New feature continues with look back at our second season in Division Three.
- Harry McNally takes charge for first full season.
- Latics finish seven points and three places better off than previous campaign, in 15th.
- Influx of youth begins as Latics rebuild following financial trouble.
With the club’s financial predicament growing, Latics lost multiple key players in the summer of 1983 with John McMahon leaving to join Tranmere Rovers, Jimmy Weston and Les Bradd retiring and Eamonn O’Keefe making the move to Port Vale.
Replacements came in the form of Alex Bruce, who signed after two spells with Preston North End, Paul Comstive, who joined after progressing through the ranks at Blackburn Rovers, and Steve Taylor who signed after three years with Burnley.
Steve Taylor signed for Latics from Burnley and went on to top score in the season, notching ten in all competitions before moving to Stockport County in March.
The season began with two difficult fixtures against two of the promotion favourites in Plymouth Argyle and Oxford United.
McNally’s side gained a point in a goalless draw at Home Park on the opening day before they were defeated 2-0 at home to Oxford United a week later, with the U’s eventually going on to win the Third Division, just losing seven of their 46 games.
A few days later, Latics surrendered a half-time lead thanks to a Taylor goal to allow Gerry Francis’ Exeter City to leave Springfield with a point before a long trip to the south coast to face Bournemouth saw Latics run out 1-0 winners thanks to a Peter Houghton goal, extending an unbeaten run that would stretch to nine league games.
Two new signings continued Latics’ early season progress as Taylor and Bruce were on the mark to turn around a half-time deficit against Brentford at Springfield with Latics moving up to 12th in the table.
Away assignments at Sheffield United and Port Vale followed, with both returning draws as David Lowe and Alex Cribley notched to give McNally’s side a 2-0 half-time lead at Bramall Lane in front of nearly 11,000 before late goals from Keith Edwards and Tony Kenworthy earned the Blades a point. The clash at Vale Park ended 1-1 with former Latic O’Keefe, on his first appearance against his former club, saw his second half penalty saved by Roy Tunks after Bruce had given Latics a first-half lead, which was cancelled out by Russell Bromage.
Alex Bruce notched his second goal of the season to give Latics the lead in a 1-1 draw at Vale Park.
10 points from seven games was a solid return and Latics continued their unbeaten run with a third consecutive draw when Hull City visited Springfield at the start of October as Taylor’s penalty cancelled out Andy Flounders 72nd minute opener in what would be Peter Houghton’s last game for the club.
In his programme notes for the next fixture, a 2-0 win over Lincoln City thanks to another Taylor penalty and Paul Comstive’s first goal for the club, McNally said the departure was “regrettable” as Peter was “a great servant to the club and the last link with the club’s non-league days.”
Latics forward Peter Houghton moved to Preston North End in October 1983 and made his home debut in a 3-2 defeat against Harry McNally’s side.
Houghton would make his Deepdale debut in a 3-2 defeat to Latics as McNally’s side made their way up to sixth in the Third Division with goals from Taylor, Bruce and Neil Bailey contributing to the success with former Latic Joe Hinnigan on the mark for the hosts.
A goalless draw up at Glandford Park against Scunthorpe United followed before Latics began to lose ground on any hopes of a promotion challenge in their next four games as Gillingham and Orient ran away from Springfield with three points whilst trips to Burnley and Millwall also proved fruitless.
After McNally labelled the defeat the Den as Latics’ worst performance of the season, Latics bounced back to edge a five-goal thriller with Wimbledon with all goals coming in the second-half.
Kevin Langley’s first goal of the season as the winner after Bruce added a fifth to his league tally and Graham Barrow was also on the mark.
Kevin Langley, who opened his account for the campaign in the 3-2 win over Wimbledon at Springfield, pictured against Burnley.
Five defeats followed that win over the Dons, though as 1-0 home defeats to Walsall and local rivals Bolton Wanderers were dissected by a 5-3 defeat at Newport County (goals from Taylor, Steve Walsh – his first for the club and David Lowe), Southend United and Bradford City (goals from John Butler and Lowe).
Back in 19th place, the New Year’s Eve visit of Rotherham United was crucial and McNally’s programme notes bemoaned the fact Latics have to score two goals to win a game at a minimum due to defensive errors. That proved to be the case again as Taylor and Bruce struck to earn a 2-1 win over the Millers.
Wins over Bradford City and Whitby Town earlier in the season had secured a place in the Third Round of the FA Cup with a trip to West Ham United the reward. The first game of 1984 was the clash with the Hammers and it took a Ray Stewart penalty, after Cribley had handled, to split the two sides at Upton Park.
Official matchday programme from Latics’ clash with First Division West Ham United at Upton Park.
Three weeks after the win over Rotherham United, Latics were back in league action for a trip to Brentford as a second-half strike from Comstive and a first clean sheet in eleven games helped McNally’s side to their first double of the campaign. Trips to Orient and Hull City, who would miss out on promotion due to goals scored, returned just a point and when Sheffield United, the team that pipped the Tigers to promotion, arrived at Springfield five weeks after the previous home fixture, Latics knew they needed points.
The visit of the Blades will be remembered for the debut of Steve Johnson, who McNally signed from Bury for £20,000, with the burly striker notching twice and causing all sorts of problems for the United backline as Latics ran out 3-0 winners with Barrow also on target.
Steve Johnson celebrates with Graham Barrow after the pair put Sheffield United to the sword at Springfield.
Over 7,500 were in at Springfield the following Saturday as Lancashire rivals Burnley were also defeated with Barrow again on the mark for his third of the season.
Latics were smashed 3-0 at Gillingham to end February on a low but the impressive Johnson made it four in four as his first-half double proved enough to defeat a Scunthorpe United side that would fail to register an away all season.
Five points were accumulated out of the next possible nine for Latics with Millwall and Wimbledon both sharing the spoils with McNally’s side before another Barrow goal downed Lincoln City and edged Latics even closer to safety in 16th with 14 games to play.
In his 16th appearance for the club, the next player to open his Latics account was Tony Kelly who, after a spell at right back, had been moved into midfield by McNally with his first goal coming in a 3-1 defeat at Bournemouth and his second four days later in a 1-0 win in a home derby with Preston North End.
The centre-spread of the Latics programme for the home clash with Port Vale featured Tony Kelly with the left picture showing his free-kick that downed Preston a week earlier.
High-flying Bristol Rovers defeated Latics 2-1 at the Memorial Ground before Butler’s double and a Lowe strike earned a 3-0 victory over Port Vale at Springfield.
A five-game unbeaten run then steered McNally’s side well clear of the relegation zone, quite an achievement given the pre-season financial situation, with Newport County and Bolton defeated along with draws
with Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol Rovers.
The penultimate home game of the season saw Bradford City win 1-0 at Springfield before defeats against Walsall and Rotherham United signalled an early holiday perhaps for the players.
However, that mentality was soon quashed as McNally’s side defeated a Southend United outfit, who needed to win on the last day to stand any chance of survival, 1-0 thanks to a Lowe strike.
The campaign finished with a testimonial for Kenny Banks and Duncan Colquhoun, both non-league stalwarts for Latics, with a Larry Lloyd XI, including John Robertson, John O’Hare and Martin O’Neill, taking on Latics.
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