One wheel on my wagon…
AS Albion savoured the wonders of the 1978/79 season, a campaign where we were the best team in the country and were only denied our just silvery desserts by the worst winter in nearly 20 years, our enjoyment was short lived for almost immediately, two key players, Laurie Cunningham and Len Cantello, were off to the diametrically opposed locations of Real Madrid and Bolton Wanderers respectively. Just how were we going to fill those holes?
Thankfully, Malcolm Allison was having a bit of a brainstorm at Maine Road, and not in a good way. In his second spell at the club, he was looking to build a new team and he did so by ripping the heart out of the old one, making Gary Owen and Peter Barnes available for transfer, among others. And then spending nearly £1.5million on Steve Daley, a player Wolves would have sold him for half the money. But that’s a different story...
Anyway, Owen and Barnes were pretty much tailor made to slot into the Albion side and Ron Atkinson wasted little time in ushering them into The Hawthorns with still enough change left from the Cunningham and Cantello transfers to buy John Deehan a little later.
These were those far off days when a top flight footballer earned a decent wage but nothing much more than a skilled worker might make at Longbridge and so players were always on the look out for something to supplement their income, be it a newspaper column, a boot endorsement or, better yet, the use of a sponsored car, for these were times when they were happy to drive around with the name of a garage plastered on the side of their Capri rather than simply nipping out and buying another Merc with this week’s win bonus.
For a player like Gary, and his colleague Peter Barnes too, getting such sponsorship was not an issue for they had been the golden boys at Manchester City, players who had come through the ranks and who had won England recognition, Gary an absolute fixture at Under-21 level, Peter even making it through to the full national side under Ron Greenwood.
But with the move to the Black Country in the offing, things were about to change as Gary recalled.
“Me and Barnesy came down to the club, ready to go in for our first day in pre-season training. We’d got these sponsored cars when we were at City, from a Ford garage in Stockport, and they let us keep the cars until we got ourselves settled in, which was really good of them.
“We came down the day before to stay at the Europa Lodge as it was then, the Park Inn now, and we came out of reception to go to the ground the following day. As we came out, I could see Peter’s car and there were no wheels on it, it was up on bricks. Obviously they weren’t keen on cars from Manchester taking up space in the car park!
“I could just see a bit of my car behind his, but I could see there was still a wheel there, so I was quite happy, and I was saying to Peter that the fans had obviously taken an instant dislike to him, but I was ok.
“We walked over to the cars and as we got there, I could see that the other three wheels of my car had been pinched as well - but at least I thought the fans liked me a little bit better than Peter because they had left me the one wheel!
“We ended up doing interviews for the papers that day, and made an appeal, and miraculously, we got the wheels back! No questions asked...”