The Leeds Utd fans at Stoke City hoping for West Brom win

It was a unique situation when Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United fans were all at the Victoria Ground.

This was the 1981/82 season when the three clubs became embroiled in a tense relegation battle which culminated in a decider in the Potteries 38 years ago today.

Stoke hero Denis Smith had spent much of the campaign loaned out to York City to rehabilitate from serious ligament damage but returned to bolster the Potters’ effort in late April.

At that point Stoke were in the midst of a terrible run.

The heady heights of 13th in mid-February after a 2-0 home victory over bottom club Middlesbrough now seemed a distant memory as just one draw in their next nine games had seen Stoke tumble down the table.

Second from bottom and having played more games than their relegation rivals, Stoke faced some crucial games against Wolves, Leeds and West Brom, who were also facing the drop, Sunderland, Birmingham and the already doomed Middlesbrough.

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Smith returned for the home match with Wolves, which was won 2-1 thanks to goals from Lee Chapman and a penalty from Paul Maguire. A tense goalless draw at Elland Road kept Stoke alive, and when they defeated Aston Villa thanks to a Paul Bracewell goal at the Victoria Ground it seemed as though they had escaped.

But a draw at home to Notts County after being 2-0 up ended that optimism, and defeat at Manchester United on the final regular day of the season set up a bizarre scenario which would decide the fate of three clubs over the course of two games. In those days, postponed matches were able to be played after the scheduled end of the season.

Both Leeds’s match at West Brom and Albion’s visit to Stoke remained to be played, with the former scheduled for the Monday night and the latter the Thursday night following the end of the season.

So the fixtures fell perfectly for Stoke to go into their final game at the Victoria Ground knowing a win would keep them up. But which team would be relegated in their stead would depend on who lost the Monday night game at the Hawthorns. West Brom triumphed 2-0, expending the last vestiges of effort for the campaign in the process.

This left the odd situation whereby Stoke could beat West Brom, who were now safe, and relegate Leeds, who West Brom had just beaten, to stay up.

So there were three clubs’ supporters at the Vic that balmy May evening – Stoke, West Brom and Leeds.

There was talk of trouble if United went down, but in truth everyone knew what was coming, those fans were resigned to their fate.

Lee Chapman combined with Paul Bracewell to score his 17th goal of the season as Stoke beat West Brom to stay up in 1982.

True to predictions, Stoke overwhelmed West Brom, who were mentally on the beach, with goals from Dave Watson, Chapman and Brendan O’Callaghan. Stoke were safe and Leeds were down, and fans swarmed on to the pitch to carry their heroes shoulder high.

Leeds manager Allan Clarke had left at half time, realising Stoke’s greater appetite would ensure his side’s fate.

That joyous victory would prove to be Smith’s final game for Stoke City. How appropriate it was that in his last performance he helped keep Stoke in the top flight for another year.

Other images of Smith flash into the mind – lifting the League Cup at Wembley, scoring the winner against Leeds United in that famous game of 1974, netting against Ajax in Europe and leading Stoke back out of the Second Division at Meadow Lane in 1979.

But the final enduring image is of Smith being held aloft by adoring fans at the end of his last and 488th appearance for his beloved club. “Mr Stoke City” had once again given his fans everything.

Smith would never return to manage his boyhood club, as many Stokies believed would happen, instead leading the likes of York City, Sunderland, Oxford United and Wrexham to promotion glory in a managerial career which would exceed 1,000 games.

But he is more than fondly remembered for deeds of heroism above and beyond the call of duty in the red and white stripes of Stoke City.

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