A special rivalry
We head for Old Trafford at the weekend, on the hunt for a third straight league win at the home of Manchester United for the first time since we enjoyed a similarly hot streak at the tail end of the 1950s, winning 4-0 in March 1958, just weeks after the Munich disaster, 2-1 in the October of that year and then 3-2 on the Saturday before Christmas 1959.
Those account for five of just 13 Albion wins on our visits to Manchester – plus one in the FA Cup – but for all that, games between ourselves and United have thrown up many special memories down the years, even up in Salford.
Standing proud above them all is, of course, the 5-3 win from December 1978 when that incandescent team of Cunningham, Robson, Bomber, Regis, Statham, Cantello, Robertson, Batson, Wile, Ally Brown and Godden all hit ten out of ten form on the same day and produced a performance of such inexhaustible power, ageless grace and intoxicating beauty that we speak of it still, Laurie gliding over the snow and leaving barely a footprint, Bryan driving forward, perpetual motion, Cyrille all muscular magnificence, Derek so spellbinding you could not take your eyes off him, Len smashing in one of the great Albion goals of all time.
United have had their moments too, most important amongst them a day in September 1963 when a whiplash waif by the name of Best made his debut and opened up a career that would see him live up to and beyond that name handed down from the Gods.
The greatest footballer these islands have ever produced, an early kick in the slats from Graham Williams sharpened him up to the realities of professional football and George never looked back.
By one of those great cosmic coincidences that make you look for a celestial script somewhere, Albion were the visitors 42 years later on a sombre night at Old Trafford when we gathered to bid farewell to that same life kissed by genius and cursed by the raging fire that fuelled it. Lucky enough to be there that day, I would not have wished to be anywhere else on earth at that moment.
The Throstles are often there in moments of extremis for United. In 1958, as a football club crawled from the wreckage of a plane smashed beyond recognition in Munich, we were there for a sixth round FA Cup replay as 60,523 fans and a nation beyond will United to victory in a tie which, as Bobby Robson recalled later, we simply could not win, such was the raucous tide of emotion and melancholia that swept over the game.
We have had our own seismic moments at Old Trafford too, not least when we finally dragged ourselves back to the summit of league football and played a first Premier League fixture there, a slender 1-0 defeat our lot. Two seasons later and we looked to be heading for relegation as we pitched up there for a late kick-off, needing at least a point to stay in the division. A goal – and goalkeeper – down early on, substitute Tomasz Kuszczak produced the performance of his life to keep us in the game before Robert Earnshaw slotted in a penalty to give us the chance of the great escape a week later.
Even last term, as we prepared to play game 35 of the campaign, earlier results in the day threatened to put us back in the thick of the relegation scrap if, as expected, we were beaten. But we were not and, courtesy of a string of fine Boaz Myhill saves and a Chris Brunt free-kick that found its way off Jonas Olsson and in, safety was all but done and dusted.
Does another season defining afternoon await us on Saturday?
Why not? It’s in the nature of these games to provide one.