All too often, football little more than numbers on a page. But what about the stories that sit behind them? The 1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One season will forever be the first one in which a Boro’ side ended up being relegated. But do stats paint the full picture? No-one wants to go down at the end of the campaign. But was this an unlucky event? Or was the writing on the wall for a long time to come? Let’s go behind the numbers to see…
1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One: The context
The 1987-8 campaign was our second at that level; Boro’ winning the Division Two North title in 1986 and, with it, a place in the sixth tier of English football for the first time in our short history. During the first few months of the 1986-7 season, we made a tentative start to life at a higher level. But Boro’ didn’t exactly disgrace ourselves. If anything, heavy defeats would often be levelled out with comprehensive victories.
After a 1-0 win at Maidenhead United on 28 February 1987, however, we embarked on a dire run of form. We failed to win any of our final 14 matches of the campaign; picking up eight measly points from a possible, er, whatever 14 times three is (It’s 42. Ed.). This was enough to set the nerves jangling. In the end, we weren’t exactly clinging on. But just four points separated us in 16th and the bottom four. It was a stark wake-up call.
1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One: As it unfolded…
As the campaign took shape, Boro’ struggled to get a foothold in the form table. It took us four games to register a first win; a 1-0 victory at Marlow on 5 September earning our first three-point haul of the season. But results weren’t awful to the point of being hopeless. If you compare it to our dismal 2019-20 season in which we only bagged three victories all season, we’d reached that total by the end of September 1987.
Between 5 October and 24 November, however, the wins became scarce; seven without victory in the league was our return – although we did draw four of those. So, the wheels hadn’t exactly flown off. But things were now looking a little shakier; Boro’ hovering just above the dreaded relegation places. When Walthamstow Avenue came to us in early December, we were fourth bottom – albeit with games in hand that’d get us back on the straight and narrow. And that’s what we did.
Our defeat to the east London team was our only league outing in four that we didn’t win. Not all bad then. And, after picking up just one point from two fixtures over a quiet festive period, our first game of 1988 saw Boro’ get the better of Worthing at Broadhall Way. So, the panic button didn’t need to be pressed – let alone looked at. You’d have no indication of what was about to unfold. Oh how it was grim…
1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One: The collapse
In simple terms, Boro’ embarked on a run of seven straight league defeats. This included our worst-ever home defeat up to that point as a senior team; our abysmal 7-0 demolition at the hands of Southwick, who were jostling for position with us at that stage! And it was an awful run that saw us score just one goal too; a scant consolation in our 5-1 thrashing at Hampton. We needed points and we needed them fast.
Thankfully, 1988 was a leap year and that meant an extra day in February. Why does this matter? Well, we had a home game against Staines Town pencilled in for the 29th. And it would give us a much-needed and long-awaited three points. It also made sure that we’d be welcoming Bracknell Town the next weekend with us sitting above them in the table – and outside of the relegation zone. The joy would be (sort of) short-lived.
We only say that because The Robins left Broadhall Way with the three points to go back above us in the table. But it’s not like the rot set back in. Boro’ kept picking up points here and there; losing one of the next five and gathering a respectable eight points in doing so.
Then the rot did set back in.
This time, it’d prove fatal to our survival hopes too. April 1988 saw us embark on a run of six league games without a goal. It remains our worst-ever scoreless run. Unlike our last dismal streak in January and Febraury, there wouldn’t be time to undo the damage. We did manage a goalless draw with Oxford City in among that carnage. The other five were all defeats. By the time we played Basildon United on the last day of the season, our fate had been sealed. And our 1-0 away win made no difference to the outcome.
1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One: The aftermath
In the end, we ended up three points adrift of Bracknell Town in the last ‘safe space’. It shows the impact of that home defeat against the Robins less than two months before. It was also a season that saw us lose 22 out of 42 fixtures. We’ll say that no side lost more because, frankly, Wolverton Town were a disaster – losing 36 of their 42, with both Goals Against and Goal Difference column more than 100 in arrears.
Boro’ also scored worst of the rest for Goals For; a total of 36 easily averaging out at less than a goal a game. Uxbridge‘s 41 was the next lowest. Adrian Taylor was our top scorer for the season on a mere nine goals. In total, 18 players contributed to our goal count that season. Even ‘keeper Des Gallagher chipped in with one; perhaps an ominous sign of the troubles in front of goal we were facing. And a lesson we’re still learning to this very day.
The outcome was that Boro’ returned to Division Two North after two seasons in Division One. We’d be searching for a new manager too; John Bailey not returning for the 1988-9 season. He’d only taken up the challenge in October 1987 after Frank Cornwell quit after an AC Delco cup defeat to Chalfont St Peter in September. Cornwell – the man who had got us up to Division One – stepped down as a “victim of his own success”. He’d actually offered to resign before the 1987-8 season after our poor end to the previous campaign.
The change of management did little to help, however.
Brian Williams would be the man tasked with rebuilding Boro’ in Division Two North from the start of the 1988-9 season. And he nearly succeeded in getting us back up; finishing five and six points shy of promotion respectively in his two seasons in charge. It wouldn’t be until Cloughie took charge, however, that we’d finally return to Division One. And how we kicked on afterwards; never experiencing a relegation again until 2014.
With thanks to the Stevenage Football Archive.
Season Details: 1987-8 Vauxhall Opel League Division One