JEFF Astle would have celebrated his 76th birthday last week. Yet for Albion fans he will forever be 26.
On May 18, 1968 Jeff Astle was to score the greatest, most famous, most celebrated goal of his life.
To his family, he remains the father, grandfather and husband so cruelly taken away at just 59-years-old. To Albion fans he forever remains the King. Both arms raised, head turned, checking for the arrival of his joyous team-mates.
To Tony Brown he was a team-mate, a room mate and a best man.
The story starts with Jeff Astle, the man.
Bomber was perhaps Jeff’s closest friend.
“He was a wonderful man – the best around,” recalls Bomber.
“Best man, room-mate for 12 years – he was just an outstanding man.
“I was his ‘butler’. I had to make his tea in the morning, get his breakfast ordered. Like Morecambe and Wise. He was a one-off character.
“He was so bubbly, laugh a minute, never took himself seriously off the field, but on the pitch he was a different man altogether.”
Talking to the Class of 68 leaves you in no doubt any look-back at Astle’s career would be incomplete without stories of japery and high jinks.
Bomber remembers a man who could be ruthless off the field – in a good way, of course.
Shoes lying around would be nailed to the ground. New clothing would be cut up. Vulnerabilities would be seized upon. Nobody was safe. The dressing room culture sculpted by Astle preceded Soccer AM’s strained ‘banter’ by about 30 years. This was football, 1960s style.
Nobody, claims the Baggies record appearance holder, was safe from the potential comical wrath of Astle.
And woe betide anyone who left their car keys lying around.
Tony Brown remembers one particularly lucrative-but-costly trip to the bookmakers during a pre-season trip to Bournemouth, which left one particular journalist less than impressed.
“Jeff loved a bet and the one time we were in Bournemouth for some games,” recalls Bomber.
“Jeff had a tip off about a horse from one of the lads at Bournemouth and so he desperately needed to get to the bookies quick. There was no way for us to get there easily from our hotel but Jeff noticed Ray Matts (then Birmingham Mail reporter) had a car.
“Mattsy was a great guy – in fact we used to call him the ‘assistant manager’ because he was always hanging around with the team – and he was up for a laugh but I don’t think he was too impressed on this occasion.
“Jeff asked if me and him could use his car to drive to the bookies. Mattsy, being Mattsy, said yes.
“Everything had gone swimmingly – the horse came in and Jeff was quids in.
“We were driving back to the hotel and waiting at the traffic lights when all of a sudden this wagon came around the corner and a huge parcel fell off the back and bounced straight onto the car, causing a massive dent on Mattsy’ front bonnet.
“I just looked at Jeff and wondered ‘what’s Mattsy going to say…’
“Anyway, so we arrived back at the hotel in Mattsy’s dented car, Jeff got out and stuck fivers up his nose, out of his ears and hanging out of his pockets. Typical Jeff.
“All the lads, including Mattsy, were laughing…until Mattsy looked out of the window and spotted the state of his car. He went berserk.
“Jeff just leaned over and said ‘Don’t worry Mattsy…send the bill to me and I’ll get it fixed’. And he did.”
Yet Astle is known more for causing more damage to opposition goals, rather than journalist’s company cars.
Wembley 1968 is where Astle ensured his place in Albion iconography.
The left-foot strike, the smile, the raised arms, the celebrations. Those gates you see outside The Hawthorns – all thanks to this particular day.
Bomber recalls the day Albion won the cup.
“For all Jeff liked a laugh and a joke off the field, he was totally different on the pitch,” said Bomber.
“You didn’t joke around on the pitch when Jeff was there.
“We had a bit of luck early on in that cup run. There was great spirit and camaraderie in the camp. Jeff scored in every round and was the talisman. He fancied himself to score in most games but in those cup games there was something special about him – he knew he’d score.
“He demanded full commitment from everyone. During the week Jeff would make you laugh, cry with laughter and drive you mad with his gags. But on a Saturday he demanded everything from you. And he had a few tussles with defenders, let me tell you. There was one lad at Sheffield Wednesday – Jeff split his nose by accident.
“His elbow caught him…so this player had to go off to stop the bleeding. He came back on, went straight to Jeff and said ‘I’m going to break you ******* leg’.
“So Jeff played that deep playing role – which now we’d call the no10. I think Jeff invented that role, without realising…
“But the final was his moment.”
The FA Cup Final of 1968 wasn’t a classic.
Bomber recalls the third minute of extra time.
“Jeff ran forward with the ball – it hit Graham Lovett on the backside – people think it hit Labone, but it didn’t.
“It came back to his ‘swinger’ – his left foot – and Jeff hit it. The ball just flew into the top corner. The goalkeeper had no chance. As everyone knows that was all we needed. That finished his run of scoring a goal in every match. It was a great goal to win a football match.”
Bomber, who has played in and watched more Albion games as a radio summariser than is seemingly humanly possible, misses his pal.
“I say it a lot…there will never ever be another Jeff Astle. He was special.”