John Secker bids a fond farewell to Walsall's balti pies and Macclesfield's tented village
This was the season when Little and Large came into the division from opposite directions, played each other, then departed in the direction from which they had come. Two years ago Manchester City and Macclesfield Town were three divisions and a world apart, now they were starting on level terms.
In retrospect, it may have seemed obvious that City would go straight back up, and Macclesfield back down, but during the season it was by no means clear. Many big teams have tumbled into the lower divisions and found it harder to drag themselves out of the swamp than they expected. In the end City could not have left it any later to complete their escape, with two goals in the last moments of a dramatic play-off final. Macclesfield had risen too far too fast, and the bubble was due to pop, but after a nightmare start they made a fight of it, keeping their hopes alive until the last week. Sad to lose them, and their tiny home at Moss Rose. This is the only football ground I have ever seen with a row of big tents down one side to keep the rain off the seats.
The division next season will have less personality; the new intake (Oxford, Bristol City, Bury, Scunthorpe, Cambridge, Brentford, Cardiff) are all typical lower division stalwarts, with only Stoke providing any “big club” variety. The obvious story of the 1998-99 season was the dominance and eventual triumph of Fulham, backed by the Fayed millions. However, it is worth remembering that at the end of September Stoke were top and looking as though they would stay there, while Fulham were only sixth, and Man City were struggling in eighth.
However, Fulham were just starting to accelerate. Overtaking Stoke at the top during November, they never looked like being caught. Stoke, meanwhile, slumped so badly that by January their supporters were releasing black balloons and attacking their board. It was already clear by then that the Britannia Stadium would be gracing the Second Division for another season.
If the top of the table was a procession, with the result in no doubt for the last four months of the season, the bottom was quite the opposite. The relegation battle resembled one of those cartoon fights, a big ball of dust and noise with fists and feet sticking out in all directions. Every now and then someone managed to crawl out a little way, only to be dragged back into the melee.
Half the division was in theoretical danger with a couple of weeks to go, and nobody was relegated until the last week of the season. The teams that did go down can at least take comfort in the fact that there is no obvious difference in class between them and those that survived; all can realistically hope for a quick return.
In my view the team of the season was not Fulham, nor Man City but Walsall. With a squad costing less than Keegan’s win bonus and a newish, very modest ground squeezed between the M6 and a business park, they joined the leaders in early autumn and stayed through to the end. Ray Graydon deserves the credit for this, keeping his team focused when others, like Preston or Luton, lost their nerve and slipped back into the pack. I will miss their balti pies, the best football ground food I have encountered anywhere.
From a Second Division point of view, the most optimistic event of the season took place one level higher up, with the promotion of Bradford to the Premier. They proved that it is still possible for a middle ranking club, without a billionaire to buy them a brand new Subbuteo team, to make it out of the lower divisions. It is only three years ago that my team, Blackpool, won 2-0 at Bradford in the first leg of the Second Division play-off semi, only to go down 3-0 at home in the return. Bradford’s story was like that of a Colditz escapee: the rest of us may have been left behind, but it is desperately important that we get the postcard which says they made it all the way.
We know that we will probably spend the rest of our lives supporting a team churning around the lower divisions, but we have to be able to hope that one day we might be up there ourselves. Teams like Bradford give us all hope, and hope is badly needed in the lower divisions, where glory, like money, is in short supply.
From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month