Even in days where football at its higher levels has been rendered yawnsomely predicable, Leicester’s 2016 title win reminded us the applecart can still occasionally be upset. It was a quarter of a century ago that an entire season was the platform for insurrectionary upstarts in the second tier. Tom Simmonds looks back on the breathless 1990-91 Second Division season.
What would you want from a season? A promotion bun fight where a provincial team prevails over two huge clubs, perhaps? A lower-division team winning a major trophy? Future England strikers and numerous attacking midfielders on goal rampages and, more widely, genuine competitiveness running throughout the league? Welcome to the 1990-91 season in what is now the Championship.
This was an unusual season in terms of the reward on offer. A plan to expand the First Division to 22 teams from 20 for the 1991-92 season was at a too advanced stage for the architects of the Premier League – who favoured an 18-club top division – to stop. This meant there were four promotion slots open, three automatic and one via the play-offs, a scenario replicated down the divisions with four also being allowed up from the Third to the Second, and a whopping five promotion places up for grabs from the Fourth Division.
With these better odds and the impending arrival of the Premier League in 1992-93, Second Division clubs felt this was their time to go up. A Sheffield Wednesday squad stuffed with talent – managed by Ron Atkinson and relegated from the top flight on goal difference by two goals – were quickly installed as hot favourites for the title. This looked justified as they went undefeated for their first 12 games, winning eight of them, before that run was broken at The Den, as a Millwall side who were also relegated from the top flight the previous season roared back from a 2-0 half-time deficit to win 4-2.
While Wednesday only slipped out of the top three once all season, the fact they didn’t run away with the league – as Atkinson himself said he was expecting them to in pre-season – is down to a couple of factors. A tendency to draw entertaining games was one, they had to settle for a point on 16 occasions. Seven of these games ended 2-2. The fact they also won the League Cup that season – beating Manchester United at Wembley courtesy of John Sheridan’s long-range shot which pinged in off a post – left them with an inevitable late season fixture pile-up that the depth of their squad helped them to negotiate, despite an inconsistent run-in. David Hirst’s avoidance of injury helped too, scoring a run of seven goals in the last five games of the season, to add to the 17 he had already bagged by that time, got them over the line.
The key reason for Wednesday’s non-dominance of the division lay across the Pennines in the satellites of Manchester. Oldham Athletic had pricked the nation’s consciousness the previous season, after almost getting to the FA Cup final, drawing an amazing semi-final with Manchester United 3-3 before losing the replay – another of the results that supposedly saved Alex Ferguson’s job. Oldham were never out of the top two all season, as Joe Royle’s team rampaged to the title, not losing until mid-November and racking up 83 goals in the process.
There was the ever-present complaint from opponents about Oldham’s ‘plastic’ pitch giving them an unfair advantage, and their home record certainly dwarfed their away form – 17 home wins vs eight on the road – though this was a seriously talented squad. A team containing the likes of master crosser Rick Holden, Neil Redfearn’s knack for scoring from midfield and spearheaded by bemulleted target man Ian Marshall and veteran sniffers Andy Ritchie and Roger Palmer was never going to struggle for goals. A defence that blended future Premier League stars Earl Barrett and Paul Warhurst with the experience of veterans Richard Jobson and Andy Barlow gave Oldham an air that this was their time, and so it was to prove.
The other two members of the top four that season were Millwall and West Ham, the old rivals who can trace their dispute back to 19th century disputes in the London docks. It was the Hammers who finished second, remarkably only a point behind Oldham in the end, despite a much more stodgy approach. An early 7-1 win over Hull aside, they never unleashed the sum of their parts on any opponents, and 17 wins by the odd goal tells you that pragmatism was the order of the day in East London.
Millwall were the romantic losers in the promotion battle, despite having arguably the country’s best striker in Teddy Sheringham that season. Sheringham went on a season-long spree, including three hat-tricks and one bag of four, and during which he never endured more than a three game drought. He was enabled by a swashbuckling side assembled by Bruce Rioch, containing such talents as Malcolm Allen, Alex Rae and Jimmy Carter. The latter’s departure for Liverpool in January ’91 and Allen’s struggle with injury took away potent weapons, leading to an over-reliance on Sheringham to finish chances. He scored 33 of Millwall’s 70 league goals and was joined only by Rae on double figures. Millwall ultimately capitulated 6-2 on aggregate in the play-off semis to a Brighton side who reached them despite having a goal difference of -6 after 46 games.
Those play-offs were won by Neil Warnock’s Notts County, who narrowly overcame Middlesborough in the semis before claiming a routine 3-1 win over Brighton in the Wembley final. County’s promotion was the ultimate example of hitting form at the right time. They won their last seven games of the regular season, scoring 16 times and conceding just four goals to storm into a 4th place finish – eight points clear of Millwall in 5th. Tommy Johnson, Dave Regis and Kevin Bartlett all hit double figures, and the midfield promptings and goals of Mark Draper lent the Magpies a silky edge to smooth out Warnock’s famously blunt approach to make them an irresistible force who probably would have walked this division in any other season.
The bottom end was not without its twists too. West Brom being relegated – sparing Leicester from that fate – despite not losing any of their last 9 games and having a goal difference that was only three worse than Brighton’s. The media make big plays on the Championship being the league “where anybody can beat anybody” now, but the same was just as true of its predecessor 25 years ago, as bottom-placed Hull’s win away at Oldham in March shows.
However, what made this season a truly special one was the genuine depth to teams outside of the promotion shake-up. Future Premier league players such as Ipswich’s Chris Kiwomya and Jason Dozzell, Oxford’s Jim Magilton, Micky Quinn from 11th-placed Newcastle and Portsmouth’s Guy Whittingham – who was to go on his own hot streak over the next two seasons – were announcing themselves. It was this quality lower down – in addition to the Hirsts, Sheringhams, Drapers and Barretts at the top end – which gave every fixture in this season an air of being a genuine contest, and drove the ridiculously high standards that the top five achieved at times.
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