This is not a love song
While all is quiet at The Hawthorns during the international break, Publications Editor Dave Bowler chooses his ten favourite games from 45 years of visiting the home of football, some of them obvious, some very personal.
1. 6 March 1971 – Albion 4 Manchester United 3
For a game that looks to bring people together, football is a strangely divisive beast. There’s the obvious separation between you and your opponents, but there are others too, most notably between players and supporters and no, I’m not talking about the ability to buy a Porsche once a month either.
As a footballer, the game at its peak should be all about self sacrifice, both in terms of your preparation, you training, your ability to live and eat the right way when you’d rather have three pints and a burger, but also in the ability to harness your personal ego for the greater good of the team as a whole, perhaps playing a supporting role rather than getting the headlines, becoming that crucial cog that few people notice but without which, the whole machine would stop running.
For supporters on the other hand, football is all about self indulgence as you’ll have seen if you’ve stuck with this series. Sorry, you don’t get a medal.
The experience of going to a game can be a self indulgent one, often fuelled by the occasional libation and the sort of food we know we shouldn’t eat. When we get in the ground, there are certain things we want to see, players we want to be picked, often for the most illogical of reasons and never mind whether or not they fit the plans of the manager.
1971 when Albion hosted the visit of Manchester United.thSimilarly, games and goals stand out for individuals for reasons that might mean nothing to the rest of the Throstletariat, but which tell a particular personal story. And so in that self indulgent vein, let’s whisk ourselves back to March 6
For me, it was only the third game I’d ever been to. My dad had taken me to see us draw 1-1 (Colin Suggett) in the FA Cup with Ipswich Town in January 1971, seated in the Halfords corner towards the Brummie, something of a treat because the cost of sitting was a bit much, something you don’t really appreciate when you’re six.
A couple of weeks later, we were back for the visit of Burnley (1-0, Tony Brown), standing now, on the halfway line as you could in those days, on the terracing in front of the Rainbow.
Then the following month, we repaired to what was to be our home for the next many years, the Smethwick End, where my dad had stood himself in earlier years as a denizen of Smethwick itself.
As it happened, we hadn’t chosen the best day for this experiment given that Manchester United were in town, their support squeezed across to the Halfords side of the Smethwick, leaving Albion fans with the rest of it. It was a day when 41,134 people squeezed into the old ground, a figure that has only been topped on four occasions since and which now seems to be from another world entirely.
It meant that it was absolutely rammed, you couldn’t find a square inch of spare space to call your own. That lad on the “sit down if you love football” ad that runs interminably doesn’t know the half of it, believe me.
These were days when hooliganism was rife, United having an especially bad reputation at the time, but there was no sense of danger that I can remember, though perhaps at six I was too naïve or stupid to realise it. My dad was with me, so nothing could go wrong anyway could it?
Why were more than 40,000 making that pilgrimage to the game in a campaign where Albion were having a dreary time of it in the lower reaches, manager Alan Ashman getting the heave while he was on holiday at season’s end? United themselves were having a dismal season, an ageing team in a time of transition, Sir Matt Busby having had to come out of retirement to rescue things after the tenure of his hand picked replacement Wilf McGuiness had gone horribly wrong. United were meandering along nowhere. It was a pretty meaningless end of season game.
But they were Manchester United. And they had George Best. I can’t stress enough what different times they were, these were days when you could actually love opposition players as well, and everybody loved George. The mania that has since surrounded the likes of David Beckham, it’s nothing compared with the way the football community felt about George Best, God’s footballer. He was a player unlike anything else at the time, a footballer of pace, of control, of wit, of imagination, of everything.
If you could build a player, give him all the gifts you wanted, no questions asked, you still wouldn’t make a player like George Best because you’d feel too self conscious at creating anything that perfect. Of course, the Gods, being waspish buggers, also bestowed him with a self destruct button, but not even George could have everything. But for a time, he did and during that period, he was so good that he put even Bobby Charlton, perhaps the finest footballer England has ever produced, in the shade.
George was the fifth Beatle, the most exciting show in the country, hence why I pestered my dad incessantly to take me to see Albion play United. And when United played, unlike now, we weren’t hoping their best players might be injured. You wanted to see them in all their glory. Of course, you still hoped Albion would come out on top, but it wasn’t a cause for tears if they didn’t. I think they were better adjusted times…
Anyway, the two previous games had been low key affairs, and they tripped us up, not least since Dad had stopped going to the games when I arrived and was out of practice when it came to what the crowd would be like.
We hadn’t got a car then, so we must have come to the game on the 79, and when we got there, it was like the evacuation of Dunkirk, only without the boats. There were people everywhere. You couldn’t move for them. We gradually snaked our way past The Throstle Club on the Birmingham Road, down the back of the Rainbow and up the slope towards the Smethwick turnstiles, stopping only to buy a programme – it’s a fine habit that I thoroughly commend to you all.
And so came the game and, dear God, it lived up to every schoolboy expectation. Eighteen minutes in and Charlton collected the ball in midfield and slotted a perfect pass for Best to run onto. Accelerating across the mud, he was on to it an instant, shimmied beyond Alan Merrick and placed a low drive beyond the advancing Jim Cumbes and into the Smethwick End goal. It took us just 14 minutes to get level though, Stepney spilling a free-kick pumped into the box by John Kaye, Tony Brown pouncing on it to smash home from 15 yards, and that was the end of the scoring until the break.
minute, Charlton to Best to Morgan, his cross met by Aston’s diving header that flashed in.thAttacking the Smethwick now, Albion were in front early in the second half, George McVitie chipping the ball into Asa Hartford whose shot spun away off a defender and into the path of Brown. No prizes for guessing what happened next. But United were back on terms in the 55
Four minutes later and it was 3-2 to the Albion. Brown collectied a long clearance from Cumbes, beat Dunne as he came to challenge him and then clipped the ball over Stepney and in from the edge of the box to complete his hat-trick and make it nine goals in five games since he’d scored against Burnley.
minute, United were back in business again, a run and cross from Aston setting up Kidd to rifle the ball in from close range.ndWas that it? Of course not. In the 62
game for the Albion, who had joined the attack in the last seconds, a defender popping up to score the winner in open play.th minute though when Albion went on the attack, McVitie playing in a deadly centre that was met by… centre-half John Wile, playing only his 10thThe game ebbed and flowed from there at 3-3, both sides going hell for leather for the win but without quite being able to breach the defences. The nature of the game was summed up in the 89
I remember watching all of this open mouthed in amazement that football could be this good, this exciting. I’m not sure what my dad made of it because, when we got through the turnstiles, we were confronted by a solid wall of humanity. There was no getting through that, so we were at the back of the Smethwick and that was it. I spent the 90 minutes on Dad’s shoulders at the back of the ground, and it was as good a 90 minutes as life has ever given me. I doubt he saw very much of it.
I dismounted and, after the United fans were turfed out, we walked across the Smethwick End and up the steps into the earthly paradise that was then the club shop, festooned with programmes, badges, rosettes, bits of Subbuteo and all many of pleasures that caught the eye wherever you looked. It was the greatest bliss on the greatest of days. I’ve got a painting of that day hanging up at home, courtesy of the mighty Paine Proffitt.
It was that day that eventually led me to polluting your lives with this programme and commentary on Albion Radio, that day that fired me with a need to be a part of this football thing.
Even now, perched up on the gantry in Halfords Lane, not a game goes by where I don’t gaze across to where the old Smethwick End used to be and think of all those days with my dad.
For all the changes in the stadium, I’m still as close to him here as I am anywhere. That’s what football does for you. That’s why it is the greatest game in the world, why those who see in it only money have so horribly missed the point that they are irredeemable.
He’d have been 94 next February, going into injury time. Rest easy Dad.