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As Albion made their merry, but weary way back from their epic fourth round cup replay win at Southampton, it was becoming ever more clear that all the season’s eggs were being placed in the basket marked Football Association Challenge Cup. With the Baggies ninth in the First Division, the likelihood of the qualifying for Europe via a high league placing was looking increasingly remote, and though a top half finish would still represent progress based on the previous campaign, Alan Ashman was looking to make a rather bigger splash in his debut season at The Hawthorns.
That said, there was to be no relaxing in the league, for the Throstles wanted to maintain the cup fighting momentum. After a hard fought win in midweek though, there could be few better sights than to look down the fixture list and see that Saturday was offering up a home game, and one against Fulham, busily digging an escape tunnel all the way into Division Two, marooned at the foot of the table.
After eight games without a win, Fulham had rallied to beat Burnley 4-3 the previous week, but still they looked doomed and Albion opened the game in best bullying mood, picking on the weedy kid at the bottom of the class, chucking his satchel over the fence and bunging his head down the nearest toilet as we simply took them to pieces in the early exchanges. Macedo saved well from Tony Brown, then did even better to tip a John Kaye drive over, Graham Williams ending a torrid few minutes of action by lobbing an effort onto the roof of the net.
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Fulham simply had no answers to the onslaught early on and after 14 minutes, the inevitable first goal duly arrived, Jeff Astle accelerating through the middle beyond the defence before flicking his shot past the advancing Macedo and in. It didn’t take long for the Albion to double the lead either, goal number two coming after 21 minutes, Clive Clark chopped down in the penalty area, Tony Brown stepping up to fire home the resultant penalty.
That was how the scoreline remained until the interval, but it was a different Albion after the break, more sluggish as perhaps they began to feel the effects of their exertions on the south coast earlier in the week. Certainly they slackened the pace and allowed the former England maestro Johnny Haynes to get on the ball and begin to offer the Cottagers some hopes of finding a way back into the game.
On the hour, they pulled a goal back, Allan Clarke missing his kick from close range, the ball rolling into the path of Les Barrett behind him who whacked the ball past John Osborne.
From there, Fulham enjoyed the bulk of the play, but it was a case of huffing and puffing without blowing the brick like defence down, Albion mopping up the attacks without any great problem, moving serenely enough towards a 2-1 win and two more points, points that moved them up to eighth in the table.
Next up was a trip to 6th placed Tottenham Hotspur, a tricky fixture, but something of an experiment too. As “Albion News” recorded, “The League Cup Final, Arsenal v Leeds at Wembley, has caused an alteration in our fixtures. If two out-of-town sides had won their way to Wembley we would have been able to play our match at Tottenham. Arsenal however are just a short space away from Spurs and it has been thought advisable for our game to be played on the Friday night. That’s the date then: Friday 1st March, at Tottenham for our match.”
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Friday night football proved to be every bit as appetising then as it is now, which is not very appetising at all, not least because the two teams served up a 0-0 draw, a “deadlock of despair… a dull and dismal duel” as one newspaper reported it. That in itself was a surprise because traditionally, Albion against Spurs was one of those games that generally served up fine entertainment, but perhaps both sides had their eyes fixed on cup duty a week later, the holders, Spurs, set for a clash with Liverpool while Albion would have to travel to Portsmouth.
The Throstles produced their best football early on, forcing five corners in the first quarter of an hour, clever play by Tony Brown creating an opening after 12 minutes, Pat Jennings making a brilliant save to push his effort over the bar. At the other end, John Osborne was in equally magnificent form to keep out a series of efforts from goalscorer supreme Jimmy Greaves, in search of the 300th league goal of his career. Ossie clearly upset the home faithful because at one point, a bottle was hurled from the crowd and whizzed dangerously close to his head, police summoned to patrol behind the goal thereafter.
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In a game where defences were utterly in charge, the Birmingham Post’s Gron Williams put his finger on the real problem: “What this match did prove is how much of a game of incentive soccer is. Both sides are comfortably in the top half of the First Division but neither has much chance of getting into Europe by occupying the top League positions. Next Saturday they have testing FA Cup assignments. Small wonder then that neither side pulled out their full repertoire.”
The best news to come out of the Tottenham game for the Throstles was the fact that there were no injuries and a full squad could travel down to Southsea to prepare for the Portsmouth tie. Ahead of the game, Alan Ashman said, “We will be out to repeat the sort of form we showed in the fourth round replay against Southampton at The Dell. That game did us a lot of good because the team showed some character and played a lot of good stuff. The side generally have been showing some improvement again lately and other teams are finding it harder to get goals against us. We go in confident mood.”
Having won well at Fratton Park in a pre-season friendly, Albion had every right to be confident as they travelled to take on the Division Two outfit, a side lying second in the table and pushing for promotion. After John Kaye had had a header well saved after a couple of minutes, it was Portsmouth who tore into the early stages of the game, John Osborne making a terrific save to parry a ferocious McCann shot and then scramble to get hold of the rebound under intense Pompey pressure.
Gradually, Albion’s greater quality started to exert itself and after 29 minutes, the Throstles fashioned the first goal after Jeff Astle was hauled down on the edge of the box. Bobby Hope flighted in a perfect cross, Astle timing his run across the face of the defence to perfection to guide a guide glancing header into the corner of the net.
The game was there to be won for Albion as Portsmouth were rocked on their heels and we seized the moment four minutes later following good work by John Kaye and Doug Fraser, the Scot drilling a low cross towards the near post, Clive Clark darting in fearlessly to clip the ball past goalkeeper Milkins and give Albion a real cushion. Another good save by John Osborne just before the break preserved the lead, but this was now an Albion outfit oozing confidence. Astle had a fierce shot cleared off the line by Ley and then had another effort disallowed after he finished off a fine pass from Clark.
But what was looking like a cakewalk was turned into a nervy finish when 15 minutes from time, Osborne could only parry a Trebilcock header towards Hiron who headed in from close range to make it 2-1. The goal came just moments after John Talbut had been felled by a missile thrown from the crowd, which was clearly something of a fashion at the time. This followed a strange incident where a police constable walked on to the pitch to remonstrate with Talbut after he had sworn at a Portsmouth player who had just given him a kick. Reporter Ray Matts, legendary for his refusal to use any form of foul language under even the most extreme provocation, was incredulous, writing that the officer, “Should have been more concerned with controlling an excitable home crowd who were bombarding the Albion goalmouth with a number of objects including small change. Surely the officer exceeded his duties by walking on to the pitch.”
In spite of the assault from all corners, Albion withstood the late pressure and progressed to the last eight of the competition with a well deserved 2-1 win, although Pompey boss George Smith was not wildly impressed. “Albion showed themselves a good side, but I don’t think they will win the Cup”. Says you.
The Throstles did collect their first trophy of the season just 48 hours after dumping Pompey out of the FA Cup when they won the final of the BBC’s Quiz Ball, John Osborne starring as the team’s mastermind. “I have become better known as the man who is on “Quiz Ball” and also keeps goal for Albion on a Saturday. Perhaps this is the wrong way round but I don’t mind really, although goalkeeping is the only trade I know. The important thing is that life at the top as a professional footballer is short and you have to make your name when you can, how you can. A football career can take a sudden twist and next week I could find myself knocked right off the top.”
The Baggies beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 in the final of the quiz programme, Osborne joined by Alan Ashman, Doug Fraser and guest celebrity, motor cyclist Jeff Smith. Ossie chose to see great omens in Albion’s victory: “Arsenal won “Quiz Ball” last year and they reached the League Cup Final this time; we hope we can better that double”.
The draw for the sixth round did Albion few favours though. While Leeds were set to play Sheffield United, Everton would travel to Leicester or Rotherham and Arsenal or Birmingham entertain Sheffield Wednesday or Chelsea, the Throstles were pleased to be drawn at The Hawthorns. That their opponents would be Liverpool or Tottenham was less welcome news.