Having taken over at The Hawthorns in May 1967, Alan Ashman had the advantage of the best part of two months to plan pre-season, then six weeks of intensive work with his new charges before the first ball in the First Division was kicked on August 19th.
Just as we see today, part of those preparations took the form of pre-season friendlies, the Baggies looking for an early test of their credentials in the south of England, with games at Bristol City and then at Bournemouth inside 48 hours. Under new management, these games had a particular edge unlike normal pre-season friendlies, Ashman looking to formulate his best eleven ahead of the season, the side he hoped would carry him through – these were the days before squad rotation, when the top players would battle their way through 60 or 70 games a season on pitches like ploughed fields for much of the winter. Once the best team was picked, changes were made for injury, loss of form or suspension, not to give anyone a rest.
Photo by Laurie Rampling www.wbapics.com
August 7th saw the Albion roll up at Ashton Gate for a game that drew a crowd of 7,719, significantly more than a similar pre-season game would attract nowadays. Plenty of interest was shown in the side that Ashman put out, a team which contained plenty of familiar names. John Osborne was in goal, Doug Fraser and skipper Graham Williams were at full-back, with John Talbut and Eddie Colquhoun the central defenders. Kenny Foggo and Clive Clark played out wide, Tony Brown and Bobby Hope in the centre of the park, Jeff Astle and John Kaye the battering ram up front.
Albion, employing a 4-2-4 system according to contemporary reports, the Evening Mail paying particularly close attention to the way Ashman had changed the positioning of some of his players, Fraser taking on a full-back role after playing all his previous football at wing-half. With the Scot dropping back, it opened up a midfield berth for Tony Brown, who had hitherto been more often a member of the forward line, be it out wide or in an inside forward position. That move was to turn Brown, already a great goalscorer for the Throstles, into a unique scoring machine, fielding him in a position where his vision and his eye for a chance could be even more telling.
“I played a midfield kind of role for Albion but then I was asked to play as an out and out striker for England, as a target man, and it didn’t suit me. I needed to have things laid out in front of me, I was never a great player with my back to goal, it wasn’t my game to hold the ball up.
“I didn’t play in the hole as they call it now, because I did a defensive job as well, but I had more licence because as time went on that season, we had Ian Collard, Bobby Hope, Graham Lovett, who would dig in behind me, so I had that security to bomb on, a bit like Paul Scholes or Frank Lampard now. Managers used to say to me, you’re not a ball winner, but do a midfielder’s job. Stay with runners, track back, make it hard for them, stop them going where they want to, don’t let them get free in the box, be a nuisance to them. You don’t have to be Bryan Robson, you just need to understand the game and do your bit for the side.”
Photo from WBA archive
The way in which Tony Brown would cause havoc was something for the future, but going into these pre-season games, all eyes were on Clive Clark, to see if he could emulate his astonishing form of the previous season. Banging in 28 goals from his position out on the flank, as well as providing the ammunition that Astle and Kaye thrived upon, Clark was one of the most exciting talents in England, the kind who would surely have won international honours had he not been playing in the era when England had won the Jules Rimet trophy with the “wingless wonders” system.
Fortunately, Albion still believed in the value of attacking with width and Clark was always going to be integral to Ashman’s plans. And if there was ever any doubt, his performance at Ashton Gate quickly dispelled it. The Throstles had been the better side throughout the opening half but it wasn’t until the 43rd minute that they broke the deadlock, Astle involved in the build up, Clark applying the finishing touch. Two minutes after the break, it was a similar combination that made it 2-0, Clark doubling his and Albion’s tally, moving the City manager, Fred Ford, to exclaim, “He is worth an extra three men to any team”.
Crowe blasted in a goal from 25 yards after 54 minutes to reduce the arrears, but Albion remained in command, Astle taking a pass from Brown, playing a quick one-two with Kaye, then drilling the return ball past Gibson in City’s goal. Kenny Foggo completed the scoring ten minutes from time to complete a very pleasing work out for the Baggies, one in which the most significant move was Ashman’s refusal to use any substitutes.
Bournemouth offered the opposition two days later, Ray Fairfax replacing Williams at left-back, Gerry Howshall coming in at right-half to allow Brown to rejoin the forward line in place of Kaye who was carrying a groin strain. Albion lacked the same fluency going forward, but a clean sheet was perhaps of more lasting significance, an indicator that in his last months as manager, Jimmy Hagan had begun to resolve the Throstles’ biggest problem, a leaky defence.
The signing of John Talbut from Burnley in January 1067 looked to be the turning point, he and Eddie Colquhoun forming a “solid, towering partnership” according to one report. Another journalist, Dennis Shaw, added, “Albion under Ashman are likely to put defence before attack instead of the reverse approach adopted by the former Manager, Mr Jimmy Hagan.
“Secondly, there were signs of more uncompromising tackles from defenders than of old. The basis of Albion’s style seemed to be to always have seven men behind the ball, and sometimes as many as nine.”
With Albion infinitely more secure in defence, all that was needed to defeat Bournemouth was a single strike and that came from Tony Brown three minutes into the second half, diverting the goalkeeper’s clearance back into goal. Astle had a goal disallowed for pushing, but Albion had done enough to collect a morale boosting victory, the new season ten days distant.
Leading up to the big kick-off, the usual season previews were penned. The key question asked by the Sports Argus was “Can Albion be tough enough?” Lauding the fact that “Ambitious, widespread and most admirable efforts have been launched to raise the whole profile of the club” Dennis Shaw questioned Ashman’s suitability for the task in hand, noting, “He must be able to buy wisely with the top of the First Division his aim AND he must get tactics across in the same highly successful way that he did at Carlisle”.
Much revolved around any change in emphasis, Shaw sniffily dismissing Hagan’s philosophy of “attack and be damned with entertainment placed at least on a par with the desire to win”, a philosophy that had delivered European football and consecutive League Cup Finals, one won, the other lost – if that’s crushing failure, can we have some now please?
The view from inside the dressing room was articulated by John Kaye in his Argus column, published as the Baggies were playing their opening fixture. “Albion have plenty of incentives,” he wrote. “The Board has made it clear that they intend to boost the club to one of the foremost in the country and we have a new manager in Mr. Alan Ashman – so we want a better start than last year”.
Photo from WBA archive
Chelsea were Albion’s opening day opponents at The Hawthorns, ironically the club that had been busy losing the 1967 FA Cup Final at the very moment Alan Ashman was being offered the job as Albion boss. John Osborne was a doubt before the game, no surprise according to Tony Brown who remembers, “Ossie never thought he was fit. He hated playing, and was always saying he wasn’t going to make it for Saturday!” Yet when the teamsheets were handed in, it wasn’t Osborne who was the notable absentee. Instead, Bobby Hope missed out, suffering from infected blisters on his feet, Gerry Howshall deputising for him.
As was customary, the Throstles opened the game in a blaze of attacking glory, Tony Brown shooting over when well placed, Doug Fraser overlapping on the right to fire off a shot that Bonetti struggled to cope with, then Clive Clark nodded wide. But within nine minutes, the Baggies had conceded their first goal of the season, Bobby Tambling striking a beautiful shot with the outside of his left foot, the ball flying over Osborne before dipping viciously into the net.
Albion regrouped, Astle coming close, Bonetti injured as the big centre-forward chased through, the England ‘keeper diving bravely at his feet to save. Retaliation was not long in coming, and, as you’d expect back then, it was Chopper Harris, who in another life would have made a great gangster, who sought retribution, putting Clark onto the running track. Astle was denied a penalty for a clear shove, but the interval came and went with Albion still a goal behind.
The cause wasn’t helped any just short of the hour mark with the loss of John Talbut, Ian Collard replacing the injured centre-half, Fraser having to clear Baldwin’s shot off the line as we regrouped. The closing stages of the game were all Albion, the Blues clinging desperately to their lead, running down the clock by whatever means possible, but still Albion created chances. Astle missed a sitter, then Brown dashed through to collect a Kaye through ball and score, only to find the linesman’s flag waving him offside. As if that wasn’t enough, he did it again minutes later as Brown guided a header into the Chelsea goal, signalling that this was not going to be Albion’s day, not that that should have been any great surprise to anyone – the Throstles had won just one opening day fixture in the swinging ‘60s, the 3-0 beating of West Ham in 1965/66.
For all that historical precedent, it was still a disappointing opening to the Alan Ashman era, both on and off the field – a dozen arrests were made by police as fighting broke out between opposition fans behind the goal before kick-off, some of the Chelsea fans having warmed up for a punch up by knocking seven bells out of a British Rail train on the way up from London. Ah yes, the golden age…