The ultra-dramatic title race that came after Christmas 50 years ago

Manchester United fell away spectacularly as George Best disappeared, Leeds and Liverpool went neck-and-neck and Brian Clough discovered his Derby side had won the title when he wasn’t even in the country: the twists and turns of the dramatic title race that hit top gear after Christmas 50 years ago

  • The 1971-72 top-flight season featured an unpredictable title race full of plot twists as the lead changed hands
  • George Best-inspired Manchester United were on course at Christmas to win out almost exactly 50 years ago
  • Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester City were in contention, while Derby were led by young boss Brian Clough
  • United fell away after Best vanished and the race to finish first went down to the final minutes of the campaign

In August 1971, Brian Clough was the sort of manager his later self might have mocked.

The brash 36-year-old upstart was in his second job alongside Peter Taylor – the formidable pair started at Hartlepool – and had led Derby to two respectable if unspectacular seasons among the elite after winning the old Second Division in 1969.

Clough held hopes of County winning the title, he admitted, ahead of the first games of the 1971-72 season, although those had disappeared by the time of the climax to one of the most epic contests the top flight has ever seen. For a manager synonymous with surprises, Clough himself seemed to be solemnly taken aback by what his team would achieve.

Brian Clough (left) and Peter Taylor took over at Derby in 1967, earning promotion by winning the old Division Two title in 1969

The 1971-72 season was lit up by stars such as George Best (centre, marked by 1966 World Cup winner Nobby Stiles)

Leeds were arguably the favourites to win the league. Managed by Don Revie and featuring a cast of outstanding talents including Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton and Terry Lorimer, they could steamroll teams, handing out maulings in successive matches to Manchester United and Southampton, as well as thrashing Nottingham Forest, who were relegated that season and would not resurface until Clough took them up in 1977 and immediately won the title the following season. 

Manchester United, led by Frank O’Farrell in his only season in charge, could call upon Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton – although the availability of a certain star, O’Farrell would discover, proved painfully intermittent.

Manchester City would always be in the reckoning thanks to the presence in their ranks of the division’s runaway top scorer, Francis Lee, whose 33 goals put him eight ahead of Martin Chivers, playing for a Tottenham side also considered contenders before the first ball was kicked.

It might seem unimaginable now for a newly-promoted team to lead the pack after 10 games, but Sheffield United sat a point ahead of United at that stage, and four ahead of Derby. More than eight months of plot turns worthy of the most blood-twisting dribble by Best had begun.

Denis Law (right) was a menace to goalkeepers with 12 goals for the season by December 27 – but he added just one after that

Kevin Keegan (left) impressed with nine goals in his debut season for Liverpool, while John Toshack (right) top-scored with 13

Old Trafford was not the setting for United’s first two home encounters because of a ban relating to a knife-throwing incident

Crude challenges faced scrutiny, with Bobby Charlton (centre) later claiming that leg-breaking tackles were made every week

In just one of the curious chapters to play out, United were banned from staging their first two home games at Old Trafford because of a knife being thrown into the away end at the end of the previous season, playing games at Anfield and the Victoria Ground, while Leeds played four home games at Hull, Huddersfield and Hillsborough as a result of a ruling over a pitch invasion at Elland Road.

United won both of their matches which came under the punishment, faring better than Leeds, who drew two of their games during their enforced nomadism. How Revie must have hoped those two dropped points would not return to haunt them.

Best began with his trademark seemingly nonchalant brilliance, scoring 14 league goals for the season by the end of 1971. United had a five-point lead after 20 matches, with Derby, City and Leeds all level on the same tally immediately behind them. O’Farrell’s men were top on New Year’s Eve.

In a season when referees had been under pressure to punish brutal play – ‘there were regularly legs broken every week’, Bobby Charlton later said – United inflicted the most damage on themselves in an unfathomable freefall from the summit.

Best had scored 14 goals by the end of November, then did not find the net again until March 11 as United went on a dismal run

Fans who queued for tickets to see West Ham take on United at Upton Park on New Year’s Day 1972 were in for a huge surprise

The Hammers beat the Christmas table toppers 3-0, with Clyde Best (centre) scoring alongside Bryan Robson and Geoff Hurst

Best, pictured after selling his Cheshire home in 1973, was seen more at parties than on pitches during one part of the season

O’Farrell’s plight during a nightmare new year makes the form that saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sacked earlier this season seem a relative purple patch. Incredibly, United lost all of their first seven matches of 1972, starting with a 3-0 thumping at West Ham on January 1 and only ending with a goalless draw at home to Everton on March 8 – a result that extended a goal drought in which they found the net just three times across those games.

Unsurprisingly, their dismal downturn in form coincided with a vanishing act by Best, purportedly sparked by a row with O’Farrell and leaving the Northern Irish magician’s beauty queen girlfriend unable to tell reporters where he was. Best admitted he had gone wayward in one of his fleeting reappearances before returning to the scoresheet in United’s long-awaited first win of the year, and worse was to come for his club when they tried to replace his goals in a controversial transfer soap opera. 

Ian Storey-Moore had been unveiled at Derby’s Baseball Ground and was all-but signed when he jilted an understandably infuriated Clough to join United from Forest. Storey-Moore’s wife swayed his last-ditch change of heart. ‘Where our personal happiness is concerned, I felt it was my duty, as a wife, to have him here,’ she explained to the cameras, speaking from their home as she insisted she had given her husband the chance ‘to be able to think clearly and decide what he wanted to do.’

It mattered little. While United were contriving to finish eighth, one of the most compelling title races in history continued at a speed to match Storey-Moore’s escape from the East Midlands.

His absence was made clear by the fact that he had scored a hat-trick as United beat West Ham 4-2 in front of 53,000 at home

One of Clough’s additions to his side was Colin Todd, who joined for a British record fee of £175,000 from Sunderland in 1971

Future Premier League manager Harry Redknapp (left) spent his final season as a player at West Ham as part of the campaign

Keegan (right) and Liverpool looked in pole position to win the title during their final game of the season in a dramatic finale

Bolstered by the impressive form of Kevin Keegan, their £33,000 close season signing from Scunthorpe who was barely out of his teens, Liverpool responded in style to losing their first two games of 1972, winning 13 times on a 15-match unbeaten run.

John McGovern’s second-half goal at the Baseball Ground ended that run in the penultimate game of the season for Bill Shankly’s side at Derby, although that would not stop them being in with a chance on the final day. 

City were four points clear in March, only to suffer several surprise defeats by opponents including Stoke and Southampton, both of whom finished in the bottom six. In a potential title decider, Lee and Rodney Marsh scored in City’s final game of the season, when they beat Derby 2-0 at Maine Road to go top of the table.

Liverpool had two games left to play and were only a point behind City, making them favourites for the title. Leeds were arguably the second-most likely contenders to decisively overtake the leaders, also having two matches to play while sitting a further point behind. Derby had the same number of points above them, but only had one game of the season – at home to Liverpool – remaining, leaving them reliant on the two established titans faltering to have any chance.

Law and his team-mates were well off the pace by then, finishing 10 points behind the champions as they slumped to eighth

Roy McFarland (left) and Terry Hennessey try to thwart Best as United beat Derby 1-0 courtesy of his goal on October 16, 1971



Ronnie Radford’s stunning long-range equaliser for fifth-tier Hereford in an FA Cup third round tie at home to First Division Newcastle is one of the greatest goals in the history of English football. Newcastle had taken the lead with eight minutes left before Radford replied in thunderous fashion three minutes later, and his side went on to dump the Magpies out 2-1 after extra-time. 

Hereford fans celebrate a famous FA Cup win over Newcastle


The early years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, where he was the country’s most famous sports star, led to Best’s life being threatened by the IRA. Following a grim warning that he would be shot dead at Newcastle on October 23 1971, Best scored the only goal of the game, netting for a fourth-successive match.  


Leeds played beautiful football across the season, encapsulated when they beat Southampton 7-0 on March 4 in a game featuring 11 internationals playing for the Whites. Allan Clarke and Peter Lorimer scored in the first half, then Clarke added a second, Lorimer completed a hat-trick, Jack Charlton got in on the act and Mick Jones added the seventh in the dazzling romp.

Clough still did not believe they would win it. An impressive 2-0 home win over Leeds at the start of April had given him hope, only for his expectations to be extinguished again when he oversaw a 1-0 defeat by midtable visitors Newcastle two days later.

Storey-Moore’s decision may have been for the best given the bond between Derby’s players. ‘We had a squad of about 13 or 14 players,’ Kevin Hector, their top scorer for the season with 15 goals, explained to County. ‘So we were very close; we were like a family, a tight-knit group, and Brian used to take us away a lot to stay at hotels. We lived in each others’ pockets, really.’

Sometimes those trips were spurred by the highs and lows of a bewilderingly unpredictable season. ‘Our best moments were after a big win or a bad defeat at the Baseball Ground,’ recalled Taylor in Tony Francis’ biography of Clough. ‘We’d sit out the last few moments on the bench and one of us would say, “I think we ought to…” The other would finish the sentence: “…take them away for a few days.” Telepathy. Within half an hour, we’d have arranged to take them abroad the following day.’

No such harmony existed between the managerial duo and the Derby board. The campaign threatened to be abruptly, shockingly derailed when Clough agreed to leave after Coventry made an approach for him in March. Derby refused permission but Clough and Taylor resigned, then agreed to stay for more money after Coventry had already reputedly ditched the idea because of what they perceived as delaying tactics on the part of their targets.

McGovern’s winner against Liverpool on May 1 heralded an imminent holiday to Majorca for Clough’s band of brothers but did not bring down the curtain on their season. A week later – two days after dethroning Arsenal by winning the FA Cup final – Leeds needed a point at Wolves in their finale to seal the double.

Liverpool, who went to Highbury, were waiting in the wings if Leeds failed, and allegations that Wolves were offered bribes to yield proved emphatically unfounded when they put the Reds in sight of salvation by winning 2-1 at Molineux. Liverpool, then, could finish top against an Arsenal side off the pace they had set in winning the title the previous year – and they looked to have done it in a manner befitting of a thrilling season when top scorer John Toshack netted in the 88th minute.

Just when Clough looked to have been denied, Toshack was ruled offside in a decision labelled ‘diabolical’ by Shankly. A goalless draw gifted Derby glory and ensured Clough’s somewhat pessimistic predictions were defied.

‘I believed it last night when I heard that Leeds had lost and Liverpool had drawn,’ Clough confessed to the BBC the following day. ‘Up until then, I didn’t believe that we would win the championship.’

Clough was in the Scilly Isles with his parents when he found out, and what had once been planned as a celebration to mark his departure to Coventry turned into a party and parade in the city where he was a hero.

Clough felt Derby had a chance of glory before the start of the season but his hopes had waned following certain bad results

The brilliant boss and his squad were not even in the country when they found out that surprising results had sealed their fate

The writing was still on the wall despite the jubilation, Clough said, and his prophecy came true when he left the club the following year. His players would never forget that season, even if they learned of their feat in comical fashion.

‘The only way we knew the next morning, when we were down by the pool having an early beer just before lunch, was that all of a sudden photographers and newspapers came up to us in twos, threes, fours,’ McGovern said of their attempts to follow the results from afar. ‘They were telling us that we were the league champions – quite an unusual way to be informed, but enjoyable all the same.’

Clough wished he had been with them. ‘The chemical reactions happened,’ he said. ‘We’ve produced a side that has won the championship.’ It wasn’t just magic: players like McGovern, who followed Clough from Hartlepool to Derby and Forest, ensured the spirit of competition was near-perfect.

‘People like John had what the bloke sitting next to him wanted,’ pointed out Taylor. ‘That’s how it gelled at Derby. 

‘Yes, we made players play better than they’d ever played in their lives – but we could have done nothing without raw talent.’ 

Derby’s delighted players discovered they were champions from reporters while in Majorca enjoying post-season sunshine

Clough stands on the back far left as Derby pose with the trophy in July 1971. Taylor is second from the right on the same row

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