On This Day In History - 17th May 1984 2nd In The League But What If !
Sunday, 17th May 2020 10:08
It was a busy week for Saints 36 years ago with two games in three days deciding whether it was 5th or 2nd place in the final table for Saints and it was on this day their fate was decided.
Older Saints fans will perhaps give a wry smile when they see the highly paid professionals of today whinging about having to play the final 9 games of this season in "only" 6 weeks.
Back in 1984 Saints FA Cup run to the semi finals had created a backlog of fixtures and in the final 12 days of the campaign we had to fit in 5 games, indeed including the final Saturday of the season we had our final 3 fixtures in only 5 days !
The task was not simple in that even if we won both games we would not be guaranteed 2nd, we were reliant on Manchester United dropping points, they had one game left themselves were 3 points ahead of us with a far superior goal difference.
Their final game was at Nottingham Forest who were on the same number of points as us with just this game left to play. So we needed to win our two and then hope that United didn't in at Forest.
The first hurdle was overcome on the Monday evening at West Bromwich Albion, Saints left it late David Puckett opening the scoring with 19 mins left and then a minute later Steve Moran made it two and the game safe in front of only 10,365, back then crowds were dropping and our trips there on either side of this season only had around a thousand more, the Baggies were not well supported at that time like many clubs. I was one of the 400 or so Saints supporters who made the trip.
Two days later and we were on the road again, this time to already relegated Notts County, a team we had lost to earlier in the season, indeed it could be said that Nottingham cost us the title, County had won 2-0 at the Dell back in November in a one sided game where we had all the play, missed a penalty and went down to an early Justin Fashanu goal and a last minute finisher, bizarrely I can remember leaving the game and going to Henry's records in St Mary's street to seek out the first Billy Bragg album I had heard on the John Peel show during the week, it was so unknown Virgin & HMV hadn't heard of it and I had to go to the shop then that had everything and it did.
Forest had won at the Dell in January in a game Brian Clough slotted into the fixture list on a Monday night so Steve Williams could serve a one match ban and play in the FA Cup tie at Portsmouth on the Saturday, little did we know this would cost us dearly.
Anyway back to 17th May, when I looked at the crowd figure today I assumed that the 6,035 including around 400 Saints fans was due to the fact that County were already down and nothing to play for, but it was actually higher than the previous season's total.
We didn't go into the away section, we went into the big covered terrace on the side next to the away section, it was a sparse crowd in there and no one cared whether that we were clearly supporting Saints.
We knew the task now as the previous evening just across the river from where we stood now, Forest had beaten United 2-0, that meant a draw now would be good enough for second place, Forest were second, United third and we were guaranteed fourth, but if we lost we stayed there on goal difference.
The fact that we could achieve our highest league finish meant a few more went to the game than travelled to West Brom, but probably no more than 7-800 Saints fans were there in a ground perhaps only 1 third full.
It started well Steve Moran scoring only two minutes in latching on to a short back pass to fire home, but County were level only 7 minutes later and that was the score at half time.
This was fine we were sitting in second with this score, but we really needed to make sure, on 56 minutes Steve Moran headed home from a Nick Holmes cross for his 3rd goal in the two games.
Ten minutes later and there was no coming back for the home side when David Puckett and Danny Wallace linked up to provide a simple chance for David Armstrong to fire home.
This was to be our best ever League season with 2nd place confirmed with the final whistle and Saints celebrating by throwing their shirts to the Saints fans who had made the trip and acknowledging the great season we had just had, certainly only 1975/76 can be considered better.
But there was a feeling of "what if" I have already mentioned the two games at the Dell against Forest & County that cost us dearly, being three points behind Liverpool was close, but goal difference , we ended on +28 and Liverpool on +41 meant that winning one of those games would not have given us the title.
We drew at Anfield in the 4th game of the season, if we had won that we would have been level, at Goodison Park we put out a weakened side two weeks before our semi final against them and lost 2-0, certainly a win in any of those games would have given us extra impetus in chasing down Liverpool in the final weeks.
Then there was Steve Williams, arguably our best player, he played no part in the final 12 League games through injury, he was risked against Everton in the semi and struggled, his loss was a big blow, had he been fit and avaialable would he have pushed us to a point or two extra in the two games we lost and four we drew in that period.
Not to mention if he had been fit in that semi we surely would have beaten Everton.
All "What If's" but what is unarguable though is that in the second half of the season Saints were truly the best side in the country, in mid December we were 9th after a draw at White Hart Lane. six points behind leaders Liverpool, we were 11 points behind them when they arrived at the Dell in mid March.
In the final two months of the season we were THE team, playing exciting attacking football, what cost us was that in the opening months we struggled to score, in the final month we could not stop scoring and where the form team even without Steve Williams.
It was an exciting season to be a Saints fan, but sadly the words What If ! perhaps crop up a little too often than we would have liked.
Liverpool became only the third side of the 20th century to do the League and cup double two years later, we could have and should have rocked the nation by doing just that ourselves in 1984 !
Photo: Action Images
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