Those were the days of miracle and wonder
THE Champions League and Europa League are back with us this week, a salutary reminder that European club football is now a far cry from the days of the pioneers of the 1950s.
Played across three separate evenings, games having staggered kick-offs to maximise television opportunities, football beamed live across the continent, it’s pretty clear just which piper is calling the tune here.
More than that, we are finally getting to the point where the two European competitions actually become interesting after all the tedious group stage nonsense that is little more than a procession. Now we arrive at the purest form of the game, knockout football, and both are much the better for it.
It’s a lesson that UEFA would do well to relearn and revert back to it from the off, though of course this might mean fewer pointless games to televise through those long, autumnal evenings and it might mean that a European giant could actually crash out in the first round, thereby missing out on all that cash that would instead go to a team that, you know, deserves it for beating them.
Even then, European football can never quite recapture the glamour that it had in the ‘60s and ‘70s when foreign clubs and players were such exotic beasts that you caught a glimpse of just rarely. Nowadays, the greatest players in the world are fixtures on our television screens with none of the mystery that previous generations could claim.
Back then, even the visit of Dunfermline Athletic was cause for excitement, as it was on February 19, 1969 when Albion were defeated 1-0 at The Hawthorns in freezing cold weather, some five degrees below freezing, the Throstles going out to the only goal of the tie on a bone hard pitch.
That was a European run that had already seen the “Battle of Bruges”, when Jeff Astle came in for some especially rough treatment in a 3-1 defeat in Belgium, a tie rescued with a 2-0 home win. It paved the way for a trip to Bucharest to play Dinamo, the game ending in a riot whereupon the home players had to usher the Albion men off the pitch to safety away from a baying crowd.
Albion’s European record has been anything but stellar over the years – we’ve had five goes at it, one in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, once in the Cup Winners’ Cup, and three goes at the UEFA Cup inside four seasons – but even then, it still gave us one of them most memorable nights in our history, the beating of Valencia in December 1978, a night so good, we built a statue out of it.
In these football saturated times, it’s hard to communicate just what a shuddering bolt to the heart it was when we drew out Valencia in the UEFA Cup. They were perhaps the most glamorous club in the world for a few thrilling months, largely because they had in their number Mario Kempes, the long haired goalscorer who had won the World Cup for Argentina, possibly the greatest player in the world in that brief gap between Cruyff and Maradona.
We’d only seen Kempes play half a dozen games, beamed back to us on flaky colour television through the streams of Argentine tickertape, and the chances were that after his visit to The Hawthorns, we wouldn’t see him again until the World Cup of 1982, and only then on the box. This truly was the hottest ticket since the 1968 cup final and if you missed out, that was it.
The prospect of welcoming Kempes to West Bromwich was enough to persuade some hardy kids to stand in Halfords Lane on the Tuesday night before the game in order to get autographs after they’d finished training under The Hawthorns’ lights the night before the second leg game, a night still indelibly imprinted on my feet as one of the coldest I can ever remember.
By the time that second leg came around, we were starting to think that an astonishing win might actually be possible because the first leg in Spain is one of those games that has gone into folklore.
Having looked as if we had weathered the opening storm, Albion went behind after 15 minutes, Kempes instrumental, his corner being headed in by fellow Argentinean, Felman. A setback for sure, but Albion were good enough to gather themselves together, ready to get back into the game. And they had a player who was about to change the course of his life inside 90 minutes. Laurie Cunningham took them to pieces and brought us back home with a 1-1 draw.
The Hawthorns was set for one of those memorable nights under the lights where the atmosphere rolls around in wave after wave rather than dissipating into the sky.
Already rattled by Albion’s first leg brilliance, Valencia were getting their excuses in early, manager Marcel Domingo not best pleased by the 18 degrees of frost and blanket of freezing fog that had greeted them on their arrival. “Football is not meant to be played in this kind of weather. I am very concerned because we never have to play in these conditions in Spain. Unless the weather improves I may have to ask for the game to be postponed”.
In the words of a local sports radio personality of the time, “on your bike!” The pitch was playable, the game was going ahead and Albion knew full well that an early onslaught might just blow the Spanish outfit away.
The plan worked like clockwork for within five minutes, Albion were a goal to the good, 2-1 up on aggregate. Derek Statham floated a free-kick into the box only for Cordero to handle the ball. The penalty was awarded and, as we had become accustomed to down the years, up stepped Tony Brown to smash a low drive past a goalkeeper who barely had time to smell it before he was picking it out of the back of the net.
From there, the game settled into a period of cagey stalemate, John Wile and Alistair Robertson snuffing to the threat of Kempes while Albion attacked in methodical fashion, loath to commit too many men forward so early on with the lead already extended. It took until the 35th minute for the next moment of majesty and it came, inevitably, from Laurie Cunningham.
As a steepling cleared ball plunged out of the Black Country sky, the winger stopped it stone dead with an outrageous piece of close control, then immediately flicked in a deft cross to the back post. Cyrille Regis came bustling into view to win the ball and scramble it beyond the converging goalkeeper and defender, he ball bobbling across goal where Tony Brown smacked it over he line from all of six inches out only to see the linesman’s flag raised to penalise Regis for handball.
When the teams returned for the second half, there was a greater sense of urgency about Albion’s play, exemplified when they had another goal chalked off in the 48th minute.
The rampaging Batson collected the ball on the edge of the Valencia penalty area and speared in a low cross, Bryan Robson getting a touch to it at full stretch, the goalkeeper doing well to block the ball away. As it squirmed across goal, Tony Brown followed in at the back stick to force the ball against he post, Statham knocking the ball in from inside the six yard box, only for the offside flag to chalk off the goal. Both full-backs in the opposition 18 yard box. If ever you wanted to know what that 1978/79 was about, that little tableau said it all.
A Regis header came spiralling back off a post and into the grateful arms of the goalkeeper a few moments later before, on the hour, Valencia were almost back in it. A free-kick awarded 25 yards out, towards the left edge of our box. Up stepped Kempes to thump a left-footed shot that went flying beyond the edge of the wall, Tony Godden flinging himself to his right to make a brilliant sprawling save to keep the lead intact.
The game inched towards full-time, always on the knife edge that a Valencia equaliser would push us into extra-time. But five minutes before the finish came the second goal that killed the game.
It came, of course, courtesy of some brilliance from Cunningham who skipped past Carrete, a little bulldog of a full-back who’d just got the booking that he’d been looking for all night. Cunningham was too much for him, accelerating away to the byline before picking out Tony Brown 12 yards out. As the ball came across his body, he pivoted on his left leg, bringing that hammer right foot across to catch it sweetly with an unstoppable volley, sending the ball sweeping across goal and into the far corner, one of the great man’s finest goals in the 279 strong canon.
Waves of relief swept across The Hawthorns as we could finally relax and enjoy the last moments of the game, Albion heading into the last eight of the UEFA Cup, this glorious side, firing on all cylinders, a team that looked as if nothing on earth could stop it. As it turned out, we were right. Only we hadn’t bargained for an Act of God. The freezing weather turned to snow at the turn of the year and it wouldn’t let up for nearly a couple of months. Bloody weather.
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