HERE’S a quick trivia question to keep your busy during these strange times: Which British record signing made his club debut against West Bromwich Albion at a non-league ground in David Cameron’s old constituency?
Go on, have a guess? The answer will follow.
In the meantime, society is still adjusting to lockdowns, social distancing and an unpleasant territory to all.
Football isn’t a priority. It never will be. Nor should it be. But people need an escape. And, right now, football provides a useful go-to release from a horrible, grim reality.
As sport continues its enforced break due to the Covid-19 pandemic – those words still seem surreal – two-time Albion boss Ron Atkinson has spoken about the methods of entertainment he laid on for his players during an enforced break from play in 1979.
A bad winter meant Albion were to play just three times in the League between January 13 – when they drew at Norwich to go top of the top flight – and early March.
First, came a call to an old mate in a small town in Oxfordshire. These days Witney is more famous for being the constituency of the former Prime Minister David Cameron and one-time stomping ground of home secretary Douglas Hurd. It is more of a political hotbed than one of footballing thoroughbreds.
Yet for one afternoon in 1979, Witney was to be the epicentre of English football.
Over to you, Ron Atkinson…
“I used to coach a team called Witney Town long, long ago and they were going to play Oxford City in a testimonial for one of their lads,” recalled Atkinson.
“So I rang the lad up whose testimonial it was – a lad called Trevor Stokes – and I said ‘what about if we bring a team down to play Witney?’ He said ‘yeah…that would be unbelievable’. So we put all of these plans in place and then one day I get a call from Brian Clough. Somehow, Cloughie got wind of this game and he asked if he could send down a team to play us. They were struggling without games too. Fine by me.
“Anyway, so I call Trevor back: ‘Hey guess what… Nottingham Forest would like to play us at your ground, what do you think?’ This lad must have thought all of his birthdays had come in. From it being Witney versus Oxford City, it was now the Football League champions against the Football League leaders. And to top it off Cloughie had just signed Trevor Francis, the first £1million player.
“And I tell you what, Witney couldn’t get us down there quickly enough. That game ended up being Trevor Francis’ first ever match in a Forest game of any sort. A place that would normally get 2000 people max suddenly had about 8000 coming through the door. It was easily the most competitive friendly I’ve ever seen, certainly that I’ve been involved in. Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd were kicking lumps out of Cyrille Regis, Ally Robertson and John Wile at our end were doing the same with their lads. It ended up as a score draw. We were both straining at the leash to play football so both sides went at it and, of course, it was the first time anyone had seen Francis in a Forest shirt.”
Meanwhile, back in the League, Liverpool continued to play their home games – assisted by a pitch supplemented by undersoil heating – leaving the Baggies merely rubbernecking as the Reds claimed top spot. They were never to relinquish it.
Albion’s hopes of returning to normality were dashed as the snow continued to fall, leaving Atkinson to make more calls to contacts about where his side could play some football. They ended up heading over to the Channel Islands.
The 81-year-old continued: “I knew somebody in Guernsey who had a pitch so I said we’d go out there and play. Birmingham’s match against Manchester City was also called off so I asked Jim Smith (Blues manager) if they wanted to play us and he agreed to it so we went out there. The Sports Argus even put up a trophy called the Arctic Cup – I’ve no idea who ended up with that. Incredibly we went on the same plane – they’d never allow that now – and that ended as a one all draw.
“Anyway, just before we left Jim Smith announced Alberto Tarantini [Argentine World Cup winner, who struggled at Blues] wouldn’t be on the trip, so I told the lads it was now going to be a lot harder for us than I initially thought! Just to liven them up a bit. And then one of their young lads – I can’t remember his name – came on as sub and as he ran onto the pitch he pulled his hamstring. That was unfortunate to say the least, but the match was competitive. It was a good game between two decent sides. Mind you I did feel sorry for Joe Gallagher. He was panicking because he was a bad flyer and on the way back we hit a bit of turbulence, so Len Cantello shouts out ‘don’t worry lads you’re only going down once this season’. It was a great trip.”
Atkinson added: “The press who usually covered us came to the game. Jim Smith, bless his heart, was badly hungover for the match. I still laugh about it now when I think about it. He was sat in this dug out, which had this corrugated sheet of metal over it, and the fans kept banging on it. He still feeling it from the night before and he was really struggling. Poor Jim. When it finished 1-1 there was a suggestion that we, Jim and I should have a penalty shoot-out to settle it – but Jim was in no state to do that.”
Atkinson admitted the Big Freeze came at the wrong time.
“We could have beaten any team in Europe, before that break,” he added. “We beat Valencia, beat United, won at Highbury, beat Bristol City. We were top of the League and then didn’t play again properly for six weeks, by which team Liverpool continued to play and overtook us.
“We came back and played so many games – we played Leeds three times in a short period of time – although we lost the League game. We had about 11 games in 25 days, including a trip to Belgrade to play Red Star. When we went over there, Len Cantello couldn’t go with us as he was ill so we didn’t have enough subs and John Trewick had to go into the side. So yeah it caught up with us.”
Football in 2020 remains in limbo. A decision has yet to be made whether this season will be concluded, whether the campaign will be cancelled and declared void or whether football will resume, in the interim at least, behind closed doors.
Atkinson believes 2019/2020 needs to be concluded, first and foremost.
“They need to complete this season, even if it means starting next season later,” he added. “They have to be fair to everyone. If they ended it now nobody would complain about Liverpool being champions, but then you’ve got all the other teams challenging to get into the Champions League and trying to stay up. They need to finish this season off, even if it means playing behind closed doors.
“People talk about a mini pre-season but the training at this stage of the season would be about topping up. I don’t see a problem with them starting fairly quickly. If they start in June, say hypothetically, then they could play two games a week easily and virtually go into the next season. If they were coming back in for pre-season they’d be playing preparation games anyway, so these extra games merely condition them for next season anyway.
“For Albion’s sake I hope it does resume. I’ve seen a fair amount on the box – they’ve looked very impressive in the division. But, right now, who knows what’s going to happen.
“Yes, there are complications like we’ve never known – but get this season finished, no matter what. I know there are problems around playing behind closed doors but it might well be the only solution.”