It was 40 years ago today, when Alan Ashman taught the team to play...
It’s now 41 years since England was basking in the radiance of that fabled “Summer of Love”, a summer that had arrived full blown and fully formed on the first day of June 1967 when The Beatles unleashed “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and instantly transformed an England of drab, post-war monochrome into psychedelic technicolour.
Photo from The WBA archive
Suddenly, the future had arrived, a future that the nation had been gasping for ever since Hitler found himself trapped in the bunker – not even Tiger Woods equipped with a sand wedge was ever going to get him out of there. A new England was slowly emerging out of the late 1950s and early 1960s austerity that still prevailed, but modernity finally smacked us between the eyes in that incredible burst of colour on Peter Blake’s artfully conceived pop art record sleeve - it was telling that the previous Beatle album, “Revolver”, boasted a black and white collage as its cover statement. By 1967, that was out. Everything had to be encased in dayglo, psychedelic colour.
And yet while England was going colour, the Black Country was coming out of a period of monochrome mourning induced by disastrous defeat at Wembley Stadium at the tail end of the 1966/67 season, Jimmy Hagan’s Throstles squandering a two goal half-time lead to lose the League Cup Final 3-2. That was bad enough in itself, but this was to Third Division QPR, a beating that is still up there with the likes of Woking in the Albion Hall of Infamy.
Photo by Laurie Rampling www.wbapics.com
Graham Williams was Hagan’s skipper, and he still remembers that day at Wembley very vividly. “Under Jimmy, life was never easy, there were a lot of upheavals, but we were very successful. I think the League Cup Final at Wembley was the exception and that did him a lot of damage, but he was pretty unlucky. Rodney Marsh would have been sent off today for what he did to Dick Sheppard. I played the second half with only one eye, I was at Moorfield’s Hospital for a fortnight afterwards. Ken Foggo would have been the first substitute at Wembley, but the referee wouldn’t let me go off. He said to me, “The only way you go off is if I send you off”. We were in control, it was finished by half-time, but the second half turned into a nightmare. Going back out of the tunnel for the start of the second half, Jim Langley from their team turned to me and said, “Christ, we’ve just been put on four grand a man to win this!” We were on 25 quid to win! Losing that one really hurt.”
According to Tony Brown, Hagan was a difficult man to work with, a completely different personality on and of the training field. “One of the weird things was he didn’t believe in shouting for the ball. For me, that’s a big part of the game, but if you did it, he’d go mad. He didn’t want any of that, wanted you to just play. He was a real stickler. If you were playing a pass, it had to be in front of somebody for them to run onto. If you knocked it direct to feet, that was a sin in his book. He’d work on that and I think we became better players for it.
“Jimmy expected players to be as good as he was. I spoke to people who’d seen him play a lot and they always raved about him, what a great player he was. They had him down as one of the best players ever. And I can believe it because he was amazing in training. If somebody got something wrong, he’d stop training and say, “I’ll show you how to do that” and he’d be in the practice match, the best player on the park. But it doesn’t always work that way – I think Glenn Hoddle was a bit the same. If you couldn’t do certain things, he couldn’t understand it. His biggest fault was his man management. Whatever he said, that was it, no arguments, no messing. And he used to run us into the ground, fitness mad, run, run, run. He was a bit of a control freak, and the tracksuit revolt was typical, when he wouldn’t let them wear tracksuits in the cold because he could train in a T-shirt and shorts! Away from the game, he was fine, he’d come to supporters’ clubs things and be the life and soul, but on the training pitch, totally different. It was Jekyll and Hyde.
“Looking back, he was building a new team a little bit in that season, because he obviously identified we had some problems at the back. Jimmy bought Ossie and John Talbut about the same time. He made some good signings for us, he could spot a player, nobody better than him at that. He obviously thought we were a bit frail at that time at the back, Stan Jones was coming to the end of his career here, Terry Simpson had gone, we’d changed around in goals with Sheppard, Potter, neither of them ever quite established himself ahead of the other, so he was looking to rebuild a bit. But in the finish, he never got the benefit out of it, and ironically, that was partly because Ossie was cup tied for the League Cup Final against QPR. He’d not long joined, him and John Talbut. They couldn’t play and probably that disrupted us a bit.”
In the final analysis, although Jimmy Hagan had plenty of issues to deal with over the time he spent at The Hawthorns, from the big controversies such as the tracksuit revolt to the smaller, but regular day to day disputes with pretty well every player who came under his charge, it was that QPR debacle that really did for him. Had Albion beaten Rangers and retained the League Cup, his position would have been pretty much secure even though they had endured another middling year in the First Division. Instead, Hagan got the chop and as the sixties were swinging, Albion were in turmoil, looking for the fourth manager since Vic Buckingham, our last FA Cup winning boss, had resigned in the summer of 1959.
Hagan’s qualities as a footballing man had never been in question, nor his ability to make shrewd signings and piece together a side capable of scoring freely and, on its day, taking apart any opposition. But Hagan’s acerbic nature and his talent for alienating players was increasingly out of step with the times, times when managers were increasingly looked upon as motivators, managers of men, not simply overlords of football units. The likes of Bill Shankly and Matt Busby were seen as the archetypes of a role that was still being fleshed out.
In the pre-war era, the job of the football manager was marginal at best. Teams were chosen by the board of directors, training was rudimentary, restricted to simple lapping of the field for the most part, the ball appearing only on a Saturday on the basis that players would be hungrier for it, having not seen it all week, though as Danny Blanchflower later pointed out, if they hadn’t seen it from Monday to Friday, how were they supposed to recognise it and know what to do with it come matchday?
Tactics, up until the arrival of the all-conquering Hungarians in 1953 were straightforward, all teams pretty much employing the WM formation of two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards, strait-jacketed to the point where anyone shrewd enough to make even the most minor switch could clean up, as Albion did when Ronnie Allen played a deeper lying centre-forward role for the Baggies in the ‘50s. Thirty years before, Herbert Chapman’s introduction of the stopper centre-half to exploit the changes in the offside rule in the 1920s established him as the greatest manager of his time at a single, simple stroke, but by 1967, the manager was suddenly looked upon as the all-knowing guru who could deliver overnight success or, if he didn’t, could have an equally swift appointment with the Employment Exchange.
In the wake of Hagan, the Throstles were ready for a change of tack. Hagan’s ability to spot a player had seen him assemble a talented squad. Now the Albion board wanted to get the best out of hat investment. The QPR debacle convinced them that Hagan cold not deliver, so they turned to a younger generation and a man who had been cultivating a healthy reputation for himself at Carlisle United, the first staging post in the managerial career of the great Shankly himself, an encouraging portent. And so it was that, as Chelsea and Spurs were battling it out in the 1967 FA Cup Final, Alan Ashman was being offered the job as Albion manager – how’s that for an omen?
The 38 year old Ashman, a former Nottingham Forest and Carlisle player, had had few intentions of going into football management after retiring from the game, becoming a chicken farmer after hanging up his boots, keeping in touch with football by running the amateur team in Penrith. Carlisle came calling again though, offering him the job as boss, an inspired appointment as United swiftly won promotion from Fourth and Third Divisions in successive seasons before just missing out on a hat-trick in 1967, finishing up just outside the promotion places behind Coventry and Wolves.
Even so, as Tony Brown says, he was a bit of an unknown quantity. “We didn’t know anything about him at all before he came. All I knew was he’d been a centre-forward, good header of the ball. When he came, jokingly he’d say to Jeff, “One day, I’ll teach you how to head the ball properly! You’re not in the same street as me!” But we knew really nothing. The big thing in the press was that he was a chicken farmer, but that was it, we didn’t know what to expect from him, and probably that’s good, you don’t react to the reputation, you react to the person. When Don Howe came in, it was different. Some of us knew him, we had all the expectations because of his time at Arsenal, but with Alan, we had no ideas about him at all.”
So new was Ashman to the entire midlands scene that the Sports Argus tracked him down and threw some quickfire questions at him to see what he was made of. The thoughts of Alan Ashman ran thus:
“No matter what you do or what you pay, every player wants to be in the first team. No one is really satisfied to be left out. But a first team squad of 15 players over a season, taking in a 50 plus League and Cup match programme, is bound to give first team football to all of them pretty regularly, allowing for injuries and loss of form.
“I am sure that first and foremost, the good supporter wants to see his team win. I hardly think any team can go through a time winning matches and playing badly, but there are times, when the situation warrants it, when you must resort to a hard defensive game.
“Referees in general are of a high standard, but the game has become much more theatrical. Supporters almost take part in it. There are a few more “actors” on the field than there used to be.”
With the season almost upon him, Ashman focused on the task ahead. For all that Albion were great cup fighters, all was not rosy in The Hawthorns’ garden. Bobby Hope had asked for a transfer to enable him to return Scotland – 40 years later and he still hasn’t gone! – while there was some discussion as to whether Graham Williams should be replaced as captain after what was termed an ordinary season for him in 1966/67 - Dougie Fraser was touted as a potential replacement as skipper. Ashman moved swiftly to assure supporters that Williams was his captain, while as the summer rumbled on, it became ever more apparent that Hope, the midfield magician around whom so much of Albion’s play revolved, was going nowhere.
Ashman left the Argus with one final thought, on the importance of hitting the ground running.
“A good start is most important. There is no guarantee that any team will start well but what we can do is plan and work for it. At Albion, I have been very impressed with the way everyone is willing to work. I feel more and more confident we have the willingness, and the right sort of players and people at this club to give us a good start.” If only he’d known…