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Famous for 15 minutes: David Mills

28 October 2015

When big transfers go bad

THERE used to be a time when £516,000 was a lot of money as opposed to an England international’s spare change after a night out. 
For a football transfer, there was a brief moment when that number represented the record fee paid between two British clubs. More remarkable yet, it was the Albion who inscribed the cheque for the appropriate amount, Albion who breached the half a million barrier, Albion who sent shockwaves through the game of football. 
Until, a couple of weeks later, Brian Clough decided to take tricky Trev to the Tricky Trees of Nottingham Forest for roughly twice as much money and Albion’s heroics were totally forgotten. 
Which is roughly what happened to David Mills, the man who was briefly the most expensive footballer in England before he found himself the victim of one of those transfers that just doesn’t work out. 
Mills had the most thankless of tasks from the outset, Middlesbrough’s attacking midfielder coming to the Black Country billed as the new Tony Brown, about as easy a job as being the Second Coming, though at least Mills escaped the midlands without ever being nailed to anything.
Albion boss Ron Atkinson was following the dictum that it’s wise to improve your team from a position of strength, something Liverpool had long turned into a fine art. The Throstles hadn’t been in such a strong position in years, for this was January 1979 and we were about to perch ourselves atop the First Division. 
The acquisition of Mills didn’t look like a bad bit of business as it happened because he had shown a knack for knocking in goals at Ayresome Park over the years and with Bomber approaching the end of his career, Big Ron’s decision to think ahead looked shrewd. 
Except nobody had told Bomber that he was approaching the end. He carried on playing well and scoring goals through to the end of the 1978/79 campaign while Mills fretted on the bench in the days when you had just a single substitute rather than a jury of them.
Weeks and weeks passed and the new boy got barely a sniff of the action. To make it worse, this was the winter of our discontent, snow falling from the sky in great white lumps for days on end, postponing game after game, leaving our season becalmed while Liverpool, with their undersoil heating, carried on playing. Perhaps we should have used the £516,000 on that instead…
We could feel the season – our season – slipping away from us, supporters choked by the loss of an historic moment, a first league title in 59 years. And when you’re desperate, you turn to your big names and, at half a million quid’s worth, David Mills was our big player. 
Only he couldn’t find any form. The weight of expectations, the expectations of the wait, nerves, the weather that took our rhythm away, or simply a case of wrong place, wrong time. 
Whatever it was, nothing worked for David Mills. 
It didn’t help that he was nearly five times more expensive than any other player in that side, that the contrast between £516,000 Mills and £5,000 Cyrille could not have been more marked.
But at The Hawthorns, Mills was the man with the anti-Midas touch. Everything upon which he laid a boot turned to dust. His 15 minutes of fame were transformed to four years of infamy as supporters turned on him for not being the player they thought £516,000 represented. 
In Albion folklore, Mills has gone down as a major misfit, a harsh reflection on a player who worked hard, tried and tried, but for whom it was never going to work. 
At £100,000, he’d have been a solid enough investment. But players don’t write their own price tags. 

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