When Manchester City found themselves getting relegated by Luton Town

Ian King
A gate at the former Manchester City ground on Maine Road

Forty years ago this week and only six years after they’d been just two points from becoming the champions of England, Manchester City were relegated by Luton.


As the 1982/83 Football League season came to its end, attention turned away from the top of the First Division.

Liverpool had won the title at the end of April, their players amusingly annoyed at themselves at having lost at Tottenham in post-match television interviews after wrapping up the title as the last chasing team, Manchester United, could only draw against Norwich City. Newly promoted disruptors Watford ended the season as runners-up, albeit 11 points adrift of a Liverpool team completing the second part of what would turn out to be a hat-trick of league titles.

But none of this is to say that there wasn’t plenty of interest elsewhere. At the top of the Second Division, Fulham and Leicester City were duking it out for a promotion place in a race that didn’t even end up going quite to the wire. And then there was the bottom of the First Division. By the last day of the season, there was one relegation spot up for grabs. Brighton had already gone, as had Swansea City. And the race to avoid the last place had come down to a straight fight between two clubs, Manchester City and Luton Town, who were playing each other at Maine Road on the last day of the season.

Luton were coming to the end of their first season following promotion, and it had been…an adventure. Only four teams in the division scored more than their 65 league goals. Over the course of the season they scored nine more than Manchester United, who finished third. Scoring goals wasn’t the issue. Conceding them was. The 84 they conceded was exactly an average of two per game over their 42-game season. They conceded either four or five on eight occasions.

But there was also excellence contained therein. Three years later, Paul Walsh would win a title winner’s medal with Liverpool and only missed out on a double with the FA Cup on account of injury. Ricky Hill, a sparkling presence, would go on to make more than 500 appearances for them over 13 years, picking up England caps along the way.

Going into the final Saturday of the season, City were two points clear of Luton. They needed a draw to stay up and Luton had to win, and it would be reasonable to say that the atmosphere inside Maine Road was tense, and unsurprisingly so. Because the position in which they found themselves could be traced back to a series of self-inflicted decisions which took a team that had looked close to being able to genuinely challenge at the top of the First Division to the cusp of relegation in just six years.

If anything, the story reached back even further than 1977. The period between 1965 and 1972 had been the most successful in the history of the club, featuring a league title in 1968, an FA Cup in 1969 and both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970 under the managership of Joe Mercer, with Malcolm Allison as his assistant.

But by 1972, the relationship between the pair had disintegrated, with Mercer leaving for Coventry City in the summer and Allison taking the job. But under Allison alone they struggled, and by the time he resigned in March 1973 they were 14th. Johnny Hart replaced him, and that summer Denis Law arrived at Maine Road, but ill health forced him out just six months later and he was in turn replaced by Ron Saunders, who took them to a League Cup final – which they lost – but with league form remaining patchy he too was sacked before the 1973/74 season had even ended.

His replacement was a call-back to the Allison years. Tony Book had a remarkable playing career. He spent the vast majority of it in non-league football as a full-back with Bath City, where Allison got his first break as a manager in 1963. Allison moved on to Plymouth the following year, but decided that he wanted to take the near-30-year-old full-back with him. Aware that the club’s directors would be reluctant to sanction the purchase of a player with no league experience at this age, Allison encouraged Book to doctor his birth certificate, shaving a couple of years off his age. 

When Allison moved on to Manchester City as a coach with Joe Mercer, Book went with him again, and in the summer of 1967 he was made the captain. At the end of that season, City became the champions of England. At the end of the following year, he not only lifted the FA Cup but also shared the PFA Player of the Year award with Dave MacKay, despite having missed the first half of the season with injury. The League Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup followed. By the time he retired from playing at the age of 40 in 1974, he’d made almost 250 appearances for City despite having been in his thirties before making his First Division debut.

Book showed an obvious aptitude for management. In 1975 they finished eighth, a substantial improvement upon the previous season’s 14th. The following year not only did they match that finish, but they also won the League Cup, beating Newcastle United 2-1 at Wembley. And that team became Manchester City’s best between the Mercer and Mansour eras for the club. Manchester City finished the 1976/77 season as runners-up to Liverpool, a point behind them by the end of the season, with a run of three losses in four league matches in the latter part of February ultimately costing them dear. The following season they finished fourth.

Chairman Peter Swales later acknowledged his error that would ultimately prove to be the pivot in the decline of Manchester City. In July 1979 Malcolm Allison returned to the club, and Book was moved upstairs. Over the next few months, Manchester City threw money at a British record transfer fee on Steve Daley from Wolves, who turned out to be a bit of a disaster, and others, but the team didn’t successfully gel and City finished the 1979/80 season three places above the bottom three.

When they went the first ten games of the 1980/81 season without a win and found themselves one place off the bottom of the First Division, Malcolm Allison was sacked again by Manchester City, for what would turn out to be the final time.

His replacement was John Bond, formerly of Norwich City. He was initially successful, getting them to mid-table and to an FA Cup final, where they lost to Spurs after a replay. They were comfortable in mid-table again the following season, and by the end of 1982 they were in ninth. But then the bombshell dropped. In February 1983, Bond resigned, and the reasons for it weren’t entirely clear. It was known that the club’s financial position wasn’t good, with little return on the Allison splurge. The signing of Trevor Francis caused friction early in the 1981/82 season between Swales and Bond, and a 4-0 defeat at Brighton in the FA Cup seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, though there’s never been clear confirmation of what, exactly, did happen that season.

Manchester City went into freefall. Assistant John Benson was quickly drafted in to replace him and City got a slightly ragged if creditable 2-2 draw against Spurs. But a week later they lost 4-0 at Coventry, and it was downhill from there. Manchester City had played 26 games at the point of Benson’s appointment. They won just three of their next 15 league games, falling into the relegation places after losing their third-last game at home to Nottingham Forest. But the week before the Luton game they’d beaten Brighton 1-0 away to lift themselves back out of the relegation places and leave Luton needing the win.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nervous afternoon at Maine Road. The Match of the Day cameras were there – “It’s do-or-die at Maine Road,” was John Motson’s opening gambit from the commentary box – on a sunny afternoon in front of a second-best crowd of the season of 42,000. Manchester City in all sky blue, Luton in their change kit of orange and navy blue. It was a scrappy first half, riddled with over-cooked passes and short on chances. Kevin Reeves had the best opportunity of the half, a low shot from an angle which flashed just beyond the post, beyond the reach of the Luton goalkeeper Tony Godden.

The second half continued in the same vein. The City goalkeeper saved brilliantly from Paul Walsh. The Luton manager threw on Radomir Antic – ‘Raddy’ – as a substitute. Godden arguably kept Luton up by saving at the feet of Dennis Tueart. At the other end of the pitch, Williams parried a shot straight into the path of Nicky Reid, who looked on in horror as the ball bounced off his leg, the post, and away to safety.

But this was a temporary reprieve. With five minutes left to play, Brian Stein crossed from the right. Williams ill-advisedly came and only got half a punch on it, ending up on the ground as Antic shot low through the seven players between him and into the corner of the goal. There was still time for one last change. Manchester City hadn’t used their substitute, so Steve Kinsey was brought straight on. City threw players forward, but to no avail. At the full-whistle, the cameras lingered on manager David Pleat as he danced across the pitch with the air of a TSB branch manager who’d just won the Euromillions.

Things could have been worse for City. Of the other two teams to go down with them, Swansea were playing in the Fourth Division by 1986. Brighton wouldn’t play in the top flight again for 34 years. Manchester City were back in two years, promoted on the last day of the 1984/85 season and restabilised by Billy McNeill, who arrived in the summer of 1983 after Benson was relieved of his duties. But this wouldn’t be the last time he’d be the manager of Manchester City. He’d returned briefly in caretaker positions in 1989 and 1993.

Luton ended up staying in the top flight until 1992, the very birth of the Premier League, though they haven’t been back since. Financial mismanagement and almost absurdly disproportionate points deductions led to them getting relegated for three consecutive seasons, from the EFL Championship all the way down to the National League, where they stayed for five years before returning as champions in 2014. Luton’s run back to the Championship has been one of the great revivals of any football club over the last decade.

Meanwhile, It seems highly unlikely that Manchester City will be finding themselves in the position in which they did on the May 14 again. Say what you like about the current owners of the club, but they wouldn’t have made such bad decisions as some of those that Peter Swales did between about 1979 and 1983. As the years passed, Swales became increasingly unpopular at Maine Road as the team continued to stumble. He was eventually forced out of the club in 1993 and died just three years later, at the age of 63.

But supporters hoping for a change in fortunes under new chairman – and former club legend – Francis Lee were mistaken. City were relegated from the Premier League in 1996, and then again into the third tier two years later. They would have their own recovery arc to follow before the unlimited wealth of a sovereign state would transform the club beyond recognition.

Forty years on, Luton Town were still playing at the ground at which you access the away end through a house, although they have plans for a new stadium and have been knocking on the door of a return to the Premier League themselves for the last couple of seasons. The fortunes of these two clubs have both waxed and waned over the previous four decades, but they could yet be reunited in the top flight, something that would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.

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