This week in 1977, the Stoke City board were doing the near-unthinkable and trying to find a replacement for Tony Waddington.
Waddington had been in charge for 17 years and had taken the club through a golden age and claimed the first major silverware – but the club was now in turmoil on the pitch, slipping towards relegation, sections of the Boothen End had been calling for his head… and sections of the Butler Street roof had blown off.
As The Sentinel shocked the Potteries with the banner headline, “I QUIT!” – a second story on the front page went through the front runners for who might be next in the Victoria Ground hot seat.
And top of that short list was one Brian Clough.
Clough had been in charge of Nottingham Forest for just over two years but was still trying to get them out of the second division, with Peter Taylor having joined him as assistant manager the previous summer.
They would stay to seal promotion that season – but it would be by the tightest of margins; needing Wolves to win at Bolton Wanderers on the final day to seal third spot in the table.
What a different world it could have been if Stoke had lured him across the Midlands.
Joining Clough in the runners and riders was 49-year-old Bill McGarry, the Hanley-raised Port Vale hero who had enjoyed great success as a manager with Ipswich Town and Wolves and would be appointed Newcastle United boss later that year.
There was 42-year-old Dave Mackay, who had been sacked at Derby County the previous November and would take over at Walsall later that month.
Dennis Viollet, the 43-year-old former Stoke and Manchester United striker, was mentioned after his spell coaching Washington Diplomats in the United States – and 39-year-old Derek Dougan, who had started his managerial career at Kettering Town.
And Waddo’s assistant manager George Eastham, who would get the gig.
But it was Clough who captured the imagination – and, after all, he had already been in the Stoke dug out.
He had been sacked by Leeds United in September 1974 and Waddington invited him to join Stoke as they made a trip to Ajax in the Uefa Cup. His appearance in the camp sparked much speculation but tried to keep in the background.
“I had to come and see this game,” he told the Sentinel. “It has intrigued me because the Dutch seem to be doing so well in football now.”
He added, after Stoke were unlucky to draw 0-0 and go out on away goals: “That deserved to be a semi-final with the winners going through to the final. Stoke’s tactics were excellent. They deserved to win through.”
Clough would be back in Stoke to appear in a cabaret at Jollees, Longton, the following month in aid of the testimonial fund for Eric Skeels.
Brian Clough made a guest appearance at Jollees in Longton after being sacked as Leeds United manager.
Denis Smith for England was his message.
“He is a superb player,” he said. “Full of guts and honesty. If you took a consensus of opinion among managers in the game, Smith would be in the top three among centre-halves.
“He deserves to be in the England side. (Don) Revie once tried to buy him when he was manager at Leeds. So now let him have the courage to pick him for England.”
Sipping beer and Champagne during an hour-long stint on stage with interviewer Kevin Donovan, Clough poured accolades on Tony Waddington’s Stoke side.
“He is doing a superb job at Stoke,” he said.
“I don’t know how he carries on with the numbers that turn up. Get along there and support them; they have so many talented players. The are doing something good for a football.”
Clough was impressed with Alan Hudson, too.
“I have never known a player work so hard,” he said. “When he came to Stoke he put his life in order, worked at his game and grafted like hell.”
Clough was headlining the event for Eric Skeels’s testimonial fund alongside comedian Dick Emery. He handed over a cheque for £1,315 to the City stalwart.
But he also had a mention for Stoke’s rivals Port Vale, who were then the least-supported side in the Third Division under Roy Sproson.
“I remember vividly playing against them in a cup replay for Sunderland,” he said.
“We were beaten and I was dropped afterwards. But where are they now?
“I see a great big beautiful stadium, beautiful pitch and 4,000 people. So you should not be too pleased with yourselves.”
For all that, how had it ended on such a sour note for Waddington?
Richard Murphy looked back to a key, miserable moment that closed a brilliant chapter in the club’s history.
In the years since he had become manager of Stoke City in the summer of 1960, Waddington had turned them from an average Second Division club into a team that could attract big-name players, challenge for trophies and push for European football.
But all good things come to an end, and during the mid-1970s things began to fall apart for Waddo and the club. Stoke had spent big in an attempt challenge for the league title – for example, paying a world-record fee of £325,000 for Leicester City goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The gamble so nearly paid off in the 1974/75 season when only a crippling injury list saw Stoke end up in fifth instead of perhaps claiming that elusive crown.
A finish so high would normally have at least secured a UEFA Cup place, but a rule change meaning more than one club from the same city could now take part saw Everton qualify instead of Stoke. The club had spent a fortune for no return. As a result, that summer they posted a loss of nearly £500,000. New signings were out of the question. Instead, the major transfer deal of the summer saw Geoff Hurst leave for West Brom for £20,000.
Title challengers fasten their belts
The season started badly and Stoke were 19th early in September when they were knocked out of the League Cup by Fourth Division Lincoln City. The defeat was made even worse as disgruntled Stoke fans caused trouble inside Lincoln’s Sincil Bank ground in one of the worst incidents of violence in the club’s history.
Fortunately, the players responded in a more positive fashion, winning eight of their next 12 matches. The run included victories over champions Derby County and high-flying Leeds United, and lifted Stoke to seventh.
However, their form soon became patchy again, and frustrated fans could not understand how a team challenging for the title the year before were now so inconsistent. In particular, they were less than impressed with the efforts of Ian Moores, John Ritchie’s replacement up front, and Shilton, whose form dipped enough for him to be dropped from the England side.
Attendances started to dip as a result, and Stoke’s average league crowds for the season would eventually be 5,000 down on the previous year.
The roof blows off … and Stoke face consequences
The last thing they needed was a financial disaster, but that’s what happened when the roof was blown off the Butler Street stand in January 1976.
Stoke were in trouble. Alan Hudson and Mike Pejic both handed in transfer requests as they couldn’t see any long-term ambition at the club. The season ended with just 15,598 fans turning out to see Stoke’s final home game after a terrible run of two wins in 11 matches.
The future did not look bright, especially when Waddington was forced to sell players to pay for the Butler Street stand repairs.
The problems didn’t end there though. A long injury list featuring the likes of John Mahoney and Denis Smith meant the team were struggling on the pitch. Waddington had to use inexperienced youngsters like Alan Dodd, Garth Crooks, Brian Bithell and Ian Bowers, much to the dismay of Stoke’s increasingly angry fans.
It all combined for an inevitable conclusion.
The Boothen End turns on Waddo
The 1976-77 season began to fall apart, and a run eight games without a win saw Stoke looking over their shoulders towards the bottom of the table. The side’s better players were leaving and their cut-price replacements, such as John Tudor and Alan Suddick, were struggling.
Despite being the better side, when Stoke lost a home game with Leicester City on March 19, fans in the Boothen End finally turned on the manager. Unimaginable though it would have been just a year before, the Victoria Ground echoed to vociferous cries of “Waddington out”.
For a man who had suffered the brunt of the club’s problems, it was too much. First he had been forced to break up his team, and now the fans were blaming him. Enough was enough. He resigned.
Waddington worked for Stoke for 25 years, arriving as a coach in 1952 and later spending 17 years as manager after taking over from Frank Taylor. In total, he took charge of 887 competitive games, 350 more than any other Stoke manager, and won 312 of them. His sides scored 1,162 goals in the process.
Having first preventing a slide into the Third Division he lifted Stoke back to the top flight with the help of some inspired signings, including the return of Stanley Matthews, and then kept them there for more than a decade, eventually turning Stoke into trophy winners and title contenders.
He would be a hard act to follow, especially with Stoke apparently heading back to the Second Division. Despite rumours that Derek Dougan would get the job, the man given the task of stopping the slide, on a temporary basis for now, was Waddington’s assistant manager and former Stoke player George Eastham. He would only oversee one win in 13 games.