At home with the Astles
JEFF Astle remains the King of The Hawthorns.
To Laraine, he was a loving husband. To Dorice, Dawn and Claire he was 'dad'. Had he still been alive he would now be grandfather to five (four boys and one girl), with a great-grandson.
Laraine Astle, along with daughters Dawn and Claire, kindly opened the doors to their family home in Derbyshire to speak about Jeff.
Q. Laraine, tell us…how did you meet Jeff?
A. (Laraine) It was in a local miners' welfare. I'd gone with a friend for a dance and Jeff was downstairs in the bar area playing cards. At the end of this night he asked his mate to come over and ask if he could walk me home. I was a Forest fan, he was a Notts County footballer. The following day County were playing and he asked me to meet him in Nottingham after the game so we went to the restaurant under the Odeon picture house. All the way through our meal he read The Football Post. Every now and again he'd pop his head over the paper and ask "Are you ok, Duck?" and the film we saw was The Longest Day. I can just about watch it now - I couldn't for a while...
Q. Tell us about the Albion move. Was it a shock?
A. It was. And I remember it well. Jeff moved on September 30, 1964. At the time we had a flat in West Bridgford in Nottingham. Jeff walked in about 1pm and said "...I've signed for West Brom". Hours later we drove to Filbert Street and he made his debut against Leicester City. He didn't know any Albion players, he couldn't name you one...but he played and two games later scored twice in a 5-1 win against Wolves.
We moved to Springfield Crescent in West Bromwich, then we moved to Cottesmore Close. I found people very friendly - we were made very welcome by the people of West Bromwich. The only concern I had was the leap: Jeff was going from Division Four to Division One. I needn't have worried.
Q. In the meantime, you got married?
A. We got married two years after we met - December 12, 1963. Nothing fazed Jeff. He was laid back, very easy going - with a great sense of humour. He wasn't particularly romantic - there were no red roses or bells ringing. He just said “shall we get married?” And we did. We got married at Greasley church in Nottinghamshire - the very church I was christened in and where my mum and dad got married. We had three daughters - Dorice, Dawn and Claire. And you know it never once bothered Jeff that he didn't have boys. All three girls grew up to be massive football fans and all three are season ticket holders at the Albion. We have three generation of Albion fans now.
Q. When did you realise how big Jeff was?
A. It crept up on me but it didn't faze Jeff so it didn't faze me. Before a game the fans were expecting Jeff to score. And Jeff knew this. He enjoyed the expectation and the big occasions. He went out with the attitude 'I'm going to score for them'. It spurred him on. And don't forget he took the shirt (the No.9) that Ronnie Allen had worn a few years before him. From the moment he played his third game - we beat Wolves 5-1, Jeff scored two, made two - there was a love affair with the Albion fans that never wavered. When Jeff scored THAT goal (1968 FA Cup Final) he went straight to the fans. It was for them.
Q. The FA Cup goal must have changed things?
A. I was a bag of nerves. I knew the expectation on Jeff too. Funnily enough, I didn't see the goal because of friend of ours Alan, a son of a director at the time, stood up when Jeff had his first shot (which hit Graham Lovett and bounced against an Everton player back into Astle's path). But I knew we'd scored I just didn't know who had scored. Alan turned round and yelled: "It's Jeff...Jeff has scored."
Jeff always said two players stood out in that game: John Osborne and John Talbut. He said they had the games of their lives.
I recall after the final Irene Brown (Tony's wife) and myself went the wrong direction out of Wembley. We found ourselves in this field. We were still in the surrounds of Wembley but totally in the wrong place. So we made our way back to the coaches and realised we were walking back towards Everton fans coming towards us. It was frightening. Our feet were being lifted off the floor. I said to Irene "take your rosette off' because I thought the only way we'll get back is if we convince them we're with Everton. I asked one of the fans "can you let us through please - we're Everton players' wives". And with that the sea parted as word passed along. The buses were still waiting for us. I'm not sure they'd realised we weren't even there.
Q. Jeff became the King during his 10 year period...but was he ever close to leaving during his peak?
A. We were very close to leaving just before Alan Ashman left. Derby wanted him. They put a bid in and part of the deal was Kevin Hector joining Albion - it would have been a huge deal for both clubs and players. It was pretty much done and dusted.
While they were sorting this out we went on holiday to the Costa Del Sol - we assumed that was that. And then Alan Ashman got the sack. Don Howe came in and blocked the move. It was a bit hush hush at the time but because it never materialised we never discussed it. We couldn't believe it when we found out about Alan. Don Howe and Jeff never really got on. They were complete opposites. He came in and told Jeff to stop heading the ball - he wanted us to play like Arsenal - even though Jeff scored more with his head than his feet. He upset a lot of the players. They said he was a fantastic coach but as a man manager? No... no way. It was the only time Jeff was unhappy at Albion. Derby went onto win the League in 1972 under Brian Clough. It was probably Jeff's least favourite time with the club.
Q. How did Jeff cope with the end of his Albion career?
A. It was the one time he got a bit down. He had appendicitis and then he three cartilage operations in the space of a year. I remember Don Howe had him running up and down the steps of the stand...which was ridiculous. But you know Jeff always looked back with fondness at his spell with the club. It was a big part of our lives and a fantastic period for the football club. Not many footballers could say they've scored a winning goal in an FA Cup Final.
And I'll never forget the night of the final, after we'd won the Cup. I was waiting for him in the hotel room. Jeff walked in and without saying a word he just walked up to me and gave me a massive hug. He didn't need to say anything else. At that point, I knew exactly what the day meant to him.
The second part of this interview - life after Albion - will be posted on wba.co.uk tomorrow.