Bonus post: Bristol City

Bonus post!  Further to this excellent article from The Swiss Ramble about Bristol City’s financials, it seemed relevant to post the following, which details some of the issues encountered by Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton at Bristol City in the early 80s.   The following was initially published in the latest Fulham Review (continues after the jump).

In 1978 the English PFA won freedom of contract for its players.   Previously all control had been with the clubs, but now any player whose contract was over could force a transfer, whether his existing club agreed or not.   Bristol City, then a first division team, lost a young player called Gary Collier to Coventry City this fashion, and manager Alan Dicks reacted by signing six players to eleven year contracts.    Dicks reasoned that the long contract would give the club absolute control over its players, who could still be sold should the need arise.

In 1979-80 the club finished third from bottom of the old first division and were relegated.    To take them back up they hired a young manager with a growing reputation:  Bob Houghton.
Houghton, of course, turned to his old friend, Roy Hodgson.   “If Halmstad had still been in the European Cup I might have had difficulty in getting my release to come to Bristol and join Bob,” said Hodgson.  “But the Swedish season only had another three weeks to run.  Although I had a contract for another year, I wanted to make the break.   Bob even asked me whether I would come to Bristol before he got the job.”

At this point Hodgson had been on the verge of moving to Dallas in the USA, having organised a meeting with the backers of the Dallas Tornadoes football club.  But the Bristol offer changed his plans:  “I would have made a lot more money there but, like Bob, I wanted to prove myself in England.  After five years I had to decide whether to stay on in Sweden, where I was well known, for another five or ten years, or to make a break and try elsewhere.   Bristol City seems well organised so I hope to be able to concentrate on the coaching side with Bob.”

Houghton and Hodgson really didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.   Relegation from the first division had caused gates (then a club’s main source of income) to drop from 18,000 to 10,000.  Another relegation to division three would hit gates even harder.   But Hodgson wasn’t to know what he had walked into, and continued to speak positively of his new opportunity.

“Both Bob and I had managerial experience at a young age in Sweden when we were confronted with lots of problems.  My five years there offered a very good apprenticeship.   This is a big club and we’re lying in a position that it totally unsatisfactory to all concerned.  It is a matter of working hard.  There is no magic formula.   We just hope we can make the right decisions.”

It was around this time, late in 1980, when the question of Bristol City’s finances was first raised publicly.   Local journalist Peter Godsiff noted that the club had been spending more than it had been bringing in for some time, and was moving in the wrong direction on the pitch, a dangerous combination.   Indeed, Godsiff calculated that City’s operating costs were around five times its gate receipts.
Deryn Collar, a local businessman, went to the club’s AGM and noted that “you did not need to be Brain of Britain to see that the club was in the proverbial.”     Collar organised an independent financial report and learned that the club was, as Godsiff had suspected, facing enormous debt, heretofore hidden.
Hodgson himself noted, later on: “When we came the club was rock bottom and the first thing we had to do was sell players.  We ended up with a junior team playing in a league of men.”  However, “we were not made aware of the situation before we arrived.   The club had only just been relegated from the old first division.  We thought it can’t be that bad, we’ll get them promoted.  We were very confident in our coaching ability and thought we could turn the club around.”

But it was not to be.   At the start of the 1981-82 season (City had been relegated again in 1980-81) Houghton warned that “the club’s cash position hasn’t changed radically overnight.   We’ve taken a risk to give ourselves a chance of being successful.  We now hope the supporters will back us.  Our future depends on crowds averaging 8,000 or more this season.”   The risk in question was the £150,000 signing of Mick Harford from Newcastle United, a big buy at the time and, in hindsight, probably a reckless one.
Houghton continued:  “We are looking forward to a season that will stop the rot as far as the club is concerned.  Two years of relegation and an exodus of good players has been little reward for our loyal supporters.”

The 1981-82 division three season began quietly, with only 6,586 watching the side draw 2-2 with Doncaster Rovers, while 7,471 came to the 3-2 win over Plymouth Argyle.   The team lost at Portsmouth, prompting Houghton to threaten wholesale changes (“if things don’t improve I will bring young reserve players into the side”).  Houghton was then linked with the Sweden international job, but was clear in his intentions:  “I am very optimistic about Bristol City’s future.  I returned to England 10 months ago because I wanted to become a successful manager in the Football League.  Nothing has yet persuaded me to consider changing course.”

It would only be a matter of time.

For the visit of Reading, Houghton (showing extraordinary prescience) used his programme notes to complain about the way Match of the Day’s coverage was devaluing football: “the only selling factor for them these days is goals.  A goalless game [Match of the Day had come to the Bristol City v Preston North End game a week earlier – attendance down to 5,389, “the lowest since the war”] especially a third division match, means that rather than a presentation of the match and 90 minutes on the park, they are more interested in the sensationalism and ask questions about whether managers should get the sack.  It underlines the disappointing fact that televised football presented these days is unbalanced and is more involved in the personality cult in a quest for the next sensation.”

The plans for regular 8,000 attendances were going badly awry, as only 5,006 watched City beat Reading 2-0 in late October, at which point the team was in a safeish mid-table position.   But money was running out, and the club sold young striker Kevin Mabbutt to Crystal Palace for £100,000, receiving defender Terry Boyle in exchange.    The management had had high hopes for the Mabbutt/Harford partnership, and to see it dissolved so quickly must have been a huge disappointment.

At this point the club came clean, informing shareholders that it had made a loss of £400,000 in the preceding year, and that present losses were somewhere between £3,000 and £4,000 a week.   Winger Clive Whitehead was sold to West Bromwich Albion for £100,000, and a new shirt sponsorship deal brought in £20,000.   A new director, Leslie Kew, loaned the club £50,000.

But on the pitch the slide continued, with only five of 16 games won.   Chairman Archie Gooch appealed to supporters for help.    The 28 November programme noted that “he [Gooch] is looking for any ideas from people interested in the future of the club to help solve the acute financial problems.”  Gooch was consigned to his bed soon afterwards, ordered by doctors to “slow down”.   The club’s problems were taking their toll.

It got worse.   Only 4,862 turned up to see City lose 3-2 at home to Burnley; 2,900 came to see an FA Cup 2nd round win over Northampton.   Two directors resigned, and the aforementioned independent enquiry began.   Gooch, fighting on, announced that he hoped to launch a £1,000,000 share issue in February.   Now only four clubs had fewer league points than City, and a remarkable third consecutive relegation grew more and more likely.

In his programme notes, Houghton ended 1981 with a sombre sign-off:
“Relegation and a continuing financial crisis has left everybody deflated.  I am sure I speak for the players, the staff, the directors, and perhaps most of all you, the supporters, when I say that our New Year resolution must be for a brighter, happier 1982.   We all hope the year to come will help erase the memories of certainly the worst year I have ever had in football, and probably one of the worst the club has experienced.”

Then he resigned.

The club communicated the situation:

“Applications have been invited for the position of manager in succession to Bob Houghton, who resigned just before Christmas.   The announcement was only made public after the last home match here against Wimbledon.  Mr Houghton only signed a three year contract last March, so his decisions to leave came as a major surprise to everyone at the club.   His assistant Roy Hodgson has taken over on a temporary basis, and made a magnificent start when he took the side to Peterborough and returned with a 1-0 victory.

“There has been considerable speculation about the identity of the club’s next manager, but Chairman Archie Gooch does not want to make a hasty appointment.  One of the candidates for the vacancy will be Mr Hodgson.   Roy understands the position and he is a very capable man and will be considered with others.  My hope is that in the next few weeks the players will back Roy up and he gets success.  Maybe then he’ll be the appointment.”

Hodgson’s first programme notes led with his mixed feelings about the circumstances surrounding his appointment.

“The pleasure from being given the opportunity of writing the manager’s column for the first time is tinged with personal regret that Bob Houghton has seen fit to resign.   There are many people at Ashton Gate who realise the hard work and effort put in during his 15 months here.  He worked for the long-term future of the club and made many personal sacrifices to keep the club going through a difficult period.”

Hodgson had only been in charge a short time before the Football League imposed a selling ban on the club, which still owed Newcastle United £100,000 of the £150,000 Mick Harford fee.    At this point the club revealed that eight senior players must leave, so as to save money and stave off liquidation.    These players, some of whom were on Alan Dicks’ long term deals and therefore would have been entitled to significant payoffs, became known as the Ashton Gate Eight.
The players were offered £58,000 between them in compensation, far less than the value of their remaining contracts.   They were, very reasonably, not sure about this, but the club by now had an annual salary bill of £350,000, was losing £4,000 a week, and was somewhere north of £700,000 in debt.    Something had to give.

The Ashton Gate Eight were, perhaps rightly, cast as heroes for eventually accepting this contract cancellation.   Had they not agreed Bristol City would certainly have been in deeper debt, and would have had one more problem to worry about.  As it was, many of the players in question felt that they didn’t have a lot of choice: if they stayed and the club went under they wouldn’t have received anything at all.   So they left Bristol City, which, with Deryn Collar at the helm was about to be re-formed as a new company.

The news was coming thick and fast:

It has been a difficult and worrying week for us all but here we are, B.C.F.C. (1982) Ltd.  Quite a mouth-full!

We would like to think that it will still be known as Bristol City – The Robins.  This could be the start of a new era.  The last few weeks have been the most traumatic for everyone concerned with Bristol City Football Club, management, the players, the staff and the directors have been under great pressure but at the deadline hour of 12noon on Wednesday 3rd February the players co-operated and have given this great club a real chance of survival.  We now need your support, bring your families, friends and neighbours to cheer your team.  Many young faces will be on show, they need your vocal support.  The new Board of Directors will work to their full capacity on your behalf.  Remember, it is your club and we have the responsibility to look after it for you.  Thank you for spending your Saturday with us, we look forward to seeing you much more.  There is nothing to be gained from looking at the past – we have to look to the future and for the first time for many years this is bright and glowing as it has ever been.  However, let there be no complacency, the club is dependent on the support.  SUPPORT AND WATCH YOUR CLUB – IT’s GOING PLACES.

Roy Hodgson’s take:

“Everyone at the club was uncertain about the future and the game at Newport was played under the shadow of redundancies and closure of the club.  It was hardly the ideal preparation and I must admit I was a little worried about how the players would react as we were going across the Severn Bridge.”
City were now only above the relegation places on goal difference.   Hodgson himself noted that “Unless we get a couple of experienced players soon, I don’t give us much chance of avoiding relegation.”  City were regularly playing teenagers, and had lost two their most important players, Terry Boyle (broken jaw) and Peter Devine (broken leg) to injury.

When you’re down, you’re down, and the Football League threw another spanner in the ever-complicated works by demanding a £250,000 performance bond (presumably as a kind of deposit against future issues), money the club clearly did not have.    The City board flew to League HQ to negotiate this requirement, and emerged with a compromise deal that allowed them to press on with the planned share issue, seemingly the only hope of survival.   Chris Curling, the club secretary, said “It is now up to the public and supporters to show that they want a football club operating at Ashton Gate in the future.   The directors have picked up the gauntlet and have challenged people interested in the future of the club to support the share issue.”

Hodgson’s notes underlined the seriousness of the position:

“Everyone at the club was shocked last Thursday to find that the share issue for which the club has been preparing assiduously for the last few weeks was once again in jeopardy.   This resulted from a Telex from the Football League stipulating that the club find a very large sum of money to be lodged as a bond in case the new company could not continue to run Bristol City in the first year.  Such a claim was obviously an impossible one for the new board of directors to meet.”
The club got serious, with an advert in the programme leading with:


Some excerpts from the BCFC (1982) prospectus that followed:

A lack of playing success leading to relegation in two successive seasons together with criticisms which have been made at the top levels of management have meant that the speed of decline in its fortunes has been almost unprecedented.

The new company therefore sees the situation as offering the chance of a fresh start.
We are determined to strive for a number of key objectives:

One – strict financial management
Two – shorter player contracts
Three – Strengthened youth policy
Four – a stress on attacking football
Five – matches to be good value.  Reduced admission prices, etc
Six – Improved communications from the club
Seven – Alternative (profitable) uses of Ashton Gate
Eight – reversion to red and white, the club’s traditional colours

The new club needs to raise minimum funds of £600,000 to purchase the Ashton Gate ground, and to acquire other assets.  A significant part of these funds must come from the share issue which should appeal not only to supporters but also to those interested in maintaining prestige and pride in the City of Bristol.

If the share issue fails to achieve sufficient support the chance of Bristol City surviving as a Football League club would be negligible.  The Ashton Gate stadium might well be demolished to make way for building development.

In the next issue of the programme, before the April 6th game against Carlisle United, there are no notes from Hodgson.  The club had lost six games in a row, including a 1-0 defeat in Chesterfield for which City had only 12 available players, three of whom were recovering from the flu, and had sold Mick Harford to Birmingham City for £122,000.  Star goalkeeper Jan Moller had also been moved on, to Toronto Blizzards for £85,000.

In a column that might be filed under “deckchairs, rearranging”, Hodgson focused on the Harford sale in his next programme notes column, explaining to the fans why this would necessitate a change in the team’s playing style:

“I do think it is worth explaining a little about tactical formations and playing style as this is an area where there is much misunderstanding and certainly an area where people have been misled by some of the things they see and read.

“All playing styles are dependent on the players the manager or coach has to choose from.  And I am sure I speak for most of my managerial colleagues when I propose that most of the styles adopted are based firstly on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the players available, and only secondly on the manager’s philosophy of the game.  In recent weeks we have seen a further depletion of our staff with the departures of (goalkeeper) Jan Moller and, even more importantly, Mick Harford, who was a key figure in our attacking play.

“This has forced a change in our tactical thinking.  We are obviously concerned about our lack of goals in recent matches and as time is beginning to run short we have decided to pursue a more adventurous playing style in the remaining games.  This will hopefully make it easier to get players into goalscoring positions whilst making the task of defending that much more difficult.
“Against teams that play with only two players up front I shall be entrusting the task of covering them to two ‘marking players’, who will be supported by a sweeper.  His job will be to cover the flick ons and support the markers if they are beaten in one-on-one situations.   By then pushing the players who normally play full-back further forward to mark the opposing wide midfield players we shall have gained a man, who can play in a forward position. It concerns me that a move away from the traditional playing style our players have grown up with will be fraught with problems and that the amount of time available to sort out these problems in training is going to be limited.  Perhaps we should take heart from the old cliche, nothing ventured nothing gained.”

Hodgson also stressed to the press that his team would attack at every opportunity for the rest of the season.  “It is a tremendous gamble, but we have reached the point of no return.”

It didn’t pay off.  The team lost 4-0, 2-1 and 3-0 in its next three matches, drew 0-0, lost 2-0, beat Gillingham 2-1 then lost 5-0 at Huddersfield and drew 0-0 at Wimbledon.
To make matters worse, the share issue failed.

Hodgson was scathing:  “Once again we come to the end of a crucial week in the club’s history when the expected failure of the share issue has meant there is a large question mark hanging over the club’s league status and survival.   Like everyone else I am surprised that the weight of opinion in favour of democratising the club with each shareholder having a say in running it has not provided a concrete response in terms of money invested.  It would appear that the club’s critics in recent years who have been vociferous in those organisations affiliated to the club are happiest when criticising from a position of non-responsibility.  When the chance has come to do something positive about altering the status quo, they have been found wanting.”

And then he was dismissed.   According to the local press, he took the news with a resigned shrug, saying “it was not unexpected.”    Hodgson’s return to England, his first managerial position in his home country, had ended in disaster.

On May 15th only 1,034 fans watched City beat Chester City 1-0.    City went down again and Hodgson returned to Sweden.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Bristol City FC Matchday programmes, seasons 1980-81 and 1981-82.

Bristol City – English Division 3 1981-82 – Final table

Pos    Team            P    W    D    L    F    A    GD    Pts
1    Burnley            46    21    17    8    66    45    21    80
2    Carlisle United        46    23    11    12    65    50    15    80
3    Fulham            46    21    15    10    77    51    26    78
4    Lincoln City        46    21    14    11    66    40    26    77
5    Oxford United        46    19    14    13    63    49    14    71
6    Gillingham        46    20    11    15    64    56    8    71
7    Southend United    46    18    15    13    63    51    12    69
8    Brentford        46    19    11    16    56    47    9    68
9    Millwall        46    18    13    15    62    62    0    67
10    Plymouth Argyle    46    18    11    17    64    56    8    65
11    Chesterfield        46    18    10    18    57    58    -1    64
12    Reading        46    17    11    18    67    75    -8    62
13    Portsmouth        46    14    19    13    56    51    5    61
14    Preston N.E        46    16    13    17    50    56    -6    61
15    Bristol Rovers        46    18    9    19    58    65    -7    61
16    Newport County    46    14    16    16    54    54    0    58
17    Huddersfield T        46    15    12    19    64    59    5    57
18    Exeter City        46    16    9    21    71    85    -14    57
19    Doncaster Rovers    46    13    17    16    55    68    -13    56
20    Walsall            46    13    14    19    51    55    -4    53
21    Wimbledon        46    14    11    21    61    75    -14    53
22    Swindon Town        46    13    13    20    55    71    -16    52
23    Bristol City        46    11    13    22    41    65    -24    46
24    Chester City        46    7    11    28    36    78    -42    32

4 thoughts on “Bonus post: Bristol City

  1. Having lived most of my life near Bristol I remember these events quite well. (The Fulham allegiance comes from my father, born just a goalkick from Craven Cottage).

    City got into the first division in the seventies with some useful locals (Geoff Merrick, Chris Garland plus signings like Gerry Gow) to which were added big names coming to the end of their careers (Terry Cooper, Norman Hunter and Joe Royle). Word coming out of the players camp was that a reasonable team was being spoilt by Alan Dicks’s overly negative tactics. To this he added the howler of the eleven year contracts. By the he went his stock was very low indeed. The decline in the club’s financial position was not so clear at first, but by the time it came to everyone’s attention it was a real mess. When Fulham took him on my heart sank, mitigated only slightly by Jimmy Hill’s confidence in the man. As Simon Morgan recalled when looking back on his time as a player at Fulham: “my brothers used to follow us everywhere, just so they could stand on the terraces chanting ‘Dicks out'”.

    This is what Houghton and Hodgson walked in to. Not the first time, we now know, of Roy underestimating the extent of the difficlties he would face at a club he was eager to join.

    In case anyone is wondering what a third division match was doing on Match of the Day, as I recall the format was for two national matches (always first division) followed by one from your local region. In the West that was inevitably from the lower divisions.

  2. I am almost sure the first match after the “ashton gate eight” left was against Fulham- i know we went there expecting to thrash city’s youth team, but it was a turgid nil-nil, probably because roy had drilled them in his best “we will not
    concede” fashion.

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