Coventry City 2-2 Bristol City and Everton 2-0 Sunderland (partially found footage of Football League First Division matches; 1977)
On 19th May 1977, Coventry City hosted Bristol City for a Football League First Division match at Highfield Road. On the same day, Sunderland travelled to Goodison Park to play Everton. Sunderland ultimately lost this match 2-0. Meanwhile, on the last day of the season, and with both clubs battling to avoid relegation, the Coventry-Bristol match became infamous when both sides stopped competing for victory with five minutes remaining, as the 2-2 result ensured their survival at Sunderland's expense. Most footage from both fixtures is believed to be lost.
Heading into the 1976-77 First Division fixture, the battle to avoid relegation had heated up between Sunderland, Bristol City, and Coventry City. All three teams along with Stoke City were on 34 points each, with Coventry in the relegation spots alongside Stoke and already-relegated Tottenham Hotspur due to the side's inferior goal difference. Sunderland travelled to face Everton, while the two city clubs competed at Coventry's Highfield Road. To avoid relegation, Sunderland simply needed to draw or rely upon Bristol or Coventry being victorious in their game. Bristol held the advantage over Coventry, as a draw would guarantee their survival. For Coventry, a win was a must if Sunderland were also victorious. However, both sides could avoid relegation with a draw if Sunderland lost. Stoke, who had already played their 42 games heading into 19th May, technically could survive if Sunderland and Coventry/Bristol suffered heavy defeats, but this was wishful thinking at best. Everton were assured of a mid-table finish, though could climb as high as ninth with a win.
Under normal circumstances, the Everton-Sunderland and Coventry-Bristol matches should have commenced simultaneously. This would have prevented possible match-fixing, with Bristol and Coventry being forced to achieve victory amid uncertainty of the Sunderland result. The Goodison Park fixture went ahead without incident. However, problems arose when around 10,000 Bristol fans made their way towards Highfield Road, with many delayed by heavy traffic in the West Midlands. Thus, it became apparent that many fans would congregate outside the stadium, in a period where crowd trouble in English fixtures was rife. A decision was made to hold back kick-off for several minutes, allowing the 36,892 in-attendance to enter the ground relatively safely. However, this gave Coventry and Bristol a tactical advantage over the Black Cats; now that their match would end considerably after the Sunderland game, both teams could react accordingly based on the result at Goodison Park. The decision was further questionable, considering 36,075 attended the Everton-Sunderland game without that fixture needed a delay.
Everton vs Sunderland
With a considerable proportion of the 36,075 at Goodison Park travelling from Wearside, Sunderland began on the attack, seeking a victory to guarantee their survival. But while the club started strongly, they conceded a free-kick after ten minutes. The resulting kick enabled Everton's Bob Latchford to land a header past Sunderland goalkeeper Barry Siddall to make it 1-0. The Black Cats immediately attempted an equaliser, first narrowly missing from a Mel Holden header, and a subsequent one from Jackie Ashurst following a corner. The best opportunity prior to half-time arose from Holden, as following a pass from Joe Bolton, managed to outpace the Everton defence and fire a strong shot, which was ultimately saved by Everton goalkeeper Dai Davies. Alas, half-time ended with the Toffees 1-0 ahead.
Sunderland proved aggressive in their pursuit of an equaliser. Despite opportunities arising via Shaun Elliot and Bob Lee, the Everton defence maintained their resilience. After 80 minutes, Bolton's powerful shot was saved by Davies, prompting Gary Rowell to attempt a rebound shot. Ultimately, Davies captured the ball before Rowell could reach it. Now in added time, Sunderland realised that the current result would put their fate out of their hands, and so made the decision to place everyone bar Siddall forward, especially as the ball was crucially in the Everton half. This decision backfired in the ninth minute of added time; during a clearance, Bruce Ricoh obtained the ball, beating a chasing defence before firing the ball past Siddall to achieve a 2-0 win. Initially, Sunderland fans were unconcerned, as a tannoy announced Coventry had defeated Bristol. Little did anyone in attendance realise that a correction was going to be needed.
Coventry City vs Bristol City
Meanwhile, 36,892 attended the Highfield Road clash. Coventry, understanding they needed to immediately chase the game, adopted aggressive attacking tactics, which paid off after 15 minutes. Mick Coop took a free-kick, delivering a shot that Bristol City goalkeeper John Shaw saved, only for it to rebound into the path of an opportunistic and unmarked Tommy Hutchison. Bristol nearly equalised before the break; one highlight saw a pass from Bristol's Donnie Gillies be tactically let through by Terry Yorath. This almost backfired as Yorath let it slide towards an unprepared Les Sealey, the goalkeeper witnessing the ball just barely go wide to the goal. Despite these close calls, Coventry led 1-0 at half-time, Bristol now in danger of facing relegation. However, morale was boosted upon news Sunderland was losing 1-0 to Everton, and if that result stood, Bristol would only need a goal to survive.
However, seven minutes into the second-half, Coventry doubled their lead when a rebounded shot from Barry Powell was again capitalised on by Hutchison, achieving a crossbar-deflected goal. Bristol needed a comeback, and that was partly achieved a minute later. Gilles obtained the ball, and found Gerry Gow, the later scoring a 12-yard stunner to make it 2-1. While now fired-up, Bristol did suffer a setback when forward Clive Whitehead became injured, forcing his substitution. Nevertheless, Bristol persevered, and a header from Chris Garland was met with a strike from Gilles to level proceedings after 79 minutes. If this result stood, Bristol would be assured of survival, pressurising Coventry back on the assault. However, after 85 minutes had been played at Highfield Road, the teams suddenly learned that Sunderland had lost the Everton game 2-0. It was reported by The Daily Mirror that Coventry's managing director, Jimmy Hill, had urgently requested that the Sunderland result be displayed on the scoreboard. The scoreboard initially stated the match ended 1-0, forcing a prompt correction to 2-0. The result was also announced over the tannoy system.
With this new knowledge, both teams realised they could simply stop playing and guarantee mutual survival. Hence, when Bristol began passing the ball within its its own half, Coventry did not intervene. The game therefore ended 2-2, condemning Sunderland to the Second Division and triggering violent celebrations that resulted in 20 fans being arrested. Naturally, Sunderland were furious with this supposed match-fixing, though a complaint lodged to the Football League yielded little more than a mere reprimand towards Coventry and Hill. To this day, significant blame from Sunderland is placed on Hill, for not only making the scoreboard request, but also allegedly being responsible for the tie's delay. Hill maintained that it was the referee who decided to delay the start. The match has since been compared to the West Germany-Austria group match at the 1982 FIFA World Cup, where both teams stopped competing with West Germany 1-0 ahead, as the result would allow them to both progress over Algeria.
Footage from these fixtures are scarce, although the reasons behind this remain clear. Prior to 1983, Football League matches were seldom broadcast on television live, because the Football League was concerned that regular coverage would considerably reduce stadium attendances. Despite this, cameras were present at the games, capturing footage for news reports that aired game highlights. About two minutes of footage from the Coventry-Bristol game, sourced from news reports and documentaries, can be viewed online. However, the uncut tape, as well as clips of the controversial last five minutes, remain publicly inaccessible. A similar situation affects the Everton-Sunderland game, with less than a minute of footage currently available.
- Bristol Post documenting the Coventry-Bristol game 40 years on. Retrieved 20th May '23
- The Guardian summarising the Coventry-Bristol game and alleging Hill was responsible for the game's delay. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Roker Report summarising the Everton-Sunderland match and how the result triggered the truce between Coventry and Bristol. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Liverpool Echo summarising the two matches and comparing the controversy to the West Germany-Austria 1982 FIFA World Cup match. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Archived Statto detailined the 1976-77 First Division table heading into the final fixtures. Retrieved 20th May '23
- 11 vs 11 detailing the result and attendance of the Everton-Sunderland game. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Singers to Sky Blues detailing the traffic issues that contributed to the the Coventry-Bristol game being delayed. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Bleacher Report detailing football hooliganism in English football from the 1960s to the 1990s. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Besoccer summarising the result and attendance of the Coventry-Bristol match. Retrieved 20th May '23
- 20th May 1977 issue of The Times reporting on the Coventry-Bristol match. Retrieved 20th May '23
- 20th May 1977 issue of The Guardian reporting on the Coventry-Bristol match. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Archived Statto detailing the 1976-77 First Division table following the fixtures. Retrieved 20th May '23
- 20th May 1977 issue of The Coventry Telegraph reporting on the crowd trouble following the Coventry-Bristol game. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Coventry City: The Elite Era : a Complete Record noting Hill's claim that the referee delayed the Coventry-Bristol start. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Besoccer documenting the Disgrace of Gijon, a match compared to the Coventry-Bristol game. Retrieved 20th May '23
- Football 365 detailing why live coverage of Football League matches seldom occurred prior to 1983. Retrieved 20th May '23