The bionic goalkeeper
Over the international break, we’re bringing you the countdown on Albion’s 10 greatest post-war goalkeepers. To qualify, they’ve kept 25 clean sheets in the league and from there, we’ve worked out their clean sheets to games percentage. Eyes down for a full house…
2. John Osborne
250 games, 82 clean sheets, 32.80%
The cliché says that goalkeepers are different, that they’re eccentrics, that they’re a sandwich short of a picnic. And when you see them diving head first into a mass of flying boots, it’s hard to argue. And if you knew John Osborne, it’s harder to argue still, because Ossie made an art form out of being his own man.
But Ossie was a goalkeeper right out of the top drawer, a player that had a big part to play in helping turn Albion’s exciting team of the late 1960s into winners. That Albion side had a tremendous cup fighting reputation, the inevitable corollary of the way they played. They played with a smile on their faces, always pressing forward, always on the lookout for goals.
The nature of the side, which included players such as Astle, Brown, Clark and Hope, was fundamentally an attacking one, perhaps the root of our inconsistency at league level and our success in the cups, particularly as we struggled to find a regular between the sticks, as Tony Brown points out.
Ossie got here in 1967 and that was an important signing for us. We’d never really had a settled goalkeeper before then in my time at the club and Ossie came in and established himself fully.
“He’d come out anywhere in the box, collect everything, but he was a good shot stopper as well, cracking goalkeeper. He was very underestimated – he was in an era where you didn’t have to look any further than Gordon Banks to be honest. But Ossie was up there amongst the best of the rest, I’m telling you.”
The highlight of his career came in May 1968, just as it did for the majority of his colleagues, when Albion walked out at Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final against Everton. For Ossie in particular, the final was a fraught occasion, according to Bomber Brown.
“He’s the only player I ever met who didn’t enjoy playing football. He’d tell you straight that he hated Saturdays, hated playing. If it was just Monday to Friday, just training, he’d say it was the best job in the world, but Saturdays spoiled it for Ossie.
“He was a bundle of nerves on matchdays. Before you went out, you’d be lining up in the tunnel, more or less ready to go out and every week, somebody’d say, “Hang on, where’s Ossie?” As usual, you’d go and look for him and he’d be in the toilet, having a fag before we went out, panicking, nervous as anything, so you can imagine what he was like at Wembley! But once we got on the pitch, he was alright.”
Alright isn’t the half of it because while Jeff Astle claimed the cup run as his own by scoring in every round, Osborne’s contribution was perhaps greater still. He produced a string of sensational displays throughout the run, not least against Liverpool across three games in the sixth round and the to deny Blues in the semi-final at Villa Park. In all of them, Osborne was the difference.
But it wasn’t only on the field that Ossie made a difference. He was a major presence in the dressing room too, where his eye for the fashions of the day kept the other lads, including Bobby Hope, amused.
‘He was known as the Giorgio Armani of the 1960s, he wore some of the most unbelievable gear you’ve ever seen – it was horrendous to say the least! He was always the butt of Astle’s jokes because of his trendy gear, but he took it all in great part and you need people like that in a dressing room. He always made things fun, always had a laugh and that’s important, especially if you’re not doing so well.”
Laughter is probably the keynote of Osborne’s life and times, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for him, not even after he’d established himself as an all-comer. It’s the nature of football that there are always people after your place, and now and again, Ossie dropped out of the side as first Jimmy Cumbes and then Peter Latchford staked a claim. But Osborne wouldn’t be beaten and kept coming back, despite the hardest of knocks as Tony Brown recalls.
“He was a bit injury prone and he had this one nasty injury where he had to have a plastic knuckle put in and at times, especially in the cold weather, and he’d be in agony. He’d come in at half time if there’d been frost on the pitch and he’d go straight into the bathroom and stick his hand in hot water in the sink to try to loosen this knuckle. There’d be tears streaming down his face with the pain, but he never let it beat him, he wouldn’t moan about it, but he did have trouble.
“He was such a character. He used to sit on the wall round the running track at The Hawthorns when the ball was at the other end and get a fag off somebody in the crowd and sit there smoking it! Ossie was a lovely man, a great character and one of the best goalkeepers we’ve ever had. Without a doubt."
2. John Osborne
3. Peter Latchford
4. Tony Godden
5. Stuart Naylor
6. Ben Foster
7. Alan Miller
8. Jim Sanders
9. Ray Potter
10. Norman Heath