Looking Back: Rotherham v Imps, 1978

Saturday 9th September 1978

After the departure of manager Graham Taylor to Watford in the summer of 1977 his assistant George Kerr was appointed in his place. However, with City down to 22nd place and seemingly headed for relegation back to Division Four Kerr was sacked in mid-December and replaced by former Birmingham City manager Willie Bell. The Scottish international full back put together a hard-working side which saw a steady improvement to finish the season in the safety of 16th place. However, the new season had not started well, as a League Cup exit over two legs to Division Four side Bradford City, and an unconvincing 2-1 win over Tranmere Rovers at Sincil Bank had been followed by three league defeats putting City in 21st place going into this game.

Rotherham were in their third season in Division Three, having been promoted the year before City. Having missed further promotion on goal difference in 1976/77 they had then only avoided relegation by 3 points the following season. This time around a steady start saw them in 12th place and they had claimed the notable scalp of Arsenal in the Second Round of the League Cup, beating a star-studded side 3-1 in front of over 10,000 at Millmoor.

Rotherham United boss Jimmy McGuigan was now in his fifth season in charge of the Millers. He had started his managerial career with Crewe and Grimsby before achieving promotion from the Fourth Division with both Chesterfield and Rotherham.

The teams were:

City:

  1. Peter Grotier
  2. Brendan Guest
  3. Dennis Leigh
  4. Jim McCalliog
  5. Clive Wigginton
  6. Terry Cooper
  7. Gordon Hobson
  8. David Sunley
  9. Mick Harford
  10. David Hughes
  11. Alan Harding
  12. John Fleming (for Harding)

Rotherham:

  1. Tom McAlister
  2. Gerry Forrest
  3. John Breckin
  4. Mark Rhodes
  5. John Green
  6. John Flynn
  7. Richard Finney
  8. Trevor Phillips
  9. Dave Gwyther
  10. Alan Crawford
  11. Dave Smith
  12. David Pugh

Exactly half of the City squad for this match had seen service under Graham Taylor, five of them having been part of the 1975/76 championship side with the exception being right back Brendan Guest. He had come through into the side just before his 18th birthday during the 1976/77 season and played five times for the England Under-19 side. With summer signing from Birmingham Billy Wright preferred for the first five games of the season Guest had then returned to the side for the previous game which had seen a home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

Goalkeeper Peter Grotier had been signed from West Ham United at the start of the 1974/75 season for a club record fee including money partly raised by the supporters and had twice been included in the PFA Division Four team of the year. Last season he had been voted City’s Player of the Year

Partnering Guest at full back was former Rotherham player Dennis Leigh who had been Graham Taylor’s first signing for the club in 1973 while centre half was Clive Wigginton, signed from Scunthorpe United by George Kerr a year previously when it was belatedly realised that a replacement for departed skipper Sam Ellis was needed. Alongside Wigginton was Ellis’s former partner Terry Cooper. Now City’s longest continuously serving player Cooper had joined from Notts County in August 1972 after a spell on loan the previous season. Like Grotier, he had been a PFA Award winner in 1975/76 and City’s Player of the Year the season before that.

The midfield pairing showed a mixture of youth and experience with the 20-year-old David Hughes and former Scottish international Jim McCalliog. Now aged 31, McCalliog had played over 450 games and scored more than 70 goals for clubs in the top two divisions, including playing alongside Sam Ellis in Sheffield Wednesday’s losing FA Cup Final side in 1966. He had also played in the losing side for Wolves in a UEFA Cup Final before becoming an FA Cup winner for Southampton in 1976. After leaving the Saints in 1977 he had played for Chicago Sting in the USA before a brief spell as player-coach for Norwegian side SFK Lyn. He was making his debut for City in this match after signing earlier in the week and had also being appointed coach in place of Ian Branfoot. Hughes had been signed by Bell the previous April for £4,000 from Aston Villa for whom he had made a handful of appearances.

On the right wing was the 20-year-old Gordon Hobson who had joined City the previous December after playing local football in his native Sheffield. He had made a dramatic debut in a 4-1 win over Cambridge United at the beginning of April and was still in the early days of what was to be a distinguished City career. Alan Harding, meanwhile, was coming to the end of his. Now aged 30, he was another member of the 1975/76 championship side. Centre forward was the 19-year-old Mick Harford who had joined the previous summer from a boys’ club in Sunderland as a midfield player. Converted to a striker by George Kerr he had made his debut in Kerr’s last match in charge and finished the season as top scorer with 9 goals. Showing great aerial ability, he was still at the raw stage and had yet to get off the mark this season. Alongside him was summer signing from Hull City David Sunley who had previously played around 130 games for Sheffield Wednesday mainly in the Second Division.

Substitute was midfielder John Fleming who had been a key member of Graham Taylor’s championship side but since then had featured mainly as a squad player.

Missing from the squad through illness and injury respectively were striker John Ward and utility man Phil Hubbard, with Phil Neale on his recent return from playing cricket for Worcestershire not considered to be match fit by the manager.

Rotherham had fielded an unchanged squad of 12 players in all seven of the games they had played in the season so far, in none of them using their substitute, and this continued against City. Goalkeeper was former Sheffield United player Tom McAlister now into his fourth season with the Millers, while 21-year-old right back Gerry Forrest was starting his second and would go on to play over 350 games for the club before spending over three years with Southampton in the top flight. Partnering Forrest was local-born youth product John Breckin with over 200 games behind him who was to go on to be even longer-serving than Forrest. In the middle of the defence was 20-year-old former apprentice John Green who was to play over 250 games for the club before spells with Scunthorpe and Darlington, and the more experienced John Flynn who had been signed in the close season from Sheffield United. Starting his career with Workington, he had been a mainstay of the Blades’ defence for several seasons. Missing through injury, and in fact not to play first-team football again was former Imps player Tommy Spencer.

In a Rotherham side including several home-grown players another was 21-year-old Mark Rhodes who was now in his fourth season since breaking through into the first team. Alongside him was a true Lincoln City legend and one of the best Imps players of the 1970s. Third on the list of players making the most appearances with 420 in all competitions and still only 30, ‘Smithy’ had been injured in Willie Bell’s second game in charge midway through the previous season and when fit again had made only a handful of appearances. Clearly out of favour, there was still some surprise and disappointment when he was released in the close season, with Bell stating: “I don’t think he is consistently good enough for the Third Division”. Well, he turned out to be good enough to play there for another club, appearing in a total of 42 games for Rotherham before finally calling it a day a year later.

The Millers could boast yet more home-grown players in attack. On the right was Richard Finney, aged 22 and now in his fifth season and the previous season’s top scorer with 16 goals. On the left was another prolific scorer in the slightly-built Alan Crawford, scorer of 31 goals in the 1976/77 season and later to enjoy some scoring success with Chesterfield and Bristol City. Striker Trevor Phillips, still only 25, was starting his 10th season with Rotherham and by the time he left to join Hull at the end of it had played over 350 times for the Millers scoring over 90 goals. Partnering the diminutive Phillips was experienced centre forward Dave Gwyther. Starting his career with Swansea where he had been top scorer for four successive seasons, he had joined Rotherham from Halifax in 1976 and after leaving the Millers was to play a part in Newport County’s European campaigns of the early 1980s.

On the subs’ bench was defender or midfield man David Pugh who had previously played most of his football for Chesterfield along with spells with Newport and Halifax.

This was my fifth visit to Millmoor, a fairly easy ground to get to, situated as it was practically across the road from Rotherham (Masborough) station, then the main station for the town but now long-since closed. The attendance of 4,427 was well down on Rotherham’s previous game which had seen a 2-0 defeat to Hull City.

The first half hour of the game saw Rotherham winning several corners but with City goalkeeper Peter Grotier standing firm then settled down into a midfield battle. With Terry Cooper and Clive Wigginton also doing well in the centre of the defence City were still in the game until the last seconds of the first half. But then Millers centre forward Dave Gwyther broke down the right to put over a cross which David Hughes leapt to fist clear. Although claiming he had been pushed onto the ball the Imps midfielder received a booking and Richard Finney put the penalty away for the last kick of the first half.

City fought to try and get back into the game after the break but were killed off, almost predictably, by Dave Smith. Back defending a corner Mick Harford headed the ball away but it fell for Smith to delightedly volley it straight back into the net for his first goal for his new club.

With new signing Jim McCalliog displaying a lack of effectiveness following an ankle injury in the first half City’s supposedly patient build-up play in midfield tended to become slow and cumbersome, and also suffering an ankle injury was Alan Harding who had to be stretchered off 10 minutes from the end to be replaced by John Fleming. Generally speaking, the most satisfactory part of City’s display was in defence, which is borne out by my recorded player ratings giving only Grotier and right back Brendan Guest above-average marks. Most disappointment was in attack, with four players, including a lethargic-looking Mick Harford, below average.

The defeat saw City sink to the bottom of the Third Division and they were not to rise any higher than 23rd for the rest of the season. The next game saw a 0-5 capitulation to Watford at Sincil Bank the nature of which saw home supporters cheering on Graham Taylor’s side instead of their own. With a run of 11 defeats and only one win in 15 games Willie Bell was sacked before the end of October with Jim McCalliog becoming caretaker-manager for two more defeats. Ex-Derby County manager Colin Murphy was then given what turned out to be the impossible task of avoiding relegation.

Rotherham moved up to 8th place and they maintained a position just outside the promotion places until the second half of the season when they fell away to finish 17th, possibly due the exertions of an FA Cup run which saw them hold Manchester City to a goalless draw at Maine Road in the Third Round before going out 4-2 in the replay at Millmoor.

As the main railway station moved so did the football ground, Rotherham United leaving Millmoor for financial reasons in 2008 to spend four seasons playing at the Don Valley Stadium between Rotherham and Sheffield. They then moved again to their present ground in Rotherham called the New York Stadium.