Many footballers will have to take pay cuts to help their clubs survive during the coronavirus pandemic but, when it comes to making career and financial sacrifices, surely nothing can match the story of the Ashton Gate Eight. Bristol City were struggling to balance the books in the early 1980s and faced the very real threat of extinction. Having been promoted the top tier in 1976 under the management of Alan Dicks, the club’s problems began when players’ contracts changed in 1978.
Previously, players were bound to clubs even after their contracts expired. But new legislation stipulated that players could now leave once their contracts had expired. The selling club would still get a fee, but the ruling changed the footballing landscape.
Gary Collier, an important player at Bristol City, took advantage of the change. “He took his chance to test the new system and walked out,” explained Dicks. “The players who stayed heard he was being offered £500 a week by Coventry, which was certainly more than they were getting, so I went to the board and said we should reward loyalty. We were in the First Division and it was essential to keep our best players.”
Dicks and the board were determined to secure players on long-term deals on relatively decent wages so that there would be no repeat of the Collier move. Clive Whitehead agreed an 11-year contract, with Gerry Gow and Tom Ritchie both signing up for seven years. With average attendances of 19,000 and First Division football, the future looked bright.
“Whitehead, Gow and Ritchie were all put on around £450 a week,” said Dicks. “I didn’t think that was exorbitant for a First Division club.” Maybe not, but the gaping hole in the plan became evident when Bristol City were relegated in 1980. The combination of declining attendances and players on lucrative deals was not a good one for their finances.
On and off the pitch, the club was lurching from one disaster to the next. Dicks was sacked in September 1980 and replaced by Bob Houghton, the English manager who had led Malmö to the European Cup final the year before. Roy Hodgson followed Houghton back from Sweden to work as his assistant, but the pair were unable to prevent a second straight relegation.
The club was spiralling out of control. Houghton left in January 1982 with the club in the relegation zone yet, more importantly, their very existence was in danger. Bristol City were £850,000 in debt, owed the Inland Revenue £100,000, were reportedly losing £4,000 a week and still had to pay transfer money to Newcastle for Mick Harford and Malmö for Jan Möller.
There was seemingly only one way out of the hole: the club would be declared bankrupt, a new club would be formed under a new board and the players who were on long-term deals would be asked to tear up their contracts. Without these measures, the club would die.
Enter the Ashton Gate Eight. Geoff Merrick, Chris Garland, Trevor Tainton, David Rodgers, Gerry Sweeney, Jimmy Mann, Peter Aitken and Julian Marshall were given an ultimatum to end all ultimatums. Either they agreed to have their contracts terminated or the club would fold. No pressure then.
The discussions between the club and players were time-consuming and stressful. With new PFA secretary Gordon Taylor fighting the corner of the players, pressure grew on the eight. They were on deals worth between £20,000 and £25,000 a year, which hardly made them the wealthy footballers of the modern era.
Merrick, who had been at the club for more than 15 years and was the club’s PFA representative, explained the predicament. “We have families and mortgages and are obviously reluctant to give up the protection of our contracts, although we appreciate the seriousness of City’s plight.” Taylor was firm on his position: “It is unfair that the eight should be sacrificed because of the mismanagement of the club over a number of years.”
Initially, the eight players turned down a combined deal worth £58,000 from the club. “How can players be expected to go on the dole so that a club which has been badly handled can be given a second chance?” protested Merrick. But deep down the loyalty of the players involved was always going to pull at their heartstrings.
Merrick, Garland, Tainton, Sweeney and Mann had played more than 200 games each for the club; Merrick, Tainton and Rodgers had been at Bristol City for their entire careers. As much as they wanted to protect themselves, the prospect of seeing the club they loved go under was too much to contemplate.
Another offer of £80,000 was rejected, as the scrutiny on the eight ramped up. “This is positively the last chance,” said Ken Sage, a new member of the board. “I think everyone believes we are kidding, but we are not. We have dug into our own pockets to spread a little extra money around and this is the final offer. If the players don’t take it by noon on Wednesday, the club folds.”
Finally, on 3 February 1982, the Ashton Gate Eight agreed a deal that meant Bristol City would survive. The players put the concerns of the club above their own interests and accepted £10,000 each plus gate receipts from a special testimonial match between Ipswich and Southampton at Ashton Gate that would be held a month later.
“It’s wonderful to see the club survive and tremendously emotional for us at the same time,” said Merrick. “There’s also got to be some bitterness at the way the eight players have almost been held responsible when everyone else seems to blame bad management.”
Taylor was quick to praise them. “My eight members have become sacrificial offerings to keep Bristol City alive. They have handled themselves with so much dignity. Hopefully what has happened here will not happen again.”
Caretaker manager Hodgson battled manfully to keep the club in the Third Division, but to no avail. They went down again, their third relegation in as many seasons. Yet the fact that the club survived was a victory. The match after the good news broke attracted the biggest crowd of the season, with Garland and Aitken among the 9,228 spectators at Ashton Gate for the visit of Fulham.
The players were lauded for their actions, but they had mixed feelings. “We’ve been let down,” said Merrick at the time. “Now I have no job and nothing coming in. I’ll have to go on the dole.” Merrick never played league football again. The business Tainton had been running alongside his football career was pushed into bankruptcy.
A plaque outside Ashton Gate commemorates the role the eight played in saving Bristol City. The sacrifices they made will never be forgotten by supporters of the club, and rightly so. Footballers often received bad press. The Ashton Gate Eight did their best to redress the balance and they saved a football club in the process.