One of the enduring debates in the game is the gulf in class between the Championship and the Premier League. It’s a question that comes up time and time again as teams like Watford and Derby County, have tumbled out of the top flight at the first time of asking after promotion, rarely looking as if they were going to stay the course.
Photo from WBA archive
But was it ever thus? Has the top flight always represented a bridge too far for clubs from the second tier, or are the commentators right when they say that the gap is getting bigger and bigger with each passing season? How did things look back in the season of love, 1967/68?
The best part of half a season had elapsed since Alan Ashman had traded life with Second Division Carlisle United for a crack at the big time with the Baggies. As an up and coming manager, Ashman had had plenty of exposure to the game in the lower divisions, but the First Division was clearly the pinnacle of the domestic game. Many managers had tried to bridge that gap in the past and failed but, after a tempestuous start to his time at The Hawthorns, Ashman was starting to show signs that he was going to make the step up without too much trouble.
But was that step up in class really the huge gulf that some suggested it was? Or was the gap between the two leagues rather less daunting than some would make out? Ashman was in a perfect position to supply the answers.
“People who write off Division Two as a poor division ignore so many facets, like this point about effective players. There are scores of good, skilful players about today, but it is the man who can translate his ability on to the field where it counts who becomes what we term in the game an effective player. It is this type of player who is being chased by every First Division side and it is this sort of player who gets a First Division place.
“This is the Super Division of the finest League in the world. But there are still many fine sides and fine players in Division Two. What critics also confuse is the fact that the Second Division is the toughest section of all. You have more than a dozen clubs every season almost on a par and they are all scrambling for those two places which will get them up amongst the big guns.
Photo from WBA archive
“You have many clubs who have tasted the power and prestige of Division One and several more who want badly to taste it. So teams and managers dare not make mistakes. Every point is vital. That emphasises defence because teams are cautious. They dare not risk too much on attacking football in case they make the one error which could cost them the game.
“Some of the problems of tight technique arise in Division One but there you have the individual players of effective quality who have the ability to counteract the problems. Standards are always relative. But the standard today is higher than ever within any context.”
That high standard was reflected by the football the Throstles were playing and by the opposition they were facing. Game number 20 in the 1967/68 season was the trek down to Stamford Bridge and a meeting with Chelsea, a team that was coming towards its own maturity at that point, a side that would, in time, take over Albion’s own mantle as the cup fighting team par excellence.
Photo from WBA archive
It was a side not dissimilar to the Throstles in many ways, with a sprinkling of steel and silk right the way through it from the acrobatic Peter Bonetti, to the granite tough Eddie McCreadie and Ron Harris, to the neat passing of John Hollins, the wing wizardry of Charlie Cooke, a dazzling footballer every bit as exciting as Clive Clark, albeit in more intricate fashion. And then there was the King of the King’s Road, Peter Osgood, a striker fighting for a berth in the England squad, a fight that included Albion’s own king, Jeff Astle.
Chelsea had beaten the Baggies on the opening day of the season, a 1-0 win at The Hawthorns that precipitated that very shaky start to the season which Albion were only now recovering from. But as we grew in strength, Chelsea’s season was busily going south, the beaten FA Cup finalists of the previous season languishing in 17th place as they prepared to take on Albion after a fortnight of inactivity because of the weather.
These were two very different sides to those who had slugged it out on the opening day of the season, in mood if not especially in personnel. Chelsea had won just two games from the previous 13 in the league while Albion were on a run of only two defeats in 10 matches. Yet when the game kicked off, the difference in their fortunes was anything but apparent as the home side got off to a strong start, enjoying a healthy share of possession.
Five minutes in and Chelsea’s new £100,000 signing Alan Birchenall was in on goal, John Osborne having to produce some heroics to keep the scores level, but Albion were simply soaking up the pressure, ready to spring a counter attack and create havoc at the opposite end. Sixteen minutes in, that plan worked to perfection, Dick Krzywicki hurling a long throw-in into the Chelsea box, Tony Brown dashing on to the end of it with a cleverly timed run. Bomber steered the ball into Clive Clark’s path and he side footed it past Bonetti to give Albion the lead.
It might have been better yet within a minute as a shell shocked Chelsea were relieved to see Krzywicki fall inches short of connecting with a John Kaye through ball, then it was Kaye again, away down the right, placing a lovely cross on the head of Astle, Bonetti performing miracles to claw his header to safety.
Chelsea finally, belatedly, rallied with a superb, slick passing move that saw Boyle got past two defenders before passing inside to Birchenall. His clever flick reached Tommy Baldwin whose back heel could easily have caught Osborne off guard, but the ‘keeper was equal to the task once more. They did finally get an effort beyond Ossie, just before the break, but Boyle was penalised for handball.
A dog invaded the pitch early in the second half, but it was Chelsea who were the terriers, worrying away at the Albion defence, but with little real glimpse of an opening. Indeed, it was the Baggies on the break who looked the more likely to score, Bonetti making another fine save in the 63rd minute to stop a full blooded Astle drive. Evidence that it wasn’t going to be the Londoners day came after 70 minutes when Birchenall thought he’d notched his first Chelsea goal only to see the referee disallowing it.
In such circumstances, the best course of action is to apply salt liberally to the opposition wound, and we didn’t hang about. Within six minutes it was 2-0, Krzywicki’s express pace down the right opening Chelsea up once again, his cross perfectly weighted into the path of Astle who met it on the run with a fierce first time volley that left Bonetti wrong footed.
But why stop at two? The Albion completed the rout with nine minutes left on the clock, Clark racing away through the middle on another counter attack before measuring a pass into the path of Krzywicki, the Welsh international nipping inside before putting a crisp finish beyond Bonetti and in. Two points to add the collection, and 8th place in the table. What better way to celebrate the club’s 2,000th top flight game, the overall record being won 770, drawn 453, lost 777, goals for 3,291, goals against 3,313.
A home game against Southampton awaited us on the Saturday before Christmas, the game which marked the halfway stage in the season. Speaking to Ray Matts in the run up to the game, Ashman was prevailed upon to give something of a Christmas message to the supporters.
“Now we have won our way into the top half of the table we have a good opportunity to put ourselves among the leading teams. No matches are easy, but the mood we are in at the moment will make it difficult for any team to take points from us.
“We can feel very satisfied with our performances in the first half of the league programme, but we realise points do not come easy and we also appreciate we will have to work just as hard to hold a high position in the table.
“I am pleased to be able to send Christmas wishes to all our supporters but I cannot say we are going to make extra special efforts for them during the holiday period. I like to think maximum effort is given at all times by my players, but I will repeat what I said at the start of the season: All our efforts at The Hawthorns are entirely devoted to providing fans with the best possible soccer entertainment!”
And after you’ve promised the fans great entertainment, what can you guarantee from your next game? Yep, a goalless draw. In pouring rain.
In spite of struggling in the First Division, the visiting saints posed a potent threat in the shape of Ron Davies, Terry Paine – rarely effective away from the Dell, it’s true – Mick Channon and Martin Chivers, “for sale at the astronomical price of £125,000”. But as you’d expect from a team only here points clear of the relegation zone, Saints came to spoil the game, making it as scrappy as possible.
Albion paid little heed to the opposition and instead concentrated on their own qualities in a game that struggled to best the taxing conditions. Albion were the more enterprising side in the first half, Dougie Fraser having a shot cleared off the line after it skidded through a goalmouth melee, Krzywicki having a header turned against the post by ‘keeper Forsyth. Nice to see him, to see him, nice.
Albion did finally get the ball in the Southampton net, 58 minutes in, John Kaye glancing a header in from a Brown free-kick, the referee calling play back because the Southampton wall had not retreated the requisite ten yards. Yorky was not amused.
There were a couple of half chances at either end, John Talbut escaped conceding a penalty for what looked like a handball, but the game ended as a damp squib. The Throstles’ handy run continued though, and the festive period was in the offing.
Merry Christmas, one and all…