Chris Balderstone, the Test match umpire, keeps a cutting in his scrapbook of the First Division table as it stood on 24 August, 1974. The name at the top, for the first and only time in the club's history, was . Balderstone, in fact, was the man who had put the Cumbrians there. The penalty he converted at Brunton Park beat Spurs 1-0 and gave the First Division new boys a perfect record, six points from three games. By 22 February they were bottom. Alan Ashman's side lost only one of their last five matches but still returned from whence they came. "I spent 19 seasons in the Second Division and just that one in the First," Balderstone recalled. "It was nice just to be up there for one year and to be top for a while. We didn't have money to spend but we had always produced good players - like Stan Bowles and Bob Hatton - and we did have a good team then." Glenn Hoddle's assistant would doubtless agree with that. As one of the Brunton Park full-backs, it was John Gorman's job to link with Balderstone on Carlisle's left flank.
If you asked on Wearside why the North-east's three main clubs have, since 1954, spent just one season together in England's top division, the answer would probably be: Jimmy Hill. Sunderland supporters have not forgotten the night their side's fate was sealed with a 2-0 defeat at Everton while Coventry, whose chairman at the time was Briatin's least- loved television pundit, played out a 2-2 draw with Bristol City which guaranteed safety for both clubs. The kick-off at Highfield Road had been delayed and the result from Goodison announced over the tannoy with seven minutes still remaining. Coventry were reprimanded by the Football League. "Our score should never have been read out," Gary Rowell, one of Sunderland's forwards that night, said. "It could have stopped Coventry and Bristol City going for a goal in the closing stages. But you couldn't blame one day for our relegation." A disastrous start, the resignation of Bob Stokoe, and nine successive defeats didn't help. A February revival sparked by three stunning wins at Roker Park was ultimately in vain.
It is not difficult to see how the poorer Magpies of English football failed to survive their season as top-flighters. In their first two matches they played in front of 46,000 at Old Trafford and just 9,600 at Meadow Lane. With limited financial resources, Neil Warnock was obliged to rely on virtually the same side he had in the Second Division. Early-season adrenalin eased County into 11th place by the end of September, but when winter came the points and the goals dried up. Tommy Johnson was top scorer with nine goals, and three of those were penalties. "We started well enough," Johnson recalled. "But we hoofed the ball upfield a lot and once teams sussed us out we started to struggle. We didn't have the money to strengthen, either. We bought Tony Agana two months after the season started but we basically had the same young squad." When relegation looked inevitable, Johnson was sold to Derby. Four years later, he is preparing for a Uefa Cup campaign with Aston Villa and another talented youngster from that County set, Mark Draper.
Even before Middlesbrough kicked off as the North-east's sole representatives in the inaugural Premier League, they were struggling to cope with the burden of living in Newcastle United's shadow. Their neighbours had escaped relegation to the old Third Division on the final day of the previous season, but Kevin Keegan persuaded Gavin Peacock that First Division football on Tyneside would be more beneficial to his career than Premier League life on Teesside. If that was not a big enough blow to Middlesbrough's local pride, Lennie Lawrence lost out to Keegan in the race for Robert Lee's signature. Then Newcastle beat the Premier Leaguers in the Coca Cola Cup at Ayresome Park, their first victory on Teesside since 1964. In the end, though, it was a sequence of 12 defeats in 14 games that sealed Middlesbrough's fate. "It was unfortunate that we didn't get Peacock and Lee," goalkeeper Steve Pears, now with Hartlepool, reflected. "They would have been great buys. But the bad run was the biggest factor. We just couldn't get out of it."
The top-deck boat came too late for Swindon. By the time it arrived, the neat passing side Ossie Ardiles built and Glenn Hoddle maintained was falling apart. "We lost the backbone of the side," Paul Bodin said, lamenting the loss of Colin Calderwood, Dave Mitchell and Hoddle. With John Gorman as the new manager, they played like a team with its heart ripped out. They found goals so difficult to score the left-back Bodin ended as second top scorer with seven (only two of which were not penalties), and they found them so hard to stop their goals-against tally reached a century. The result was a goal difference of minus 53 and some thumping defeats. They lost 7-1 at Newcastle, 6-2 at Everton, 5-0 at Aston Villa, 5-1 at Southampton and were turned over on their home patch 5-0 by both Liverpool and Leeds. Bodin, now with Reading, said: "It might have been different if we had been allowed to go up after beating Sunderland in the 1990 play-off final. The gap between the big clubs and clubs like Swindon gets bigger with every season."
It was ultimately no mean achievement that Bolton Wanderers managed to remain in the scramble for survival until the penultimate weekend of the season. They picked up just one point from 14 away games before they carved out a 4-1 victory at Middlesbrough in mid-February. A 6-0 thrashing at home to Manchester United confirmed that the corner had not been turned. Even accounting for the departure of Bruce Rioch to the management job at Highbury, their results did not match up to the buccaneering side that had graduated with such promise, having come close to beating lofty Liverpool in the Coca Cola Cup final and recovered from 0-2 and a penalty against to beat Reading in the final of the play-offs. "We thought we would do well," Alan Thompson, the gifted midfield Wanderer, said. "Maybe we thought it would be too easy. I wouldn't say we were fighting a losing battle from the start. We sorted out a lot of our problems, but it was too late. We will be better prepared the next time if we go up."