by Chris Lepkowski
JOB done, game over. This was Albion’s year. Just give them the title now.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
January 13, 1979. A Cyrille Regis goal had given the Baggies a 1-1 draw at Norwich.
By doing so Ron Atkinson’s men went top of the old Division One for the first time that season. They were expected to stay there for some time. Albion looked invincible. Wolves had been walloped, Arsenal beaten, Manchester United ridiculed, Bristol City thrashed. Albion were ticking them off one-by-one with ease.
Yet while Albion felt the warm glow of potential incoming glory, there was discontent rumbling – quite literally. For the winter of 1978/79 was also the Winter of Discontent. Britain was in the teeth of the biggest national strike since the 1920s. Public sector workers, health employees, bin men, fuel tanker drivers, gravediggers and many more took to the picket lines. Rubbish went uncollected, chaos ensured and panic buying engulfed the nation, as the very threads of society threatened to disintegrate. Again, all sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it?
Still, at least we had the football. Nothing could stop the football.
Until, one morning, the Black Country woke to snow. Lots of snow. And for the next few weeks it didn’t stop snowing. Snow, snow, and more bloody snow.
The cost was significant. From the moment the final whistle blew at Carrow Road, Albion were to play just one more League game during a six-week period.
Derek Statham remembers the period well.
The Baggies legend keeps abreast of his former club from Spain these days.
He is confident Slaven Bilic’s men can finish the job off when they finally do resume first team duties – assuming, of course, that this season resumes.
So how do footballers cope with the lack of competitive football?
“With a lot of frustration,” admits Statham. “I remember going top of the league at Norwich thinking we were on top of the world. I think many people at that point would have had us down as genuine title contenders…
“And then the bad weather came, which was extremely frustrating. As a footballer you want to play and rest in between. You don’t mind playing twice a week because it’s always so much better than training. Coaches and managers try to make training as good as they can but as a footballer you want to be out there playing at high intensity. It’s what footballers do and I’ll never understand players who say others. And this break came at the worst possible time for us. It destroyed our momentum and rhythm.”
Statham continued: “We had a great set of players – we had no egos, we all got on and Big Ron kept us all up – but it was the lack of football that hit us. All footballers talk about that sharpness. It’s not the same as being fit. You can be fit but nowhere near the fitness you need for football matches – there is a big difference in the two things. We didn’t foresee the length of time it would take. This was a side that had just beaten United 5-3, beaten Arsenal away and gone top of the league. We didn’t want to stop – we felt totally invincible.”
Ron Atkinson struggled to find suitable venues for Albion to maintain their fitness.
Sports halls offered opportunities for short bursts of intensity but weren’t adequate for top flight football clubs. Artificial turf and undersoil-heated pitches didn’t become more common features in English football until the 1980s – although Liverpool had already installed the latter at Anfield, to their benefit.
Atkinson had seen enough; a light-bulb flickered. Big Ron picked up the phone to Jim Smith, his close mate, who also happened to be Birmingham City’s manager, and asked him if he fancied a trip to the Channel Islands, an area relatively unaffected by the rigours of the British winter. And so West Bromwich Albion and Blues made the short trip to Guernsey.
As a reminder, this was a Birmingham City side that included Mark Dennis, Pat van den Hauwe, Gary Pendrey and Kevan Broadhurst. To use the footballing vernacular they were a ‘bunch of characters’. What could possibly go wrong?
“Haha…that was some trip,” recalled Statham. “We were in the same hotel back as Birmingham in the days when they had some characters. We had a few beers that week. I remember having a pool competition with them in a bar in the hotel when we had a day off. It got a bit raucous between us… yes, it would be fair to say, it was quite a session. And we still beat them, which was one hell of a risk to take with that lot. Those boys were good lads and they could look after themselves, make no mistake.”
Atkinson’s side missed three League games as a result of the big freeze: home games against Derby and Chelsea, with a trip to Tottenham. But postponements from earlier in the season meant a congested final two months to the campaign. In a 44 game period from March they were to play 14 games. A potential title challenge became a pursuit to finish second. A home defeat to Nottingham Forest on the final day of the season left Albion in third, at the expense of their victors.
Statham added: “We needed another pre-season because we couldn’t find anywhere to train. That ruins your stamina and fitness. Big Ron and his staff did all they could but you couldn’t do anything about the match sharpness and that was a big problem. We were in sports halls, having to completely change the structure of our training. It wasn’t ideal.
“The first game back we played Liverpool at Anfield – they’d been able to play, certainly their home games – and so that was a nice introduction back into football, playing the best team in England.
“We had a great side but they were incredible. We played very well and we lost but we should have won. In the last few minutes of the game, we were losing 2-1, and Laurie (Cunningham) cut in from the left. Instead of passing the ball across to Ally Brown, he tried a shot and sent it straight at the goalkeeper.
“By the end of that season we were finished – totally out on our feet. We were dragging ourselves through games and Liverpool kept going. To make it worse we lost second place by losing to Forest on the final day of the season – that was gutting. No doubt about it, that lack of football cost us the league. If we had continued to play games…I think we would have done it.”