The Premier League will be back next month with Liverpool hoping to seal the title.
It will be the first top flight game played in June since champions-in-waiting Stoke City went to Sheffield United some 73 years ago – and handed Liverpool the title amid heartbreak and scandal.
If a picture can tell a thousand words, so can the deep engraving of the mark Stoke handed the referee on June 14, 1947.
This was the aftermath of the biggest game in the club’s history, when a win at Sheffield United on the final day of a weather-ravaged season would have crowned them champions of England.
On a quagmire of a pitch in torrential conditions they had hit the bar, had an open goal shot get stuck in the mud, were denied a clear penalty and lost 2-1. It was a horrid mixture, if you dare to imagine, of Dave Regis’s puddle plus Martin Atkinson or Rob Styles.
It all handed the title to Liverpool, who had stationed a scout to spit on the ball before kick-off at badly blitzed Bramall Lane.
Here is Stoke’s priceless teamsheet from that day, signed by manager-secretary Bob McGrory.
And that includes a fiercely pierced ZERO out of four for referee WH Dixon, from Lincoln, for an official who was “bad or incompetent”.
McGrory had dished out a one – “poor” – previously that season for RC Greenwood’s handling of Stoke’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United but this was the first nought since competitive football had returned following the Second World War.
Stoke supporter Stephen Edwards, from Liverpool trusted the Sentinel with the document as we marked the 150th anniversary of the club’s recorded match last October – and the highs and lows which have followed.
He bought the book when it went up for auction at the Victoria Ground in the 1990s, to make sure it was kept in safe hands. He plans to leave it to the club in his will.
How Stoke City came within one game of winning the title
It was an incredible season.
McGrory had built a team full of mostly local heroes to challenge for the highest honour.
Yet arguably the world’s best player, Stanley Matthews, was sold to Blackpool with just three games remaining. He would have only been available for one, the last one, due to international commitments and Blackpool had no games left. It is a long, contentious story.
Still, Stoke had won eight and drawn one of their previous nine games leading to the dramatic finale… but hadn’t played since beating Aston Villa on May 26. At that point, there were still three clubs who could have finished top.
It would have been Wolves if they had beaten Liverpool at home in the final match for both teams – but they lost 2-1, which put Liverpool in first, two points clear of Stoke with a worse goal average.
So it would be in Stoke’s hands – after an agonising wait for Sheffield United to fit in two other postponed games before they could get to business.
An outrageous start to gigantic match
The players were told the line-up on the Tuesday before the game, with Neil Franklin back from England duty to replace Frank Mountford. Mountford was heartbroken and handed in a transfer request the following day.
Sheffield United were without star forward Jimmy Hagan due to injury so manager Ted Davison turned to 38-year-old former England inside left Jack Pickering, who had not played all season.
McGrory and his players were besieged by well-wishers and more than 10,000 travelled over the hills, with so much demand that bus companies ran out of vehicles.
They ran out into a wall of noise dressed in a new away kit of white shirts and black shorts, replacing their old blue and white stripes change strip – “It was strange seeing Stoke in white against a team in red and white – and for a time, confusing,” wrote ‘Potter’ in the Sentinel – and in less than three minutes they were behind.
Dennis Herod had dived over Pickering’s bobbling cross-shot. “It took me months to smile again,” said the keeper.
Stoke roared back with brilliant football and 31-goal talisman Freddie Steele played a one-two with George Mountford to tee up Alec Ormston to bring the sides level in the fifth minute.
The tension rose in South Yorkshire and at Anfield – where Liverpool had timed the Merseyside Senior Cup final against Everton so that everyone could be gathered in one place to follow updates on a giant scoreboard.
Then came Dixon.
WH Dixon to fore as Stoke come unstuck in the mud
Harry Latham legged up Steele in the box for a penalty so cast iron it was even written into a match report, with necessary clarification in the subsequent sentence that it hadn’t actually been given.
Instead the decisive next goal came at the other end. Four minutes into the second half Longton’s John “Chopper” McCue lost his footing trying to intercept a Pickering pass and Walter Rickett made it 2-1.
Stoke surged forward in search of two goals. Mountford had a shot tipped onto the bar, Syd Peppit and Mountford got in each other’s way in a frenetic goalmouth scramble with the net gaping and a header from Steele got stuck in the mud near the goal-line.
Stoke would never come so close again to winning the Championship. Perhaps McGrory knew it when he marked the referee.
Hard luck Stoke but well played
Here is the Sentinel’s leader column from the following day.