Jeff Astle: May 13, 1942 - January 19, 2002
WELCOME to a column that I’ve never wanted to write, for a couple of reasons. Before you understand the second – it’s about Jeff Astle - I’m afraid I’ve got to go through the first. Talk among yourselves for a few paragraphs while I get it over and done with.
I don’t like having a column with my name on it. I don’t actually like anybody knowing what I do at the Albion, because my name is irrelevant. All that matters is the work and that it is done for the greater good of the Albion and the Throstletariat.
But I’m told that the modern world is fuelled by the engine of self congratulation, self promotion and selfies. And so here I am, holding my nose and putting my name on what I believe the young people call a blog.
After my dribblings of last week on the subject of football as religion, I’ve been asked to stay with the personal stuff, so here we are. Apologies all round.
My main job is writing the Albion News, the matchday programme. I’ve been doing it since 2001 and, the golden words of John Homer, David Holloway, the Albion Foundation and Gez Mulholland aside, I write the lot, about half a million words a year. If you’ve been fooled sufficiently to find these columns readable, you should buy it. Anyway, it’s because I do that that in 2002, I was able to do this…
And here we come to the nub of the story and the real reason why it’s a column I never wanted to write, for it is a piece about the 19th January 2002, the day we lost Jeff Astle.
Fate is a funny devil. About six months earlier, I remember phoning my dad at home to tell him the news that one of his favourite players, Ronnie Allen, second only to the great Ray Barlow, had died. On the Sunday morning of 19th January, as I got ready to go to work – how bizarre that “work” means The Hawthorns – the phone rang and it was my dad, telling me that he’d just heard that Jeff Astle had gone.
It’s a little melodramatic to class it as a “JFK moment”, but I do remember the moment I got the call, where I was, what my dad said, the fact that I felt oddly unsteady on my feet and had to sit down.
Astle was my hero as a kid, growing up in the wake of that blessed day of 1968. I’m not alone in that for, even in the stellar company of Tony Brown, John Kaye, Sir Robert Hope, Graham Williams, Clive Clark et al, it was Astle who had been sprinkled liberally with stardust, that indefinable extra ingredient, the natural, easy charisma of the hero.
When a childhood hero departs the scene, especially at the scandalously early age of 59, they take a part of you with them. It’s one of those moments that puts you in touch with your own mortality. If Jeff Astle isn’t going to live forever, what chance have the rest of us got? It’s like finding out that there’s no such thing as Batman.
We were fortunate indeed that in the wake of the news, we were due to play Walsall that very afternoon, allowing us all to meet at the Shrine in an act of communion, sharing our grief in an impromptu memorial service.
I got ready for work, ready to come in and garble my way through an afternoon of co-commentary on Albion Radio, thankfully in the company of Scott Field who actually knew what he was doing and made me sound faintly coherent, a task that John Dunn now endures - 106.9 FM and on Albion Player on the website, tune in, it’ll make your ears bleed.
As I was getting dressed, I dug out an Astle t-shirt and put it on under my shirt, an act of homage to the fallen hero, and then drove into the ground. I met the boy Field in the office and we talked about the passing of the great man, what we would say in commentary, how we would cover such an Albion tragedy. I mentioned that I was wearing the t-shirt.
“You should give it one of the players to wear in case we score."
“I’ll give it Jason."
And so dear reader, I removed my shirt – modesty dictates that I disappeared to the sanctuary of the toilets to do it, nobody needs to see me removing my shirt, believe me – and we legged it over to the Halfords Lane side of the ground and to the entrance to the old tunnel where we came upon Dave Matthews, doyen of kitmen.
“Dave, send Jason out will you?” (We knew not to go anywhere near the dressing rooms while Gary Megson was on the prowl).
Out came Jason Roberts.
“Jason, listen, wear this under you shirt, and when you score, take your shirt off and show this to the crowd. You’ll be a legend forever."
They team didn’t all have Astle t-shirts on as one rumour goes, so that could all do the reveal, whoever scored. There was just one shirt. Pure dumb luck – or an intervention from upstairs - dictated that we gave it to the bloke destined to score the goal and that was how a piece of Albion iconography happened. The shirt now rests with the Astle family.
He wasn’t supposed to cut the bloody sleeves off mind…