STREET FIGHTING MEN
With the changes wrought in English football grounds since the Hillsborough tragedy, the nature of watching the game has changed dramatically. Gone are the days of passionate crowds, crammed into heaving terraces, feet away from the pitch, like the bear pits of yore. The football grounds of old England in the days before the Taylor Report, in the days before health and safety became words that carried legal power behind them.
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When people say that there’s a great atmosphere at Newcastle or Everton these days, maybe there is. But compared with 40 years ago, it’s like going to a garden party in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Especially under floodlights, terraced football grounds were an intimidating place to be, especially if you were away from home. And while the obvious suspects such as Old Trafford and Anfield could put the wind up even the most experienced players, there were others that could whip up an extraordinary intensity, the kind of fervour that allowed teams to punch above their weight for years on end. Such a place was The Dell in Southampton.
Although the Saints lacked the financial clout in the ‘60s to ever make a really concerted push for anything beyond First Division survival, that tight little ground and its raucous support meant they could accumulate enough points at home to keep themselves afloat. But if you threw in the drama of an FA Cup tie, the voltage that ran through the place just got higher and higher.
That was the setting Albion walked into in February 1968 for a fourth round replay in front of a crowd of 26,000. All the euphoria of surviving that late scare at Colchester in round three was rapidly evaporating, because this was going to be a huge test of Albion’s resolve, all the more so given that the teams now knew the identity of their fifth round opponents – Portsmouth, Southampton’s big rivals.
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Ten minutes into the game, the Throstles looked to be in trouble, Terry Paine angling a 35 yard pass into the path of Frank Saul who was beyond the defence, the striker crashing a shot into the net, his follow through whacking into the face of goalkeeper John Osborne, the Daily Express reporting that, “he received attention for four minutes. When he resumed he reeled around like a drunken man groping in a thick fog.”
In true sporting fashion, Southampton responded to the injury by putting Ossie under as much pressure as they could, pumping high balls into the box for the powerful Ron Davies to challenge for, Davies soon leaving Osborne in a heap in the goalmouth. Albion were keen to take get Osborne out of the firing line, but in those days of a single outfield substitute, Osborne was just as eager to keep going as long as he could. The compromise came with Stuart Williams, Albion’s newly appointed coach, standing behind the concussed ‘keeper’s goal and advising him as to where the play was coming from.
It’s some measure of Albion’s quality and their determination that in spite of that, they went in at the interval having turned things around to lead 2-1. The equaliser came after 16 minutes, Bobby Hope lifting a pass into Jeff Astle who chested the ball to John Kaye. Kaye returned the ball to Astle and he drove his shot into the net to ensure Southampton’s supremacy was short lived.
The pace of Albion’s attacking, from Clive Clark in particular, was a thorn in the Southampton side and the disarray in their back line enabled the Throstles to get their beaks in front just before the half hour, Graham Williams’ cross into the box seemingly simple for the ‘keeper until defender Jimmy Gabriel got in his way, nodding the ball into Tony Brown’s path. 2-1.
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Albion were utterly on top by now, Martin producing a string of fine saves before the break, three from Brown and another from Ian Collard. But when the whistle went, it was Martin’s opposite number that was the centre of attention. Alan Ashman reported later that, “When Osborne came in at half-time, I could not even talk to him. He did not know what was going on. How he survived the first half I don’t know, but he clearly could not face the second.”
Graham Lovett was to come on as substitute, but who was going in goal. One of the big lads – Kaye, John Talbut, Astle? No, not quite.
“When Ossie couldn’t carry on, I had to go in goal”, recalls Graham Williams. “I had to wear his shirt. He’s 6 feet 2, the sleeves were too long, I had to tie them up. The gloves were too big. I was in goal at the end where all the dockers were, they were throwing stones and fag ends, hitting me in the back of the head. They had Ron Davies up front, he started laughing when he saw me in goal.
“I’d started as a goalkeeper at school, I was a gymnast as a schoolboy for Wales, and I only get moved out because I was left footed. Typical schoolteacher, “We need somebody to play on the left, Graham, you do it!” I came to the Albion as a left winger, but I was never going to make it. I’m the only guy who dummied in a straight line! My body swerve was straight on.”
It was all change for another Albion stalwart too, John Kaye dropping back to help out in the centre of defence. “When Ossie went off and Graham went in goal, it didn’t look great, but I suppose you pull that bit more out to try and cope with it. Graham fancied himself as a ‘keeper but I went back to help out with John Talbut, so we won most of the stuff in the air and in the end, we found our way through. It was like the Alamo, but if you keep on battling, you never know what you might get out of it the end.
“That changed my career really because all of a sudden, I was a defender. Playing at centre-back did seem to come just natural to me, I just slotted into it straight away. John Talbut was a good talker of a game, great friend of mine and still is, we got to know each other very well, and I think that helps as well because you get to know each other’s character. I got a reputation for being hard but I don’t think I was ever dirty, over the top. Maybe I just looked aggressive! We did pretty well as a back four with Ossie behind, we never used to give a real lot of goals away, especially in the cup games.
“Ossie was a great character, always nervous about playing. He had to strap two of his fingers together all the time because of the problems he had with his knuckles. If the game was quiet, he’d nip behind the goal and got a fag off one of the crowd and have a swift drag – couldn’t do that now, neither! Graham was a terrific captain, great competitor, and that was how we were across the back, all real competitors, Dougie was never shy of tackling either, and neither were me and John Talbut. I think that rubs off on the other players in front of you, if they see you getting stuck in, they feel like they have to have a go. And we could play a bit because I’d started up front, and Dougie had come here as a wing-half. He liked to play out from the back. Mind, sometimes he liked to play a bit too much! He had good touch on the ball, good control.”
That team spirit is crucial on nights like that one at Southampton when the chips are really down. As skipper Graham Williams says, that side was bonded like brothers, and that was the extra ingredient that made the difference.
“It was just the whole thing of being involved with the club, we were all so proud of that. It wasn’t about being captain, I didn’t have to be captain because they were such an easy bunch to work with. They’d do anything. The only meetings we ever had were about who was going to which charity do. You’d end up with half the team going, because that’s what they were like, you were just proud to be West Bromwich Albion, we were part of the community. We won together and lost together. If one of us got in a fight, we were all there.
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“The only time it wasn’t like that was in South America. I’d been away with Wales in South America, we played Mexico and Brazil, so I joined up a bit late with Albion, in Argentina, where we were going to play a testimonial. I got there, I could see the lads all waving at the airport, I thought, “They’ve come to meet me, isn’t that nice?” So I get through the double doors, first word, “We want you to see the chairman!” Great.
““We’re not having this Willy. We’re having to pay for our laundry!”
“So I said, “I’ve just had mine done with Wales, it’s clean, why get on to me?!” so we had a meeting and they were upset they were spending most of their daily allowance on laundry. So I went and saw Jimmy Hagan who was manager then. “What’s the problem?”
““I haven’t got one, I’ve just arrived, but the lads are up in arms about having to pay for laundry and the other little bills”.
““They’ve got a contract, they’re stuck with it”.
““Ok Mr Hagan, I want to see the chairman”.
““I want to see the chairman”.
“So we knock on Jim Gaunt’s door. “Yo’m a trouble mekker Williams. Yo’ve ony bin here five minutes!”
““It’s not me Mr. Chairman, I’ve come here as captain on behalf of the players”.
““Right, get ‘em in the room upstairs and we’ll sort this out”.
“So we’re in this room on the top floor, I get up and say, “Mr. Chairman, Mr. Hagan, the players want to ask you a question. Ok lads, away you go.”
“I look round. Nothing. Not a word. “Look, you’ve got me up here to talk about the laundry, tell them what you’ve told me”. Silence. Thanks lads!”
There was a bit of laundry to do after the Southampton game because the second half was all about 11 players putting their bodies on the line to use the modern parlance. As Kaye said, it looked like being a long 45 minutes, and things weren’t helped just eight minutes in when Southampton got level, Hughie Fisher’s snapshot flashing past Williams, though the Express reported that “a regular ‘keeper would have been lucky even to reach it”.
Thereafter, with Kaye and Talbut in magnificent form, the Baggies dealt with everything Southampton could throw at them, and the game looked set for a 30 minute period of extra time. Lovett had different ideas though and in the dying seconds, he set off on a marauding run deep into Southampton territory before letting fly with a shot that beat Martin but not the post. The ball rebounded to Clark who fed the ball to Astle for the King to make it 3-2 and send Albion into the last 16 of the competition. Wembley was just that little bit closer.