There’s little in football to beat that little extra rush you get when you are off to visit the home of the League Champions. When they’re perched at the top of the table once again, it adds just that little extra frisson to the occasion, and when the place you’re going is Old Trafford, to take on a side that includes Bobby Charlton and George Best, you have to ask yourself just how much more icing you need on top of that cake.
The way Manchester United have pretty much battered everyone into submission over the last decade or more, and the way they’ve used their tradition and their wealth to do it, has left a sour taste in the mouths of some, but back in 1967, there was no team more glamorous, more exciting, nor better loved than Manchester United. They were pretty well everybody’s second favourite team, they were football’s equivalent of The Beatles. Everybody loved them, and with good reason because there’s no use denying it, they were magical. They thrilled, they excited, they went hell for leather for goals and in Charlton, Best and Denis Law, the third member of the Holy Trinity, they had probably the three best players in the land, the footballers that every kid wanted to be in the playground.
The flip side of the coin was that while it was exciting to venture to Old Trafford, it was also a very daunting prospect too. The previous season, we’d gone there on the opening day of the campaign and lost 5-3 – a familiar score up there – and games between the two teams were almost always full of goals, so there was little reason to anticipate anything different on this occasion. Small wonder that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was in the crowd for the occasion.
Albion hopes were buoyed by the fact that on the Wednesday before the game, while the Throstles were resting up, United had had a taxing European Cup game to deal with on home soil, Matt Busby’s team eventually coming through it by beating Sarajevo, putting them through to the quarter-finals. In those days before anybody had heard of the idea of squad rotation, the team that beat Sarajevo on the Wednesday was wheeled out to take on Albion on the Saturday, United still missing the injured Denis Law.
But they did have George Best, and when George was in the mood, they really didn’t need anybody else. And when the Baggies rolled into Manchester on December 2nd, 1967, he was in the mood alright. The first 45 minutes were a masterclass from probably the greatest British footballer of all time. Yet it was the visitors who were the brighter team in the early passages of play, throwing themselves into the game in an effort to take advantage of any fatigue. Jeff Astle put a header straight at Stepney in goal, then Tony Brown burst past Paddy Crerand in the middle, only to be denied by a diving Stepney stop.
Bomber had an even better chance after 20 minutes according to reporter Ray Matts: “In the 20th minute, Krzywicki split the United defence with a ball to Tony Brown who was standing only three or four yards from goal. The United defence thought he was offside but the referee allowed play to go on but with all the time in the world, Brown turned and shot hopelessly wide.”
Within a couple of minutes, Albion were behind. Best collected a short corner on the left, picked his way between two tackles and then drilled a shot inside the post from the tightest of angles. Four minutes further on and Best had doubled the lead: “He rounded Albion’s defence to fire in a terrific shot which Osborne did well to palm over for a corner kick. Aston slammed over a long cross and Best came pelting in to scythe through Albion’s defence and head home.”
Best departed to a standing ovation at half time, then picked up from where he left off, but Albion were not short on confidence nor resilience after their run of 12 points from 16 and they offered United food for thought after the break. Brown had a volley well saved by Stepney, then the pace of Krzywicki released Astle whose effort dipped past Stepney but also drifted beyond the post. The Throstles finally grabbed a late lifeline with 15 minutes to go, Tony Brown’s free-kick reaching the head of John Kaye who powered the ball past Stepney.
Brown seemed to have snatched an equaliser a few moments later, only to have it chalked off for offside, but Albion kept coming at them and, according to Kaye, should have had a last minute equaliser from his powerful header. “As I nodded the ball, I saw Stepney rise in front of me and he grasped the ball as it went over his head. A foot to either side and I must have beaten him. The man’s uncanny.” Speaking afterwards, United’s Crerand admitted, “That was the biggest run around we’ve had all season”, while journalist Gron Williams made a startlingly perceptive prediction: “On their Old Trafford showing, Albion must be fancied for a good FA Cup run next year. Their work-rate, determination, attacking ideas and defensive solidarity had United at full stretch for long periods.”
In the aftermath of the game, Albion were briefly embroiled in controversy as a result of their Scottish scouting operations. At the end of November, Albion had organised a special trial just outside Glasgow, featuring 50 youngsters, an event that was described as “the biggest cloak and dagger operation Scottish football has ever known.” The Scottish Football Association was said to be investigating the matter, but Alan Ashman stressed, “There was nothing illegal or underhand about the trials. As they were behind closed doors, between all-amateur players and only parents were allowed to watch, we weren’t breaking any rules. There isn’t any question of the boys being under any obligation to us or of my pirating them away from their homes.
“By this method I avoid the bad old scheme of clubs signing players from the other end of the country and then giving them free transfers when they fail to make the grade. By staging such trials we discover the quality of the players before we get near to signing any of them. I have picked out a handful of boys from the trials and they will be invited to West Bromwich to look around before there is any question of signing them.”
At the other end of the age scale, Graham Williams was telling Ray Matts that he hoped that Albion’s renaissance would see him push his way back into the Welsh national side after Birmingham’s Colin Green had replaced him. “I’m not complaining about being dropped. I was not playing well enough at the start of the season. Just as a centre-forward needs to get goals, a full-back needs to get in good tackles, but this was not the case then I’m afraid. My timing seemed to be out. However, when you have been playing for your country for a long time, it’s hard to take when you eventually get dropped even though it may be justified. I can imagine the terrace critics were writing me off. People tend to think that when you lose form after so long with one club, it’s all over. But I aimed to prove them wrong.”
The skipper was also long for a strong second half to the season in the hope of qualifying for European competition again: “Our games against Utrecht of Holland and Bologna of Italy last season were exciting encounters because of the prestige at stake. To play in Europe these days is almost like playing for one’s country. The atmosphere is terrific. I can’t wait for another chance to skipper Albion on the Continent. Who knows, we may be more successful than last time.”
The most obvious route to Europe was via a high league placing, but Albion’s hopes of picking up their strong league form after the United defeat were put on hold when the home game against Sunderland was postponed. Ironically, Albion returned to league action with a Monday night trip to Upton Park to play a rearranged fixture after that game had been called off the month before.
The Hammers were enduring a grim season, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, John Sissons, Billy Bonds and Harry Redknapp notwithstanding, and they were rumbling along just above the relegation zone as the Throstles made their way through the east end to play our 1,999th First Division game.
Albion and West Ham had plenty of recent history, Albion not winning at the Boleyn Ground in six years, including taking a thumping when Brian Dear scored five goals against us in one game. On the other hand, the Throstles had beaten West Ham in the League Cup Final of 1966, and then in the semi-final of the same competition a year later, and like games against Manchester United, Albion versus West Ham was one of those fixtures that almost always guaranteed entertainment.
It was the home team that got off to the best start, bringing thoughts of us struggling to beat the Boleyn bogey to the fore, especially as they scored from a soft penalty, John Kaye adjudged to have impeded Sissons as he tried to get on the end of a Redknapp cross. Geoff Hurst put the penalty past John Osborne to make it 1-0 after seven minutes.
But this Albion side simply shrugged off reverses like this and as the report of the time noted, “They always produced the more calculated, constructive soccer, and West Ham virtually had to rely on breakaway moves. Albion always looked like pulling this game out of the fire.”
The Baggies were on top for great swathes of the game, an exuberant team performance topped off by a terrific individual contribution by Bobby Hope, “Another five star performance from this young man on the verge of Scottish international honours. He buzzed about like an enterprising bee to form a potent midfield link which constantly threatened to send the Hammers to yet another home defeat, their seventh this term.”
That defeat came closer after 50 minutes when the Baggies got back on level terms, Hope flinging in a fine left wing cross that Dick Krzywicki leapt to head past goalkeeper Ferguson, and it was a copycat goal that gave Albion the lead 12 minutes from time, a similar cross from Hope, Jeff Astle getting on the end of it this time to head in.
It wouldn’t be Albion if we hadn’t made the late stages fraught and we conceded in the 85th minute, Peter Brabrook seemingly snatching a point, but this Albion team was not going to be denied. Continuing to force the issue, Krzywicki dashed into the box only to be hacked down. Bobby Hope stepped up to take the 87th minute spot kick, clipping it past Ferguson to seal both points and a much better trip back home. They’d be coming back the other way again on the Saturday, when they’d be off down the Kings Road to take on struggling Chelsea. More points to be had?