August 1983, it is pre-season. A pint of milk cost 21p, KC and The Sunshine Band topped the UK charts with Give it Up and Lawrie McMenemy was preparing his Southampton side for their 1983-84 Football League Division One campaign.
In the summer of ’83 the footballing landscape, shaped by the 1982-83 season, saw Liverpool emerge as league champions and League Cup winners in what was Bob Paisley’s final season at Anfield. Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United held the FA Cup and Queens Park Rangers, led by Terry Venables, were promoted to the top flight. Southampton finished comfortably in 12th, concluding a mediocre season that gave little impression the Saints would become title contenders the following year.
Back then at The Dell, the day to day running of the club was straightforward. The trustful relationship between the manager and chairman Alan Woodford allowed Lawrie McMenemy to oversee all football matters from ‘top to bottom’ without interference from the board who took care of everything else. McMenemy explains to me while talking to him on behalf of The 4th Official, “The directors, they never put any pressure on me, they were good directors, bearing in mind in my first season at the club we got relegated. The chairman showed faith in me that year, giving me the simple message ‘manager, sort it out’. They let me get on with the job”.
McMenemy soon repaid that faith by winning the club’s first major trophy, the FA Cup in 1976, which was quickly followed by achieving promotion to Division One in 1978. Although McMenemy felt the team was “getting better and stronger”, the target set for 83-84 was simple; survive.
The season opened at The City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest. Compared to the season before, Southampton had a new look about them, albeit subtle. The starting eleven included debutants Ken Armstrong and Frank Worthington, and new kit sponsor Air Florida decorated the shirt. Danny Wallace struck to seal a 0-1 win; a perfect start which evolved into an unbeaten run of six games. The fine start to the season offered a hint of things to come, but then November happened. As the goals dried up, so did the early season promise. On paper the fixtures in November were favourable; however, just one win in five games exposed a dip in form that saw defeats to Norwich City, Leicester City and more notably a 0-2 home loss to struggling Notts County. The Magpies had arrived at The Dell winless from their last eleven matches. It was a shock result, and a blow that would be felt more significantly come May.
December came, and the spark returned, bringing victories over Stoke City, Birmingham City, West Ham United and Watford. Points were also collected at Tottenham and Arsenal as Southampton steamrolled through December without defeat, earning McMenemy the coveted Manager of The Month award which back then was a gallon of Bells whiskey presented to the manager on the pitch. Those results also provided a springboard for the Saints going into the new year and for McMenemy, the rewards from ten years labour at Southampton were really starting to show. McMenemy’s ideology was clear; Old heads, young legs. Blending quality, seasoned international players such as Peter Shilton, David Armstrong and Mick Mills with promising talents like Mark Wright, Steve Moran and Danny Wallace, was a philosophy that proved its worth.
McMenemy told me, “I’d been at the club for nearly 10 years, building the squad and I’d realised how to do it and it was a great experiment for me. The board let me sign players, and I brought in older players whilst also knowing I had some really good young players coming through. My challenge was putting young legs together with old heads. The old heads were as important off the field as they were on it. Because I was at the club for that long, I was running it from top to bottom. If you look at the 83/84 team, we had a good mixture of experience and youth in that side. We were a family club, and the atmosphere was good.”
Southampton started January sitting comfortably in fourth, while Liverpool led the pack three points ahead of Manchester United. In 83-84, winning the league guaranteed European Cup participation the following year and second place down to sixth earned a UEFA Cup spot. European qualification was now a realistic target for Saints. Steve Moran, having only scored three before Christmas, fired seven goals in eight games as momentum gathered pace. All but two games in January and February produced points, and by mid-March, Southampton were preparing for the visit of league leaders Liverpool.
Joe Fagan, after replacing Bob Paisley, was now in charge at Anfield. Liverpool arrived at the Dell top of the league and still in the League Cup and the European Cup. It was a Friday night fixture, the first fully televised game at the Dell and it was to be the night Southampton threw their hat into the title race.
Two goals by Danny Wallace gave the Saints a deserved 2-0 win, but it was the first goal, an incredible overhead kick set up by Mark Wright’s header from a Mark Dennis cross, that sent the Dell into raptures. As spectacular as the goal was, it wasn’t the strike itself which pleased McMenemy most. “It wasn’t just the finish; it was the build-up. The passes involved in that goal, I can’t remember how many but it must have been double figures; pass-pass-pass-pass, cross and then the finish, unbelievable! That was teamwork. You see, people like Mark Dennis, who was a handful at times, a very hard player and a bit of a nutter, was integral to that side, and his crossing of the ball was terrific.” recalls McMenemy.
Back page headlines the following day purred ‘Oh Danny Boy’, and his overhead finish was to be voted BBC Goal of the Season. Joe Fagan admitted “Southampton deserved to beat us. It certainly makes things interesting now.”
Southampton were swiftly brought back down to earth, losing at Queens Park Rangers 0-4 and Everton 0-1, followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Leicester with Gary Lineker scoring both of Foxes’ goals. With nine games remaining, the Saints picked up the pace again, and it was the visit of Coventry City and a record-breaking performance against the Sky Blues that had Lawrie McMenemy sharpening his focus on winning the title.
McMenemy said “Even after the unbeaten start to the season, winning the league never crossed my mind. At a club like ours, your first thought as manager is we must stay up, you’ve got to stay up. When you get to that stage near the end I’m thinking hang on a minute; we are in the top six here, let’s give this a right go. If we’d have finished 6th, everybody would have been happy anyway, but I, in my mind as a manager thought hey, we’ve got a chance here.”
Nothing says ‘giving it a go’ like winning 8-2 at home, putting Coventry to the sword in devastating fashion. Danny Wallace and Steve Moran both scored hat-tricks, and a goal apiece from David Armstrong and Frank Worthington secured a record home win for the Saints.
Despite Southampton picking up points in each remaining game of the season, and with Liverpool’s league form stuttering, the Saints were unable to reach the summit of Division One. In Liverpool’s penultimate match, a 0-0 draw with Notts County at Meadow Lane was enough to claim the title. While Liverpool would go on to win the League Cup and European Cup, Southampton had one final game to clinch second place. With Nottingham Forest and Manchester United also vying for the runners up spot, McMenemy knew a win for Saints would secure it, “When we got to the last game, Notts County away, we were drawing 1-1 at half-time. I had a right go at the lads and it was Mick Mills in particular who don’t forget was an oldie who had played for England and had finished division one runners up with Ipswich Town, gave the impression he would be happy with the draw. I said ‘its ok for you World Cup Willie! You might have finished second in the league before but we haven’t’. I gave the team the biggest rollicking they’d ever had, then they went out and won the game 1-3. That’s management.”
The result confirmed Southampton as Football League Division One Runners Up with 77 points, just three points behind champions Liverpool, and for the Saints, the champagne corks were popping at Meadow Lane. It was a proud moment for the club, the players, the fans and the manager, as McMenemy explained “I’m proud of finishing second that season. See, as a manager, winning the cup; fantastic, over how many games? Six? Seven? Eight? To finish second top of the league over 42 games, not 38 like nowadays, was a fantastic achievement. People couldn’t believe we had finished second top. I had managers calling me, Cloughie being one of them, all saying ‘well done’. We were a little club, and it still is the highest position the club has ever been in.”
For Lawrie McMenemy and Southampton Football Club, it was a remarkable achievement and one that still stands today.
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