Loughborough v Manchester United 1977 Revisited
When Stuart McLaren’s African Violet team step out onto the Holywell Stadium pitch on Wednesday evening, it will be in the knowledge that history is on their side. For this is not the first encounter between the two clubs.
Loughborough’s past is riddled with curious tales of all-conquering sporting duels. But this is something quite different; most often these fables are concerned with feats of complete and utter domination over their foes, not an underdogs’ gallantry. Yet that is how Loughborough Colleges’ football team found themselves on a crisp, Wednesday afternoon in the winter of 1977.
Thirty-five years ago Manchester United was a slumbering giant – reawakened momentarily whilst enjoying a period of success in the two years since winning promotion back to Division One. An FA Cup final appearance, which they lost to Southampton, was subsequently righted the following year, when they overcame a supreme Liverpool side 2-1 to lift the trophy.
Similarly, Loughborough were finding their league counterparts relatively tame, and revered manager Mike Holiday, endeavored to seek out opposition that would challenge his players.
“When Mike said we’d got a game against Manchester United we initially thought, ‘Is this a wind up?’,” Brian Griffiths, one of Loughborough’s starting 11 that day, recalls fondly. “Mike had a wicked sense of humour, but he said reassuringly, ‘Don’t worry, it’s against their youth team’.”
“We weren’t worried. As you can imagine, we had a very high opinion of ourselves, there was no lack of confidence in the team. So we thought ‘fine, it’s only a youth team – bring it on!’”
Other friendly fixtures Mike had organised indeed proved sterner tests than his side was used to, falling foul against semi-professional clubs Dagenham and Wycombe Wanderers. And although the prospect of Manchester United was one to savour, news that their inspirational coach would not be allowed to travel to the fixture due to university politics – the Training College was merging with the University at the time – left a bitter taste.
“He was always there for us and never missed a match,” Griffiths says. “Sometimes he’d travel independently in his big white Ford Granada car or on the team bus if it wasn’t too far away, but this time he said he wouldn’t be able to come with us, and we were horrified. As a unit we felt it was wrong he was denied to come with us, and we felt determined to do well for him.”
It is often the case, that when faced with adversity the collective are able to unite in such a way as to beat a more powerful enemy – a task Loughborough had to confront when they saw who they were playing.
“We arrived at the Cliff Training Ground, went through into the training complex, got changed, and went out to kick a few balls about on the pitch. Our captain went down to toss the coin and when he came back he called us into a huddle and said the immortal words, ‘I don’t want to worry you guys but I’ve just shaken hands with Martin Buchan’.
“Now Buchan at the time had been captain of Scotland and captain of Manchester United, but was injured and told to play this game as part of his recovery. There were several other first team players, too, in a similar situation: Paddy Roach was in goal, Arthur Albison in at fullback and Andy Rithcie was upfront. These were blokes who were appearing on Match of The Day.”
Any fear that may have gripped the Loughborough contingent upon hearing the opposition lineup was quenched soon after. “I had gone down the right-hand side and Arthur Albison had come and clattered me just as I crossed the ball,” Griffiths remembers with a sudden quickening in his speech. “I was screaming for a foul and as I lay on the floor near the corner flag I saw our centre forward, Steve Long, just in front of their centre back poke the ball into the goal. There can’t have been more than ten minutes on the clock and we were one-nil up.”
The following 80 minutes or so were a blur from that point for Griffiths – understandably so in the circumstances – but the team held on to record a historic one-nil victory. Mike was quickly informed of the result and the celebrations commenced in their customary fashion.
“We got back to the Towers’ bar – which was a focal point on a Wednesday after the sport – and there was a big blackboard at the entrance of the bar which read ‘Well done the footballers, Man U 0 Loughborough 1’. I look back on it with enormous pride,” Griffiths says cheerfully, “It is a happy memory of my time at Loughborough.”