October 1988. Albion were spluttering, coughing and wheezing during the opening throes of their Second Division season.
Ron Atkinson’s Baggies side had won just two of their opening 10 games.
Yet it wasn’t cough syrup Albion needed, more divine intervention.
And then it happened.
Yes, really… Jesus.
Not that Jesus – the other one.
Because while Albion were making hard work of the English second tier, over in Madrid the Atletico chairman Jesus Gil was picking through his fruit bowl of managers.
Vicente Miera had gone. So too had Jesús Martínez Jayo. Luis Aragones? Yep, he too. Argentinian legend and tobacco fetishist César Luis Menotti had been banished to a smoking shelter somewhere – but definitely not in Madrid. José Ufarte, also gone. Ditto Antonio Briones. José Maguregi, close the door on your way out won’t you?
This roll-call of managers dated back to 1986. Jesus clearly wasn’t patient.
And so Gil called for Atkinson.
The Spanish capital or Smethwick? It was a tough choice.
Incredibly, Big Ron opted to leave for sunnier climes, accompanied by his trusted No2 Colin Addison.
Back in West Bromwich, and behind the scenes, Albion captain Talbot was left in limbo. He was on the verge of joining Colchester United as player-manager. He had told them as such. He was already packing his bags.
But not anymore.
1989-02.05-Brian Talbot-Denise Plum Pic
1989-19.08-Brian Tolbot-v-Sheff Utd
Talbot, now 65-years-old, recalls that period.
“I was in the team but I told Ron I wanted to leave and become a manager. I got offered a couple of jobs, which Ron was happy for me to pursue,” said Talbot.
“Colchester was ideal because they wanted me as player-manager. I lived in north London and could travel there every day.
“All was agreed and the next thing I knew Ron was leaving the club – off to Atletico Madrid. It put me in an awkward position. The chairman Mr (John) Silk was a lovely man and asked me to take over the team at Birmingham away. Ron left on the Thursday, I took over on Friday and we played Saturday…but I went into that game thinking I was going to leave the following week. And then everything changed.”
Indeed it did change.
Robert Hopkins grabbed a couple, Gary Robson and Stewart Phillips also scored, giving the visitors a 4-1 win at St Andrew’s.
And from there it got better.
Victories over Bradford, Manchester City, Blackburn and Oxford followed. Five wins.
“I got offered the job so I had to the let Colchester chairman know I’d be staying. It was a new experience for me,” recalled Talbot.
He was handed the job full time.
“At the time I wanted to go into management.
“When you’re a player you learn as an apprentice, you go into the youth team, the reserves and you’re learning all the time. As a manager you don’t learn. You have no experience. It’s a culture shock. You are dealing with new problems, you have to pick the team, deal with personal problems of players, deal with media, leave out friends and team-mates, you have no preparation for it.
“I’d played at a high level – everything was done for me.”
In 1988/89, player-managers were hardly a novelty. Kenny Dalglish had won the double while occupying both roles with Liverpool in 1986. Graeme Souness was making name for himself on, and off, the pitch with Rangers. And, of course, our very own John Giles had won promotion as a player-manager in 1976, having already ticked off a parallel responsibility with Ireland.
Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli were to follow at Chelsea.
These days they are unheard of…or at least they were until Vincent Kompany was announced into such a role at Anderlecht following Manchester City’s treble.
So, Brian Talbot, how was it for you?
“I felt it straight away. You have to make decisions. You’re no longer one of the boys…but the problem is I had to play, so I was still one of the boys – which I hope makes sense. You’re caught between the two.
“Thirty one years on I now realise I made mistakes. The problem was I was one of the best players in the team and was going to retire… so I needed to make that decision. And I couldn’t do both.
“I made mistakes, I wanted to do things too quickly and I should definitely have played longer. We sold Carlton Palmer too early (February 1989) for instance.
“But the main thing…when you’re a player you learn as an apprentice, you go into the youth team, the reserves and you’re learning all the time. As a manager you don’t learn. You have no experience. It’s a culture shock. You are dealing with new problems, you have to pick the team, deal with personal problems of players, deal with media, leaving out friends and team-mates, you have no preparation for it.
“I’d played at a high level – everything was done for me. I mean this with respect but I was a good player at West Brom – one of the best really – and I was shocked that some of the players didn’t want to do enough, or push themselves enough, to improve themselves. I struggled with that.
“I was used to improving myself, being better…but not everyone was like that.
“With hindsight, maybe I’d have been better off learning my trade lower down. My wife told me I’d have been better off going to Colchester than staying with West Brom. And maybe she was right. I’d never moved my family to the Midlands. I had a flat in Edgbaston. It was ok, but not the ideal situation. But you live and learn.”
Albion were near enough top of the division during Christmas 1988. Just six wins in the final 22 games condemned them to a ninth spot.
Injuries, sales, suspensions strangled Talbot’s ambitions.
Successful or not, Talbot could draw inspiration from former gaffers. In theory of course, if not in practice.
Sir Bobby Robson with Ipswich, Terry Neill and Don Howe at Arsenal, Stoke’s Mick Mills and, of course, our very own Ron Atkinson – with six England caps won under Don Revie and Ron Greenwood.
“Yes… an impressive bunch. Yet I didn’t call anyone. I got on with it. But I should have got advice, talked to people. I was wrong not to do that. I wanted to do it my way.
“But I learned a lot from time with the club. It was a great experience for me and I look back on those few months in 1989 – if only we’d kept those couple of key players (Anderson and Goodman) fit… who knows where we’d have ended up?
“I’ll say this though. Albion were a big football club and I learned a lot during my time as manager. I still have fond memories.”
And so, since then, West Bromwich Albion’s wait for a player-manager continues.
Vincent, we’re all looking to you for inspiration….