How could it be worse…IF you’ve played nearly 140 years of football as we have at this football club, there are going to be times that you look back upon more fondly than others, seasons that you would like to expunge forever from the memory.
But no season, not even those that saw us stuck in the third tier of English football, has ever been as hideous as 1986/87, for that was the year that really began the long, hard, nuclear winter that cut this club off at the knees.
We had just been relegated from the top flight and, with gates plummeting – this was to be the first season since 1910 when the average home attendance was below 10,000 – costs needed to be cut.
Ron Saunders was just the man to do it, slashing and burning across The Hawthorns, ridding us of the quality that might have seen us earn an instant return to the First Division and instead filling the squad with journeymen. Honest men, hard workers but lacking the class that Albion’s traditions demanded.
Having done similar enduring work at Birmingham City, it was tempting to think that Saunders was a double agent, sent out by Aston Villa to wreak havoc among its neighbours.
If Villa enjoyed watching our misadventures, Wolves were even happier with Saunders’ work. Having already released Ally Robertson to Staffordshire where Wolves were in the Fourth Division – wonder what it’s like, Albion never having been there of course – and wobbling on the brink of collapse, Saunders sent them a life support machine in the shape of Steve Bull, Robbie Dennison and Andy Thompson, all of whom played huge roles in the rehabilitation of the Wanderers.
Legendarily, Saunders is supposed to have said that Bull had no first touch. What he neglected to add was that, in the lower leagues at least, his second touch tended to put the ball in the back of the net. Albion were decimated and Wolves resurrected with a single stroke of a pen on a contract.
Luck was not on our side either, Martyn Bennett’s career succumbing to injury, Paul Dyson heading off to reinvent the vacuum cleaner, but there was still little excuse. In our first crack at winning promotion – always your best opportunity – we barely ever threatened to disturb those at the top end of the table, and the die was cast for a decade and more of misery to come.
Indeed, as we tumbled down the table, we felt the icy breath of the Third Division upon our necks for the first time ever as we endured a run of only two wins in 18 games running from December and long into the new year.
place out of 22 teams, with three relegated. The league was deeply congested and we were dropping like a stone, until Bobby Williamson scored the only goal of the game at Millwall, a result followed up four days later with a 1-0 win over Portsmouth under The Hawthorns’ lights, Robert Hopkins the saviour that evening.thWith five games to go, we were staring down the barrel of relegation, in 16
With safety secured, normal service was resumed with just one point taken from the last three games and we ended a lowly 15th, only three points clear of the drop. We thought it couldn’t get any worse than that. How wrong we were.