After a grizzly start to his reign as Albion manager, after the 2-1 victory over Nottingham Forest, Alan Ashman could begin to look optimistically towards the rest of the season. The tongue lashing that he had given his team after their inept departure from the League Cup at Reading had seemingly had the desired effect and the Baggies had jumped out of the bottom two to the relative heights of 18th position. Not good enough – not nearly good enough – but at least it seemed as if the patient was finally on the mend.
Photo from WBA archive
Albion’s trip to Highfield Road on 23rd September seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Throstles to underline that things were on the up and up. After all, Coventry, in their first ever season in the top flight, were struggling to come to terms with the new level, were a point worse off than the Baggies and were in the bottom two themselves after successive beatings at the hands of Manchester City and Newcastle United. A golden chance for Albion to put distance between themselves and the lower reaches of the division.
Ashman brought Graham Williams back into the team in place of the injured Doug Fraser, John Kaye also coming back into the team at the expense of young Ray Treacy who dropped to the bench. All seemed well as the Baggies tore into their Sky Blue opponents, the home side barely able to get a kick in the first ten minutes, by which time Jeff Astle had put us into a 1-0 lead with only his second goal of the season.
The ease with which Albion had got on top and imposed their superiority proved something of a false dawn. Perhaps we took the opposition too lightly, became complacent that the rest of the game was going to be a procession. Whatever the cause, Brian Lewis changed all of that when he got to the ball first in the Albion area and equalised after 14 minutes.
Worse was to come before half time, Ronnie Rees, later to become an Albion player, ending the first period on a high for Coventry by snatching a 43rd minute lead as Albion stuttered badly all over the field, their early rhythm lost and apparently gone for good. The Birmingham Post was scathing in its report, complaining that, “Hope and Kaye linked with Collard in the middle line of a 4-3-3 plan. It was a plan wrecked by failure in every department, with Hope and Kaye negative and ineffective”.
Albion repeated their impressive first half start by getting back on level terms through Clive Clark almost immediately from the restart, but it was another false dawn for a toiling team who struggled to make any further impression on a feisty Coventry backline, the Post adding, “Stephens and Astle showed endeavour and thrust but apart from spasmodic and below form bursts from Clark they fought a lone battle against a Coventry defence that covered its deficiencies with a rugged exterior. Coventry’s performance was one of complete team effort liberally laced with luck.”
Photo from WBA archive
Fortune was with them when Eddie Machin retook the lead with Coventry’s third goal in the 56th minute, the game finally sealed ten minutes from the finish when Ronnie Rees notched his second goal of the game. A 4-2 defeat, an abject performance and a fall to 20th place. No wonder the normally affable Ashman was beside himself after the game.
“Once Coventry got stuck in - and I don’t mean in an unfair sense – the lack of fight and determination in our players was a big disappointment. Too many were acting – arguing about fouls and complaining to the referee while Coventry got on with the job.
“We would have been all right in an exhibition match but this was a competitive game and for competitive spirit, Coventry had us licked. They play with more enthusiasm than any other team in the country and you can’t afford to face them when only a few of your players are prepared to challenge.
“When Coventry equalised it should have had an even more marked effect on us than them. Our players should have been annoyed for letting the lead slip after their promising start. Instead they collapsed”.
In spite of his disappointment, Ashman resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes for the visit of Sheffield United the following week, the Blades one of only two teams below the Albion, with only six points and two wins to their name, though ominously, the second had come as Albion were losing at Coventry, Sheffield United beating Newcastle at Bramall Lane. That was a much needed upturn for John Harris’ team, for in the previous three games, they’d shipped four goals against Chelsea and Arsenal, then five at Manchester City, also finding time to go out of the League Cup at the hands of Millwall.
Given United’s form, Albion fans were asking themselves how many more golden chances dig their side need before it hauled itself out of trouble at last? Gift horses seldom came any mouthier than Sheffield United, so this was the time to ignite the season at last. With Doug Fraser fit again, Danny Campbell was dropped and the injured Ian Collard was replaced by Tony Brown in what was to be a very significant switch.
With Albion in a parlous position, you might have expected there to be a real edginess about the dressing room before a ball was kicked in anger, but according to Bomber, things couldn’t have been a lot more relaxed. “We used to have a telly in the dressing room, and we’d be watching Grandstand or World of Sport or whatever it was before Alan would come in and give us his team talk. He came in the one day before we played Sheffield United and said, “Ok lads, turn it off”.
“Jeff said, “You can’t do that Alan, there’s a race on here, I’ve had a big tip on this.” So Alan just turned round, walked out on us and we never saw him again until half time! Jeff went and got an hat-trick and we won the game easy, but Jeff was still fed up because, “That bleedin’ horse came last!” That was Alan’s way of not upsetting you before a game. He could have made a fuss, then we’d have all been in a bad mood and that, but he let it go and we went out and won the game. Jimmy Hagan would probably have chucked the telly in the bath, but Alan was more easy going and I think after that start period, we started to appreciate his style more. He became the kind of manager where you wanted to win games for him because he was such a nice bloke.”
It only took the King six minutes to repay Ashman for letting him watch his money go down the drain. Roaming out to the right, Astle played a short pass to Bobby Hope who picked out Clive Clark with a typically inch perfect centre. Clark wasn’t quite so accurate and his header squirted across the goal, finding Astle rushing back into the box to bludgeon a shot past Hodgkinson from close range.
The returning Tony Brown almost made his mark within a few minutes, picking up a loose ball, skipping past two heavy challenges and then shooting just wide of the goal. At the other end, John Osborne made a very good save to deny Fenoughty, but this was an on song Albion side who were pouring forward at every opportunity, pummelling the visitors’ defence. Astle headed another Hope cross wide after 20 minutes, but nine minutes later, the number nine had all but secured the points. Bobby Hope, in inspirational form in the middle, released Kenny Stephens down the right and his cross into the box had Astle’s name on it, the centre-forward leaping to get on the end of it and planting the ball into the net.
Goalkeeper Hodgkinson just about kept United in sight of the game when he made a magnificent fingertip save from John Kaye, but with half-time looming, Albion let their grip on the game slip just a little, Graham Williams dispossessed near his own goal, Woodward belting in a hot across the face of goal which Osborne could only parry, Reece mopping up the rebound to make it 2-1.
With fresh hope, United started the second half well, Osborne producing another fine save from Fenoughty, but Albion were not going to slip up this time. Astle should have snatched his hat-trick early in the second half but was robbed as he was about to convert a Clark effort, but it was left to Tony Brown to restore the two goal advantage in the 56th minute of the game. Bobby Hope, instrumental again, picked out a lovely pass to Brown, who advanced a few yards and then drilled in a low effort that skimmed across the turf and just inside the post, a typical goal from Bomber.
But Astle was not going to miss out on the chance of taking the matchball home with him on the third anniversary of his signing for Albion and with 12 minutes to go, he made it 4-1 to the Throstles, completing an emphatic win. Astle was set clean through by who else but Bobby Hope, advancing on Hodgkinson before belting a shot direct at the ‘keeper. As the rebound fell back to him, he hit it harder yet, Hodgkinson somehow getting in the way once more. Clive Clark was now on the scene, and he took a third swing, Hodgkinson again making the half save, the ball finally returning to Astle who, at last, stuck the chance away.
With the points safely pouched, Graham Williams put his finger on the difference between victory over Sheffield United and defeat at the hands of Coventry the previous week: “It is all a matter of effort. There was none at Coventry a week ago. This time they pulled their socks up”.
Some commentators understandably suggested that Albion’s convincing victory was as much down to the deficiencies of a Sheffield United team struggling for their lives and shorn of their best player, Mick Jones, who had made the switch to Leeds United, and it was true that Albion still had defensive questions to address.
But a 4-1 win certainly lightened the load around Alan Ashman, things looking more encouraging at The Hawthorns all of a sudden. Importantly too, the Throstles were beginning to find a pattern of play, as journalist Ralph Hadley pointed out: “Albion were well served in midfield. Brown, normally a forward and playing his first game at wing-half, worked well with Hope and they were in complete command.” Hadley was clearly someone who knew his stuff. Hope and Brown were about to become the fulcrum of a very, very good Albion team.