The 1983/84 season was one of those pretty frequent periods throughout Cardiff City’s history where paying transfer fees for new players was something that others clubs did. In 1982/83 Len Ashurst had done very well to steer a team comprising mostly of free transfer signings and players who had come up through the ranks at City to promotion from the old Third Division. Any hopes that this might lead to any loosening of the club’s purse strings though lasted as long as it took them to sell the talented Dave Bennett (to First Division Coventry for a tribunal decided fee of £120,000) and then inform the manager that none of the proceeds would be available for the signing of a replacement – or any other player for that matter!
Left to scour the free transfer market again, Ashurst did manage to come up with a good replacement for Bennett in Gordon Owen who, partly because he was the team’s penalty taker, was a more regular goalscorer than the former Man City winger had been. However, the absence, through the injury that would eventually end his career, of Jeff Hemmerman and the retirement of Bob Hatton had left the side without an attacking focal point and, although the goals of another new arrival Nigel Vaughan helped, City were short of fire power throughout the first half of the season – they only managed to score in four of their first thirteen league matches!
The situation got so bad that Ashurst even used the man who was probably City’s best player at the time, centreback Gary Bennett, as a makeshift striker. Bennett did score in a win at Fulham but he was too important to the team in other areas of the pitch for the experiment to continue for any length of time and, eventually reinforcements did arrive in the form on loan Southampton striker Ian Baird and journeyman Trevor Lee from Bournemouth on a short term deal. Baird, who went on to have a long and pretty successful career as the sort of niggly and physical centre forward that opposing fans love to hate, arrived in November and did well with six goals in twelve matches – he was never going to stay with us though and it was possibly in preparation for Baird’s departure that Mr Ashurst moved to sign Lee in December.
Lee made a decent career for himself at Second and Third Division level and I remember him as being one of those players who didn’t have any obvious weaknesses but was not outstanding in any department of the game either. Anyway, although goalscoring became less of a problem, by the time Lee made his debut in a Boxing Day match with Swansea, City were slipping a bit too close to the relegation area for comfort with six defeats in their past eight matches. City were in nineteenth place in a twenty two team division going into the game, but, to be honest, with two of the three sides to be relegated having already been virtually decided by then, fear of the drop only played a small part in their season compared to most others at this level since 1971.
City had done their goal difference a power of good in November by thrashing a truly woeful Cambridge United side 5-0 at Ninian Park and anyone who watched them that day would not have been surprised to learn that they finished bottom of the table, twenty three points from safety. However, the identity of the other team already cast adrift might have been more of a surprise because they had been challenging for the First Division title only two seasons earlier.
If City had money problems, they were as of nothing compared to Swansea City who were now paying the price for over reaching themselves financially on their upward journey from Fourth to First Division under the management of former Cardiff favourite John Toshack. The jacks spent most of their first season (81/82) in the top flight as genuine title contenders, but, even in an era of low attendances, gates at the Vetch were generally very poor given the standard of football on offer and they found they were unable to sustain the high wage bills that the likes of Jimmy Rimmer, Colin Irwin, Ray Kennedy, Leighton James and Bob Latchford commanded.
Relegation in 82/83 had bought no relief as most of the stars had to be sold to secure the club’s future and they had spent most of the first half of the campaign at the bottom of the table. John Toshack had resigned in October as the financial pressures mounted with his club having won just once (against the awful Cambridge United) in sixteen league games, but with caretaker manager Doug Livermore getting only a win and a draw from his eight games in charge, relegation looked an inevitability when Toshack sensationally returned to the club as player/manager four days before Christmas.
Amazingly, Toshack, who had been increasingly injury prone from the mid 70’s onwards and had not played at all since a game against QPR on 31 January 1981 included himself in the Swansea side for the match at his old stomping ground. It made little difference though in a first half generally dominated by City which saw them lead 2-1 thanks to goals by Roger Gibbins and Vaughan as ex Chelsea man Gary Stanley replied with a penalty for the jacks. Early in the second half, Trevor Lee got a debut goal and City looked set to go on and record a big win, but shortly afterwards, Toshack reduced the arrears with what was a memorable goal.
Even in his pomp, John Toshack was never the paciest of players so there seemed little danger when he broke clear just inside the City half on the left and closed in on the Grange End goal. Such was his lack of speed that the whole thing seemed to be taking place in slow motion, but Toshack stayed clear of City’s retreating defenders, then beat a man as he cut inside to place an accurate side footed shot beyond the advancing Andy Dibble from the edge of the penalty area. People old enough to remember Toshack the player will no doubt class a typical goal of his as being a far post header, he was a decent finisher on the deck though who scored the occasional goal with powerful long distance efforts, but I am pretty sure that there can’t have been many other times where he had run nearly forty yards with the ball before curling it beyond the keeper – his last ever goal may well also have been a first of it’s type!
City had a few more alarms than they really should have done holding on to a lead which, on the balance of play, might have been larger than a single goal. When their 3-2 win was followed up with another one by the same score at Derby the following day though, their slide down the table had been halted and, with Lee scoring another four goals before surprisingly being released in the summer, they made sure of another season in the second tier with about five games to go.
As for John Toshack and Swansea he played two more matches without scoring before hanging up his boots for good and his side did improve to the extent that they were able to swap places with Cambridge by the end of the campaign, but they still finished eighteen points short of safety. Given what a poor side Swansea were then, City could surely not have had many better chances to record that elusive first league double than they did early on in the return at the Vetch in April as goals by Colin Smith and Owen had them 2-0 up only for a Dean Saunders inspired fight back to secure the points for the jacks with three unanswered goals – twenty seven years on and still no one has managed a double, surely it won’t happen on Sunday will it?
December 26 1983
Cardiff City 3 Swansea City 2
City Dibble; Smith, Dwyer, Bennett, Bodin; Owen, Tong, Gibbins (1), Vaughan (1); Lee (1), Baird; Sub (not used) Burke
Swansea Sander; Evans, Stevenson, Lewis, Richards; Lake, Stanley (1), Marustik, Maddy (Walsh); Toshack (1), Loveridge