A new season kicks off with fans optimistic on the basis of improved performances on the pitch in the latter half of last season. The common wisdom is that the attack will cause nightmares to any team in the division whilst our own defence whets the appetites of opposing strikers. Question marks surround a goalkeeper who arrived at the Vetch after being third choice at Manchester City. The club slowly getting back on it’s feet after financial trauma. Sounds familiar? Welcome to Swansea City’s 1976-77 season!
A little while ago Swans fan Huw Richards contributed an excellent chapter to Nick Hornby’s anthology of football writing, “My Favourite Year”. Whilst Huw’s piece evoked wonderful memories of the 1978-79 promotion campaign, my personal favourite season had occurred two years earlier. Rather typically, being the Swans it was a season that was to end in glorious and romantic failure. However, the sight of the Swans attack slicing through any comers is one that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling disillusioned with the world at large, I’ll sit down and watch the BBC Video “Boys From Brazil”, an antidote to world weariness and cynicism. The 1970 and 1982 sequences are particularly well worn. I only wish that a similar video was available of the Harry Griffiths’ Swans team of the mid seventies, as it would have a similar effect of restoring faith in all that is positive and beautiful. In 1976-77 the team scored 92 league goals, the highest in all four divisions that year and a club record. For a while, smashing the league century mark looked there for the taking. Add in cup goals and they made it.
The season started pretty much in the manner it was to continue, with a home League Cup tie against Newport. County succeeded in stifling the Swans and going into the final quarter hour the scores were level at 1-1. At that stage Harry Griffiths threw an untried 16 year old into the game. The name Charles was hardly a new one in the context of Swansea football, but the youngest version showed that he could grab headlines with the same style as his elders. Two goals in the final fifteen minutes as the Swans ran out 4-1 winners meant that the team now had three young starlets to give hope for the future.
The first two of the triumvirate were already battle-hardened regulars who had experienced the traumas of the Harry Gregg era. Robbie James had made his debut as a 16 year old and soon established the qualities that were to mark him down as one of the Swans all time greats. Deceptive pace over twenty yards, a fierce shot, a tenacious attitude that left him immune to intimidation and an ability to apparently play in any position out of goal endeared him to the crowd. Alan Curtis had started life as a winger, and there were those who doubted his ability as he sat on the periphery of Gregg’s team. Probably the defining moment of the previous season had come at Torquay in February when Harry Griffiths experimented by playing Curt as a striker. Both goals in a 2-0 win proved the experiment successful and Albie was never sidelined to the wing again. In fact, its arguable that the “golden era” of attacking abandon had started the week before that match. Promotion challengers Reading were hammered 5-1 on a Friday evening at the Vetch, a game remarkable for both an irresistible Swansea display, and also a fight in the directors box following the fifth goal.
If Curtis, James and Charles were the young stars, Harry’s team also had others who could play a little at Fourth Division level. Danny Bartley had been converted from a winger into a left back who overlapped and supplied a stream of dangerous crosses. His fellow former Bristol City reserve Dave Bruton provided a touch of class at the back with distribution that belied the team’s status. Pat Lally provided the attacking impetus in midfield with his darting runs, whilst in Micky Conway we possessed a winger of true pace. Whatever is said of John Williams’ Wembley run, Conway will always remain in my memory as the fastest thing I’ve seen in the white shirt, the Eurostar amongst the Thomas the Tank Engines of the Fourth Division.
Central to Griffiths’ rebuilding was George Smith, signed on a free transfer from Cardiff., who provided both graft and vision in midfield. He had arrived in the summer of 1975 after the nightmare of the re-election team, and was very much Harry’s emissary on the pitch. The second half of 1975-76 had seen the team start to gel, and Stockport were given the five goal treatment just a few weeks after Reading. Over the close season of 1976 Harry added industrious midfielder Les Chappel and experienced defender Eddie May to his squad, as well as Gary Moore, who is best remembered as being very tall. If one can imagine a playing style that apparently owed a debt to John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, you start to get the idea of what Mr Moore brought to the team. On the rare occasions that opposing defences got the measure of Curtis and co, big Gary brought an element of the unexpected, not least to his own team-mates and possibly to himself.
If the 76-77 attack was sheer dynamite, the defence is memorable as providing almost equal degrees of entertainment. Promotion was lost due to the 68 goals conceded, one of the worst records in the league. This was possibly because nobody much was very interested in defending, which was seen as a chore necessary only to lesser teams. Wyndham Evans was employed as an attacking full back, and brought the same energy and gusto to his attacking duties as he had employed during his previous experimental incarnation as a striker. Wyndham’s main attacking ploy was to push the ball ahead so as to tempt the opposing full back into challenge, and then to charge headlong after it. For an opposing player this must have been an awesome and terrifying sight, and many seemed frozen when caught in Wyndham’s headlights, unable to react to see off their impending nemesis. Others resembled matadors being charged by a particularly ferocious bull, feigning bravado, but instead stepping aside at the last second to allow the snorting beast to pass by unimpeded.
During the height of winter the attacking fervour was wound to new heights when Pat Lally was utilised as a central defender in a sweeping role. Lally emulated the spirit, if not entirely the skill of Franz Beckenbauer, frequently starting and joining in attacks. The result of Wyndham, Bartley and Lally’s attacking instincts was that whilst we frequently simply overran teams in their own half that the hapless Steve Potter in goal was frequently left with only Eddie May for company within fifty yards. Indeed, Potter could hardly have been blamed for developing a serious complex worthy of psychiatric investigation. Why couldn’t he walk onto a football pitch without at least nine of his team-mates getting as far away from him as was possible? Potter frequently resembled a piece of driftwood left behind on the foreshore as the all powerful white tide flowed mercilessly out and forward.
Potter evolved fairly or otherwise into the fall guy of the team. If Brazil of 1970 had Felix, we had our own version. Life is often unfair to goalkeepers who will be remembered as much for the goals they conceded as for those they saved. A season’s worth of good anticipation and solid positioning can be undone in the crowd’s eyes by a momentary error. Barbosa played in goal for the Brazilians in the 1950 World Cup, staged on home soil. He was his countries finest and universally admired, a national folk hero until the fateful final. He was beaten by a shot that many neutrals assessed as brilliant oppurtunism and audacious skill but the goalkeeper was perceived to have erred by the nation. Years later he was still cast as the man who had cost his country the World Cup. He was once heard to comment that the highest criminal sentence in Brazil was 35 years in prison, but that he had received life for a crime he did not commit.
Potter had arrived from Man City where he had been third in the pecking order, obviously hoping to learn from Harry Greggs specialised goalkeeping coaching. He soon replaced the hopeless Derek Bellotti, and few who saw the latter in his full glory will doubt that he represented an improvement. Harry’s Potter was a magician compared to his predecessor. However, a series of errors had set tongues wagging, and to many he was the man who cost the Swans their promotion place, partly as a result of a single episode that exhibited to the full just how cruel a game football can be.
In January 1977 the Swans played Bradford City at the Vetch on a Friday night of wild west Wales rain. This was always likely to be a crucial game, as both sides were challenging for promotion. The Swans were leading 1-0 when Bradford were awarded a penalty. Potter, having one of his better games dived and saved, and for fifteen minutes at least was the toast of the North Bank. Then the Gods intervened to make one suspect that Mr Potter must have done something very bad in a previous life. The rain grew worse and with around twenty minutes left, the referee abandoned the game. A wining position forfeited on a night when everything seemed to be going literally swimmingly. The game was replayed on St David’s Day, but the leaks were all in the Swans defence as Bradford ran up a two goal lead. A great fightback saw the teams locked at 2-2 with a few minutes left, when Potter muffed an innocuous shot, and Bradford snatched the winner. At the end of the season Bradford pipped the Swans for the fourth promotion place by one point. Had the scores in the match remained level, the Swans would have gone up in their place. As it was, even a dramatic final day 3-2 win at Champions Cambridge proved as academic as any don’s thesis emerging from the ivory towers.
The error effectively spelt the end of Potter’s period as Swans number one. The following season Harry signed Keith Barber, whose more solid performance helped ease the goals against tally to a more respectable 47. Harry himself was destined for replacement by John Toshack before the season’s end. The attack still helped themselves to 87 goals in that promotion season, but notwithstanding an 8-0 hammering of Hartlepool, many fans’ perception of that season was that we didn’t quite have the attacking verve of the previous year’s near miss. Perhaps we missed the lightning pace of Conway whose career was effectively ended by a car accident. Possibly a little pragmatism had come into play, and certainly nobody could argue with the overall outcome.
However, most of us who were there will remember with pleasure the headier moments of the season and a half when we abandoned defence as a serious concept and gave in to our innermost and deepest orgiastic goal fantasies. Games that stick in the mind include a 3-1 win over Champions elect Cambridge in the pre Christmas gloom, and a series of evening games in the new year where the team never seemed to score less than four times. The final game of that sequence ill go down as one of the most stunning games most of us will ever see at the Vetch.
With twenty minutes to go some generous defending had allowed Stockport a 4-0 lead, and the crowd began drifting away, convinced that not only was the match lost, but that the wheels had fallen off the promotion challenge. With nothing to lose but the match ball, George Smith tried a speculative twenty yard shot. Instead of disappearing into the gardens behind the old East Bank, the ball flew like a dart into the top corner for what seemed little more than spectacular consolation. Minutes later, Les Chappel repeated the trick and suddenly Stockport had a game on their hands. With five minutes left Alan Curtis brought the scores level, and there was still time left for an almighty scramble in the Stockport six yard box. Still, perhaps 5-4 would have been stretching things a little too much even by the standards of the fairy tale comebacks the team was to produce in succeeding years. As it was, there were people in the pub afterwards who had left early who thought it was a wind-up when we told them we had drawn.
A few weeks later the defence laid down a similar challenge to the attack by conceding four in the first half of the final home game against Watford. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice and the 4-1 defeat meant that promotion was now dependent on the results elsewhere. Our rivals, Bradford and Colchester didn’t slip up, and we missed the upward elevator, despite scoring all those goals.
What might have happened if the heavens hadn’t opened that night in January 1977? Would we have pipped Bradford and gone up? If so, would the board have backed Harry Griffiths as they were to later back Toshack? Or might we have struggled, and been a less attractive proposition? Would Curtis, James and Charles left in a season of third division struggle? Would history have evolved differently? We will never know.
It’s hard not to think of the 1976-77 era in the sepia tinged light of “the good old days”. However, like every golden summer, it had to end. In one sense it was an enjoyment based on cruelty as to watch fourth division defenders being toyed with by that attack was akin to watching a cat play with a half dead mouse. Equally, it would have been cruel in it’s own way to expect Curt, Robbie and Charlo to go on playing at that level. Yet for a season and a half we fulfilled every fan’s fantasy for their team. Out and out attacking football, our team regularly outclassing the opposition defence, and a seemingly endless supply of goals.
Yet ultimately, we failed. Failure by the narrowest of margins, but failure nonetheless. By one point, by one match, by one goal, by one too many West Wales rain cloud, by one crucial individual mistake. Rather like the Brazil team of 1982, the beautiful game ultimately played second fiddle to more pragmatic virtues. Just as in more recent times Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle won the hearts of the neutral, but grim George Graham’s joyless Arsenal won trophies.
For most fans of a certain age the Swans will always be associated with the finer points of the game, and Harry Griffiths vibrant attackers fulfilled those lofty ideals. The club’s history is filled with players of skill and grace who played the game to entertain. There was a direct link running from the Allchurches through Brian Evans to Curtis and James. The signs are that the likes of Britton, Maylett and Martinez can restore that tradition that seemed to have been moved to the back burner in recent years. Pragmatism and organisation (and not a little luck) won us a rare championship under John Hollins. Whilst we were not going to look a gift championship in the mouth, there was a strange feeling of lack of fulfilment. Somehow, that Championship win felt slightly hollow, as if obtained on a false premise. Many of us walked away from Millmoor with a feeling similar to that when you’ve been given too much change by a shop assistant. By and large, that championship team was not one to love. In contrast, the 76-77 team won nothing, but played like true champions and were a team to cherish.
Sadly it seems there is a lesson in there. The romantic in all of us would love to win like the Brazilians of 1970. Deep down the pragmatist in us knows the reality that winning in football over a league season can be as much about digging in as playing out. Yet there is a middle way, as was proved when a season later when a marginally less gung ho approach saw Harry Griffiths team win promotion and kick start a period of unrivalled success. Toshack’s teams were also based on attack – with the players available, how could they not be – yet they could also defend when needed.
Let’s enjoy the idea that Brian Flynn seems to be seeking to bring back an attacking style of play to the Vetch, one that might be called the “Swansea way”. But please, Brian, with one eye on the final league table – lets sort it out at the back!