Normally, seasons in which teams run away with divisional titles are seen as being dull due to whoever wins them being a foregone conclusion. There was not a bit of it in the Second Division of 1992-93, a season which featured a thrilling promotion race below and a number of the players who would be instrumental in building the Premier League’s brand in years to come. Tom Simmonds explains.
The two big shifts which occurred in professional football in England at the beginning of the 1992-93 campaign, namely the introduction of the backpass rule and the relaunch of its First Division as the FA Carling Premiership (as it was then known), were keenly felt by clubs at operating at the level below. Goalkeepers forgetting they were now obliged to not pick up backpasses caught a few out long after August.
What was also keenly felt amongst them was the fact that an awful lot of money was now being promised to those clubs who could clamber out of it in an upward direction. You only need look at some of the players who clubs at the sharp end had playing for them in 1992-93 to see what they were throwing at trying to get there. Glenn Hoddle was Swindon’s player manager. Newcastle put the icing on their title procession by buying Andy Cole from Bristol City. John Aldridge and Pat Nevin were starring for Tranmere and Derby spent an enormous amount of money on the likes of Tommy Johnson, Marco Gabbiadini and Craig Short in a bid for an instant return to the top flight which faltered as they finished eighth.
Newcastle were newly emboldened by the wave of optimism that Kevin Keegan’s appointment as manager in February 1992 and their subsequent escape from a very real threat relegation to the third tier in 1991-92. It was a wave that they kept riding without falling off; they went top on September the 12th after a 3-1 win over Portsmouth and didn’t vacate the summit all season as they amassed 96 points, losing only four times in the process. This was a heavily attacking team in time-honoured Keegan fashion, though it was not quite the side that would go on to dazzle the Premier League in the mid-90s. This was a team built on experience, and built to do a specific job; the likes of Paul Bracewell, Barry Venison, David Kelly, Brian Kilcline and Kevin Sheedy provided a wily and skilful bedrock around which enabled the up-and-coming likes of Rob Lee, Lee Clark and, later on, Cole to really fizz.
That cast list of players at least partially explains Newcastle’s unassailable campaign. However, star quality was not an unusual thing in the second tier that season. In addition to the names mentioned, West Ham and Portsmouth-the two teams who fought each other to the death for the second automatic promotion place-possessed the likes of Trevor Morley, Ian Bishop and Julian Dicks (West Ham) and Paul Walsh, Mark Chamberlain and Guy Whittingham, the lethal striker that Pompey bought out of the Army the previous season.
Quite how Portsmouth didn’t go up this season is still one of the game’s great mysteries. Whittingham’s haul of 42 league goals (containing only 1 penalty) allied to a fearsome home record which saw them concede only nine league goals at Fratton Park all season would have seen them easily home were it not for an indifferent away record of seven wins and eight draws and losses apiece. Even then, this should have been enough. What is really remarkable about Pompey’s failure is that they won 12 of their last 14 games. Unfortunately for them, a West Ham side who were more expansive than the team of 1990-91 who also finished second in this division, managed to keep pace with them and, when relegation-threatened Sunderland thumped Pompey 4-1 at Roker Park on the penultimate Saturday of the season, the Hammers took advantage by winning at fellow promotion-chasers Swindon the day after and beating Cambridge 2-0 at Upton Park on the last day. Pompey’s 2-1 win over Grimsby on the same day wasn’t quite enough, the East Londoners taking the second place by the razor-thin margin of a single goal. When you lose out on promotion like that, it is perhaps inevitable that the play-offs will not be kind to you, which was how it proved for Pompey, as they lost to 3-2 on aggregate to Leicester in the subsequent shootout.
Leicester, the losing finalists in the play-off final, were the beneficiaries of continuity. Six of their players started over 40 league games in 92-93 and they were in the unusual position of having a defender as a top scorer. Centre back and club legend Steve Walsh weighed in with 15 goals and a young Julian Joachim and David Lowe weighed in with double figure tallies also. The Foxes were always around and about the play-offs, despite losing 14 games and shipping 64 goals. Their dodgy defence would come to haunt them at the last. More of which later.
If Leicester were the solid team of the final top six, Tranmere and eventual play-off winners Swindon were the entertainers. Hoddle deployed himself as sweeper in a Swindon side, managing from the back and pulling the strings as the Robins played some of the most beautiful football ever seen at this level of the game. In a team containing Hoddle and future Premier League stars like Nicky Summerbee, Colin Calderwood and David Kerslake, it was the relatively unheralded Craig Maskell who top scored, aided by their own goalscoring defender, left back and penalty expert Paul Bodin, forever doomed to be remembered for the penalty he missed for Wales against Romania in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, not the one he scored to win the play-off final in 1993.
Tranmere also thrilled the senses, scoring 72 times and playing a brand of football which played to the strengths of the derring-do of Nevin and Johnny Morrissey on the wings and the canny runs of the goalscoring midfielder Kenny Irons. With a supply line like this, Aldridge couldn’t fail to help himself to 21 goals. As with Portsmouth though, a red hot home record was spoiled by a patchier away record and a vulnerable defence which saw them take a couple of hammerings in the regular season. Their semi-final with Swindon was a battle royal, which they eventually lost 5-4 on aggregate, a 3-2 win at Prenton Park in the second leg not quite enough to overturn a 3-1 defeat in the first leg.
Bubbling under this were a Millwall team who looked nailed on for the play-offs in early February but, after a 5-2 thumping of Watford (a game which ended a run of six games in which the Lions scored 19 goals), it all went south. Mick McCarthy’s diamond midfield with Andy May protecting the back four was so dependent on May, it fell apart when he got injured in March and a run of just 4 wins in the last 18 games saw them sink to finish 7th. Definite underachievement for a team which contained Kasey Keller in goal, Kenny Cunningham and Colin Cooper at the back, Alex Rae and Andy Roberts in midfield and Malcolm Allen in ‘the hole’ behind Jamie Moralee and Jon Goodman up front. Moralee, a makeweight in an early season deal which took star striker Chris Armstrong to Crystal Palace, had the most prolific season of his career in 92-93, though Lions fans will forever insist that, had Armstrong stayed, the second spot would have been theirs.
Pre-season favourites Derby’s inconsistency was another side story, as their extremely expensive team played like the strangers they were initially. They didn’t win any of their first six games and battled inconsistency all season as they struggled to gel. They would go close the season after, losing to Leicester in the play-off final, but it took them a further three seasons after this one to return to the top table.
Lower down the league, a tight relegation race which saw Cambridge and Brentford drop with the marooned Bristol Rovers ended up with just three points separating 17th-placed Notts County from Brentford in 22nd. It was also notable for the emergence of one Stanley Victor Collymore, whose goals almost single-handedly dragged Southend from what looked like certain relegation to an 18th-place finish. This end to the season provided the platform for Barry Fry’s Shrimpers to have an unlikely tilt at promotion themselves in 1993-94, though Collymore left for Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1993. They sat 5th at the turn of 1993 into 1994, but their lack of squad depth told, and they fizzled out to finish 15th. Collymore, of course, went on to star for Forest and Liverpool, scoring the winner in that 4-3 win over Newcastle at Anfield for the Reds in 1996 which people still widely call the best ever game of the Premier League era.
As alluded to before, the season got the fitting finale it deserved, a play-off final which Swindon won 4-3 after throwing away a 3-0 lead over a dogged Leicester. Hoddle’s placed finish near half-time gave the Robins a 1-0 lead at the break, but there were no harbingers in the first 45 minutes of the crazy second half that was to come. Maskell’s thumping angled drive after a spell of possession football was followed by unmarked centre back Shaun Taylor nodding in after some appalling Leicester defending resulted in a half-cleared corner being put back into the mixer. Game over, right?
No. A Joachim tap-in after Walsh’s header hit the post made it 3-1 was added to by a Walsh header which did find the net. The equaliser came from a beautiful, composed finish by the midfielder Steve Thompson, sliding the ball to Fraser Digby’s left after he was set up by left back Mike Whitlow’s pass at the end of a lung-busting run. It was to be a piece of genius from Hoddle six minutes from time which set up the game’s final goal. A superb through ball to the bustling striker Steve White saw Foxes keeper Kevin Poole interrupt White’s run. Bodin smacked it to Poole’s left to secure the final promotion spot. This was, as previously stated, final befitting, and wholly representative of, of the dizzying nine months which preceded it.