The Original ‘Great Escape’

Lee Morris

Lee Morris

19 min read
Iain Dunne scores a goal - Huddersfield Daily Examiner

The Town faithful often wax lyrical about the Great Escape season of 1997-98, when Peter Jackson returned to the club and performed a Houdini act, rescuing it from certain relegation to Division Two. However, this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. Back in March 1993, former manager Mick Buxton returned to Leeds Road, just over six years since he’d been sacked, to help drag Town out of the mire.


On The Precipice 

Ian Ross had been in charge since March 1992, having been promoted from assistant manager when Eoin Hand was sacked after a run of two wins in 12 games. Ross steered Town into the play-offs, with eight wins from the remaining 12 games, but ultimately lost in the semi-finals to Peterborough United over two legs.

 

Despite failing to gain promotion, Town were expected to have another decent season in 1992-93 and things were looking good, with the playing squad remaining largely unchanged. It was a case of two in, two out, with Lee Martin and Ken O’Doherty leaving the club and Tony Elliott and Kevin Lampkin the only incomings, along with Mick Lyons, who joined as a coach.

 

With very little change in pre-season, Town fans would have been forgiven for expecting another promotion push to ensue. But once the season started, they were brought back down to Earth with a bang. Town lost each of their first six matches, which is still a club record, leaving them rooted to the foot of the table after the third game. In fact, Town would only win three league games between August 15th and January 27th, losing 14 and drawing four out of 21 matches. Perhaps the most shocking of the losses came away at Stockport County, where Town were battered 5-0 in a performance that led Ian Ross to accuse his players of “lacking bottle.”

 

While this was going on, Town were struggling to stay afloat, leading to the departure of long-serving chairman Keith Longbottom. He was replaced by local businessman Graham Leslie in late December, who quickly moved to sack coach Mick Lyons. Leslie made no secret of the fact that Town were cash-strapped and appointed David Taylor and Malcolm Asquith to the board of directors at the beginning of February. Just a week later, it was announced that he’d bought Longbottom out, thus taking over as the club’s majority shareholder, with Longbottom leaving the club after 19 years.

 

On the pitch, it wasn’t until January 27th when the fourth win of the season came, courtesy of a 3-0 home victory over Hartlepool United. This appeared to kick-start the season, with Town going four games unbeaten, securing draws against West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers and a 1-0 win over Bradford City, which saw them move up to 23rd.

 

This turned out to be a flash in the pan as they went another four games without a win and after a 2-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, found themselves 10 points adrift at the foot of the table, on March 3rd. Following the match, watched by just 3,563, the lowest attendance in three years, Ross said, “We need one hell of a run to stay up.” Something had to give.


Buxton Returns

Two days later, amidst news that physio Wayne Jones was leaving the club to return to Notts County, it was announced that former manager Mick Buxton would be making a shock return to Leeds Road to assist Ian Ross for the rest of the season. Buxton had been in the crowd for the Brighton game and was observed making constant notes on what he was witnessing.


 

Ross welcomed him to Leeds Road saying:

 

“Mick has come in to help in whatever way he can, he is the sort of man who relishes a challenge and he’s well aware that we’ve got a big job on here at Leeds Road. Mick’s influence can only do us good, he will provide us with a different perspective on matters and a fresh face with fresh ideas should give everyone a lift. His honesty and vast experience can only be a big benefit.”

 

Buxton, who’d been working as part of Graham Taylor’s England scouting team, spoke to the press upon his appointment:

 

“Yes, it’s nice to be back at Leeds Road. If it wasn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I’ve got lots of memories from years gone by, but what’s important now is the future. Sometimes a new person can bring a few different ideas and I’m happy that Ian asked me to join him. Good players don’t suddenly become bad ones, but the injuries have meant a loss of a quarter of the workforce here, and when that happens it affects any business.”

 

As soon as he arrived, Buxton took charge of training. Iain Dunn recalled his first session when speaking to And He Takes That Chance in 2020:

 

“Mick came in and cracked the whip. Ian had a lot of loyalty towards the players that’d done so well for him, and looking back, I wonder if he was too nice to them in that he couldn’t rollick them because they’d done so well for him, and he knew they were good players and trusted them to turn it around. The first thing, I’ll never forget, we were in the changing room, he came in and introduced himself and straight away when he started talking, I thought, I’m scared of this man. He knows what he’s talking about but there’s a little bit in him that could be a bit psycho here. He got this imaginary axe and he says ‘teams are gonna come here and they’re gonna play against us and they’re going to meet this’ and he picks up the imaginary axe and says ‘we’re at the bottom of the league and the top of the league is going to be bashed through that wall’ and he gets this axe and starts bashing the wall! Basically, the message was that we were going to have to start banging down doors because despite all the nice pretty football we were playing and some good footballers, they weren’t doing it. We were playing nice pretty football and getting beat and Buxton came in and said ‘you’re going to become the most awful, horrible, hard-working team in this league’.”

 

Buxton's Impact

Buxton made an immediate impact as Town gained a point in a 1-1 draw against Rotherham United, their second out of 12. This was followed with a 1-0 win against Fulham midweek, which was just Town’s sixth win of the season.

 

Before the Fulham game, the departing Wayne Jones had been replaced by another familiar face from Town’s past, George McAllister. He’d previously worked as a physio in the 1980s but was now running his own physiotherapy practice in Milnsbridge. The Scotsman returned as consultant on injuries and had plenty to do, with Jon Dyson out with blood poisoning in his right ankle and skipper Peter Jackson with his left ankle in a pot.

 

It seems that this period of the club’s history has been forgotten about, as Buxton is quite rightly recognised for the exploits and successes as manager between 1978 and 1986 but what he did in 1993 is often completely overlooked. Buxton spoke about his second spell at the club in 2018: “I was approached by Ian Ross, we had a long conversation and he invited me to come and assist him.”

 

Bizarrely, he was referred to as “physiotherapist” at the time, something Buxton says was not the case:


“I considered my position to be 1st team coach. I was responsible for the coaching and preparation of the 1st team and wasn’t at any time the physiotherapist. I brought in George McAllister to do the physiotherapy. He had worked for me when I was the manager and he had a private practice in Huddersfield.”

 

With Buxton’s no-nonsense approach and McAllister having a reputation for being a tough taskmaster, it seems that this is exactly what Town needed at this point.

 

The day before Town were due to take on Mansfield Town away, the club were rocked by the resignation of chairman Graham Leslie, who had only taken over the reins in December. Ill health had forced him out and he was replaced by Terry Fisher, who became the youngest chairman in The Football League at just 30 years old.

 

A day later, Town picked up another three points, winning 2-1, though it wasn’t without incident. After a poor first half in which they were losing 1-0, Mick Buxton delivered one of his famous rollickings and Town came out for the second half looking like a different side.

 

For a team that had struggled to buy a win all season, everything was turned on its head as Town won another two consecutive games, with victories over Preston North End (1-0) and Blackpool (5-2), the latter lifting Town from 23rd to 20th, the first time they’d been out of the drop zone all season.

 

“We could have had more!”, declared Ian Ross after the Blackpool game but admitted that a few months ago things could have been different:

 

“A month ago, we would have folded after going 1-0 down. But instead we deflated them when it counted and with Gary Barnett magnificent in midfield, we should have won by an even bigger margin.”

 

Since Buxton’s arrival at the club, Town had picked up 13 points from a possible 15 before they travelled to Port Vale. Town hadn’t won five on the bounce since 1984, and no points for guessing who the manager was at that time.

 

Before the game, Ross was full of praise for his right-hand man:

 

“A lot of credit goes to Mick Buxton. He’s not only given me a lift but he’s given the players a lift as well, and all of a sudden they appear to be working harder and getting the luck that they deserve.”

 

Town went down 1-0 at Vale Park and followed that up with a 1-1 draw with Burnley at Leeds Road which saw them slip back down to 23rd. Despite only getting the draw, Ross was encouraged and signalled a warning to Town’s relegation rivals, declaring “We fear no one!.”

 

Ross was right. Town got back to winning ways at Leeds Road, with a 3-1 win over Plymouth Argyle to end the month of March on a positive. Iffy Onuora hailed the impact of Mick Buxton in the programme:

 

“Mick has made a big difference—just like Ian Ross did when he first came to the club. Someone from outside can assess the team from a new standpoint and I think he has helped to give us a lot more shape and discipline on the park.”

 

The end of March had also seen the arrival of Mark Cooper on loan from Fulham. He would prove to be an inspired signing between then and the end of the season.


Safety At Last

April began with a 1-0 win at Fulham on a Friday night. Town climbed out of the drop zone once again, settling in 18th place. A 1-0 win over Stoke City at Leeds Road the following Tuesday saw them move up to the dizzy heights of 16th—their highest position all season. A 2-1 loss away to Preston North End followed, which bizarrely saw Town’s players don tracksuit bottoms under their shorts and socks, due to Deepdale’s plastic pitch, though Town only fell to 18th place, just a point above the drop zone.

 

After wins over Wigan and Chester and a defeat to Swansea City, Town faced Hull City on April 24th at Leeds Road, which was an opportunity to secure the club’s Division Two status. A 3-0 victory, with goals from Charlton, O’Regan, and Starbuck did just that.

“Town Are Safe Now” screamed The Examiner, something that would have seemed ridiculous just 47 days before when Town sat in 23rd looking up at the rest of the division (bar Chester). For the final two games, Town had seemingly nothing to play for, but Ross disagreed:

 

“Whilst we appear to have reached comparative safety, there will be no let up in our efforts to accumulate more points. We might be 15th in the table going into today’s game but I, for one, still wish to finish higher than that.”

 

He didn’t get his wish but did get two more victories, 2-1 over both Exeter City and Stockport County, with Town finishing in 15th place. Such a finish had been unimaginable just three months earlier.

 

Peter Jackson, taking part in Boothy’s Beer & Banter recently, was complimentary about Buxton’s involvement:


“He was an amazing coach. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He was strange at times, but he was brilliant. He never smiled, he never said you’d played well and never gave you credit but he got us organised. He was a terrific manager and a great coach.”

 

Iain Dunn agreed: “If he hadn't come in, we’d have probably played lovely football and got relegated.”

 

Defender Neil Parsley made a similar point:

 

“When Mick Buxton came in, he emphasised that we needed to get some solid shape into the side. We were always good enough, but we just had to prove that by holding our shape and playing to our assets. I think we’ve done that with only the odd exception, and it’s been tremendous to give the fans something to cheer about because they’ve been fantastic and stuck with us all through the season.”

 

Ian Ross ended his programme notes for the Stockport game by saying, “We have a score to settle. I, for one, still remember a cold Friday night at the end of October. The defeat at Edgeley Park was embarrassing and needs putting right. What better way to end the season than with another win.”

 

Ross got his wish as Town beat them 2-1 with goals from Mark Cooper and Gary Barnett. The season was over. Following the game, Ross paid tribute to Buxton: “Mick has had a tremendous influence on everybody here. The players have responded brilliantly, and it was great to finish the season on that sort of note.”

 

In the subsequent week, it was announced that talks were underway to extend Buxton’s stay, with Ross expressing his wish for him to remain:

 

“I would like Mick to stay with the club and I’m sure everybody else would as well. It’s all part of planning for next season—work which began as soon as the Stockport match finished and I would like Mick to continue along with the physio George McAllister and youth coach George Mulhall.”


Fallout 

While this was going on, Buxton was away with the England U21 side, acting as assistant to Lawrie McMenemey. Ian Ross was looking forward to the new season as well

 

“If we resume action showing the same form with which we finished the season then obviously we will have a lot more wins to our name and we’ll be a lot nearer to challenging for prizes.”

 

In the close season, Buxton agreed to stay at the club and was due to sign the contract after he returned from holiday. However, he sensationally quit on 6th July, opting to join Sunderland as Terry Butcher’s assistant manager, much to the surprise of the Town board.

 

At the time, Terry Fisher said:

 

“Just before Mick Buxton went on holiday, we agreed a new contract with him. When we spoke yesterday, Mick claimed he had received an offer to be part of Terry Butcher’s management team, an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. I spent most of yesterday trying to persuade him to change his mind, but I got the impression that whatever we offered wouldn’t be enough to make him stay.”

 

Buxton explained:

 

“It’s an offer that I feel I can’t turn down and I think I have done everything possible to keep the Town chairman fully in touch with developments.”

 

This rumbled on in the press. Buxton denied Fisher’s version of events:

 

“Huddersfield have said that I dropped a bombshell when I returned from holiday. But I spoke with Mr. Fisher at approximately 3:45pm on Friday 25th June before I went on holiday and told him that I had received a very good offer from another club. This gave both me and Huddersfield the opportunity to think about this while I was away.”

 

Buxton also denied that Town had made any attempts for him to stay once Sunderland’s offer had come through:

 

“When I discussed a new contract with Town I insisted on a clause guaranteeing my release if another club made me an offer I wished to accept. I didn’t sign a new contract and wouldn’t have done without that clause. Following my return from holiday when I informed Huddersfield Town that I would be taking up the coaching job at Sunderland, they didn’t offer me another penny; nor a longer contract. Huddersfield Town should now give manager Ian Ross support—the correct support. Bring someone in to work alongside him. They can go on to be successful and win and win. I hope they do, and I hope they have a terrific season.”


Town fans laid the blame at the board’s door, with many of them supporting the idea of appointing Buxton as manager. Fanzine Hanging on the Telephone lamented the club for offering him a 1-year deal as assistant to Ross and questioned Ross’s credentials for the job. They harboured no ill will to him but were of the opinion that Buxton should have replaced him.

 

Just days later, George McAllister also decided to leave the club and just days after his departure, Ian Ross departed as well, just a week on from Buxton’s exit. Ross reflected:

 

“I feel that because of events in the past couple of weeks it’s in the best interests of Town that I go. I’ve told the players what I expect of them. They are very capable of achieving success this season and I wish the club all the best.”

 

The official line was that Ross had resigned, though he revealed in 2018 that he was pushed and the arrival of Neil Warnock just 24 hours later suggests this to be true.

 

As seems typical with football, and Huddersfield Town in particular, after experiencing the high of staying up in style and the excitement of what could happen in the coming season with Buxton back at the club, Town and the fans were brought back to reality just weeks later.

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