had a better-than-evens chance of promotion, despite their small-town status (although Scunthorpe’s crowds were around 10,000, Liverpool, in the same division, could boast substantially more than 40,000 regularly).
So what did the board decide to do? In January 1962, they sold Thomas to Newcastle, several places below Scunthorpe in the table. The Iron received £35,000 plus Jack McGuigan (more than Kevin Keegan’s transfer raised ten years later), yet the damage had been done and we fell five points short. This despite the fact that the makeweight player (valued at £9,000, a club record signing) fitted in reasonably well, averaging better than one goal in two games, an excellent return in any other circumstances. Maybe we would have failed even if they had kept Thomas? It’s impossible to say really, but certainly by selling him, the board gave the fans enough rope with which to hang them.
The decision smacked of a distinct lack of ambition. Although it was a large amount of money at the time, it was virtually an acceptance of our small-time status. Opinions in the local paper from the day of the transfer were sympathetic to the club, with fans saying that Thomas had to think of his family (Scunthorpe players had just received a pay rise, to £30 a week) and his career, the same stance taken by the board.
Clearly, though, this view was not shared by everyone and many grew disillusioned with the club. Attendances fell by around 20 per cent after Thomas’s sale. Many, having found other ways to spend their Saturday afternoons, haven’t come back yet.
Those who said that we had blown our best chance of getting to the top flight have been proved right so far. Two years later Scunthorpe were relegated and in 1975 were forced to apply for re-election for the only time in the club’s history. Since then, we have managed a couple of brief flirtations with the old Third but they have both been snuffed out within a year.
The chairman was Jack Wharton, whose son is Steve Wharton, our current chair. Though there have been several chairmen between the Whartons, the family have been a boardroom presence for decades. There is no clear link in the behaviour of the two chairmen, but the air of “small-town club” still hangs over us. Clearly, during our years in the old Second, we were punching above our weight. Scunthorpe is a small town and many fans of other League Two clubs will probably laugh at the idea that Scunthorpe could cope in the second flight.
Yet there is no reason why we cannot get back to that level. After all, Grimsby have spent much of the past decade up there, showing what can be done with small budgets, good management and a progressive attitude. Crewe and Bury have done likewise, as have Walsall. Burnley, despite having a club with a rich tradition and a huge footballing support, is also a small town.
Maybe the fans are living in the past, making excuses for other more obvious shortcomings. It’s also true that football is no longer a level playing-field and the achievements of clubs such as Grimsby are more noticeable because they are much rarer these days. Maybe we should be happy to have a club at all after the number of near-disasters that have befallen clubs in the lower leagues. Maybe. But the football supporter should dream. Chairmen taking over small clubs often claim that they’ll have the club “in the Premiership within ten years”, but personally, I would be happy just to be close enough to try again.
Thomas was back at the Old Show Ground in 1964, sold by a Newcastle side on their way to promotion: though unlike us, he had tasted the top flight briefly, as a 17-year-old with Leicester. Despite scoring 26 goals in 52 games on his return, those matches were spread over two-and-a-half years as injuries robbed him of pace and strength. Come 1966, Thomas was sold again. Not to rivals, but, uncontroversially, to Barnsley, struggling in the Fourth.
From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month