It's a family affair
JANUARY 19, 2002 is not a date we recall with anything but sadness in these parts, for it was the day Jeff Astle was taken from us in what we now know more clearly to have been deeply tragic circumstances.
The Throstles were at home the following lunchtime, playing Walsall, and the response of Albion supporters far and wide was something awesome to behold as The Hawthorns was quickly festooned with floral tributes, flags, shirts as those touched by Astle’s life, his achievements, his goals, but most of all, his presence, felt they had to make some tangible gesture, as though they had to be a part of him in his death as he had been part of theirs in life.
Which is what it was, in the deepest, most honest sense. For what is a football club if it is not a family, if it’s not a tribal gathering, if it’s not an organic, vital, vibrant part of people’s lives.
Forget demographics, market share, the TV millions, the United shirts on Japanese children. Forget the razzmatazz, forget the hype, the trickery, the scandal and the stories, forget the bogus idea that football is a leisure choice. It is not, not if you truly understand it. It is a calling.
Football survives because it is part of your life. You are born into football, you are born into your team. You live with it, you die with it. Weaken that, and you have a game and a club that will eventually wither on the vine.
On that day, this club proved that even in the modern world, football can still have a soul, demonstrating it in our heartfelt response to Astle’s death, from the flowers, through the immaculately observed minute’s silence at the Walsall game, past Jason Roberts’ t-shirt tribute and on to the massed ranks who attended his funeral in the pouring rain.
Football is so huge these days so monolithic, so awash with cash that you can lose sight of its soul, but Jeff’s death showed that at least Albion hadn’t. More important, it showed us that we must not. A game without a soul is a game no longer worth playing.
That is what football supporting is about, that is why clubs that are plummeting down the leagues, seemingly out of control, apparently worthless to those who don’t understand the game, somehow stay alive. It’s why this football club still managed to bring in crowds in five figures in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the football we served up couldn't begin to live with the football we’d been so proud of a decade or so earlier.
But we were proud of our club. Of West Bromwich Albion, of the blue and white stripes. Our families and friends ensured that we carried the throstle badge as a badge of honour, no matter what the transient results on the pitch were, because Albion was part of us and we were part of it. We remembered what we were capable of, those of us old enough, while the younger ones lived off the folk memory, and continued to come though any rational argument would have seen them head off to Premier League football in Witton or head off to the cinema instead.
But they didn’t. You didn’t. You kept coming to The Hawthorns. Why? Because you wanted to be there the day we saw the new Jeff Astle make this place his kingdom, the day when Albion would come back. And if it didn’t happen this season, it might happen next. Or the next, or the next. We could wait, because there is no other choice for us, because we are Albion.
And now we’re back in the Premier League, the top flight where most of us believe this club belongs. And why do we believe that? Because of Jeff and his ilk. Jeff gave us dreams to dream, memories of glory days and visions of him thundering through the middle to get his head to another perfect Chippy Clark cross gave us all the hope to keep on going through the grim days, the Woking days, the Halifax days, the Twerton Park days.
That’s what a great player, and more importantly, what a great man does for a football club. He encapsulates something about the place, its ethos, its existence and he becomes the repository for everything connected with it. And no club has ever had a finer ambassador, nor a finer keeper of the key than Jeff Astle, for though he was a Nottinghamshire lad rather than a Black Country man, he came to personify everything about West Bromwich. The warmth, the hardness, the humour, the willingness to laugh at himself, the capacity for some damned hard work and the ability to balance that by playing hard as well.
I remember a time as a kid when to get Jeff Astle’s autograph on a scrappy bit of paper was all that mattered in life and to see him running on to the field was the earthly equivalent of heaven. Like your dad, you just knew that Jeff would never let you down and like your dad, he never did. Even when there were wild press reports that he was off to Everton – making at least this Black Country youngster wonder about the possibility of supporting two clubs at once – he didn’t betray us and stayed at The Hawthorns to the end of his top class career. God bless him for that kindness alone.
As The Beatles defined the 1960s on an international level, ask any Baggies fan about his abiding image of the 1960s and it’s Jeff, arms aloft, celebrating after sticking another one in the back of the net. And though Jeff might have been an Elvis man, might have been called The King, if he needed a real title, it was John Lennon who provided the most appropriate epithet for him – Jeff really was a working class hero.
Jeff was Superman too, just as he was Everyman, the source of his enduring appeal and of his legend, a legend that will only grow in the retelling of the tales down the years. Tell them to your children, your grandchildren, but don’t let Astle become a mythic creature. Leave him as flesh and blood because he is the beating heart of this football club, the memory that roots us in our culture, Albion culture. If we lose that, we lose everything, and we become the soulless entity that so many others have become – no names, but you know who I mean.
Jeff is this club’s conscience, looking down on it, keeping it on the straight and narrow. After all, who would betray a kingdom?