My best eleven from over forty years of supporting Blues, now for the engine room.
The best uncapped midfielder in the country, they said of Howard Kendall – and they were right.
Boy wonder, Kendall was the youngest player to appear in a Cup Final when he turned out for Preston against West Ham in ’64 at the age of 17 years and 345 days.
But he was most famed for his part in the legendary Everton midfield, along with Alan Ball and Colin Harvey, that saw the Toffeemen (there’s only one Blues for me) win the First Division in 1970. That gave Kendall a sniff of a place in the Mexico World Cup squad of the same year, but it wasn’t to be.
Kendall was double-feted on the blue side of Merseyside. Following his exploits as a player at Goodison Park, Kendall, as boss this time, managed to wrestle the limelight from the juggernaut that was Liverpool Football Club in the late seventies and early eighties with multiple league and cup wins, only to denied his rightful place in Europe by the ban on English clubs after the Heysel tragedy.
Kendall had a tough gig at Blues. He’d arrived as part of a British record swap deal involving local boy made good Bob Latchford going to Everton in return for Kendall, left-back Archie Styles and some cash, a deal worth £350,000 – big money in those days.
Blues fans rightly bemoaned the sale of our best young talent, it had happened before and would many times again, but Freddie Goodwin had to do something to arrest the slide back into Division Two. Reckoning that he needed some leadership and someone to take charge of the midfield, and knowing that he had a ready-made replacement for Latchford at the club, in the form of the ultra-versatile Kenny Burns, Goodwin withstood the brickbats and did the deal. And it worked, as Kendall steered the ship to safety.
But like all players of that era, Kendall’s Blues’ career was blighted by the failure in the Cup Semi-Final of 1975 against Fulham.
Fulham was the draw that everyone wanted, the only Second Division team left in the competition, and Blues, playing well in the lead up to the game, got them. Then Goodwin changed the team on the day, they didn’t turn up and scraped a 1-1 draw. The replay at Maine Road, Manchester saw us batter the opposition, but the ball would not go in until the last minute of extra time when the crappiest, scrappiest goal you’ll ever see saw Fulham through.
That semi-final was the biggest what-if of many during my time watching Blues. If they’d won the Cup that year, they’d have been in Europe, they’d have had money in the bank, their name would have meant something more and they’d have actually won the Cup, having been runners-up in ‘31 and ‘57’. We’d have to wait until 2011 for a major cup win at Wembley.
Instead, Kendall, as captain, presided over regular relegation battles as the heart was ripped out of the club by that defeat. But throughout Kendall exuded class, energy and tenacity allied with a great passing range.
Howard Kendall was the best uncapped midfielder I saw down the Blues.
Barry Ferguson was very good and he knew it. Playmaker, runner of shows, Ferguson had an arrogance about him. Not the captain, that was Stephen Carr, but he was a leader in a team blessed with strong personalities which allowed the Blues to compete in the Premier League achieving their best top-flight finish since the fifties.
Ferguson arrived under a cloud ‘at St Andrews. Some off-field shenanigans saw him banished from his native Scotland, but Rangers’ loss was Blues’ gain as the mix of superb passing and movement along with a wee bit of nastiness drove us on to an unbeaten run of twelve in the Prem and that magical day at Wembley in 2011.
Two moments epitomised Ferguson at Blues. Check out the Cup match away to Everton, Ferguson’s part in Chucho’s opener is sublime, but even that’s topped by his goal – one of the best I’ve ever seen Blues score.
And then his reaction after Obafemi Martins puts the ball in the Arsenal net. Not content to just enjoy the moment, Ferguson chooses to rub it in by slapping Koscielny, who has been part of the calamitous mistake that has just handed us the Cup on a plate, on the back of the head as he runs past with the mob scene of his teammates.
Of course, it all ended in tears as we were painfully and incomprehensibly relegated at the end of the season and Ferguson was out of the door to Blackpool as costs were dramatically cut. But for a couple of seasons, Ferguson ran the show down the Blues as they enjoyed easily their best period of the 21st century.
There was a term that was used to describe midfielders, mainly on the pre-Panini stickers and gum cards of my childhood, that is no longer used but sums up Archie Gemmill perfectly – bustling. Nowadays, midfielders are more elegant, but Archie was all action, non-stop, ratting around, raring to go and feisty. That’s not to say that he was without skill, anyone of my vintage will remember his goal against Holland in the ‘78 World Cup as one of the best they’ve ever seen.
When Archie fell out with Cloughie about European Cup Final selection, the Bald Eagle, Jim Smith, saw his chance to get the leader he needed for the Second Division promotion push. Smith duly gave Clough back some of the money he gave him for Trevor to secure his captain.
Like Colin Todd, and maybe even Frank Worthington, Gemmill came to Blues just past his prime. But that’s always been the way, top-notch players tend to be at St Andrew’s before and after they were at their best.
Nevertheless, Gemmill did his job and in some style, as the revamped team made their way back to the First Division, led by the Scotsman driving them on from the middle of the park.
Archie held his own in the first season back as the Blues finished a respectable 13th, playing some pretty entertaining stuff as they went. But the following season Archie, and indeed Blues, ran out of steam, as Smith’s veterans all seemed to go over the top at the same time, resulting in the manager losing his job in dubious circumstances to tough old Ron Saunders. Saunders soon shipped Archie off across the Atlantic to Jacksonville Tea Men.
In case you missed it …
My best Blues eleven – Goalkeeper
My best eleven from over forty years of supporting Blues, starting with the last line of defence.
My best Blues eleven – defence
My best eleven from over forty years of supporting Blues, moving on to four at the back.