1963 to 1988

Boom and Bust
By Nick Watts

The 1960s ushered in a glorious era for English football, as The Football League’s finest made their mark at home and abroad. Silverware was shared between Sir Matt Busby’s latest incarnation at Manchester United – a team that featured luminaries such as Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and the irrepressible George Best – and Bill Shankly’s famous Liverpool side.

Up on Merseyside, Shankly had taken over at Liverpool when the Reds were struggling in the Second Division but quickly laid the foundations for future success, winning the title in 1964 and 1966. Recognised as one of the great motivators, the confident Scot was also known for his quick wit and many a quote became ingrained in football folklore. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” he famously mused, “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

In 1964, Liverpool’s clash with Arsenal was the first to be featured on the brand new Match of the Day programme on BBC2, a game they won 3-2. They would be picked out for the first colour broadcast in November 1969 too, meeting West Ham United. Coverage was also growing in print media, too, as Football League Review magazine hit the shelves a year later. Across Stanley Park, Everton vied to keep up with the neighbours and paid £100,000 for Blackpool’s Alan Ball – a first between two English clubs – in 1966. It proved a busy year for Ball. 

Alan Ball posing in his Everton shirt in 1969

Best of the Best?

Considered by many to be the most talented player of his generation – and arguably of all-time – George Best captured the hearts of both football supporters and adoring female fans. He was the embodiment of the new celebrity footballer, performing wonders on the pitch while living a high-profile glamourous life of it. 

Having joined Manchester United as a 16-year-old, Best would debut for the club just a year later and go on to score 137 goals in 361 league games, despite mainly operating as a winger. Sir Matt Busby described him as “the most gifted player I have ever seen” and he collected sufficient honours to support the notion, including two league titles, a European Cup and individual rewards as English and European Player of the Year in 1968. 

The contrasts with the likes of previous stars like Sir Stanley Matthews made his playboy lifestyle a point of contention for the purists, but Best was undoubtedly an icon of his era and is still remembered as a genius of the game.

Manchester United's George Best in 1970

Red the Colour

After Arsenal became only the fourth club to complete the League and Cup double, clinching the 1971 Championship at Tottenham, the 1970s were dominated by sides managed by Brian Clough and Bob Paisley. Clough radically transformed Derby County and Nottingham Forest, winning three League titles between them, and back-to-back European Cups with Forest. Domestically the side in red went 42-league games without defeat, setting a new Football League record, and broke new ground in the transfer market too when they paid £1,000,000 to prise Trevor Francis from Birmingham in 1979.

Paisley, meanwhile, stepped out of the shadows of Bill Shankly in 1974 and in the next nine years led Liverpool to six League titles, three European Cups, one Uefa Cup and three League Cups before handing over to Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. That wasn’t the end of the success, however, and by the end of the ‘80s Liverpool had won the League 11 times in 18 seasons. 

During this time the Anfield outfit had become a hugely marketable commodity and took advantage by becoming the first to put a sponsor on their shirt. Sponsorship was a growing force and The League itself would soon follow suit, making its cup competition the first to bear a sponsor’s name in the title after an agreement with the Milk Marketing Board. The Milk Cup would last four years before a new sponsor, Littlewoods, took over in 1986 – a marked change from the days of the Pools War. In the interim Canon took the title sponsorship of The Football League for the first time, as new revenue streams continued to boost the game’s coffers.

Liverpool manager Bob Paisley holds the League Championship trophy aloft in 1983

Football’s Lowest Ebb

While television audiences and newspaper coverage continued to reflect the nation’s obsession with football, the game was rapidly heading towards crisis point.  Decaying stadiums and football hooliganism were taking their toll on attendances and in May 1985, two tragedies within a matter of weeks would take the game to a new low.

Within three weeks of the Heysel disaster, which saw 39 deaths in the Brussels stadium and English clubs subsequently banned from European competition, there was a traumatic blow on home soil at Valley Parade, home of Bradford City. Celebrating lifting the Division Three trophy before their final league game of the season with Lincoln City, the main stand was ravaged by the worst fire disaster in English football history.  More than 200 people were injured and 56 lost their lives. 

The fire memorial outside of Bradford City's Valley Parade

Time for a Change

Before 1965 teams were forced to play on with a less-than-full complement of injured players were unable to continue; the introduction of one named substitute per team allowed an injured player to be replaced.  Keith Peacock of Charlton was the first to come off the bench in August 1965, as he entered the fray in a Division Two match with Bolton Wanderers. The next season it was agreed the allotted substitute could be used at the manager’s discretion, but not until 1987 would the number of replacements be upped to two per team. 

Further rule changes arrived in the following decade, as The Football League scrapped the two-up, two-down promotion and relegation system in 1973, and replaced it with three-up, three-down. Three years later, the criteria for separating clubs finishing on the same number of points was changed from goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded) to goal difference (the difference between goals scored and goals conceded). Sandwiched in between, the first Football League game to be played on a Sunday was a London derby in Division Two between Millwall and Fulham. Played at The Den, the Lions’ season-high 15,143 attendance saw Brian Clark score the first ever Sunday strike.

In 1981, it was decided to award three points for a win, rather than two, in a further effort to encourage attacking football. The idea was the brainchild of Coventry City Chairman and BBC Broadcaster Jimmy Hill and would go on to be used throughout the world.  With the new rule in force, York City became the first team to breach the 100-point mark as they won Division Four in 1982/83. In 32-years since the rule change, only nine further clubs have achieved the distinction. Later that year, The Football League Trophy was launched under the title ‘Associate Members Cup,’ reflecting the fact Division Three and Four clubs were not classed as full members at the time.

Brian Clark and his Millwall team-mates celebrate the first Football League goal scored on a Sunday in 1974

A New Promotion

Automatic promotion and relegation was brought in between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference in 1986/87, while simultaneously another defining innovation was approved – the Play-Offs. First mooted by League Secretary Alan Hardaker in the 1970s, the idea was picked up by Brentford Chairman Martin Lange and it was he who would go on to be labelled their creator-in-chief. 

Lange had initially suggested the Play-Offs be introduced into the Third and Fourth Divisions as part of the Heathrow Agreement, which was focused on reducing the number of sides in the top flight. Such was the excitement around the idea, however, that the Second Division would adopt them too as clubs recognised the opportunity to extend the excitement of a season for fans of clubs outside the automatic promotion places. This in turn helped ease tensions between the top two tiers in the short-term, while having an undeniable impact on attendances and end-of-season drama right up until the modern day with crowds having more than doubled since their introduction.