1978-79 | The self-implosion of Manchester City

Gingers Dad

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Not sure I deserve to be named specifically in this company, but here goes. Gary will no doubt have covered this period in interviews with various protagonists so is likely to have pertinent knowledge not available to the rest of us. FWIW, my impressions from having consumed most of what's already in the public domain and my own memories are as follows:

1. We definitely failed to kick on after finishing runners up in 1977. Our transfer business was poor. As @Stiff Little Wingers says above, we didn't replace Colin Bell. Book says in his autobiography that he wanted Alan Ball when Arsenal got rid in 1976 but Swales wouldn't pay the asking price of GBP 100K for a player then over thirty. (Ball was still playing in the top flight in 1982). Jimmy Conway, signed instead, showed why he'd been a second division player all his career and lasted only a season in which his appearances were intermittent. Then, when we did finally spend GBP 100K on a midfielder in 1978, we took Colin Viljoen from Ipswich and he left his best days behind him in Suffolk.

2. Dennis Tueart in his autobiography suggests we should have gone for a lad called Souness at 'Boro. I've argued on here and elsewhere in the past that it was a realistic possibility had we been decisive with our move, but even if we couldn't have got him, we needed a quality player in the centre of midfield. Instead, in the summer of 1977, we spent about the same as it would have cost to bring in Souness on another striker in Mike Channon. He did OK (the withering assessments of his performances by some Blues aren't justified, IMO), but in terms of being the flagship player to help us take the step from nearly-men to trophy winners, he fell well short. Moreover, within just over half a season after he signed for us, we'd sold Royle and Tueart. The latter was at the absolute peak of his powers at the time, and Channon's performances didn't compensate us adequately for that loss.

3. The next big-money buy in the summer of 1978 simply didn't come off. Book had decided that Mike Doyle was past it so offloaded him to Stoke, and thought (probably correctly) that a Booth/Watson pairing wasn't optimal because the two players were too similar to complement one another ideally. So we spent heavily on Paul Futcher, widely touted as a likely England centre-half for the next decade, including by Jimmy Hill, the leading pundit of the day. But while Futcher, unlike most in the position back then, was clearly a cultured footballer, his limitations were cruelly exposed as he found the top flight a much tougher proposition than the second tier at Luton. He played only 37 league games in City colours and never featured in the old Division One again once he left us. That fact tells its story.

4. Coupled with all this, the core of the side was ageing and league performances at the start of 1978/9, even before the November and December dip, did suggest that we were no longer a team that could have a tilt at the league title. We hadn't really challenged in 1977/8 either, but after Colin Bell's return from injury, we took 28 points from the last 21 games, of which Bell had played 17. Over 42 games, that ratio would have given 56 points - exactly the same as in the runners-up year. Colin at this point could barely run, but he sat in front of the back four with his supreme positional sense combined with perspicacious short and long passing allowing Hartford and Owen more licence to get forward and create. A front three of Channon, Kidd and Barnes was more than decent (even if Tueart's presence was badly missed), so we had a really well balanced side for that half-season. A further injury setback for Bell the next pre-season (he could play only 10 league games in 1978/9 and was an even further diminished figure in those) along with Futcher's struggles meant that the balance was never replicated.

5. Thus, I think it's fair to say that, by the autumn of 1978, it was clear that we needed an influx of new blood if we were to return to the standards we'd shown a couple of years before. The UEFA Cup performances, especially against Milan (that season's Serie A champions), showed we could still be a fine side on our day, but those days were becoming fewer. We perhaps needed to make three decent signings, as well as gradually to phase in some of the promising youngsters we had. What we didn't need was to rip the whole thing up and start again. In other words, a refresh rather than a rebuild should have been the order of the day.

6. In terms of who should have overseen the process, from memory most fans were behind Tony Book. At least, I don't recall any great debate about his position or hostility towards him. He was a club legend in his fifth season in charge, and had performed creditably, rebuilding after the Mercer/Allison side had broken up. Sacking him at that point would undoubtedly have been a harsh and extremely ruthless move. Nonetheless, according to Book's autobiography, the board had their sights on a major change even before the idea of bringing back Allison gained currency. Book asserts that his contract was due to expire in the summer of 1979, and he was rebuffed by the board when he sounded them out with regard to negotiating an extension. He claims he was tipped off that the directors were lining up Bobby Robson to replace him. As a result, Book held talks with Leeds over the vacant manager's job at Elland Road, but lost out to Sunderland boss Jimmy Adamson.

7. If we'd brought in Bobby Robson at that time, it would have been an understandable move, I think. I'd have felt sorry for Book and no doubt we'd have taken considerable stick for the brutality of the decision, but Robson was clearly a superior manager who'd worked miracles at a small club in Ipswich. I've speculated before as to whether bringing Allison back appealed to Swales because Malcolm's previous relationship with Book would mean the idea of the latter staying on would be acceptable to both men. In any event, the callous potential sacking was avoided, though no one seemed all that worried about shafting Book's assistant Bill Taylor, a decent man and a talented coach.

8. Rumour has it that Ian Niven was the director originally pushing for Malcolm to return to Maine Road, and that he persuaded Swales to support the plan, after which it became a fait accompli given the rest of the board's supine attitude towards the chairman. To my mind, none of them had tried to analyse the situation dispassionately, because it shouldn't have required the benefit of hindsight to know that the move was likely to be calamitous. His return may have come less than six years after he originally left Maine Road for Palace, but nowhere in that intervening period had he shown any grounds to believe that good would come of vesting in him the kind of control that City did in this period.

9. One thing I've read, but I no longer recall where, is that Swales's wish to replace Book was born at least in part of a desire to install a higher-profile figure. Book wasn't particularly gregarious and didn't generate back-page headlines, leaving Swales seething that his club was unable to bathe in the limelight in the same way as the one located just outside the city boundary. Well, Big Mal was certainly equipped to garner publicity, though sometimes its value would prove to be dubious, as with the reaction to FA Cup humiliation in the mud at Halifax for what was then the most expensive squad ever assembled in British football.

10. Another hypothesis I've always put forward is that an Allison/Book partnership was always unlikely to be successful because the dynamic was wrong. Book essentially owed his career in big-time football to Allison after the pair had worked together at Bath City and Plymouth in the sixties. I believe that he was always, as a result, likely to be too deferential to his mentor, unlikely to challenge or oppose his more dominant colleague even when the latter's decisions were highly questionable. Only Joe Mercer ever really managed to do that for any significant period during Allison's career, but I believe that Book's shared past with Malcolm made it a tougher task for him that it would have been for more or less anyone else.

11. Of course, the turnover of players was crazy. It started even before the end of the 1978/9 season when top-scorer Brian Kidd was shipped out just before deadline day and the execrable Barry Silkman signed (Silkman's odious narcissism on the back of his manifest mediocrity made him one of my least favourite City players I've ever watched). I was only a kid at the time and lacked the understanding of such matters that age brings, but as the summer wore on, I thought the Allison revolution simply crazy. The number of top players jettisoned and the calibre of the new recruits were both deeply disturbing.

12. I rather suspected at the time, and still do now, that this was all ego-driven on Allison's part. I'd suggest that he wanted to show he could prosper by building his own side rather than tweaking Book's previous high-quality unit, thus proving that he didn't need Joe Mercer to enjoy footballing success. But in the interests of fairness, let's record Malcolm's own explanation here. He said that the squad was ageing and didn't want to put in the effort in training which had always been essential to his modus operandi. Instead, he wanted to build a younger, hard-running side with higher fitness levels. There may be something to this, but I note in passing that the professed desire to build a youthful team didn't dissuade Malcolm from discarding two of the country's top budding talents in Peter Barnes and Gary Owen.

13. There was a time, albeit brief, in the autumn of 1979 when it appeared possible to discern some method in the madness. One or two stellar results, with performances to match, seemed to make it possible to spot what Allison's vision actually was. I'm referring, in particular, to the 1-0 win at home to Clough's reigning European Champions Nottingham Forest, and the pulsating derby demolition of a United side on its way to finishing second in the table. These proved to be a chimera.

14. A 17-game winless run from Boxing Day, including the fiasco at The Shay, left relegation a serious possibility. The masochists out there can find Granada's highlights on Youtube of the home draw with a Bolton side adrift at the bottom of the table. Though we took a 2-0 lead and were eventually pegged back only by an injury-time penalty, we really look no better than them for the most part and it's a sobering reminder of how poor we were in that period. Though we rallied late in that campaign to avoid the drop, twelve winless matches at the start of 1980/1 showed that the trajectory was emphatically downward. The 4-0 home defeat to newly promoted Sunderland in August 1980 was as embarrassing a City home performance as I think I've ever seen.

15. When John Bond took over, Allison's players looked to have renewed belief and purpose even when the new manager's signings were cup-tied. Maybe, then, the side even without McDonald, Hutchison and Gow was much better than had been evident over the previous barren and depressing months. But Allison had been unable to coax such performances from his players for almost a year, so his demise was inevitable, maybe even tardy.

16. Some of Allison's decisions in his period in charge were staggering in their irrational ineptitude. Indeed, it's hard for those like me, who remember this period but not his first stint at the club, to square his legacy as the brilliant coach who achieved such success with Mercer with that of having impeded City's prospects so catastrophically in this later spell. I look back and am genuinely bewildered by much of what he did, but even so I regard him as only the secondary villain of the piece.

17. What set City back so badly wasn't that we replaced good players with ordinary ones. We could have recovered from that considerably more easily. What really did the damage was the fact that we almost bankrupted ourselves in the process. Allison and Swales blamed one another for this, each insisting that the other man bore responsibility for the level of fees we were prepared to pay for players quite patently not worth the outlay. We do have witness testimony on the point, however. Tony Book, in his autobiography, is insistent that Swales negotiated the fees and I, believing in Book as a man of integrity, am prepared to take his word for it.

18. So let's look at this in a little more detail. First, we need to bear in mind that Peter Swales didn't inject money into the club to fund this grotesque splurge. Some grant the chairman a degree of absolution, arguing that his agreement to pay inflated fees owed to a desire to back Allison. I accept the premise, but it's no excuse for Swales. He didn't back the manager with his own money, or even with funds that the club had generated through the ordinary course of its business. No, he borrowed vast sums.

19. Let's put this in context. While we did recover monies by selling players in the same period, we spent GBP 4 million net between the summer of 1979 and the signings of Trevor Francis and Kevin Bond just after the start of 1981/2. A back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests that our turnover in the period in question would be likely to be a touch over GBP 1 million, maybe reaching GBP 1.5 million in a season where we did well from cup runs. Let's be generous and say that we turned over around GBP 3 million in the 1979/80 and 1980/81 seasons. Swales committed to a million quid more than that in transfer fees (which, remember, in those days had to be paid in full within twelve months) when his only means of funding it was to borrow the money.

20. To put that in perspective, a modern equivalent would be, say, Crystal Palace borrowing over GBP 400 million in the modern era to fund transfers over a two-year spell. For Swales to have done something analogous for his era is absolutely staggering in its recklessness and, if anyone wants evidence that he was unfit to hold the office he did at MCFC, you have all you need right there.

21. Of course, it wouldn't have been quite so bad had we bought players worth the money. But let's also remind ourselves of the deals Swales negotiated in this period. If we take the GBP 300K Liverpool paid for Ian Rush as a benchmark of a fair price for an up-and-coming third-tier striker of promise, how the fuck did we agree to pay GBP 750K to Preston for Michael Robinson? United paid just over GBP 800K for midfielder Ray Wilkins, an England regular, so it was laughable for us to commit to 175% of that sum for the uncapped Steve Daley. We could go on and on here, but I think the point's already been made.

22. The whole episode represents ego-driven lunacy on both Allison's part and that of Swales. In 46 years of following English football, I struggle to remember any club so comprehensively and rapidly squandering a position of pre-eminence through a strategy of such egregious idiocy as those two managed in less than two years at City. But again, there's a small degree of mitigation for Malcolm, in that the likes of Robinson and Daley did show themselves elsewhere to be decent top-flight footballers. They were destroyed at Maine Road by the pressure generated by those ridiculous fees - and the blame for that lies squarely with Swales.

23. I could probably forgive Swales as being incompetent and misguided if I thought his heart had been in the right place, a defence advanced in his favour by a good many City fans. I'm afraid I beg to differ. When the chickens came home to roost and we had to sell Trevor Francis (causing a percentage drop in gates double that of any other First Division club in recession-hit early 1980s Britain), anyone whose heart was in the right place would have had the decency to quit to facilitate the refinancing of the club.

24. The vile egomaniac Swales instead boasted of having rejected offers of serious investment into MCFC. It's claimed he was a City fan. Well, I'm of the school that regards actions as speaking louder than words, and what he did proclaims him to be only a Peter Swales fan first, last and everywhere inbetween. Virtually no one would have known who he was without his chairmanship of MCFC. He loved the limelight even more than the money he could trouser from the club, I think - though it's telling that, from the early 1980s when paid directors were first allowed in English football, he was invariably the highest-earning employee. All this mattered far more to him than the club's welfare.

25. The result was what happened to us in the mid and late 1990s. If I could be bothered, I could generate a litany of Francis Lee's faults as City chairman but the biggest issue Lee faced in that post was the utter shitshow bequeathed to him by this vain, incompetent ****.

26. I've heard it said that Swales deserved some sympathy because his acolytes turned against him at the end and backed Lee to save their own positions. I spare him no such indulgence. Despicable, lickspittle nobodies they may have been, but Swales himself created this kind of quasi-feudal set-up where people like that were beholden to him. I find it a delicious irony that this eventually but him on the arse.

27. Mostly, though, when I think of all this, I'm angry. Through their ego-driven misadventure, Allison and Swales destroyed what, before they started, was genuinely one of the top clubs in the land. But Allison at least paid for his lack of judgement by losing his job, and I see him as bearing a lesser portion of the blame given that the more serious long-term consequences derived from the appalling financial management that Swales was guilty of.

28. I view the day when that twat found his way onto the board at City as genuinely the worst day in our history. It tells you everything about where his priorities lay that, for more than 13 years after he showed Allison the door, he continued to inflict his poisonous presence on the club, clinging to his post with the desperation of a drowning man holding onto a liferaft. That's what I reserve my fury for.
I hate Swales with a passion. I blame him for ruining a great football club and for doing the same to most of my adult life when it comes to football.
Really can't stand it when fellow Blues defend him by saying he was a Blue. He fckin wasn't and your post summed him up superbly.
 

DontLookBackInAnger

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I cover in Manchester A Football History how there were still negotiations with United to move to a 80,000 capacity Commonwealth Games stadium. The council even offered Utd the chance to just play European games at this new proposed stadium because Utd felt a permanent move would upset fans. They continued to discuss this and in the end Fergie was the one who had final decision saying Utd should play all games at OT.

So ultimately Fergie could’ve scuppered our future but probably never realised he had that opportunity.
Do you think it was always a non-starter Utd moving there then, whatever happened?(assuming Fergie was there)
 

Gary James

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I hate Swales with a passion. I blame him for ruining a great football club and for doing the same to most of my adult life when it comes to football.
Really can't stand it when fellow Blues defend him by saying he was a Blue. He fckin wasn't and your post summed him up superbly.
I don’t know if you saw the Boys In Blue film show I did at both the Cornerhouse and Dancehouse over the years but we show part of a TV profile/interview of him. I think you’d have seen your view totally backed up by his own words/ego. Lots of great quotes ‘I’m the top man’ etc. He certainly loved the spotlight. Even if he did love City it wouldn’t make him a great chairman so anyone saying ‘ah but he loved City’ does need to think ‘does that overrule everything else?’ Eddie Large and Bernard Manning loved City but imagine them as chairman… We can all try but that’s why Khaldoon is a great chairman. He’s a businessman first and foremost.
 

DontLookBackInAnger

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I don’t know if you saw the Boys In Blue film show I did at both the Cornerhouse and Dancehouse over the years but we show part of a TV profile/interview of him. I think you’d have seen your view totally backed up by his own words/ego. Lots of great quotes ‘I’m the top man’ etc. He certainly loved the spotlight. Even if he did love City it wouldn’t make him a great chairman so anyone saying ‘ah but he loved City’ does need to think ‘does that overrule everything else?’ Eddie Large and Bernard Manning loved City but imagine them as chairman… We can all try but that’s why Khaldoon is a great chairman. He’s a businessman first and foremost.
How much bearing do you think Swales's heading the international committee of the FA (my understanding was that to head it/be on it you needed to be a chairman of a football league club) was to his stay at the club, especially when things really turned against him in the mid to late 80s?
 

jimharri

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I was going to say, Leeds under Risdale was a disaster. The outcome was 15+ years in the 2nd & 3rd tier. Ours was a more lengthened period of pain with multiple relegations, but we always seemed to get ourselves back to the top flight fairly quickly. We were quite lucky in hindsight, as we would never have got the Etihad & in turn Sheikh Mansour without PL football.
From memory, the stadium would never have been built (and, therefore, the Commonwealth Games would never have come to Manchester) if the council didn't have a long term tenant in place after the games. So, we would have had the stadium anyway. But it can't be overstated how psychologically important that we were in the PL when we moved in.
 

stan bowles

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Re Swales:
It begs the question how naive and gullible were those two directors in the Bulls Head in Hale Barnes that night that Swales introduced himself to and convinced them he could sort out the Boardroom squabbles at City. Did none of them think to look at Swales's track record (director of Altrincham - hardly a comparable club) and a tv and radio rental shop company owner. His ascent from small time outsider to club Chairman shines no credit on those who voted him in and then elected him to the top job.
 

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