There’s nothing quite like handing a thumping out to the Wolves to get the feel good factor going around the Hawthorns and after the Baggies had seen off the team from Staffordshire to the tune of four goals to one, new Albion boss Alan Ashman must have started to feel that things were coming together for him. A win, a draw (both against Wolves) and a couple of defeats wasn’t a perfect start by any means, especially as we weren’t allowed to play Wolverhampton every week, but the Baggies had edged up to 16th, had scored seven goals and were beginning to find a rhythm.
Photo from WBA archive
But if any team in the 1960s was going to put a spanner in the works, it was Liverpool, Bill Shankly’s mean, lean Red Army. The great team that had won the League twice, the FA Cup too and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup between 1964 and 1966 was showing early signs that they had just – only just – passed their peak, but they were still a relentless, driving footballing machine that struck fear into every side in the land.
And then there was Shanks himself, the greatest football man of all time. Not only did he assemble wonderful football teams, not only did he show them how to play, motivate them, encourage them, put the fear of God into them, he managed to put the opposition on the defensive before a ball was kicked. Never mind Mourinho or Ferguson, Bill Shankly was the master of the mind games, as Ray Wilson remembers from an encounter in 1969.
“In the old Halfords Lane stand where the dressing rooms were, there was a long thin corridor. Before a game with Liverpool, I was on my down there with John Osborne, and Shanks was coming the other way. I knew Bill from playing with the Under 21s in Scotland, so he said, “Hello Ray son, how are you?”
“Great thanks Bill”.
“And you Ossie, how are you son?”
“Well Bill, not so good. I’ve got this injury, it’s plaguing me. I’ll be alright for next week, but I’m not playing today.”
“Not playing? Why did nobody tell me? Jesus Christ boys, get out of my way! I’m going to have to go in there and give another team talk now you’ve got a real goalkeeper playing!””
Ironically enough, Osborne was ruled out of the 1967 encounter too, septic blisters on his feet keeping him out, Rick Sheppard drafted in to wear the number one shirt for the first time since the Baggies had lost 3-2 to QPR in the League Cup Final. Otherwise, it was an unchanged Albion from the team that had defeated the Wolves, lining up against Lawrence, Lawler, Yeats, Hughes, Byrne, Smith, Callaghan, St John, Thompson, Hunt and Hateley, legends in the game, then and now.
Liverpool took until the 6th minute to muster a first attack, and it ended with Albion picking the ball, and Sheppard, out of the back of the net. Peter Thompson drifted in a free-kick from the left, Sheppard coming to collect, only to be eased over the line by Tony Hateley on his way down. Today, it would be a foul on the goalkeeper, no question, but 1967 was a rather more robust time and Liverpool had the lead, the last thing you ever needed to give them. It could have been worse a dozen minutes in when Ian Callaghan blasted in a shot from distance, Albion reprieved when the goal was disallowed with Hateley standing offside – oddly enough, under today’s rules, that goal would have stood. Swings and roundabouts…
For all that there was still only a goal in it, according to Ray Matts’ report on the game, we were hanging on grimly. “Albion were really finding it rough going against the Merseysiders who were inspired by their early goal and the home defence was under terrific pressure for most of the half. Liverpool were much sharper in the tackle and Albion were forced to weave harmlessly about in midfield”.
The Baggies might have found a way back into the game in the second half, for six minutes in, a fine cross picked out Jeff Astle, the King cracking a header past the flat footed Tommy Lawrence, the “Flying Pig” nowhere near it, but he couldn’t beat the crossbar, the ball thudding off the woodwork and away. It was a pivotal moment for on the hour mark, Liverpool finished the job of throttling the Throstles by making it 2-0, securing the two points, World Cup winner Roger Hunt latching onto a Hateley knock down and thrashing the ball beyond Sheppard.
Albion skulked away from the ground well beaten by, admittedly, a magnificent team, but with the season still yet to get off the ground, an early place in the bottom two secured. A midweek meeting with Arsenal under floodlights was next up, Albion perhaps encouraged by the fact that Arsenal themselves had yet to hit their straps, only five points on the board compared with our three. A win would draw us level with them and people would start to feel there was nothing much wrong at the Hawthorns once again.
Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal were slowly building again after a pretty fallow period – things would get worse for them yet, losing the League Cup Final of 1969 to Swindon Town, a catastrophe on a par with our QPR humiliation – but there were signs they were piecing together a handy side. Peter Storey, a genuinely savage competitor was there, Frank McLintock, an intelligent and belligerent leader, the suave George Graham, the wiry, quick little winger George Armstrong. These men were to be the bedrock of the 1970/71 double winners, but Arsenal were still some way short of the finished article and Albion had genuine reasons to believe they could come out on top as they went into the game, particularly with John Osborne fit to play again, John Kaye restored to the side, Tony Brown left on the bench
Oddly, given their status in the bottom two, Albion were guilty of early over confidence, playing far too casually for comfort, giving the visitors a stranglehold on the game that they never relinquished. Reporter Gron Williams, noting the crowd of less than 20,000, added, “Just as for the major part of last season, Albion are living adventurously. They seem a team of gay adventurers, almost amateurs in this serious business of First Division football. They lack the solid method to carry through a match with certainty – particularly when they are faced with such firmly marshalled defences as Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have brought to The Hawthorns this season. The crowd several time raised a slow hand clap and there will soon be trouble if they continue to wallow in the relegation zone”.
Truth to tell, neither side were sparkling in the early moments of the game and it was until gone the half hour that the match started to come to life, but sadly at the wrong end, Osborne making fine saves from Johnston and McLintock. But Arsenal wouldn’t be kept at bay and the first goal came after 33 minutes. Their inside-right, Colin Addison, later to earn fame as Albion’s assistant manager under Ron Atkinson, was the architect, playing Armstrong through, the winger putting the ball in the net off Osborne.
With Albion still reeling, the Gunners went 2-0 up after 38 minutes, Graham heading down a Storey free-kick, Jon Sammels lashing it over Osborne and in. Albion enjoyed a late first half flurry, having a penalty appeal against a Terry Neill handball turned down, then seeing a penalty area foul on Astle rewarded with an indirect free-kick which came to nothing.
That momentum was carried into the second half, Furnell at his best to save from Kenny Stephens, but he could do nothing to keep out a Clive Clark header after 56 minutes, Chippy getting up well to head in a Stephens cross. That should have been the signal for Albion to take control of the game, but instead, within five minutes, they were staring at a two goal deficit once more, Addison bundling in a Graham cross to make it 3-1 – it’s amazing we ever let him come back here.
It took Albion time to get back on track, but in the final quarter of an hour, they “swarmed around the Arsenal goal, but a packed defence and the brilliance of Furnell kept them out”. Bobby Hope came close, Furnell twice tipping long range shots over the bar, then Astle forced the ‘keeper into a diving save with a strong header, but a comeback was not to be, 3-1 to Arsenal the final score.
We all know that trying to beat Stoke these days is like pushing jelly uphill, but it wasn’t a whole lot better 40 years ago, especially on trips to the poky little Victoria Ground, a real footballing cockpit that created a rowdy atmosphere when roused. Stoke had made a steady start to proceedings and boasted a good side under Tony Waddington, building from the back and the greatest goalkeeper of his day, Gordon Banks. The likes of Eric Skeels and Alan Bloor were strong in defence, but Stoke’s strength was going forward, employing the experience of George Eastham and Peter Dobing and the youth of John Mahoney and Terry Conroy, both very underrated players suffering, as many Albion men did, from playing for an “unfashionable” club.
For long stretches of the game, a midfield stalemate ensued, the two sides cancelling each other out as Ashman still looked to find the right combination, Jeff Astle demoted to the substitutes’ bench in place of the returning Brown, Ian Collard coming into the middle, allowing Doug Fraser to drop back to right-back instead of Ray Fairfax. In spite of the changes, it was Stoke who enjoyed the better of the game, but solid defensive work by Eddie Colquhoun and John Talbut in particular kept the chances down to a minimum, Osborne equal to the few that got through.
Attackers on both sides were profligate, Brown and Kaye coming in for particular criticism from the press from an Albion viewpoint in sharp contrast to Bobby Hope who tested Banks from distance on a couple of occasions. But for all that, Albion’s sound defensive play seemed to have done its job as we entered the last 60 seconds, a teasing cross from Clark drawing Bloor into handling it, the referee pointing to the spot.
Graham Williams against Gordon Banks to give Albion the points. As the Birmingham Post reported, “Williams gasped as his shot sent Banks the wrong way only for the ball to hit the ‘keeper’s outstretched leg and ricochet over the bar”. A goalless draw and a second away point of the season, not bad? Not good enough though. The league tables saw Albion residing unhappily in 22nd place of the First Division. Had we hit rock bottom? No, not yet. Not by a long way.