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BOWLER'S DELIVERY: When we were kings. Nearly.

7 June 2016

We coulda been a contender

THROUGHOUT the latter stages of Leicester's march to the title last term, disgruntled fans of many clubs, including this one, sent up the call, "Why couldn't it be us?"

It's a good question, but from an Albion perspective, you have to remember that once, it was us. Nearly. 

The "Leicester phenomenon" does happen from time to time. Spurs and the push and run side of 1951, Alf Ramsey's Ipswich a decade later, the twin peaks of Cloughism at Derby and Forest, Graham Taylor's Watford, the Norwich of Goss, Gunn and company, Jack Walker and Blackburn Rovers.

And then you had the Albion of 1978/79, only our third year back in the top flight and under our third manager in that time, Ron Atkinson. Like Leicester, we had our way of playing and we took the First Division - and Europe too - by storm.

I'd argue we were a better team then than Leicester are now - I would, wouldn't I? - but the one thing we didn't have that the Foxes did was perhaps the most crucial ingredient of all. Our luck ran out while theirs kept on going.

That is no slight on Leicester at all, because as well as being very good, for a smaller club to overpower the big guns over the course of a season, everything has to go your way. For them, it did. For us, it didn't.

As we entered 1979 off the back of consecutive victories at Highbury and Old Trafford, then beating Bristol City on an icebound Hawthorns, we were looking set fair to win our first title since 1920, topping the table in mid-January with a draw at Norwich. We were going so well at the time that getting just a point at Carrow Road was a disappointment. If only we'd known it was the beginning of the end.

Where Leicester were able to play weekend after weekend last season, with no disruption to their rhythm, in early 1979 we sat and watched as the snow fell. And kept falling. We barely played a league game for two months and when we did, it was against Liverpool who had kept playing thanks to Anfield's under soil hearing. We lost.

When the weather finally relented, we had a fixture pile up of epic proportions, and where, again, Leicester had good fortune with injuries, we had a flu epidemic that decimated the camp. Even then, in many another season, our 59 points - one shy of our winning total in 1919/20 - would have won us the league.

But where Leicester had the fortune to see all their rivals have a stinker at the same time, we were in a season where the all-conquering Liverpool were as good as they'd ever been, conceding just 16 goals in 42 games and collecting 68 points - 98 had it been three points for a win.

It could have been us, but it wasn't quite. And it never would be again because, in the way of things at a smaller clubs, the big boys weren't going to let us do it again. We lost Laurie Cunningham that summer to Real Madrid, Len Cantello as well, then, as we were regrouping a couple of seasons later, Ron Atkinson, Bryan Robson and Remi Moses were away to Manchester United. We were never the same again.

It's not hard to hear echoes of that in Arsenal's current pursuit of Vardy or in the speculation raging around a bunch of other Leicester players. I genuinely hope that through the summer, luck continues to smile on the Foxes. Because otherwise, they could be us. 


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