The focus for this article is on the Third Division (now known as League One) during the 1976-77 season. We are about to enter the final weeks of the season and, as there were no play-offs in those days, just the top three get promoted.
Here is the run-in for the top 5.
We begin on the morning of Saturday 30th April 1977 and this is how the table looked.
The top 2 met at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham. Wrexham had, by far, the toughest run-in still having to play Brighton, Mansfield and Crystal Palace (twice). They played out a 0-0 draw with Brighton. This gave Mansfield the opportunity to move into 2nd place as they went to Swindon and won, 1-0.
Crystal Palace were away too, and also won when they beat Chesterfield at Saltergate, 2-0. Rotherham also kept up the pressure on the leaders with an away win of their own at Walsall, 1-0.
Two days later, Mansfield had the chance to go top as they met Portsmouth, who themselves were struggling against the drop. Mansfield won 2-0
The next day, the other four clubs were in action. Brighton were at home to Sheffield Wednesday, who were in with an outside chance of promotion, but their hopes were dashed as Brighton won 3-2.
Rotherham slipped up when they were beaten at home, 1-2 by Reading. Then came the game at Selhurst Park between Crystal Palace and Wrexham. Wrexham were on an unbeaten run stretching to 7 matches. Palace needed to keep winning, especially after the Mansfield victory the night before. Palace won 2-1.
Brighton were back on top and Palace had now put Wrexham under pressure as 2 of their last 3 games would be against Mansfield and Palace. Rotherham may just have blown their chances.
Saturday 7th May 1977
With Brighton not in action, Mansfield entertained Northampton with the opportunity to go back on top. They didn’t disappoint the home fans, winning 3-0. Wrexham travelled to Oxford and could only draw 2-2. They were now in danger of missing out, and certainly making life harder for themselves
Crystal Palace were at home to Lincoln who were 7th but out of the race for promotion. Palace saw them off with a 4-1 win. They were now just 1pt behind Wrexham, who they would meet in their next, and final, match. Rotherham made up for their Reading defeat by beating Gillingham, 1-0.
Mansfield were top but may still need to win their final match (away to Wrexham), as Brighton’s goal difference was superior. Brighton still had trips to Swindon and Chesterfield, both of whom were in the bottom half of the table. Palace’s final game was at Wrexham. Rotherham were almost out of contention, as any result between Wrexham v Crystal Palace could put both, or either, club on as many points as Rotherham could reach.
Tuesday 10th May 1977
At County Ground, Swindon, Brighton were the visitors. Brighton, beaten only once in their previous 9, were surprisingly defeated 1-2 by Swindon. This now meant the destination of the promotion spots depended on two matches
Wrexham v Crystal Palace
Wrexham v Mansfield
Wednesday 11th May 1977
These days television might call it Wonderful Wednesday with Wrexham and Palace in a shoot-out at the Racecourse Ground. Wrexham were unlikely to win the title, unless they could overturn a 6-goal deficit on their goal difference. It was a game Palace simply had to win, a draw was not enough for them yet they were the lowest scorers in the top 4 and needing to find goals from somewhere. To make things tougher for Palace, Wrexham were unbeaten at home all season.
On a famous night in Crystal Palace history, they raced into a 2-goal lead only to be pegged back level by the home side. Dave Swindlehurst opened the scoring in the first half and then Steve Perrin made it 2-0 early in the second. Whittle and Lyons got Wrexham back level but then Palace sub, Rachid Harkouk put the visitors back in front. Deep into injury time, Jeff Bourne grabbed a vital 4th for Palace and they won 4-2. They still weren’t promoted as Wrexham had a game to go, but with Mansfield still needing points for the title, they could at least hope Wrexham may falter. What that result had done for Palace, was to put their goal difference ahead of Wrexham’s and so a draw for the Welsh club in their final match, would now not be enough.
Rotherham won at Reading to leave them needing to win by 6 clear goals in their final match to stand any chance of going up.
Saturday 14th May 1977
The final day in the Third Division calendar that season was one Crystal Palace players could only join their fans in watching from afar. Many of the players were sent to play a reserve game to take their mind off things, with many of their supporters making the journey up to North Wales to cheer on Mansfield. Brighton were at Chesterfield knowing a win would see them Champions if Mansfield lost. Mansfield just needed a point to win the title.
Rotherham, needing to win by 6 goals, went to Port Vale and won 4-1 so their promotion dreams had gone. Brighton were held, 1-1 and so they wouldn’t go up as Champions but they would at least go up.
At the Racecourse Ground Wrexham threw everything at Mansfield. Spurred on by their prolific striker-force of Billy Ashcroft and Graham Whittle, who had scored 59 goals between them during Wrexham’s push for promotion. But Mansfield’s keeper, Rod Arnold, played a blinder in goal despite being knocked out just before half-time. Arnold made it back out for the second half to pull off further saves and then with a minute to go, Mansfield winger, Kevin Randall, beat his man to get to the bye-line. His cross was turned in by Ernie Moss and Mansfield had won it with almost the last kick of the season.
That goal would have repercussions for various people. Mansfield had secured the Third Division title for the one and only time in their history. But it also meant Crystal Palace were promoted at the expense of Wrexham. At the start of this focus Wrexham were unbeaten in their previous 6 games, winning 5 of them. But their last 4 games yielded just 1pt.
For Palace, it meant promotion back to the Second Division. They were managed by Terry Venables who had only just taken over from Malcolm Allison at the end of the previous season. Just think, if Wrexham had won that Mansfield game then Palace’s, and Terry Venables, future may well have turned out differently. Venables had been recommended to the board by Allison but they had their doubts as to his ability. Who knows, but another missed promotion may have spelt the end for Venables and the whole ‘Team of the 80’s’ may never have happened.
What happened next?
Wrexham weren’t to be denied the following season as they went up as Champions. They also reached the Quarter-Finals of the FA Cup, narrowly losing to Arsenal.
Mansfield went straight back down from the Second in the following season and have never been back to the second tier of English football since.
Brighton just missed out on a second successive promotion the following season when they finished behind Tottenham on goal difference.
Crystal Palace finished 9th in the Second Division, but then both Brighton and Palace went up the year after.