50 years on from our League Cup debut
Fifty years ago this week, we played our first ever League Cup tie. As we head for Carrow Road to play in that competition tonight, let’s recall that first toe in the water…
In its infancy in the early 1960s, the Football League Cup was viewed as such a distraction that few clubs could be bothered entering, but by the time the 1965/66 competition came round, the Football League was really throwing its weight behind it, offering a place in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup the following season for the team that won the final.
That was enough of an incentive for the Baggies’ board to act, and the minute book from a board meeting in June 1965 noted that, “The Secretary was instructed to send an entry to the Football League Cup reserving the right to withdraw if they thought fit.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Alan Hardaker, the Football League Secretary’s brainchild, but one of the most significant bits of business done in any board meeting in our history, paving the way for a brave new world at a Hawthorns that had been without a trophy for almost a dozen years, since Len Millard had collected the FA Cup at Wembley on May 1st, 1954.
It seems madness to think that that felt like a drought at the time, but successive managers had tried and failed to repeat Vic Buckingham’s success, paying for their failure with their jobs. Jimmy Hagan had little desire to go the same way and was happy to look down any avenue for silverware while the players of the time did not show he same jaundiced attitude towards the competition as some do today, as Tony Brown agrees.
“There were no complaints about more games, the players were really looking forward to it, especially as you could get a place in Europe at the finish if you won it. We loved playing cup games, it meant games under the lights in midweek, which were always a bit special, and like most players, we always preferred playing games to coming in and training! Cup games were something that was suited to the side that was starting to come together at that time, because especially at home, we always felt we had goals in us.”
Walsall were to be our first opponents, the first time we had come across our near neighbours in competitive football since February 1st, 1900 when we’d inflicted a 6-1 drubbing in an FA Cup Round 1 replay. This was Walsall’s first senior visit to The Hawthorns, a ground still to be opened when that FA Cup tie was played, and the reaction was extraordinary, 41,188 packing into the ground on a Wednesday night, an attendance which was a competition record at that point, Wembley Stadium not yet being used for the final.
“We fancied our chances in the competition because we started the season really well, went top of the league,” remembers Tony Brown. “We got a smashing start, drawn against Walsall, and it turned out to be a massive tie. I can remember the noise now, it was unbelievable.
“Walsall brought a lot of fans because it was a derby, we hadn’t played them in ages, it was a big occasion for them because they were playing the league leaders. Our fans were up for the game because we’d just put six past Stoke on the Saturday, and it was a bit special, historic because it was the first time we played in the competition, and it just created an unforgettable atmosphere. That still sticks out 50 years on.”
For Bomber, this was to be a lucky competition, one that set him up as a first team regular as he accepts. “It was still early days for me at the club, and that was the first season where I was a regular because the previous two, I was in and out a bit, still learning the game. That year was a dream really because I finished up top scorer with 27, and a lot of those came in the League Cup because I had a really good run in it. More goals than Astle or Kaye – not bad for a kid!”
Albion, coursing with confidence, set off at a terrific pace, John Kaye hammering a header against the post from a Sir Robert Hope cross, but Walsall hold on grimly until two minutes before the break, when a little bit of route one football did the trick, Astle glancing on a Potter goal kick, Brown darting forward to get on the end of it and crack his shot past Carling in goal from the edge of the box.
“I was proud of that, to be Albion’s first goalscorer in the League Cup! I phoned home afterwards to let my mom and dad know and I had to use the call box next to my digs – there were no mobile phones then!”
Walsall weren’t beaten though and had the Throstles in trouble for a periods in the second half, Taylor getting on the end of an Atthey cross to poke the ball past Potter after 66 minutes.
Atthey had a goal of his own disallowed soon after but from there, the Baggies reasserted their control of the game and it was no surprise when, with nine minutes left, we regained the lead, Kaye forcing Bennett into a hurried back pass which beat his own ‘keeper.
Bomber finished things off four minutes later, with a trademark goal. “Clive Clark put in a great cross and I got on the end of it and steered it in, but that wasn’t unusual because Chippy made a hell of a lot of goals for me over the years. Very undervalued player, but he had terrific pace and he knew the game.
“He’d get past a defender, leave him for dead, get to the byline and pull the ball back so me or Jeff or whoever could come on to it with the ball in front of us and the defenders facing the wrong way. Deadly that kind of delivery. You knew he’d get crosses in so you just had to gamble and get in the box because something would come your way.”
Walsall beaten 3-1 and the cup run under way. How far might we go?