ALBION-THE IRON CURTAIN….AND BEYOND.
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For West Bromwich Albion Football Club, ‘Glasnost’ came in early 1957, when on 26th April of that year. Albion’s then secretary Ephraim Smith, received an invitation from the Football Association, to undertake an arduous, ground-breaking tour of the U.S.S.R. A’mirror-image’ of the Albion’s equally ground-breaking tour of the Peoples Republic of China, which was to take place in May 1978. The tour would be of a 16 days duration, with three matches against Zenit Leningrad, Dynamo Tbilisi and CDSA, otherwise known as the ‘Red Army’. Three of the strongest sides in the Soviet Union at that time.
Sadly, only a handful of those intrepid travellers from the Hawthorns of 1957, survive today, all the rest have passed on to ‘The Hawthorns in the sky’, but their stirring deeds are forever etched in our memory. Jimmy Dudley, Frank Griffin and most recently Sir Bobby Robson,passed away in the last year or so. Only Ray Barlow, Roy Horobin, Maurice Setters, Derek Kevan, Brian Whitehouse, Don Howe, Fred Brown and Stuart Williams survive in 2009, and happily some are still active members of the Former Players Association.
As for the trip, one major problem fore-seen by Mr Smith, was that, as the tour was scheduled to commence on 29th May, it would mean the players returning early from their summer break, and being out of training for a month since the end of the season. This was, as the Albion news reflected, in a later programme tour report, early in the new season, overcome by the players willingness, to undertake such a history breaking commitment.
So it was, that the tour party of 23, resplendent in new suits, especially commissioned for the occasion, gathered at Snow Hill Station, Birmingham, at 9am on 29th May. Included in the party were the Chairman, Major H Wilson-Keys, Directors Jim Gaunt and Sid Sheppard, Manager Vic Buckingham, Trainer Dick Graham and players Ray Barlow, Ronnie Allen, Fred Brown, Jimmy Dudley, Frank Griffin, Roy Horobin, Don Howe, Joe Kennedy, Gordon Lee, Len Millard, Bobby Robson, Jim Sanders, Maurice Setters, Brian Whitehouse and Stuart Williams. They were joined by Eric Woodward, the very popular correspondent with the Birmingham Post. Another noted pressman of the day, Charles Harrold, of the News Chronicle, was to join the‘squad’ at London Heathrow Airport. A notable absentee from the group, was that of Derek Kevan, who was at that time part of the touring England ‘B’ side to Bulgaria, Rumania and Czechoslovakia, and was scheduled to join the Albion party en-route to Russia.
The outward journey to the Soviet Union, was an arduous beginning, to what I have described as an arduous tour, and probably, like nothing any of the players had experienced before. They travelled via Copenhagen and Stockholm, leaving a hot and sticky, Heathrow Airport at 5pm on May 29th, to arrive at a rather colder, Riga Airport, Moscow at 5pm the following day, 30th May. Following a very pleasant, and lavish ‘reception’ in Moscow, the squad then had to endure a ten hour train journey, overnight, to Leningrad, where their first match against Zenit, was to be played. This, the Albion News, was to report, was very traumatic to say the least, and the report’s author, probably Eph Smith, the Secretary, noted “Either the track was faulty, or the axles were worn, and the there was very little sleep for anyone in the party, who were mightily relieved to see daylight.” However, all was well and the group arrived safely in Leningrad, in fine fettle, for their contest against Zenit, which was to be played in the Kirov Stadium, in front of a capacity, partisan crowd of 80,000. Once again, something most, if not all, of the group had never ever experienced. Reporting on that match, Charles Harrold of the News Chronicle, assessed the Zenit side as being ‘Good on the ball’ and probably on a par with a side in the lower half of our first division. He also ‘hailed’ the fact that the ‘man of the match’ was Albion’s number 6, Ray Barlow, who seemingly (Harrolds words, not mine) everyone had heard of , and he (Barlow) was “Heartlty cheered by all of the assembled 80,000 gathered to witness this great occasion.”
Albion’s other hero that day, was un-doubtably Derek ‘the tank’ Kevan. Kevan, having only arrived a few hours before the kick-off, due to his previously described exertions with the England ‘B’ team, appeared as a second half substitute, for the unlucky Roy Horobin, who Harrold reported, “Was not injured”, and scored a brilliant goal to put Albion into the lead. As most of the second half was played in driving rain, good old english conditions, ‘The tank’ would enjoy, it was hardly surprising. Unfortunately, the ‘baggies’ could not hold onto the advantage, and Goolevski equalised for the hosts, to ensure that ‘honours’ were even at the final whistle. A fair result, as Harrold again reflected, and “A great day for Albion.”
In a later Football Monthly interview, Kevan spoke of that summer, in which he would travel around 9,000 miles for club and country. Kevan, also revealed, somewhat sheep-ishly, that he actually joined the albion party, two days later than scheduled, having forgotten his visa in Prague. Oh well, all’s well that ends well, and I’m sure his team mates forgave him, with his efforts against Zenit, and of course the rest of the tour.
Albion’s line-up that day was Brown, Howe, Millard, Setters, Kennedy, Barlow(Capt),Griffin, Robson, Horobin, Allen and Lee. Kevan of course replacing Horobin at half-time. Rather interesting to note, that ALL officials were non-Russian, such was the emphasis that the hosts put on this match as an ‘International’ fixture.
Albion were now big news wherever they went, and were feted by frenzied football fans and press alike.. For the second fixture of the tour, against Dynamo Tbilisi, on the 7th June, the party had to be ‘split’ into two travelling groups, with a five hour gap, in order for the ‘latter’ group to conduct a ‘Good-will’ visit to ‘Imperial Summer Palace of the Tsars’. The Albion News recorded, and I quote, “This group spent the morning talking to groups of Russian people, including young boys. The conversation being entirely possible, as English is taught as a ‘compulsory’ language, in all Russian schools.” This kind of ‘planned’ activity, also gave an indication of the importance the ‘hosts’ attributed to this tour. The Russian public also turned out in there numbers, with an estimated 2000-3000 ‘fans’ turning up to watch Albion’s training sessions, prior to their second fixture at the Dynamo Stadium.
Albion lined up with two changes from the Zenit fixture. Jim Sanders replaced Fred Brown in goal, Stuart Williams came in at left back for Len Millard and Derek Kevan came into the side in place of Gordon Lee, with Horobin switching to the left wing and Ronnie Allen reverting to his customary role at centre-forward. Half-time substitutes for the ‘baggies’ were Jimmy Dudley for Maurice Setters and Brian Whitehouse for Bobby Robson.
The match was played on an intensely hot day, and pre-match reception was described as ‘Incredible’ by the Albion News. The 35,000 capacity crowd, witnessed the Albion players being presented with, what was described as, ‘huge’ bouquets of local flowers, fruits from the region displayed with images of small birds, which would appear to have been the ‘hosts’ attempts to create the ‘Throstle’ image, which it was reported had, “Intrigued them so very much.”
Albion, went into this fixture full of confidence, and it is important to note that Dynamo Tbilisi, were in fact top of the Russian national league, and considered one of the strongest sides in the Soviet Union. The fact, that Albion, were about to brush them aside 3-0, to become the first English side to defeat a Russian side, in Russia, shows the enormity of the result. From the kick-off, Albion made good use of the ‘long ball’ game, which totally confused their opponents. Barlow, Kennedy and Stuart Williams were described as ‘imperious’ in defence, whilst up front, Allen and Kevan, caused the ‘hosts’ rearguard all sorts of problems. The crowd, it was reported, enjoyed Kevan’s bustling style, and Ronnie Allens ‘wanderings’.
Roy Horobin, having one of his best games for Albion, scored the first goal after 16 minutes, and Kevan increased the lead just before the break. Just after the break, Kevan added a third, and it was ‘game over’. 3-0 at the final whistle, an a rather ‘humbling’ refection from ‘the Albion News’ stating “The Albion side were cheered from the pitch by the Russian crowd, it was one of the most wonderful experiences we have ever enjoyed.” Tribute Indeed! Fans also gathered in their thousands at the post match reception to once again show their appreciation of their English visitors.
The final match of the tour was against the Red Army side in Moscow. Yet another long arduous journey for the Albion party. This game was played in the magnificent Lenin Stadium, which had a 103,000 capacity. Once again, the Albion News reporter, enthusiastically, told its 1957 readers, “This magnificent arena has a ‘bewildering’ 1,000 rooms, including 6 large dressing rooms. 30 smaller dressing rooms. No fewer than 14 gymnasiums, 40 buffet bars for spectators (each it was emphasised) with its own refridgerator, 2 cinema halls, an orchestra studio, and an in-built hotel comprising 100 rooms for competitors. WOW!! Press facilities (given this was 50 years ago in 1957) were also magnificent, boasting an impressive in-built Telegraph Office and Post Office, with outside links to 26 countries. Then to add insult to injury (for modern Stadium builders, that is)….this impressive structure was completed in July 1956, and took ALL of one year to build. Reflections indeed for the builders of the new Wembley!!
Albion went into this game, with two main changes, Fred Brown returned to the Goal-keeping slot in place of Jim Sanders, and Brian Whitehouse replaced Bobby Robson. During the game, Ray Barlow became unwell, and was replaced by Jimmy Dudley. One other change, Bobby Robson replaced Brian Whitehouse at half-time. (12th June)
The ‘Baggies’ started brightly enough, but were quickly on the back foot when Maurice Setters unluckily put through his own goal after 15 minutes. Within 5 minutes, Albion were level when Whitehouse headed home a Ronnie Allen cross. After 32 minutes Albion took the lead with the goal of the game. (Younger readers might ask themselves who and where this reminds them of?)…….Derek Kevan picked up a Don Howe pass on the half-way line. Kevan then ploughed his way through the Russian rearguard , beating off two or three defenders to score a truly memorable goal. (Answer…..shades of Cyrille Regis-v-Middlesbrough and Ishmael Miller-v-Preston!!). 3 minutes later a great interchange between Kevan and Whitehouse, resulted in the latter adding Albions third. Unfortunately Albion went to sleep within minutes and Rishkove reduced the arrears. 3-2 at half-time, but once Kevan had added a fourth early in the second half, the result was never in doubt.
So came to an end a truly memorable tour, and it has to be said yet again, to come through it unbeaten against strong Russian opposition was at the very least ‘impressive’. Of course, this was not to be the ‘end of the story’.
On October 29th that year, the Red Army, or CDSA to give them their correct title, re-paid the compliment to play Albion at a packed Hawthorns. 48,000 fans that night witnesses an eleven goal spectacular, with an imperious ‘Baggies’ swamping their Russian opponents 6-5. Hardly ‘swamped’ you might say, but when you read that ‘great man of the press’ Desmond Hackett’s account of the match, which he ‘headlined’ ….”6-5 BUT WEST BROM WALK IT”….and then read on….you will understand how superior Albion were.
Hackett concluded, that only for 30 minutes were the Russians really a threat, before being “swept aside by magnificent Albion” (again Hacketts words….not mine!!)….The crown thrilled to the performance of the ‘England class’ Derek Kevan…’Oh’ ….Hackett be-moaned…..If only he could play like this for England!! Despite being, pushed, pulled and hauled down by the opposition defenders through-out the match, he was superb all night and helped himself to two goals. For the statistics, Don Howe scored Albion’s first goal, equalising Busonovs earlier effort on 17 minutes. Bobby robson put The Baggies ahead, before being ‘pegged’ back no more than a minute later, by a Bubukin equaliser. Frank griffin put Albion ahead again, just before the break, to complete a 3 goals in 5 minutes spell. Ronnie Allen increased Albions lead from the penalty spot just after the break, when the ‘awesome Kevan ‘ was pulled down. Rather remarkably, the same scenario resulted in Allen blasting another ‘spot-kick’ wide of the post, which Hackett ‘reflected’ a just outcome, as the referees decision, he thought to be ‘somewhat harsh’. Busonov, reduced the arrears to 4-3 (you keeping up with this!!) on 66 minutes, before the imperious Derek Kevan put the game beyond doubt with tow goals on 70 and 77 minutes. Still time for a late Russian rally, with goals from the ever dangerous Busonov and another from Emishev. Final score 6-5….entertainment indeed!!!
1st June 1957…..Zenit 1 ALBION 1 Derek Kevan – attendance 80.000
7th June 1957 Dynamo Tbilisi 1 ALBION 3 Derek Kevan 2 Roy Horobin -
12th June 1957 CDSA (Red Army) 2 ALBION 4 Derek Kevan 2 Brian Whitehouse
Frank Griffin - attendance 80,500
29th October 1957….ALBION 6 CDSA (Red Army)…..5
Derek Kevan 2