How swiftly things can turn. As September 1967 entered its final day, new Albion manager Alan Ashman was biting his fingernails, deeply concerned about his future at the club, wondering if an imminent return to his erstwhile occupation of chicken farming might not be on the cards. A fortnight later, after the Throstles had beaten Leeds United 2-0, not only was Ashman the darling of the Albion faithful, he was flavour of the month with the rest of the country as well because no result went down better back in the 1960s then a Leeds defeat. Plus ca change, as they say in Gornal…
Albion were suddenly halfway up the league, three wins on the spin behind them, and all was right with the world. Players that a few weeks before had seemed like rejects, ready for a mass cull before rebuilding could take place, were suddenly showing the form expected of them. Astle had banged in five goals in four games, Tony Brown was back on the scoresheet, things were tighter at the back, Albion were looking a cohesive side. In short, according to Tony Brown, the transition period from Jimmy Hagan to Alan Ashman was behind them.
“I don’t think the style of play had changed that much. Alan inherited a lot of good players. Alan was a gentleman, he encouraged you, didn’t come down on you like a ton of bricks. But if things were going wrong or you got out of line, he’d let you know. I think Alan allowed people to express themselves and I think we all responded to that. The system we had, it just seemed to work, it fell into place, we started winning games and got a great belief in ourselves. He treated you like adults, and we respected him for that.”
In his Inside Albion column, Ray Matts reflected on our improved form in front of goal: “Tony Brown has truly made his mark. It can hardly be a coincidence that Albion have won every match since he was reintroduced into the side at right-half against Sheffield United. He has really struck form since moving into the half-back line. The other character to have stamped himself on Albion’s return to winning ways is centre-forward Jeff Astle, yet at the start of the season he was really struggling to find form – and suffered the justifiable indignity of being dropped for the first time since his arrival at The Hawthorns.”
After a couple of months of struggle, at last we looked like what we were again, a good, solid, middle of the road First Division team, capable of giving anybody a game on our day. What we were not – and this was the magnitude of Ashman’s task – was a side that could consistently find its best football and be relied upon to go anywhere in the country and get a good result. There were always trips that looked as if they might be too much for us, games where supporters pretty much dismissed our chances of success. Games like Everton at Goodison Park.
That said, the Toffees were having a mixed start to the campaign themselves, only a couple of points ahead of Albion, ten places adrift of league leaders Liverpool, so it was not quite the home banker that might have been expected. Albion had shown they could give a good account of themselves in the blue half of Liverpool the previous season when they lost 5-4 in a breathtaking encounter, so hopes were high of a good display.
Having thrived on a settled side, Albion’s pre-match preparations were thrown into turmoil when Graham Williams pulled out of the squad following the loss of his father, while Clive Clark did likewise because of illness to his wife. Ian Collard and Dick Krzywicki stepped into the breach but it was a big ask against an Everton side well aware that it had to start motoring if it was going to mount any kind of title challenge. With the magnificent midfield of Harvey, Kendall and Ball in full cry, the School of Science was ready to hand out a footballing lesson.
Everton opened like a whirlwind and were in front after just three minutes, Alex Young dummying Alan Ball’s low corner, leaving Ernie Hunt to bundle the ball past John Osborne from close range. Hunt very nearly snatched a second within moments, his shot flashing just wide of the post. That heralded a period of shots in, Kendall driving an effort wide, Hurst’s header thumping against the underside of the bar and back out, Albion’s goal living a charmed life until, ten minutes in, the second arrived, John Talbut’s header out returned with interest by a Kendall lob that flew over Osborne and in.
Osborne made a terrific save to keep the score down within a couple of minutes, as it seemed Albion must be swamped. But the Baggies were now made of sterner stuff, more resilient than early in the season and, through the rest of the first half, gave as good as they got, striving to get a foothold in the game. They did just that after 21 minutes, Bobby Hope’s accurate centre being powered beyond West by John Kaye’s emphatic header.
The Throstles ended the half on a high, Krzywicki twice coming close with a shot and then a header, but half time came with Albion still behind, the interval interrupting the flow of our football. It was a different game again after the break, Harry Catterick’s team tightening things up at the back, happy to concede ground rather than goals, looking to retain good possession in the middle and hit on the break. Ball missed an open goal on 63 minutes, somehow hitting the post when it was easier to score, and he was almost made to pay for the mistake, Kaye heading wide at the other end. But Everton were, for the most part, in control, seeing out the game and pocketing the points with the minimum of fuss.
Disappointed to have lost, Ashman was still able to talk up some positives on the way out of Goodison, saying, “We have now got to the point where we are not giving points away. This is something we should be satisfied about. We were prepared to fight for those two points right to the end.”
That fighting spirit was next put to the test by a visit from Leicester City, a team that had been rock bottom until a three game unbeaten spurt – including a 2-1 victory over Liverpool and a 5-1 win at Southampton – had pushed them up the table. The Foxes were keen to keep that record going, but there was never any suggestion that they were after another five goal feast, the Birmingham Post’s reporter complaining that, “Uneasy Leicester went to The Hawthorns with the maximum aim of one point and they succeeded so well that they choked nearly all the interest out of a fixture which is usually good entertainment.”
Employing a blanket defence in front of a promising young goalkeeper called Peter Shilton, Albion quickly ran out of ideas as to how to break them down after an initial 20 minute onslaught brought no reward, too quick to simply sling the ball towards Astle’s head in the hope that he would fashion an opportunity. A goalless draw did little to aid Albion’s cause, but they had to wait a fortnight to get that frustration out of their system, the following weekend’s trip to West Ham postponed because of a waterlogged pitch as the rain lashed across Britain.
Burnley were next on the agenda, back at The Hawthorns, on Armistice Day, the solid turf Moore outfit unbeaten in seven weeks and apparently offering a real examination of Albion’s credentials, the more so as the Baggies were under pressure to get back to winning ways.
Could they have done just that any more emphatically? Burnley simply couldn’t get anywhere near a dazzling display from the Albion as we thrashed the living daylights out of them, 8-1. Reporters compared the performance to those which had been commonplace under Vic Buckingham in the glory days of the 1953/54 season, but was it really that good? Who better to ask than Ashman’s assistant, Paddy Ryan, who had been a central figure in that team alongside Ronnie Allen, Johnnie Nicholls, the great Ray Barlow and Len Millard.
“It was just like old times,” Ryan said afterwards. “The boss has persevered to get them to play like this, and here was the result. Apart from the 4-0 League Cup win over West Ham last season, it was as near as we have got to the 1953/54 side.” In front of a crowd of just 18,457, Albion were imperious, swift moving, quick passing, intelligent, skilful, everything you would want from your team. Chances were created at will, and chances were taken without a moment’s worry. It was our day, and we milked it.
The Post waxed lyrical, saying, “Kenny Stephens must have made [Burnley’s] John Angus wish that he had never recovered from injury, Brown prompted an opponent to query afterwards, “Does that lad never stop running?” while Hope looked a natural deputy for suspended Denis Law [in Scotland’s team].”
The Throstles were two up inside 20 minutes, Bobby Hope and Clive Clark putting them in total control, then Tony Brown’s shot trickled between goalkeeper Thomson’s hands and legs to make it 3-0, Burnley clearly giving up the ghost after that, accepting they were in the presence of an irresistible force.
John Kaye made it 4-0 from a Clark pass and even Eddie Colquhoun got in on the act by registering goal number five before half time. Hope and Clark both scored again after the interval and finally, Jeff Astle got on the scoresheet to make it 8-0, Burnley’s Ralph Bellamy registering a consolation effort four minutes from time.
Tony Brown recalls, “When we beat Burnley 8-1, we absolutely annihilated them, they couldn’t get anywhere near the ball. We were just on top of our game and it was a day where they couldn’t live with us. Everything flew in, we murdered them.” Unsurprisingly Albion were nominated as the Uwin team of the week in the aftermath of victory, a result that silenced any doubters once and for all. This was an Albion team that was heading very definitely in the right direction.