10% GRASS AND 90% CLARTS


There’s a Facebook page entitled “English Football in the 70s”, which, as I’m old enough to remember the 70s, is a particular favourite of mine, especially in the last week and a bit since we last kicked a ball. It’s one of those sites onto which people clag a picture of a player or team from that era, encouraging comments such as “he had a great spell with us” or (more likely with SAFC fans) “He was a very generous player, always giving the ball to the opposition.”


It reminds us of a time when newspaper reports were accompanied by black and white photos only, and when pitches, particularly Derby’s Baseball Ground, boasted 10% grass and 90% clarts. A recent post asked “who was your team’s reserve centre forward back then?” Unlike today, when, even at our lowly level, every player is a squad player and we don’t have “reserves” as such (more’s the pity), in the 1970s being a reserve was a full-time occupation. My first thought was local boy John Lathan, slightly ahead of Paddy Lowery, as he always seemed to be the reserves’ top man.


As these things tend to do, this led to a whole host of random memories popping up, being plonked onto the page, and being fluffed up by comments from fellow fans. The main one with John Lathan, nicknamed Spot, as he was always Johnny on the spot to fill in when needed, concerned our League Cup campaign in the ’73-’74 season. You might know it variously as the Carabao, Rumbelows, Milk, Littlewoods, Coca Cola, Worthington’s, Carling, Capital One, or EFL (when they couldn’t persuade anyone to sponsor it) Cup, but back then it was just what it was.


Having won the FA Cup the previous May (keep up at the back), we had the small matter of the European Cup Winners Cup to contend with. After the 2-0 (Hughes, Tueart) win at Vasas Budapest, a proper ears to the tranny (no, not that one) job for us teenagers and the sealing of our passage (no, not that one) to the next round thanks to Tueart’s penalty in the home leg, we had Sporting Lisbon to look forward to, as well as a League Cup tie at Derby, they of the clarty pitch.


This was probably the first time I can remember fans saying that we could do without the League Cup, as we had bigger things to think about. Personally, it was purely financial, there were league games at Preston and Fulham to pay for, as well as the home leg against the Portuguese. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a surprise when, two days after seeing off Sheff Wed at Roker 3-1 (Hughes, Halom, Porterfield), we sent what was virtually a full-strength side to Derby. Lathan had replaced Tueart for the last seven minutes against Wednesday, and in those muddy days, nobody made a substitution that late on unless it was for an injury, so Spot kept his spot for the Monday night fun in early October.


Listening back home, another ear to the tranny job (no, not that one) job for us teenagers, it seemed our interest in the competition was indeed over when Micky Horswill was booked in a first half in which we fell two goals behind, and he didn’t reappear for the second, with Joe Bolton taking his place. Alongside Malone, Guthrie, David Young, and Watson, all of whom were also specialist defenders, Joe’s appearance looked to be no more than a damage-limitation exercise. Against Cloughy side that included Colin Todd, Archie Gemmill, Roy McFarland, Kevin Hector, John McGovern, Henry Newton, David Nish, and Alan Hinton, that was hardly surprising.


Up stepped Spot, with seventeen minutes to go, and he scored twice, earning us a replay. Daft bugger, we thought. More expense for us teenagers to deal with, but it was at home, so not too bad. After losing at Preston and winning at Fulham (a rare one from Horswill augmented by an equally rare own goal from Alan Mullery, with a twenty-minute cameo from Denis Smith’s right-hand man Viv Busby), we had Sporting Lisbon at home. Five subs were allowed on the bench, I’ve no idea how many could be used, so we extended ours and sat Trevor Swinburne, Ray Ellison, Bobby Mitchell, Mick McGiven, and Lathan on it. The visitors could only name three, including Cabral (presumably smoking a tab), as three of their squad had been caught nicking C90 cassettes (ask yer dad) from Boots on Tyneside, and fined £20 apiece before being sent back home.


Happy days, eh? Bobby Kerr’s shot was caught by the keeper, but he fell over and forgot to let go of the ball, giving us the lead in a first half that also saw two bookings for either side, at a time when any tackle below the hip was deemed acceptable. Let’s just say it got a bit feisty. Another rare (not that rare, obviously) goal from Horswill doubled our lead after the break before Sporting pulled back what turned out to be a killer rather than a consolation goal.


Which brings us back to the League Cup, but not until we’d produced a rather dull 0-0 draw at home to Palace in a match notable only for the debut of Rod Belfitt, on as a sub for Tueart. Rod managed four goals in 45 games for us before dodging about at Fulham, Huddersfield, and Worksop before reverting to his trade as a draughtsman and spending a while at Doncaster United. He was on the bench two days later as we replayed Derby, by this time managed by Dave Mackay, as Clough, and his marra Taylor, had finally seen their feud with the Derby board get too much and resigned on October 15th. Characters, eh?


Anyway, we went ahead on the half hour thanks to Tueart. It was looking sort of OK until old boy John O’Hare replaced John McGovern with quarter of an hour to go, and he soon had a hand in Gemmill’s equaliser. Rod came off the bench for extra time, replacing Kerr, but there were no more goals, and penalties? Heaven forbid! A second replay was the order of the day, and they tossed up to see who would host it. None of this “the authorities need two weeks to prepare” business – we won the toss and started again two days later.

We fielded an unchanged side, and were quite happy to get to half time level, but Vic Halom had seen enough of the visiting defence to work out what to do, and two minutes into the second half scored the opener at the Roker End, evoking not-too-distant memories of a night game against Man City earlier in the year. In scoring, he left his marker Ron Webster wrapped around the foot of the post, resulting in the fullback being replaced by John O’Hare a few minutes later. Despite now having, effectively, three up front, Derby’s closest to a goal came when Roger Davies fluffed a great chance at the Fulwell.


At six foot two and a bit, Davies was a big lad, but a funny shape, as his legs seemed to be about a foot long and most of the rest of him was backside. Lurking at the back post at a corner, he attempted what we now call a Robinho, but only succeeded in getting his legs tangled up and falling on the largest part of his body. How we laughed, and that laughter turned to cheers when Vic barnstormed his way to his only Sunderland hat-trick with goals in the 60th and 77th minutes. Brilliant result, and a brilliant performance by Vic. Thoughts of another run to Wembley were unavoidable, but Liverpool did for us in the next round, although not until after that Lisbon consolation goal proved the aggregate goal that sent us out of our only European competition.


There you go, then. October 1973 brought to you by a chance comment on a retrospective Facebook page. For the record, John “Spot” Lathan, many thanks to Rob Gilchrist for reminding me of that nickname, via Facebook, is officially recorded as a midfielder, and went on to play for Mansfield (two spells), Carlisle, Barnsley, Portsmouth, Consett, Wollongong City, Arcadia Shepherds, and Mamelodi Sundowns. As Wollongong is Australia and the last two in South Africa, it’s fair to say that it was downhill all the way, at least geographically, from Consett for Spot. He certainly got around through football.


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