It might be an exaggeration to say that the Albion were playing like drains at the start of the 1967/68 season, but the fact that an unusual number of plumbers were taking a special interest in our affairs told its own story. Bottom of the division after seven games, four points taken from a possible 14, the only consolation being that three of them were taken off the Wolves. No, the golden new era promised under Alan Ashman was taking a little time to materialise.
Photo from the WBA archive
Still, 40 years or so ago, if you wanted to get the Albion going, all you had to do was show them a cup tie. There was no better cup fighting side in the country than the Throstles, especially if you were looking at the Football League Cup, a competition we had only entered twice. We ran away with the trophy at the first time of asking, beating West Ham United 5-3 over two games in the final of 1966, and then the following year, we went all the way to the final again, the first time it had been held at Wembley, only to implode in the second half and let a 2-0 lead slip away to a 3-2 beating at the hands of Third Division QPR.
The draw for the second round of the League Cup, the stage at which we entered it, was tricky, but not especially unkind. Albion were presented with a journey down to Elm Park, the home of Reading. Reading had made a useful start to the season, winning four of their first five league games, beating Bristol Rovers too in the first round of the competition. Yes, they were second in their league, but that league was Division Three. After Albion’s disaster at the hands of Queens Park Rangers the season before, you would have thought not only would they be prepared for the dangers, they’d positively relish the chance of inflicting a bit of vengeful damage on a minnow as atonement for the previous year’s debacle.
Or not. Albion tumbled out of the League Cup at the first time of asking, with barely a whimper, a humbling greater even than the one at Wembley because at least in north London the Baggies had competed, had led and had been “unfortunate” with some of the refereeing decisions. But at Elm Park, they were simply woeful – and this was in the days before the League Cup became the competition where you gave fringe players a chance. You played your best side, or you were fined heavily for not doing so. Writing in the Express & Star, Robert Blackburn said “There can be no excuses. Last night’s beating was only a continuation of the disappointing form which has run Albion into an early season struggle. Manager Alan Ashman preferred to remain silent. That is understandable. He has been handed enough headaches to make him reach for the aspirin”.
Photo from the WBA archive
In attack, Albion were derided by opposition and press, Blackburn reporting, “The fact that a Third Division rearguard could shut out this laboriously tip-tapping attack provides its own condemnation. The need for a striker is urgent”. Defensively we weren’t so hot either, falling behind after 27 minutes, though Ian Collard gave Albion hope of a second half revival by grabbing an equaliser just before half time. But if anything, Albion were even more ineffectual after the break, and chucked in two Reading goals in six minutes just before the hour mark to seal our fate. Things were spiralling very rapidly out of control, Blackburn damning a lacklustre effort with, “On paper, Albion should have walked this one – they tried to do just that too often”.
The following day, the players reported for training as usual. What they didn’t find was the usual Alan Ashman, as Tony Brown recalls. “That was the point where it became obvious we had to do something to stop the rot. We had a nightmare start to that season, lost a lot of games and it was only the fact that we got a draw at Molineux and beat them up here that we kept the real pressure off. The first couple of months were horrendous but we went off to Elm Park to play Reading in the League Cup and that should have kick started us. Bearing in mind we’d been finalists the previous year but lost to a Third Division side at Wembley, we should have been really up for winning that one, especially the way the season was going.
“But we were awful, got beat, and the following morning, Alan got us all in at the gym at Spring Road and that was the first time he blew his top at us. I remember him saying that it wasn’t good enough, that it wasn’t acceptable, that we had to start improving. He laid the law down and I think he was panicking a little bit to be honest. I think he was worrying about his job because it was a terrible start.
“I don’t know if we thought he was a soft touch, whether it was just a culture shock after Jimmy Hagan, the fact that it was more light hearted, that we were treated like adults. Maybe we did take him for granted, it was a bit easy-osie, a bit blasé at that stage, but once he stamped his authority on the place, that was it. You do need a blast every now and again, the kick up the backside. And as it was the Wolves games where we’d done well, that probably was the case, because those are games where you don’t need geeing up, you know you’ve got to go and do it for the supporters”.
Skipper Graham Williams recalls that the players accepted they had to raise their game, and were keen to do it for Ashman. “It was pretty much the same team as the previous year under Alan, but we took time to adapt to him because he was such a contrast to Jimmy, very gentle. You could have a laugh at training and the dressing room became a great place to be, because the jokers like Jeff, Dougie, Hopey, Ossie, they could all come through. Jeff and Tony were like Morecambe and Wise. So from being frightened to do anything, we were suddenly free to be ourselves.
Photo from the WBA archive
“We had a slow start, but really the change came that summer, when it became a fun place to be again. You’d come in early for training, you’d come in on your day off, just because it was a great place to be. You’d play five-a-sides, Scotland and Wales versus England. None of the coaches were in, that was our day, and the atmosphere just lifted. We played for orange juice, losers had to buy it. People would be asking if we’d got homes to go to! It was just great fun. We’d come in early just to have a five-a-side before we started proper training. At the end of training, there was a room upstairs and we’d play table tennis afterwards. But the problem was, results become habits. If you win a couple, you expect to win every week, and the same with losing. At the start of the season, we were losing all the time and it takes something to dig yourself out of that”.
Perhaps it needed a game where Albion were, if not underdogs, then at least up against it, to draw the very best out of them, to find some spirit. The visit of Nottingham Forest was probably the perfect game, with Forest riding high in fourth place, but very definitely a footballing side, playing a 4-4-2 formation, and looking to attack, but missing Henry Newton and John Barnwell, their two key midfielders. You couldn’t have scripted better opponents.
Ashman made changes, putting Graham Williams on the bench, John Kaye and Tony Brown missing out altogether, Ray Treacy, Kenny Stephens and Danny Campbell coming into the side, a bold move given that Ashman had never actually seen either Treacy or Campbell play. In spite of the changes, Forest were in fine form and were dominant for long stretches of the first half. But where Albion had capitulated in earlier games, on this afternoon, they were giving nothing away, putting in a gutsy, fighting display to keep them at arm’s length through a frenetic first half an hour.
The value of digging in was very apparent 30 minutes into the game when the Throstles fashioned their first decent chance, Sir Robert Hope whacking the ball past the hapless Forest ‘keeper from just inside the box. Having got in front, the Baggies enjoyed a more upbeat ending to the half, prior to coming out and finding themselves under the cosh once again, the second half a repeat of the first, Forest throwing everyone forward, Albion defending as if their lives depended on it.
And, again, just like in the first half, such bravery got its reward midway through the second period as we mounted a rare attack, Jeff Astle, finally finding his true form, getting on the end of a cross, his header thumping against the crossbar and dropping invitingly for Stephens to ram into the roof of the net.
The visitors managed to grab a goal back with 14 minutes still to play, Ian Storey-Moore belting a long range drive past John Osborne, but this game was to going to slip from our grasp. A 2-1 win was duly completed, Ashman commenting afterwards, “I was pleased with the way the boys went in for the ball. They showed more fight”.
Albion had duly climbed four places to 18th and though that made things feel much, much better, there were still problems at The Hawthorns. On Monday morning, the newspapers were full of stories that Clive Clark was on his way out of the club, Leeds United the favourite to get his signature, Leicester and Coventry both making overtures. With Ashman looking to make signings of his own to change what seemed an ailing squad, the fee of around £60,000 that Chippy would have attracted was undeniably tempting, while for Clark, Leeds had to be an attractive proposition, not only because of their obvious quality but because it was the club where his career had begun as an amateur in the days before they were transformed by Don Revie.
Other reports suggested that Ashman was preparing for a huge clear out of players that were suddenly dead wood, Astle, Kaye and Williams all rumoured to be on the hit list, unthinkable given what they had already done for the club and the successes they were to go on and enjoy. As things transpired, none of those three, nor Clive Clark were through the out door. Just as well really. Who would have won us the cup otherwise?