A sombre 48 hours for the Club following the passing of Lady Barbara Millichip continued today with news of the death of two former Albion players.
Wales international Tony Millington and Northern Ireland’s Danny Hegan were two huge characters both associated with the club’s journey through the golden days of the 1960s.
Today we pay tribute to both.
Goalkeepers, as we know, are a law unto themselves. Eccentric isn’t the word, because many goalkeepers have their own style, their own way of doing things, their own very individual take on the beautiful game and the way they approach it. After all, it’s the most exposed position on the pitch, it’s the one where, however good you are, you’re rarely the hero, always just one mistake away from being the villain.
Of course, there are characters, and then there are characters. And Tony Millington was pretty remarkable even by goalkeeping standards. Best described as a showman, he clearly believed that his job description extended beyond shot stopping. Millington, it appears, saw himself as an entertainer, and more power to him for that.
Tony was born in Hawarden on June 5, 1943 and joined the Throstles, initially as an amateur, in the summer of 1959. With bags of natural ability, it sometimes seemed as if the game came all too easily to him and concentration was an issue he sometimes struggled with.
But that could not disguise his talent and by 1961/62 he had forced his way into the Albion side at the age of 18, good enough to force his way past Ray Potter, no mean feat, and Jock Wallace, slightly easier, to make a first-team debut in a 2-2 draw at home to Manchester City on the last day of September 1961.
He went on to rack up 24 games that season as Archie Macaulay replaced Gordon Clark as manager, before he and Ray Potter shared the No.1 jersey the following season. That was the year when Millington forced his way into the Welsh side, his debut coming in Cardiff against a strong Scotland side.
Playing behind a defence that included club colleague Stuart Williams and the great John Charles, now back from his time with Juventus, Millington had to fish the ball out of the net three times as the Scots won 3-2, Denis Law one of Scotland’s scorers.
Next up was a trip to Budapest to play a still strong Hungarian side, and another defeat, 3-1, before Millington was selected to play in goal at Wembley in the next of the home internationals. England were rampant, winning 4-0. That November 1962 was a tough month for Millington given that Albion had shipped five goals at home to Blackburn.
We then proceeded to lose 4-1 at home to Nottingham Forest, which led to the return of Ray Potter to the team. Potter stayed between the sticks that season, except for one game where injury kept him out. Millington steeped into the breach and was promptly mown down by Wolves who won 7-0 at Molineux.
After 40 appearances for the first team, that was the end of his Albion career, not least because shortly after, Jimmy Hagan arrived to take charge as manager. Of all managers, Hagan was the least likely on earth to take to a showman goalkeeper, the kind who would celebrate a goal with a handstand, or swap sweets with supporters behind the goal while Albion were attacking, something that one of his successors, John Osborne, was not above doing either.
Hagan was not taken with Millington’s showmanship which, occasionally saw him making a save or two for the cameras.
That hid real ability though, and a move away to Crystal Palace reenergised his career, ensuring that for the rest of the 1960s, he would do battle with Dave Hollins and Gary Sprake for the goalkeeping job with Wales.
Later, he returned to the Valleys to play for Swansea where he became a huge crowd favourite. They do say you should never meet your heroes though, and for Tony, that was true. A big fan of the former Manchester United man Harry Gregg, the appreciation was not mutual, the stern Northern Irishman cut from the same cloth as Hagan and he moved on again to Glenavon, before a horrific car crash in 1975 ended his playing career.
Millington was always popular with crowds for his humour and for his compassion. One story from his Swansea days sums him up. Warming up before the game, he suddenly chased off the field only to return carrying a chair. He’d spotted an elderly supporter on crutches in the crowd and ushered him into the disabled supporters enclosure and sat him down to watch he game.
By a wicked irony, Millington became wheelchair bound but remained involved in the game as the disability officer at Wrexham.
As Albion careers go, it’s true to say that Danny Hegan did not enjoy the most stellar of stays here at The Hawthorns. It lasted just twelve months, from the moment he arrived in May 1969 for the fee of £88,000 plus Ian Collard who moved to Ipswich Town in return, to the day he left for Wolverhampton in May 1970, Albion collecting a mere £27,500.
The disparity between the two price tags underlines just how badly wrong Hegan’s move to the Black Country went. And yet, ironically, his arrival was supposed to herald a brave new world for the Albion, part of a spending spree that was going to transform our reputation as a cup fighting team to a unit that could have a realistic go for the title, as Asa Hartford recalled.
“We had a bit of a go around about 1969. We spent £100,000 on Colin Suggett, we got in Alan Glover and Danny Hegan, about a quarter of a million on the three of them, but it never took off. The Glove was a talented player but he wasn’t consistent, Suggy was a good player and Danny was great if you could get him out the pub! We were jogging round Spring Road one day and Danny had had a few the night before. It used to be then that you’d buy cigarettes and there was a question inside the packet, so he had all these wrappers, asking the lads the questions as we were running round, “Who scored the goal…””
Certainly, Hegan made his name off the pitch as much as he did upon it, for he was one of the great socialisers of his time according to John Kaye: “We had some great laughs because it was a very close-knit group. We went on tour somewhere when Danny Hegan was there. He was a character, he liked to organise things, and we used to call ourselves “Ocean’s Eleven” – I think I was Dean Martin! Danny was Danny Ocean, I can’t remember the others, but we had some terrific times.”
As a player, Hegan was very much of his time, what was termed a flair player, someone willing to play with the ball at his feet and always keen to try to take it past his opponents. Playing with something of a swagger, and he could certainly play, Hegan was the target for defenders who got a little tired of that style and, in the days where the tackle from behind was not only legal but pretty much compulsory, he took his share of stick. Which he then liked to give back when the red mist descended.
Born in Scotland, Danny also qualified to play for Northern Ireland and made his debut for them in Moscow in October 1969 after he’d made just 12 starts for the Throstles, scoring twice, against Crystal Palace and Liverpool. Playing out in the old Soviet Union was a pretty tough introduction to the wiles of international football and with Danny sporting the No.7 shirt, the men in green went down to a 2-0 defeat, not exactly a disaster.
Danny didn’t play for Northern Ireland again during his tenure at the Albion, but that was not exactly a disgrace. After all, the fella who usually wore their No.7 shirt was a chap called George Best.
Not only that, but Hegan’s Albion career was going off the rails to the extent that, by season’s end, he had added just five more starts to his statistics – 17 in all plus one substitute appearance, two goals - and his departure was imminent, one big money transfer that simply failed to work out. But did Danny boy ever leave his mark on those that came into contact with him…
Rest easy boys.