The 1970s began with a heady optimism after the swinging 60s had breathed new life into post-war Britain. In 1970 the self-made builder’s son Edward Heath was elected prime minister promising a “quiet revolution” that would improve the fortunes of the country. However, the combination of an energy crisis, a financial crash and a second miners’ strike in two years would scupper any optimism.
At Albion things were somewhat following that trend. The investment of Property developer Mike Bamber (who would become club chairman in 1972) heralded an era of great ambition at the club. However, that ambition wouldn’t be fulfilled until the end of the decade.
Aside from a brief dalliances with the Second Division between 1958 and 1962 and the Fourth Division in 1963 to 1965 Albion had spent 39 of their 45 seasons as a Football League club in its third tier since joining in 1920. Promotion back to the second tier had been an often unachieved goal for the club.
In contrast Aston Villa had joined Brighton in the Third Division the season before and started the 71/72 season as promotion favourites. Prior to the Second World War Aston Villa had won the First Division six times since being a founding member in 1988. They won the FA Cup as recently as 1957, but their league standing was on the wane and they had a brief spell in the Second Division in the late 50s.
They appeared to have recovered after promotion back to the topflight was coupled with winning the League Cup in 1961, but they subsequently underwent a dramatic decline which resulted in them being relegated to the Second Division in 1967 and then again to the Third in 1970. But fortunes at the club were to take a turn for the better, in no small part down to the sale of the club at the end of 1968 to a group which installed Doug Ellis as chairman.
Albion manager Pat Saward was a former Aston Villa player himself and was part of the 1957 FA Cup winning side and also part of the team that won the Second Division title in 1960. But after retiring he became Albion manager in 1970 and was now going up against his old club in the Third Division.
Saward had been second choice for the managers job when it was given to his predecessor, Freddie Goodwin 18 months earlier. But when Goodwin left the club at the end of the 1969/70 season for Second Division Birmingham, he left a vacancy that Saward would this time fill.
In Saward’s first season, 1970/71, Albion wore an all-white kit with a blue collar. But as part of Pat Saward’s drive to build a stronger bond with supporters, he listened to supporters, and brought back the famous blue and white stripes the following season.
I suspect part of the lack of appeal for the white kit was that Albion were not a success on the pitch in it, as they finished a disappointing 14th. Meanwhile, Aston Villa pushed for promotion but would ultimately miss out finishing 4th in their first season as a Third Division club.
The games against Aston Villa were a rare highlight for Albion that season. A stalemate at Villa Park saw the club earn a respectable point whilst a winner from Kit Napier saw them shock their visitors to take all three points in a 1-0 win at the Goldstone, as Albion pulled away from relegation trouble and put a dent in Villa’s promotion hopes.
A change in kit wasn’t the only change in style at the club as Saward introduced a new attacking style to improve the club’s fortunes. Most prominently, alongside Albion’s star striker Kit Napier was new signing Willie Irvine signed from Preston. With Bert Murray and Peter O’Sullivan providing additional attacking threat from the wings.
Saward spoke confidently about this team’s attacking prowess in the programme of the first home game of the season against Bradford: “I know that all of you who attend the Goldstone regularly will want to see many more goals from the team this season. I don’t think we shall disappoint.” And they didn’t, winning 3-1 that day and going on to score 39 goals in their 23 home games that season, 11 more than the 28 scored in Saward first season in charge.
Kit Napier would go onto notch 19 of the 82 goals Albion scored that season, the 5th and final season he would end the season as the club’s top scorer, the most seasons from any Albion player in its history.
Albion started the 71/72 season well and after drawing their opening game with Port Vale won three games in a row. But the first meeting with Aston Villa was preceded by a 2-0 defeat at home to York, which would become two in a row as Villa secured a 2-0 victory over them at Villa Park which left Villa 5th and Brighton 7th, both on 7 points.
Despite early promise, Albion’s poor form continued and after winning only one of their next seven they fell to twelfth in October. Villa also had a mixed start to the season with a run to the fourth round of the League cup distracting them from their Third Division duties and a defeat away to league leaders Bournemouth saw them fall to fourth and four points behind the Cherries, which given this was in the days of two points for a win amounted to a decent gap.
Despite only being promoted from the Fourth Division the season before, Bournemouth had started the season well and many were now taking them as a serious promotion contender. Along with Notts County they would cause both Albion and Villa the most to worry in their search for Second Division status.
For Albion, it was an Irvine winner at Walsall which instigated an eight match unbeaten run and an upturn in fortunes. This included a 2-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Bournemouth on 27th December in front of a bumper crowd of 30,600, a win of intent from Albion. Indeed Bournemouth started that day in second on equal points with leaders Notts County, with Villa in third just two points behind.
But Albion’s good run was ended by a 1-0 defeat to the league leaders Notts County, which saw Albion fall five points back and down to fifth, with Villa just a point behind the leaders in 3rd. It was the sort of result that left many focusing on the Club’s around Albion as promotion favourites. But a brilliant second half of the season would see Albion surprise many.
Meanwhile Villa really turned up the heat in the second half of the season. After losing to Rochdale the week after Albion’s defeat to Notts County, they would only lose a further two games that season, romping towards the Third Division title.
Albion responded to that defeat to Notts County by winning eight of their next twelve games, a run that including an entertaining 5-3 win away to Shrewsbury, where all eight goals were scored in the space of 27 minutes. But that run of games was ended with two defeats ahead of the visit of now league leaders Aston Villa, with Albion sitting 3rd, six points behind them and four points behind Bournemouth in 2nd.
But despite Villa’s loftier league position and good form, it was Brighton who would run out 2-1 winners in a match that was so anticipated, it was featured on Match of the Day.
— @forgottengoals (@forgottengoals) February 26, 2019
Fortunately for the cameras, the game saw one of Albion’s most iconic goals of that period, a spectacular team goal which was finished off by Irvine after being set up by John Templeman and was featured on that season goal of the season competition, and was voted into third place. With the other Albion goal that day being scored by Kit Napier, who else.
It was a win that instigated an unbeaten run of 13 games which helped to secure promotion for Albion. The thirteenth of which being a home game with Rochdale on final day of season that saw a crowd of 34,766, the third largest at home in the club’s history, as Albion got the draw they required to secure promotion and instigate a wild pitch invasion.
John Templeman had given Albion an early lead, but Rochdale managed to score a shock equaliser on the hour. Then suddenly what was up to then a fairly ferocious game is said to have stopped dead in its tracks. With the result suiting both teams, it appears they informally agreed to play the game out as a draw. Something Albion players Willie Irvine and Ken Beamish both attested to in their autobiographies.
Willie Irvine said “Neither side had a shot on goal in those final minutes; nor did either team look to penetrate each other’s defence. It probably wouldn’t happen nowadays because the final matches of the season are all played on the same day, but back then we were playing after the end of the season and so both knew what we had to do.”
Whilst Ken Beamish stated: “We’d played this game at 100 miles an hour until the score became 1-1. At this point I’d noticed Saward and the Rochdale manager talking on the touchline. Somehow the game seemed to slow down dramatically”
As such Albion had pulled off an unpredicted promotion. Manager Pat Saward said of his sides success: “I spent only £41,000 in getting my promotion side together so we were very much Villa’s poor relations in that sense. Notts County were the team that surprised me (Who finished 4th). I just don’t know why they fell away so badly in the end for they had all-important matches in hand. Bournemouth were the most skilful side we faced.”
Saward put down his team’s success to: “Dogged determination to succeed from all the players. We stamped out inconsistency. I got rid of ten of the players I inherited and got together a team built on character. That’s the key quality, apart from skill of course, as far as I’m concerned.”
However, after Kit Napier was sold to Blackburn that summer whilst Willie Irvine was sold to Halifax midway through the next season after falling out with Saward, the Second Division proved too much for Albion. As they were relegated back to the third tier the following season after finishing bottom of the league.
That season Mike Bamber invested a further £700k into the club to take a majority 51% stake and improve the facilities at the Goldstone. He was initially supportive of Saward but in the October of the following season with the club back in the third tier and finding themselves near the bottom of the division, he was sacked and one of the most famous names in the game Brian Clough was appointed as Brighton manager. A story told brilliantly in Spencer Vignes book “Bloody Southerners”
In that book Spencer talks a lot about how Clough’s presence put Albion on the map and helped attract supporters that followed the club during its glory years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, which is true. But this 1972 promotion winning side deserve a lot of credit, pulling an average attendance of 17.6k, the club’s highest for seven years and 8k higher than the season before.
The appointment of Brian Clough may have put Albion on the map nationally, but Pat Saward’s 1972 promotion winning side had already done a lot of the groundwork even if the season and a bit which followed it diminished some of that work.
In contrast Aston Villa finished the following season 3rd but were a significant 11 points behind QPR in the 2nd promotion place so missed out on a return to the topflight until two years later, where Albion would join them a further four years later. But by then Villa had gone from strength to strength, winning two more League Cups (75 and 77) and getting to the quarterfinals of the UEFA cup in 78. Going on to win the First Division in 81 and European Cup in 82.