As Tony Mowbray can tell you, facing Wolves early on in your rein as the Albion boss is the kind of challenge that can go either way – you become a hero or a villain pretty much instantaneously, depending on how the game goes. That’s what they mean when they talk of a baptism by fire, but for Ashman, it was worse yet – we had to take on the team from Staffordshire twice inside seven days, home and away. Not much margin for error there.
From a Wolverhampton perspective, they were very much on a high after sneaking back into the top flight by finishing second in Division Two the previous season, six points clear of the team in third place, thereby denying Carlisle United a remarkable promotion. And Carlisle’s manager that year? Alan Ashman.
Wolves had begun the season well, overcoming Fulham at Craven Cottage on the opening day of the campaign, just as the Throstles were slipping to single goal defeat against Chelsea at The Hawthorns. With Don Revie’s powerful Leeds United up next for Wolves, it was important for them to get off to a winning start to their home programme, not least for the man who was their manager, Ronnie Allen, the great Albion centre-forward clearly engaging in some important missionary work, taking the beautiful game to those who hadn’t seen it before.
Photo from WBA archive
But for the Baggies, and for Ashman, this game was yet more important. Defeat against Chelsea was disappointing and a little unfortunate given the balance of play. If Albion bounced back with a good display at Molineux, it could be easily forgotten, but if we were to lose the game, even in that gentler climate than today’s, the pressure would be on.
After the first day reverse, the Baggies were unchanged, Bobby Hope still suffering with injury, Gerry Howshall continuing to deputise for him. More than 52,000 spectators packed into the ageing Molineux stadium to watch proceedings and they should have seen Albion taking a seventh minute lead, but for an incident as rare as hen’s teeth – Tony Brown missed an early penalty, given for handball by Woodfield.
Bomber had begun to take Albion’s spot kicks in the 1966/67 season when Bobby Cram, the previous penalty specialist, had begun to fall out of favour with Jimmy Hagan and was left out of the side. He’d knocked in four in that season, including a couple in one game against West Ham, so if he wasn’t quite the experienced dead eye from 12 yards that he was to become, there was every reason to imagine that Wolves’ 19 year old ‘keeper, the giant Phil Parkes, would be fishing the ball out of the net fairly shortly. Instead, as Brown blasted the ball straight down the middle, Parkes got his left hand to it and pushed the ball back into play.
Contemporary reports suggest that Wolves had the better of the following exchanges, John Osborne forced into early action to make a good save from Derek Dougan, put through on goal by Mike Bailey. There were early bookings for Woodfield, for a hack on Jeff Astle, and for Kenny Foggo for dissent, but the referee’s next big decision came at the half hour point, Wharton shooting across the face of goal and wide, Osborne just following it round the post with an outstretched hand. Ossie should have kept his bionic knuckles to himself because the referee saw the gesture and concluded that he’d pushed the ball behind, duly awarding Wolves a corner, Osborne protesting vehemently but unsuccessfully. Dave Wagstaffe arced in the corner, Dougan got up to plant his head on it and Hunt diverted it over the line as Albion were in disarray and without their concentration. Wolves’ lead endured to the break, Ashman setting about turning things around with his half-time talk.
Getting greater width to exploit the Wolves full-backs, Taylor and Thomson, was one area Albion chose to focus on, not least because it was important to put young Parkes under aerial pressure so early in his career at the top level. The approach paid dividends just a handful of minutes into the second half, Astle taking a quick throw to set Foggo away down the wing, Foggo responding with a fine cross which Parkes, totally losing his bearings, could only punch into his own net. All square.
Taylor went into the book for the typically shabby Wolverhampton trick of pushing Clive Clark over from behind, Jimmy Dunn rushing on to administer the magic sponge to the ailing winger. While Clark was still reeling, his opposite number, Wagstaffe, set in train the move that was to recapture the lead for Wolves, Wagstaffe going on a mazy run that took him further infield. There, he spotted Bailey in space, delivering a fine pass for Bailey to crack past Osborne from fully 25 yards.
The unkindest cut of all came with 17 minutes to go when Wolves went 3-1 courtesy of another former Albion star fallen on hard times. Hunt tapped a free-kick to one side and David Burnside crashed in a shot from a similar distance to Bailey’s, Osborne again grasping thin air as the ball flashed past him.
The Birmingham Post reported that “the confident Wolves were walking away with the match. They showed up all the deficiencies that Albion still retained from last season – ponderous play in the middle of defence and an attack which lacks point”. But with time running out, that attack suddenly came into sharp focus and with seven minutes on the clock, John Kaye bundled the ball over the line, Wolves trying to claim it had been cleared, play going on until the linesman’s award of the goal was noticed by the referee.
Albion pressed forward frenetically in search of the equaliser but it seemed the Wolves would hang on. But in the last minute, cometh the hour, cometh the Hand of God. Skipper Graham Williams picked up the ball out on the left and swung a high cross into the box. Parkes was beaten to the punch, quite literally, by Tony Brown, atoning for the missed penalty by guiding the ball into the net with a deft movement of the hand. Albion had salvaged a draw in the dying seconds, but the day got better yet for Albion fans as Parkes dashed off his line, knocked John Kaye over and then pushed the referee, enough for Mr. Carr to point out where the dressing rooms were and suggest he go there a little earlier than the other 21 players.
With Molineux seething, the referee getting a police escort off the field, all suddenly seemed right with the world, but the fact that the Baggies had snatched their first point of the season did not blind anyone to the plain truth – the Throstles had made a poor start to the season and, though they hadn’t lost a huge amount of ground on the rest of the First Division in those days of two points for a win, there was a lot of work to be done on the training field.
Not that there was any time after that Wednesday night game. The Baggies had a second consecutive away game in the offing, travelling down to Southampton for the game on Saturday afternoon, a game to be played out in the packed little arena that was The Dell, a suffocating little football ground that offered huge home advantage to the Saints, something they exploited for years to keep them in and around the top flight.
The Baggies had only visited four times in the post-war era as Southampton spent the bulk of those years in the lower reaches of the Football League, but now they were becoming something of a force with a team that included Martin Chivers, Ron Davies and the England winger Terry Paine, a man who could be replied upon to star for the Saints on home turf, even if his away performances were rather less robust.
It was Paine who was the star turn as Southampton ripped a reshaped Albion to shreds. Bobby Hope was back, but probably wished he wasn’t, replacing Kenny Foggo. An injury to Eddie Colquhoun saw Doug Fraser move into central defence from right-back, Dennis Clarke taking the full-back role, yet Albion started the game in cohesive mood, playing some bright football until the brink of half-time. From nowhere, Paine conjured up a spectacular volley that flew into the back of the net and from there, Albion simply collapsed.
The second half saw Saints on top, Ron Davies doubling the lead with a penalty after an hour, Sydenham and Davies again rubbing salt into the wounds late on as Southampton completed a comprehensive 4-0 win.
So, once again, for the second time in a week, Ashman was to prepare his team to take on the Wolves in a game that had far greater resonance than simply the fight for local pride. After such a sluggish start to the season, Albion simply could not lose, though this time, at least we had home advantage at The Hawthorns. Looking for the formula that would kick start Albion’s season, Ashman made changes once more. Eddie Colquhoun returned to the centre of defence, but Fraser moved back to his old wing-half position to give more bite to the midfield, Howshall missing out. Ray Fairfax came in for a first game of the season at right-back, Kenny Stephens getting the nod to play wide on the right, John Kaye dropping to the bench and admitting, “I’ve been playing badly and don’t deserve to be in”.
By now, football was having to compete against television as the opium of the masses and the crowd for the return game with Wolves was poor, the screening of the final show in the long running series “The Fugitive” blamed for the attendance coming in at a very disappointing 38,373. The Albion fans that missed out should have been ashamed of themselves, and they were made to pay in the worst possible way – missing out on being there on a night where the Throstles absolutely thumped Wolves out of sight.
Where Wolves had been the more confident attacking unit at the Molineux, Colquhoun, John Talbut, Fairfax and Williams had Dougan, Wagstaffe and the returning Burnside in their pocket pretty much throughout, Mike Bailey the biggest threat, coming through from midfield. At the other end of the field, Albion were delighted to see Jeff Astle get off the mark for the season with the first goal of the game, a crucial strike that helped settle any nerves around the stadium. In spite of that, Bailey got Wolves back on terms with yet another long range strike – John Osborne must have been getting a little bit tired of being on the receiving end of goal of the season contenders by that stage.
Happily, Clive Clark made a clever run to get on the end of a through ball which he nodded over the oncoming Parkes to restore the lead and from there, there was only ever going to be one winner. Stephens completed a good night for the wide men by making it 3-1 and the rout was completed by Kaye, coming off the bench to bang in the fourth after further good work by Stephens.
A first win under the belt, a much improved performance, a defence suddenly playing as a unit, and four goals to savour. Had Alan Ashman and his team turned the corner now? Were the Baggies on their way? With two home games in a row to come, surely things were looking up? Pity those were going to be against Liverpool and Arsenal.