Historically Speaking... In the third of his series of peeks at the past Mick Chappell continues his look at ‘Festive Fixtures’ and attendances over the years...
When reflecting on past times it’s usually the case that you don’t know where you’re going until you get there. That’s certainly been the case in this instance where a consideration of Festive Fixtures has developed into what might better be described as a look at their implications as to how attendances have reflected the Maggies’ fluctuating fortunes and popularity ratings over the years.
With that in mind it’s interesting to note that whilst 6,924 watched Jimmy Sirrel’s first Yuletide home fixture end in a 2-2 draw against Peterborough on 27 December 1969, a crowd of 39,918 had attended Forest’s 1-1 City Ground Boxing Day draw with Arsenal just 24 hours earlier. Those figures starkly illustrate the huge task Jimmy faced in trying to restore County’s standing in Nottingham’s footballing popularity stakes.
Even so Sirrel remained undaunted as he set about implementing his avowed intention of making black and white scarves as abundant as the red and white variety on the city’s streets. Naturally the cynics roundly mocked such a seemingly outlandish suggestion, but Jimmy’s boundless enthusiasm began to rub off on players and supporters to such good effect that a crowd of 15,346 watched County’s 1-1 draw with Chesterfield in early February 1970.
That was the first five-figure Meadow Lane gate in almost five years, but such attendances were to become common place the following season as the Maggies raced away with the 1970,71 Division Four Championship title. Most notable amongst 14,000-plus crowds that season were the 21,012 who turned up to pay homage to the returning Tony Hateley in early November, the 15,722 who watched a 4-1 Boxing Day win over Cambridge United and the 18,002 who raucously celebrated promotion at the end of a rather anticlimactic 0-0 draw with Exeter City on the last day of the campaign.
The upward trend continued with average attendances reaching a post 1959 peak of 13,941 as the ’Pies finished fourth in Division Three in 1971.72. Slowly, but surely County were closing in on First Division Forest’s average attendance of just over 21,000 as Jimmy worked his magic!
Although there was no Yuletide match that campaign the season’s highlight was the 34,208 crowd that watched Aston Villa ruin my Old Man’s birthday with a 3-0 win at the Lane on 4 March. That was the best attendance since the Division Two days and only the final three home game failed to exceed the five-figure mark as Notts finished fourth behind Villa, Brighton and Bournemouth.
Nevertheless, although black and white scarves were beginning to fly off shops’ shelves the revival seemed to be grinding to a halt the following year when a dire start meant the Magpies sat 16th in the table in mid-December. No wonder, then, that just 9,282 Meadow Lane fans bothered to attend a scrappy 1-0 Boxing Day victory over Watford that, together with a ‘back-from-the-dead’ 30 December 2-2 draw at Champions elect, Bolton Wanderers, inspired a miraculous turn around in Notts’ fortunes that eventually saw them snatch second spot and finally return to Division Two, where the recently relegated Reds awaited them.
Furthermore, during the 1972.73 season Meadow Lane hosted 24,6125 Third Division fans (average gate: 10,701) compared to the 20,900 Second Division supporters (average gate: 9,995) who watched Forest at the City Ground. How times were changing as Notts reclaimed their rightful 50 per cent share of Nottingham’s albeit relatively reduced numbers of fortnightly football fans! Although 32,310 Meadow Lane spectators watched a 0-1 Boxing Day defeat that preserved Forest’ fans bragging rights for a little longer it was significant that less than 30,000 were at the City Ground to watch a 0-0 late season local derby draw that ensured the seventh-placed Reds finished just two points and three positions above the ’Pies in 1973.74.
Even better times were at hand in the 1974.75 season when after just six years at the Meadow Lane helm the canny Sirrel succeeded in making the Magpies Nottingham’s Top Dogs as they ended up in 14th position, two points and two places above the downwardly mobile Reds. Thanks to goals from Bradd and Carter Forest were beaten 2-0 at the City Ground in front of a 25,013 attendance, whilst two days previously a 1-1 Meadow Lane Boxing Day draw with Norwich had been witnessed by only 13,977 spectators.
However, much more was at stake towards the end of that campaign when a season’s best crowd of 20,303 turned up to see a 2-2 Meadow Lane, local derby draw that helped to ensure Notts would eventually top Forest in the Division Two table; ironically, however, without the extra stimulus of another promotion challenge County’s average gates trailed those of the Reds by two thousand or so. Whilst the wheels remained firmly attached to the Maggies’ band wagon, County’s City Ground triumph ultimately back-fired on them by precipitating the dismissal of manager, Allan Brown, who was quickly replaced by a certain Mr Clough.
Nonetheless wins were in short supply for the Rams’ reject before Peter Taylor turned up to hold his hand whereas, despite Jimmy disappearing for his two-year sabbatical at Bramall Lane, the Maggies continued on their merry way in 1975.76 as they again out-gunned the Reds by finishing fifth in Division Two, three points and three places above Brian’s Boys. In late August, the Reds were beaten 1-0 in front of a 19,757 City Ground crowd, but in April 1976 29,279 crammed into the Lane to see the 0-0 draw that confirmed County’s superiority.
That said, the Maggies might have been promoted but for some poor mid-season away form that was typified by a 2-3 Boxing Day defeat at Fulham. Even so, with local rivalry stimulating increased attendances Forest’s home gates were only a few hundred ahead of Notts’ average gates (12,414) that season, but that was as good as it got because the following campaign saw a crucial turn around as Cloughie found his feet sufficiently to walk on water and thereby sneak fortunate Forest into the third automatic promotion spot courtesy of a flukish final day defeat for Bolton Wanderers.
So the Reds were gifted a passport to the Promised Land, whilst Notts faded late on and finished eighth after snapping at Forest’s heels for much of the 1976.77 season. Though we didn’t realise it at the time the outcome of that campaign meant the Maggies would remain in Forest’s lengthening shadow from that day to this.
Somewhat ironically, 31,004 saw Notts win 2-1 across the River in early March whilst 32,518 fans watched a 1-1 local derby draw at the Lane a month later. Crucially, however, by the end of their promotion campaign the Reds’ average gates had soared to 18,000-plus whilst those of the Maggies were typified by the 10,634 attendance for a 1-1 Yuletide home draw with Hull City.
Of course much worse was to follow once Forest began to prosper alarmingly as Lady Luck favoured them in the top flight. That said, by October 1977 Jimmy was missing us as much as we were missing him, so he returned to the Lane to lay the foundations of another promotion push.
Nonetheless gates dropped significantly as the Magpies finished in respectable, but uninspiring, mid-table positions for the rest of the Seventies. The situation was exemplified by declining Yuletide attendances of 9,486 for a 2-1 win home over Hull on 27 December 1977 (the Boxing Day game at Bolton resulted in a 1-2 reverse), 8,262 for a 3-3 draw against Oldham in 1978 and 6,894 for a 0-0 draw with Charlton in 1979.
Anyhow, things were looking rather bleak and home gates were hovering around the 8,000 mark until Howard Wilkinson arrived to revolutionise football at the Lane by introducing Sirrel’s already well-schooled squad to passing-style soccer that caught Second Division teams by surprise and virtually propelled Notts to the verge of the Big Time before most of them realised what was happening at the little, old Lane. No wonder, therefore, that a mundane 2-2 Christmas draw at Preston was taken for granted!
Subsequently, despite the disappointment of an unbelievably poor response from Nottingham’s supposedly floating fans, who’d presumably been brain-washed into favouring Forest by Cloughie’s European exploits, dyed-in-the-feathers Maggies like me were finally privileged to be able to live the unexpected Dream for three brief, but eminently enjoyable seasons. However, more of that next time in the final instalment of this saga of Notts County’s fluctuating fortunes.