Stoke City: The Holocaust Season

The Holocaust Season – three words that will send a chill down the spine of any Stoke City fans who are old enough to remember the 1984/85 First Division campaign. A record-breaking season so bad that it would take 21 years for Stoke’s exploits to be beaten, and a year so stressful that Stoke’s manager and chairman paid a heavy price; the latter the heaviest price of all. The Guardian’s Steve Pye remembers that fateful season…

The 1984/85 season was not only hideous for Stoke, however. English football was sinking fast, as cash-strapped clubs struggled to get supporters through the gates of their decaying stadia, and hooliganism on and off the terraces continued to blight the game. It would be a season in which rock bottom was reached, as football plumbed to depths as low as the Mariana Trench. The Bradford fire would highlight the state of our stadia; violence at Luton, and deaths at Birmingham and Heysel demonstrated the social problems within.

The foundations for the Stoke City demise in 1984/85 had been laid gradually in the seasons preceding. After two campaigns back in the top flight under the pragmatic Alan Durban – “If you want entertainment go and watch a bunch of clowns” – Richie Barker took over, and after a shaky first season, Stoke enjoyed a successful and exciting 1982/83. But this was as good as it would get under Barker. An ill-fated trip to a coaching course at Lilleshall in the summer of 1983 converted Stoke’s boss to the long ball game. The only problem was, his players hated it.

Charles Hughes’ Position of Maximum Opportunity theory may have sounded good to Barker, yet to talented midfielders such as Mickey Thomas, Sammy McIlroy, and Mark Chamberlain, the new tactics were far from ideal. Barker’s change in style was an unmitigated disaster. Come the time of his sacking in December 1983, only an abysmal Wolves team were below Stoke in the table. With just two wins out of seventeen matches, Barker’s experiment appeared to have doomed Stoke City to relegation.

Barker’s assistant Bill Asprey was appointed in a caretaker capacity. Asprey had played over 300 games for the club, and moved quickly to bring Alan Hudson back to the Victoria Ground, an inspired decision that would see Stoke pull off a great escape. With eight wins between January and April, including a 2-0 triumph over Liverpool, Asprey appeared to be leading the club to safety. Even so, Stoke still needed two wins from their final couple of matches to stay up, and when Paul Maguire scored all four in an easy win over doomed Wolves, players and fans alike celebrated survival that a few months earlier had seemed a dream.

Sometimes when a club stays up the momentum can carry on into the next campaign. Sadly, this was definitely not the case in relation to Stoke City. With the club reported to be nearly £500,000 in debt, eight players departed, including Maguire to American indoor league team Tacoma, and Peter Hampton to Burnley. Asprey, who had been rewarded with a two-year contract at the end of the previous season, was now left with a squad that was down to the bare bones.

There were a few experienced players at the club, such as goalkeeper Peter Fox, defender George Berry, midfielder Robbie James, along with Hudson and McIlroy. Worryingly, though, the playing staff contained a number of youngsters, including Steve Bould (21, at the start of 1984/85), Chris Maskery (19), Carl Saunders (19), Ian Painter (19) and Phil Heath (19). Even winger Mark Chamberlain, who had been capped by England, was only 22. In the rough and ready world of English football in the 1980s, it would soon become apparent that these kids were far from alright.

The last thing Asprey needed was an injury crisis, so a penny for his thoughts when one by one his squad were downed by a flu virus at the start of the season. Stoke had already lost away at Luton and at home to Aston Villa, Chamberlain picking up an injury in the latter, in a fixture that had seen Asprey field five teenagers. So when the virus started sweeping through the squad, Stoke were reluctant to fulfil their next fixture against Sheffield Wednesday.

In hindsight it was a good thing that the match did go ahead, though, seeing as it would provide Stoke with one of their three wins during the season. Goals from McIlroy and Heath sealed the three points, although Stoke finished the match with ten men, after centre back Paul Dyson was dismissed for head-butting former Stoke player Lee Chapman. Stoke fans may have left the ground happy that day, but little did they know that they would have to wait 117 days for a similar experience.

In fact, Stoke fans would have to wait two weeks to see their team play again, due to the severity of the flu virus. “When it was all over it was like starting pre-season all over again,” Asprey claimed, as matches against QPR and Norwich were called off. It was merely the beginning of a run of ill fortune that Asprey could have done without.

Stoke would extend their unbeaten league run to a whopping three matches, with draws against Leicester and Norwich, although Norwich’s John Deehan and Louie Donowa did hit the woodwork three times between them. But a 4-0 defeat at Arsenal brought the team crashing down to earth. “Stoke must have wished they had stayed in bed,” wrote Simon O’Hagan in The Times. “Stoke’s prospects already look bleak.”

Two further draws followed; a comeback from two goals down against Sunderland, and a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, a match in which Stoke played well and probably deserved the three points. A sitter missed by Brendan O’Callaghan and then a last minute penalty controversially conceded by Saunders left Stoke disappointed, yet Asprey seemed optimistic about the future. “That was the first time we have fielded an unchanged team and it showed.” But any hope soon faded.

Exiting the League Cup at the hands of Third Division Rotherham was embarrassing, although the fact that the press did not view it as a complete shock spoke volumes. After losing 2-1 at the Victoria Ground, Stoke got back into the tie in the second leg with a goal from Painter. However, Fox saved a penalty early in the second half, and Bould’s own goal in the 72nd minute was a fitting way for Stoke to crash out.

The Rotherham debacle turned out to be the start of something truly awful. A run of matches that sealed the fate of the club, as new lows were scraped as the season spiralled out of control. The first of ten consecutive defeats kicked off with a 3-1 home loss against Southampton, and when this was followed by the departure of Robbie James to QPR, and an injury to Fox that ruled him out for the majority of the season, Stoke’s season was forming the shape of a pear.

The next couple of performances of George Berry were indicative of Stoke’s plight. His own goal against West Ham at home was the first of four Stoke conceded, and a sending off at Tottenham for hitting Mark Falco resulted in a 4-0 defeat that even Asprey admitted should have been a lot worse. With the inexperienced players at Stoke struggling, Asprey really needed more from his senior players.

Asprey did at least have a fit again Hudson and McIlroy in unison again, and Joe Corrigan was drafted in on loan to help fill the void left by Fox. A narrow 1-0 loss to Liverpool showed character, Ronnie Whelan’s winner coming in the 87th minute, yet this was little consolation. Clive White highlighted the “lack of nous and experience in Stoke’s attack”, and Asprey obviously agreed.

Keith Bertschin was signed for £80,000 from Norwich, on paper a wise move that would give Stoke a tougher edge up front. Yet in this season where everything that could go wrong did, it would take Bertschin until April to open his account. The following season would see the forward win Stoke’s Player of the Season award, but for the next few months, Bertschin’s fortunes mirrored that of his new team.

The defeats just kept on coming. A 2-0 reverse at the Hawthorns saw the club cut five points adrift at the bottom of the table; Everton won their tenth match in a row, with former Stoke player Adrian Heath netting a brace; QPR “created enough chances to have reached double figures” to use the words of White in the Times, in a match that saw young Tony Spearing sent off; and the ten match losing run was concluded in front of just 7,925 fans as Ipswich won 2-0 at the Victoria Ground.

A point at Chelsea did stop the rot, although by now the team were having to cope without the presence of Hudson, who was regularly missing due to a persistent hamstring injury. Stoke did return to losing ways at Hillsborough, before turning the form book upside down on Boxing Day at home to title chasing Manchester United. Watched by a bumper crowd of 21,013, goals from Painter and Saunders gave the returning masses the rare sight of a win. Perhaps Big Ron’s men had one mince pie too many the day before?

If Asprey had hoped that this would be the start of the Great Escape II, then the next two games put a swift end to this. With Corrigan no longer available, the Stoke manager was forced to turn to 17-year-old keeper Stuart Roberts, who perhaps unsurprisingly endured a torrid time in the 4-0 thrashing at Coventry. Don Mackay would eventually lead Coventry to safety, and was temporarily in charge for the Stoke fixture after the recent sacking of Bobby Gould. Asprey would also soon be on the side lines, yet for different reasons.

After trying manfully to keep all the plates spinning, Asprey was ordered to take a rest due to “physical and mental exhaustion”. His roles of manager, coach and scout were simply too much, and this combined with the perilous state of his squad and the club’s finances, tipped Asprey over the edge.

“Managing a struggling football team is not the glamorous life it is sometimes built up to be,” wrote the Daily Express’ Alan Thompson, although whether many people were claiming this about Stoke City at the time is questionable. “And best wishes to you, Bill,” Thompson concluded. It was a sincere and heartfelt message. Unfortunately there was only trouble ahead for Stoke’s beleaguered boss.

Asprey returned to witness Stoke’s exit out of the FA Cup in a replay against Luton, and was eased back into action with a helping hand from the freezing British weather. After a 0-0 draw at Leicester on January 12 – Paul Barron, on loan from West Brom, becoming Stoke’s fourth keeper of the season – the bleak winter meant Stoke did not play again until February 2. Mind you, Stoke’s fans may well have been wishing for a complete postponement of the season, looking at what they had to endure for the remaining months.

Hudson returned, only to get himself sent off in a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland; goalkeeper number five, Barry Siddall, took a complete air shot when attempting to clear his lines against Tottenham, allowing former Stoke player Garth Crooks to score the winner for the visitors; only 6,885 fans saw Stoke earn a point against West Brom, a match in which Bertschin was sent off, along with West Brom’s Martyn Bennett and Jimmy Nicholl; Chris Maskery suffered a broken nose and concussion, as Stoke held on for a 0-0 draw at Southampton; and the smallest crumb of comfort imaginable? Steve Parkin’s first league goal in the match against Nottingham Forest was Stoke’s first scored in 750 minutes. The game was lost 4-1, though.

During the Forest match, many of the 7,453 hardy souls who parted with their money to watch yet another Stoke defeat, voiced their disapproval towards chairman Frank Edwards and the rest of the Board. Naturally it would be Asprey who would leave the club first, yet for Edwards the pressure of the dire situation took its toll, and he would pay the ultimate price. In June, Edwards died of a heart attack aged 66.

Asprey’s time at the club was almost up, but not before one last hurrah. A 2-0 home win against a painfully inconsistent Arsenal side – I have to admit to having an emotional attachment with that particular bunch of big-time Charlies – gave Stoke fans something to cheer, although the match shown on Match of the Day was hardly a great advert for the British game at the time. With just 7,371 fans present, vast areas of empty terraces were visible, and on a mud bath of a pitch, goals from Painter and Dyson saw Stoke win their third and final League match of the season. Funny how even during this season, Arsenal still managed to leave Stoke empty handed.

The end was nigh, though. A 5-0 hammering at Old Trafford led to a furious Asprey bemoaning the outside influences impacting on the attitude of Chamberlain, the England winger coming back from a six week lay-off and hardly impressing with his display. And when Luton hammered Stoke at the Victoria Ground, leading the Times to describe the club as “the first division’s punch bag”, Asprey’s time was running out. A little over a week later, he was out of a job.

Initially suspended by the Board for “events on and off the pitch”, there was very little chance of a return for the hapless Asprey. The divorce was a messy affair. Asprey felt badly let down, accused the Board of making him a scapegoat, and stated that he came close to breaking his own health due to the strain involved in managing the club.

Interestingly, Asprey also had words of criticism for his assistant Tony Lacey, the man appointed as manager until the end of the season. Above all, he was adamant that under the circumstances, no one else, including Brian Clough, could have done any better. Lacey attempted to play down the row, hinting of a breakdown in the relationship between Asprey and his players. “In the next few weeks we have to put some pride back in the club and give our supporters hope for next season,” Lacey commented. Easier said than done. If Lacey wanted the job on a full-time basis, then the eight matches he had in charge did nothing to help his cause.

“We’re not bothered any more,” was the terrace chant reported in the Times during the Everton home fixture, as Stoke fans understandably turned to gallows humour to cope. But maybe they were just being honest? Only 4,597 fans came through the turnstiles for the Norwich match, the worst attendance at the Victoria Ground since the war.

Bertschin finally opened his account against his old club, and would score again at Ipswich. But both were in losing causes. In fact, all eight of Lacey’s matches saw Stoke lose, as for the second time in the season they went ten consecutive matches without gaining a point. As the season aptly petered out, a 5-1 shellacking at West Ham was followed by a final home defeat against Coventry. Fittingly, Painter missed a penalty with just six minutes to go, as Coventry secured a win that ultimately helped them stay up.

There had never been any hope of Stoke staying up, however. Bottom since October 13, and relegated in March, the statistics and facts from the season are staggering. Just three wins; 17 points; 24 goals scored in 42 matches, with 91 conceded; 31 defeats; no wins away from home; just six League goals on their travels; a top scorer in Ian Painter who scored just six goals, and four of those were penalties. Frightening stuff.

Somehow the club managed to follow the lead of Wolves and Swansea, and avoided dropping through the divisions. Because at the end of 1984/85, it was not an unrealistic assumption that this would happen.

Football supporters often like a moan. Yet sometimes you should thank your lucky stars for what you have. Because I’m sure there are a lot of Stoke fans who lived through their Holocaust Season, who stood on open terraces in awful grounds, watching their team lose week after week. Generally, there is always someone worse off than you, but try telling that to anyone associated with Stoke in 1984/85.

By Steve Pye from The Guardian