Having slipped up in their opening two games of 1968,defeated at both Liverpool’s Anfield and Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, hopes of a high league finish were receding for the Throstles as they dropped to 9th place in the Division One table. As a consequence, the FA Cup assumed ever greater importance, the real remaining hope of a little glory and of a place in European competition the following season.
Albion’s impressive form in the final three months of 1967 had caused plenty of pundits to push them forward as genuine FA Cup contenders, a position that brought its own pressures as Ray Matts noted in his “Inside Albion” column. “How does it feel to be a red cape waving around in a field of bulls? That’s something Albion are likely to find out as they enter the white hot soccer cauldron known as the FA Cup. For at 11-1 they are one of the competition’s favourites – the first time they have been so strongly fancied for one of the game’s premier titles in many seasons. In a competition so fiercely contested as the FA Cup, no team can be regarded as “certs” for success.”
Even so, Albion were confident that they could go well in the FA Cup, not least because first up, they were facing Third Division opposition in Colchester United, albeit at Layer Road. As Matts added, “I fail to see how anyone can justifiably argue anything but a win for a First Division club over a Third Division side. Even bearing in mind that United have the advantage of a home draw, the difference in class must tell in the end. My view is that when a side from the premier league fail against lesser opposition it is because they play badly or underestimate the opposition. Albion have been guilty of both these sins in the past [year] but they will not fail a third time.”
Colchester were certainly up for the cup as a breathless programme editorial made clear: “Today is something of a gala day for the club. It’s the yearly dream of a Third or Fourth Division concern to draw a big name in the FA Cup and our luck this season has changed at last for West Bromwich Albion are the first First Division club since Arsenal in 1959 to visit Layer Road…today’s game should be as memorable as [that one] when in the Fourth Round we drew 2-2 with Arsenal, then top of Division One and lost the replay 4-0 before a 63,000 plus crowd at Highbury. Indeed these stirring events were enacted nine years ago almost to the day and if this tie lives up to such thrills and high quality football then no one will be grumbling.” Had that bloke got himself a crystal ball or what?
For much of the 90 minutes, the third round tie rested on a knife edge and often looked set to become one of those classic feats of giant killing that fill the record books. Certainly the swaggering Albion side that had twice beaten league leaders Manchester City over Christmas were nowhere to be seen as the Baggies struggled through a series of errors at either end of the pitch, finding none of the flow that had been so apparent in their good run to the turn of the year.
A huge crowd of just shy of 16,000 threatened to get out of control at Layer Road and six Albion fans were chucked out by Police after a number of fans climbed on to the top of a stand, forcing Chairman Jim Gaunt and secretary Alan Everiss to come out and appeal for order. They might have made a similar appeal to the team for they came out and struggled from the first whistle to the extent that it was no surprise at all when Colchester took the lead after eight minutes. John Osborne and John Talbut were at sixes and sevens following a left wing cross and while they enjoyed an “after you Claude” moment, Stratton darted in between them and nodded the ball into an empty net.
It was no more than Colchester deserved and they were well on top in the play that followed. It could easily have been 2-0 after 19 minutes when Stratton thumped another header past Osborne, the ball bouncing down off the underside of the bar, Doug Fraser clearing it as it rebounded. Martin put a header wide of the post when he should have scored and midway through the half, Albion were on the ropes.
Gradually though, the storm subsided and the First Division side began to show their mettle, our first chance coming when Jeff Astle headed over from a Clive Clark cross. It seemed we were level after 33 minutes, Dick Krzywicki receiving a pass from Astle as the ‘keeper came out before slotting it in, only to find the referee disallowing the goal.
No matter, five minutes later and we were on terms, Forbes fouling Astle as the King went up for a header, the referee pointing immediately to the spot. Tony Brown put the ball down and rifled it into the top of the net in typical Bomber fashion. With the teams going in level, the Albion support consoled itself with the hope that the worst was over and that the Baggies would now begin to demonstrate their top flight class. Even so, manager Alan Ashman betrayed his nervousness, replacing Krzywicki with Graham Lovett in an effort to add a little solidity to the midfield.
The side looked better balanced, stemming the tide of Colchester attacks with more confidence while starting to carve out our own opportunities of our own at the other end. To say the second half was all Albion would be an over statement, but certainly we were the team in the ascendancy. Astle twice came close with headers as Colchester were doing little more than hanging on but in doing so, they continued to give themselves a chance of an upset.
It seemed to have come as the game edged into injury time and a goalmouth scramble ensued according to Ray Matts’ report. “United were awarded a free kick and from the kick the ball first appeared to be cleared off the line, then hit the underside of the bar, then banged into the net by Bullock, but the referee disallowed he goal. The game ended with the referee surrounded by angry Colchester players.”
It also ended with a bunch of bewildered Albion players as Graham Williams recalls. “We got away with murder there. John Talbut would have been booked or sent off today because when they scored that late goal, before we knew it was disallowed, he just got the ball and whacked it straight out of the ground! We were fighting amongst ourselves and while we’re doing that, the referee’s given us a free-kick. None of us have any idea why, not to this day. But after that, we were away.
“Away at Colchester, when that goal was disallowed, right from there we started thinking it was going to be our year. We had such a forward line that at home, nobody could live with us. But however good you are, you’re always vulnerable to a giant killing at that stage. I remember going to Lincoln in 1961 and we had a great side with Derek Kevan, Ronnie Allen, Bobby Robson, Don Howe, all these names. We looked at the pitch, looked beautiful, Davy Burnside said, “I’ll be a star on this today!” We got well beat! At Leicester the year before, we lost in the fifth round, and I was in tears afterwards, because that was how much the FA Cup meant.
“We were recognised as a cup side at that time, we had a terrific record. Nobody wanted to get drawn against us and you could pretty much say that if we were drawn at The Hawthorns, we were through to the next round. That was our attitude. We’d shown it in ’66 in the League Cup Final against West Ham. Lost the first leg 2-1 at Upton Park, but we knew we’d turn them over back home. They couldn’t live with us, all those World Cup players they had, but they couldn’t get a kick of the ball. The football we played was fast, direct, the crowd was outstanding, and we were unstoppable. We never talked about defence at home, no stuff about who marked who. It was just, “Right, let’s get at ‘em!” Lots of games, we’d score goals in the first 10 or 15 minutes to put the game away.”
Alan Ashman sounded a note of caution before the replay, saying, “Colchester challenged for everything. If they fight like that for the ball at The Hawthorns, we shall be at full stretch.” As it turned out though, just as Graham Williams says, Albion swept into the attack from the outset and had the game under lock and key inside half an hour, a whirlwind start that Colchester could not live with.
Albion made a couple of changes for the first time in nine games, Rick Sheppard in goal in place of the injured Osborne, while Graham Lovett came off the substitute’s bench to regain his first team place a little more than a year after his horrific Christmas Eve car crash had threatened to end his career for good. He played his full part, journalist Gron Williams reporting, “Combining brilliantly, with Lovett adding a new precision, Albion threatened trouble for Colchester from the start, but it was a goal of individual brilliance in ten minutes by John Kaye which opened their account. He came steaming through the middle, beat one man, sent another the wrong way, driving right footed from 35 yards between Forbes and Blackwood. Adams failed to hold the shot and it was Kaye’s best goal of the season to date.”
Astle made it 2-0 after 20 minutes, getting on the end of Dougie Fraser’s cross after good work by Bobby Hope set his fellow Scot on his way. A brilliant Adams save denied Tony Brown minutes later but the third goal wasn’t long in coming, Hope and Clark doing the donkey work to create another opening for Jeff Astle. From there, the edge went off Albion’s game as the job was long since done and it wasn’t until the 80th minute that they made it 4-0, Clive Clark getting on the end of a Bobby Hope cross.
Third round safely negotiated, next up was a home tie against Southampton.