Super Mario land. Carters Green has never seen the like.
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.
2. 6 December 1978 – Albion 2 Valencia 0
The Premier League has done many things for our domestic football over the last dozen years, many good, many bad. It’s transformed the way we play the game, when we play the game and our expectations from the game.
One of the most admirable changes that it’s ushered in is the ability of our clubs to attract some of the finest footballers from all over the globe rather than watching a constant stream of our best players heading off abroad as we had to during the 1980s.
Ozil, Silva, Suarez, or Klinsmann, Cantona, Henry, Zola, Gullit and many others have come into our football and given us so many memorable moments that we now take for granted the opportunities we have to see these craftsmen, artists, magicians at work.
But only 35 years ago, the chances of seeing the very best the world could offer came around but rarely. There was no saturation coverage of European football, while the world’s best either stayed at home or migrated to Italy or Spain. Your only hope of seeing the best in the flesh was if your club qualified for Europe, had a decent run and drew the sides you wanted to see. Unless you supported Liverpool, or maybe Forest under the immortal Brian Clough, then those runs didn’t happen all that often.
In truth, the Throstles have probably only enjoyed one great European run, for though we competed strongly in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1968/69, they were ties where we didn’t really meet the cream, going out to Dunfermline in the last eight. Our greatest European days came in 1978/79, without a shadow of a doubt, when we advanced to the last eight of the UEFA Cup, the forerunner of the bloated Europa League, back in the days when football mattered more than TV schedules and we all realised and accepted that knockout football was the finest, most exciting form of the game.
Ron Atkinson’s swaggering Albion had wasted little time in advancing through the first two rounds, despatching Galatasaray of Turkey and Portugal’s SC Braga with something approaching contemptuous ease, impressive indeed given that we’d been out of Europe for a decade and that few of our players had come across continental opposition at any competitive level.
We waited in anticipation to hear of the draw for the next round and when it came out, it was one that we could hardly believe. Valencia, a team that contained two of the biggest names in world football in West Germany’s Rainer Bonhof and the Argentine who had won the World Cup for his nation just a few months earlier, the mighty Mario Kempes.
Imagine Lionel Messi was bringing Barcelona to The Hawthorns next week for a proper game and you’ll have some sense of just what an occasion this was. Except you won’t really, because you’ve seen Messi hundreds of times on the box and the chances are you’ll see him hundreds more.
Back then, we’d only seen Kempes play half a dozen games, beamed back to us on flaky colour television through the streams of Argentine tickertape, and he chances were that after his visit to The Hawthorns, we wouldn’t see him again until the World Cup of 1982, assuming he was there. This truly was the hottest ticket since the 1968 cup final and, if you missed out, that was it.
The prospect of welcoming Kempes to West Bromwich was a startling one, enough to persuade some hardy kids to stand in Halfords Lane on the Tuesday night before the game in order to get autographs after they’d finished training under The Hawthorns’ lights the night before the second leg game, a night still indelibly imprinted on my feet as one of the coldest I can ever remember.
By the time that second leg came around, we were starting to think that an astonishing win might actually be possible. Yet the mood of Albion supporters when the draw was made had been much less optimistic. It was transformed by the first leg in. Having looked as if we had weathered the opening storm, Albion went behind after 15 minutes, Kempes instrumental, his corner being headed in by fellow Argentinean, Felman.
A set back for sure, but Albion were good enough to gather themselves together, ready to get back into the game. And they had a player who was about to change the course of his life inside 90 minutes. Laurie Cunningham gave the performance of his life and the one which, tragically set him on course for his death, selling himself to Real Madrid and opening a road that would end with his death in a car crash in Spain barely ten years later.
Laurie grabbed an equaliser and that 1-1 draw meant the tie was very much under our control, The Hawthorns set for one of those memorable nights under the lights where the atmosphere rolls around in wave after wave rather than dissipating into the sky.
Already rattled by Albion’s first leg brilliance, Valencia were getting their excuses in early, manager Marcel Domingo not best pleased by the 18 degrees of frost and blanket of freezing fog that had greeted them on their arrival. “Football is not meant to be played in this kind of weather. I am very concerned because we never have to play in these conditions in Spain. Unless the weather improves I may have to ask for the game to be postponed”.
In the words of a local sports radio personality of the time, “on your bike!” The pitch was playable, the game was going ahead and Albion knew full well that an early onslaught might just blow the Spanish outfit away. The plan worked like clockwork for within five minutes, Albion were a goal to the good, 2-1 up on aggregate. Derek Statham floated a free-kick into the box only for Cordero to handle the ball. The penalty was awarded and, as we had become accustomed to down the years, up stepped Tony Brown to smash a low drive past a goalkeeper who barely had time to smell it before he was picking it out of the back of the net.
minute for the next moment of majesty and it came, inevitably, from Laurie Cunningham.thFrom there, the game settled into a period of cagey stalemate, John Wile and Alistair Robertson snuffing to the threat of Kempes while Albion attacked in methodical fashion, loath to commit too many men forward so early on with the lead already extended. It took until the 35
As a steepling cleared ball plunged out of the Black Country sky, the winger stopped it stone dead with an outrageous piece of close control, then immediately flicked in a deft cross to the back post. Cyrille Regis came bustling into view to win the ball and scramble it beyond the converging goalkeeper and defender, he ball bobbling across goal where Tony Brown smacked it over the line from all of six inches out only to see the linesman’s flag raised to penalise Regis for handball.
minute. The rampaging Batson collected the ball on the edge of the Valencia penalty area and speared in a low cross, Bryan Robson getting a touch to it at full stretch, the goalkeeper doing well to block the ball away. As it squirmed across goal, Tony Brown followed in at the back stick to force the ball against he post, Statham knocking the ball in from inside the six yard box, only for the offside flag to chalk off the goal. Both full-backs in the opposition 18 yard box. If ever you wanted to know what that 1978/79 was about, that little tableau said it all.thWhen the teams returned for the second half, there was a greater sense of urgency about Albion’s play, exemplified when they had another goal chalked off in the 48
A Regis header came spiralling back off the post and into the grateful arms of the goalkeeper a few moments later before, on the hour, Valencia were almost back in it. A free-kick awarded 25 yards out, towards the left edge of our box. Up stepped Kempes to thump a left foot shot that went flying beyond the edge of the wall, Tony Godden flinging himself to his right to make a brilliant sprawling save to keep the lead intact.
The game inched towards full time, always on the knife edge that a Valencia equaliser would push us into extra time. But five minutes before the finish came the second goal that killed the game. It came, of course, courtesy of some brilliance from Cunningham who skipped past Carrete, a little bulldog of a full-back who’d just got the booking that he’d been looking for all night.
Cunningham was too much for him, accelerating away to the byline before picking out Tony Brown 12 yards out. As the ball came across his body, he pivoted on his left leg, bringing that hammer right foot across to catch it sweetly with an unstoppable volley, sending the ball sweeping across goal and into the far corner, one of the great man’s finest goals in the 279 strong canon.
Waves of relief swept across The Hawthorns as we could finally relax and enjoy the last moments of the game, Albion heading into the last eight of the UEFA Cup, this glorious side, firing on all cylinders, a team that looked as if nothing on earth could stop it.
As it turned out, we were right. Only we hadn’t bargained for an Act of God. The freezing weather turned to snow at the turn of the year and it wouldn’t let up for nearly a couple of months. We finished empty handed. Nuts.