For any team or player, injuries are sadly part and parcel of the game of football, and have been right from the first day the game was played. But some players are luckier than others, some get through careers barely missing a game, others lose months, even whole seasons, to a variety of problems, some picked up on the field, others off it.
Graham Lovett was a gifted young footballer who found his career decimated by lengthy, interminable spells on the sidelines, a devastating blow to a footballer who, in his youth, was compared with the great Duncan Edwards of Manchester United, the Busby Babe who lost his life in the snows of Munich. No idle press comment that either, but praise from the lips of his first Albion manager, Jimmy Hagan, not a man who resorted to lavish praise when a rollocking would do instead.
A late developer, Lovett initially trained for a career in accountancy, plans that were dashed when his father died while Graham was studying for his A levels. Needing to go out and get work, Lovett accepted Albion’s offer of an apprenticeship, turned professional in November 1964 and made his first team debut within three weeks as Albion lost 2-0 at home to Chelsea.
Jeff Farmer, now an Albion director, then a journalist who covered the Baggies in detail, was an early admirer of the youthful Lovett and wrote a profile of him as he was making his way into the Albion side, a profile that mentioned his mode of transport and the role it played in Lovett acquiring his nickname, “Shuv”. “Graham drives an eight year old car which cost him £150 – and gets his leg pulled by the first teamers about the number of times it needs “a shove”.” Lovett also showed himself to be a sensible and sensitive youngster, wondering if all that early promise would come to anything.
“It’s great to be in the first team and playing with the big names against the big names, but there is a nagging feeling which make me wonder whether you deserve the praise, and whether it’s going to last. And I am really lost when they start talking about Duncan Edwards or Ray Barlow, neither of whom I ever saw play. But once the game starts, it’s all different. The stars often seem quite ordinary when it’s under way. And I never have time to worry about the reputations of the opposition”.
Lovett had established himself in the team in the 1965/66 season, playing in the first leg of the Football League Cup Final at West Ham, and becoming a central figure in Albion’s plans. But all of that was wrecked on Christmas Eve, 1966, when he was involved in a car accident on the M1. Lovett said later, “I was driving to London to visit friends. When I woke up in hospital it was to find my neck chained back so that I had only the ceiling to look at. I was horrified. I didn’t care about the pains. All that mattered was my career and when they told me about the fracture, I was shattered. I never really gave up hope. Yet I could see myself stuck permanently in a bathchair while the boys I grew up with went on to make their names.”
The accident sent shock waves through the Albion dressing room as Tony Brown recalls. “Graham had a lot of things go wrong for him, lots of bad luck, terrible times he had. It was a shame for him just on the personal level, but it was also such a waste as a footballer because when he was first coming through, he was some player. People were comparing him with Duncan Edwards and understandably so. Great strength, could pass it long or short, great tackler, he was probably the best youngster I ever saw, similar to Bryan Robson later on.
“I played with him in the youth team before he’d even joined us, but he was a giant, so powerful. He’d have been an England regular, no danger, without those accidents. Me and Jeff went to see him in hospital, his legs were in traction, he was in a neck brace, it was like “Carry On Doctor” or something! We couldn’t stop laughing. But he was lucky to be honest. He ran off the motorway and finished up in a ditch. It was hours before anybody noticed, he was trapped in the car, so it could have been worse.”
As it was, Lovett was sidelined for pretty much the whole of 1967, though given the diagnosis of a broken neck after that accident, he could count his blessings that he was back on the field of play at all – most were resigned to the fact that he’d never play again. Lovett again: “After weeks on my back, I had to make the kind of decision that turns you from a boy into a man. The surgeons told me that a bone graft was my one hope, that the operation might go wrong and that it could not be performed without my permission. In other words I could turn it down and face a life of disablement to the extent that I could not take part in active games – or I could give my consent in the hope that even if I did not play League football again I could at least enjoy a kick-about in the park. The game means so much to me that I gambled. I went into the theatre praying. I came out with a 50-50 chance of complete recovery”.
Finally, as 1967 edged towards Christmas, there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel as “Albion News” reported in the Burnley issue, on November 11th 1967. “[Some weeks ago Graham] was given permission to try a little gentle training. The last stages were begun about three weeks ago – practice matches can tell you so much and no more – but three weeks ago Graham re-started his career. He was back in the third eleven, two games, and then last Saturday he turned out for the Reserves at The Hawthorns. Yes, Graham Lovett is nearing the end of his long climb back.”
First team football was still some way away for Lovett, but for the Throstles, it was crucial to build on the 8-1 win over Burnley, though the omens weren’t great as we headed for one of our bogey grounds, Hillsborough. Wednesday had had a strong start to the season but were beginning to drop off the pace, but as winter tightened its grip, the misty, icy conditions were anything but ideal for Albion to try to recapture the free flowing football that had destroyed Burnley a week before. That said, the Baggies were on top for much of the game, the Owls continuing their slide down the table just as we were confidently climbing it, but home advantage counts for plenty in Yorkshire and Wednesday were robust opponents.
Even so, Albion should have been four goals clear in the first half. Springett produced a brilliant diving save from a 30 yarder from Doug Fraser, Jeff Astle put a shot inches wide, then he and Kenny Stephens saw goalbound shots cleared off the line by Don Megson. With Bobby Hope in sparkling form in the centre of the park, it seemed as if the Throstles must take the lead but the only goal of the half came at the other end just eleven minutes before the break, a result of a comedy of errors. Doug Fraser’s backpass was weak and, with Fantham first to the ball ahead of the oncoming John Osborne, the Wednesday striker was brought down in the box. Eustace whacked his spot kick against the post but John Ritchie, later of Stoke, was quickest onto the rebound, guiding it into the net.
The Baggies were back on terms early in the second half, John Talbut then John Kaye bringing the ball out of defence to feed Hope whose pass was deflected on its way to Clive Clark, playing him onside, Chippy calmly advancing on goal and sticking away the equaliser. With Albion surely favourites to go and win from there, there was another suicidal moment at the back two minutes later, Graham Williams rolling the ball back to Osborne who slipped and could only watch the ball past him and in.
Albion’s efforts to get back on terms grew gradually more intense as the clock ran down, Astle and Stephens again coming close, Ossie keeping us in the hunt with a magnificent save from Eustace. Finally, the deserved goal came, five minutes from time, Fraser chasing down the right before delivering a perfectly judged cross to the edge of the area where Astle, running on to it, placed his header in the far corner, Springett off balance and helpless in the Wednesday goal.
Ten points from 14 for the Baggies, leaving press man Robert Blackburn to ponder the upturn in our fortunes: “Ashman attributes the improvement to “hard work”. I believe the unseen factor is the rapport he has established with his players.” The manager himself was simply pleased to maintain Albion’s impressive run of form: “When you’ve scored eight the previous week, the players tend to be confident but at the same time expect the goals to come too easily. It may have looked good, but I was wriggling in my seat.”
Tottenham offered the next test in what was Albion’s 1,000th First Division game at home. Evidence of what changes would afflict us and the rest of the game as we headed off into the next 1,000 came with news of a fixture change recorded in “Albion News”. “Make a note in your diary. The Albion v West Ham United match at The Hawthorns on
March, 30th has been held back until 6.30p.m. This is a Saturday fixture and our supporters may wonder why we chose to kick-off at this time. The fact is that the Grand
National is to be televised on that day and a lot of people want to be able to see this
Event. Each year we are told that this is to be the last. We are not keen on Saturday night
games but felt this compromise was best for all concerned.” The thin end of the television wedge…
Tottenham offered appropriate opposition for the occasion as the FA Cup holders who had beaten Chelsea at Wembley the previous May. They were a side full of quality too, including names such as Pat Jennings, Dave Mackay, Alan Gilzean, Cliff Jones and the goalscorer supreme, Jimmy Greaves. But such was the confidence suddenly coursing through the Albion side, the Birmingham Post reported, “They gave Spurs no chance to pace the game to their own requirements. There was sharp running on and off the ball, with every player anxious to pull his full weight.” Even so, Bill Nicholson’s Londoners were a far more organized outfit than Burnley had been in the last home game and they refused to crumble under the pressure, reaching the dressing room at half-time on level terms, having had perhaps the best chance of the half when Graham Williams cleared a Jones effort off the line.
Albion were in no mood to hang around when the game resumed though and they put the points to bed inside ten minutes. Bobby Hope, again the dominant force in the midfield, began to run matters and it was the Scot whose cross caused confusion in the Spurs defence, allowing Clive Clark to take advantage and scramble in the first goal. Hope needed no assistance in making it 2-0 within three minutes though, running on to an Astle knock down and, “Without checking his stride, Hope hit an angled shot so hard that Jennings was beaten from 25 yards.”
With John Kaye dropping back into a more defensive role as the game came towards the close, the Throstles claimed two more crucial points, pushing them up to 12th in the table. The early season relegation worries behind them, how far could this Albion side now go?