Our Lowest Ebb
An intro to a forthcoming book about the dark days of the early 1970's

I am one of the lucky ones. I was born in 1975. As a kid, my first season watching the Owls involved the Owls clinch promotion back to Division One in 1984. The 1980s then saw FA Cup runs, top five finishes and the Owls competing at the highest level. As a teenager I was then fortunate enough to see the Atkinson and Francis teams and regular trips to Wembley of the early 1990s. It wasn’t always like this…

April 29th, 1976. The spring before a long hot summer. At Hillsborough 25,802 fans gathered to witness the final game of the Division Three season. The Owls faced Southend United. The mathematics were simple: a win or draw would keep the Owls safe from relegation; defeat would see Southend stay up and the Owls relegated. The game was played after the remainder of the season had been completed – as Hillsborough had been needed for an FA Cup Semi-Final earlier in the year. It was also, unusually, played on a Thursday evening. The blue and white side of Sheffield waited nervously.

The 1975-6 season had proven to be another difficult one for the Owls. By January 1976, the Owls had won only once in fifteen games since manager Len Ashurst’s arrival in October of the previous year.  Desperate times called for desperate measures and Ashurst’s trainer came up trumps. In late January 1976, Tony Toms took the players out for a survival expedition overnight onto Broomhead Moor with the aim of building team spirit and resilience. Even Ashurst thought the idea was “madness” given the time of year. The Owls won the following game against Chester 2-0.  Toms commented in the match day programme for the game that: “What the players have been through was harder than anything they have faced before… this is one way to eradicate the worries and tensions.”  Whatever worries and tensions there were among the fanbase continued until the final day though as the Owls only slowly picked up more points over the coming weeks before a series of 1-0 home wins in April helped set up the showdown against Southend. The game itself was “less than classic” but finished 2-1 to the home team, with goals from Mick Prendergast and Eric Potts helping the Owls finish 20th out of 24 in the league, avoiding relegation by a single point. A season that had seen a flu epidemic among the team, an 11-match winless streak, home attendances regularly below 10,000 and what Ashurst described as: “…a sick dressing room” had finally ended. The manager later described this period as the hardest six months of his life.  To date, it remains the Owls lowest ever league position.

Previous years had seen similar degrees of misery for the Owls. The manager prior to Ashurst, Steve Burtenshaw, had overseen the grand total of fourteen wins from his seventy-one league and cup games. Since 1973 fans had witnessed eight goal drubbings, relegation, a last day escape, the Christmas Eve sacking of an Owls legend, outbreaks of what became known as football hooliganism at games, the sale of key players, financial difficulties at the club along with prolonged periods without a goal or an away win. Indeed, the Owls did not win an away game between a 1-0 victory at Southampton in December 1974 and a 1-0 win at Reading in October 1976 – a total of thirty-six matches. In the 1975 games of the 1974-75 season, the Owls scored two goals. The goal scored by Brian Joicey in the 90th minute of a game against Oxford in April 1975 was the first goal scored at home in over 14 hours of football. 7,444 were in the crowd to witness it (if everyone remained in the ground at that late stage): a post-war low for attendance to that date (the crowds would get even lower). The Sheffield Star newspaper even launched a “Save Our Owls” campaign printing thousands of stickers, posters and badges to persuade people to support their team in the relegation battle of 1975. The Owls were relegated on April Fool’s Day that season after (yet another) 1-0 defeat. Wednesday’s financial situation was dire – the aggregate deficit since relegation from the First Division in 1970 was approaching £500,000 at the start of the 1975-6 season.   Our Lowest Ebb indeed. And yet… Mention this period to Owls fans who were around at the time and it doesn’t take long to discern some hints of nostalgia. “A Certain Romance” as a more recent Sheffielder might have put it.

I have long held an ambition to research and write something about the Owls. I could never quite put my finger on what though. The spark for that something else was a Tweet I put out - really for the lack of anything else to talk about– with a picture of Mick Prendergast in action. It provoked a whole series of positive replies. So did follow up posts of Willie Henderson and Tommy Craig. One reply though got me thinking. It was on the lines of the team being rubbish, but the fan really enjoying the time. I asked a few fans I know who are now of a certain age a similar question and got lots of replies on the same lines. I knew then that I was onto something. I decided that I was going to research the period and attempt to rescue it from what historians have called: “The enormous condescension of posterity.” The experiences of fans and the fate of the team are worth remembering and remembering well.  I decided that I would focus on three key seasons which saw the club in a downward spiral, ending at their lowest league position.

I have decided therefore to do my best to fully rescue the period. I am expanding my research to include the views of players, and the state of the club more generally (we had no money!). A book will be released in the summer of next year, just in time for the 45th anniversary of “Our Lowest Ebb”.  The book will tell the sorry tale of management, results, and financial troubles but also give a voice to the fans who were there. The final word goes to Dave Cusack – “a brick out-house of a centre back” as one fan described him - when I spoke to him about the project.

JD: “I’m researching the Owls in the mid-1970s” DC: “Well, someone’s got to!”

John Dyson: May 2019

You can follow the progress of the project on Twitter @ourlowestebb1
If you would like to contribute, then please email westmidlandsowls@aol.co.uk

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