When did a Brentford team overcome opposition who had been inspired by a pre-match pep talk from legendary ex-Liverpool boss Bill Shankly?
The answer to that was in March 1979 when a trip to Tranmere’s Prenton Park brought together two teams who both needed a touch of encouragement to buck up their ailing fortunes. An air of despondency hung over the home team who went into the game having just sold their prized asset and folk-hero Ronnie Moore after their powerful goal-getter had been sold to Cardiff City for £130,000, much to the chagrin of Rovers supporters.
Brentford, meanwhile, were on a dreadful run of results away from home and had gone 18 away games and eleven months since tasting victory on foreign soil, with the poor sequence of results threatening to catapult the club back into the Fourth Division they had left at the end of the previous season.
Bill Dodgin’s team included just two new faces from the 1978 promotion-winning campaign and one of them, Jim McNichol, was to play a major part in helping his team to end the depressing run and secure the first away victory of the season.
The “crowd” was swelled by a healthy contingent from West London, the majority of whom travelled up to Liverpool Lime Street on the 10:30 from Euston and the fare of £6.50 generously included double-decker bus transportation for the four-and-a-half mile journey from the station to Tranmere’s ground! The ‘crowd’ would have been better described as a small gathering as just 1,882 people were scattered around the ground leaving Bill Dodgin to reflect afterwards, “It makes you wonder why we bother to play at all if only 1,800 spectators turn up to watch, there was no atmosphere whatsoever.”
The ploy of calling in Merseyside legend Shankly to rally the home troops failed miserably and the affair was already a dismal and depressing event by the time the afternoon’s main talking point arose in the 27th minute. Bees ‘keeper Len Bond came to collect an innocuous-looking cross and accidentally clashed heads with Rovers defender Denis Postlewhite. The home player suffered no ill effect but Bond was unable to continue and having been stretchered from the field, left Dodgin facing a goalkeeping dilemma. With no substitute ‘keeper available back in those days, most fans would have expected the versatile Paul Shrubb to don the gloves but surprisingly it was record transfer-signing and influential central defender Jim McNichol who pulled on the number one jersey. The big Scotsman explained the decision after the match,
“I hadn’t played in goal since my schooldays with St George’s of Glasgow and Shrubby was all set to take over – he normally goes in goal if our keeper is injured. But Tranmere had a lot of big lads and as Shrubby is fairly short I decided that it would be best if I went in, especially as I’d got at least some experience. I thought at first that Bondy was only going to be off for about 10 minutes so we played with 10 men with Andy McCulloch coming back to fill my position in the middle of the defence. But then suddenly, I realised I was going to be in goal for the whole game!”
Initially Tranmere tried vainly to capitalise on the presence of the rookie ‘keeper but some stout defending and, at times, unorthodox goalkeeping from McNichol, kept the hosts at bay until the hosts’ initiative was lost and the match settled back into a routine, hum-drum affair and certainly not one for the footballing connoisseur to savour.
Brentford, searching for that first away victory, had already threatened in the second half when a thumping header from Pat Kruse rebounded off the crossbar but in the 73rd minute came the goal which rewarded the Bees supporters for their long journey to the north-west.
Dave Carlton took a superb free-kick and his lofted ball into the penalty-box was headed goalwards by the towering Andy McCulloch. The ‘keeper parried the ball but it fell nicely to substitute Allan Glover whose squared, low cross from the bye-line was prodded home at close range by Steve Phillips.
The little striker had endured a tricky season following his golden-boot-winning 36 goals during the previous campaign and the strike was only his fifth in 31 games but more markedly, the match was his 100th consecutive first-team game in a Brentford shirt and the winning goal provided the perfect celebration for the occasion.
The victory proved to be a turning point in Brentford’s season and a much better run of results thereafter secured Division Three status with half a dozen games still remaining. By the time Bees supporters filed out of Prenton Park at the end of the game, by that stage almost outnumbering the remaining few home fans, McNichol took centre-stage as the toast of the afternoon and he revealed later how he had coped,
“It was a bit of a change for me. I didn’t have all that much to do really and didn’t have too many direct shots to save but I did drop a few of the crosses that came over! It was a great relief to finally win our first away match for more than 10 months. We played quite well and the result has naturally cheered us.”