“We’ve got the best team, in the land”. Oh really?
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.
4. 11 March 1978 - Albion 2 Nottingham Forest 0
century was full of clubs looking to advance on all fronts, only to fall at the last. Many teams came close to the league and FA Cup double, but by 1978, just two had managed it, the London rivals of Tottenham Hotspur (1960/61) and Arsenal (1970/71) – we, of course, were robbed of it in 1953/54.thIn the Premier League era, we have become used to big cubs carrying all before them, doing doubles, keeping al the silverware to themselves. This, however, is a very modern development. Prior to the Premier League sticking its oar in, the 20
If you were going to pick any clubs that might achieve the feat during that period, then Spurs and Arsenal would be among those you’d consider. But in 1977/78, there was interlopers hot on the trail of such glory. And, not content with trying to win two competitions, Nottingham Forest were in hot pursuit of a clean sweep of the domestic titles.
“Nottingham Forest?” I hear you say in quizzical tone. Yes, Nottingham Forest, and all because they were being run by one of the handful of football managers who truly merit the description “genius”. Brian Clough had already dragged one unfashionable East Midlands club, Derby County, to eternal glory by winning the League in 1972. Six years later, he was about to repeat the trick across at the City Ground, but this was a yet more remarkable achievement give that they were currently in their first season back in Division One.
Forest had taken the division by the scruff of the neck in a team that was initially devoid of star names bur rammed to overflowing with intelligence and character. Ex-Birmingham striker Kenny Burns was now a centre-half at Forest alongside veteran Larry Lloyd or journeyman David Needham. Derby had provided John McGovern, John O’Hare and Archie Gemmill, and little known lower division toilers like Tony Woodcock, Martin O’Neill and John Robertson were making the step up.
game of the season. They wouldn’t lose another league game.thThey made a good start to the season and hit the front nine games in, by which time Clough had made one of the most influential signings of all time – Peter Shilton. Shilton was utterly magnificent that season, posting clean sheet after clean sheet, as he did in a -0 draw with Albion in late November ’77, a week after they had lost to Leeds in their 18
They were equally imperious in the League Cup, marching on to Wembley and an appointment with Liverpool. They was to take place one week after playing a sixth round FA Cup tie. By this stage, they were six points clear of second placed Everton with a game in hand. The title was there for the taking. There was a League Cup final in the offing. They hadn’t lost in 22 league and cup games. They were just two games away from a second Wembley final. According to a record they made, they were the best team in the land. A miraculous treble was on the table, just awaiting completion. On the other hand…
Their sixth round opponents were the Albion. We’d lost John Giles the previous summer, but Ronnie Allen had kept things moving, not least with the introduction of a raw, rudimentary but totally thrilling centre-forward called Cyrille Regis, the player we’d been waiting for since Jeff Astle’s departure.
Allen had left at Christmas to take up a coaching post in the Middle East, but in January, in blew this leather coat wearing, bangle jangling ball of energy from Cambridge United called Ron Atkinson who gave what was an already excellent team the licence to play, to attack, to hammer.
And so we were paired with Nottingham Forest now. Logic would have it that Albion were second favourites in this one, that Forest would prevail, though they might need a replay to do it. But there was something about Albion in the FA Cup that season, that aura about our performances that make you start to believe. This was going to be our year, and not even Brian Clough was going to stop us.
More comforting still, the players seemed to believe it as well. The way we had dispensed with the challenges of the previous rounds had been something special. We were scoring goals freely. Willie Johnston was unstoppable, and big Cyrille was living out a “Roy of the Rovers” season. The cup was ours for the winning.
Life is, of course, rather more complicated than that and the Albion did plenty of homework on their opponents. Not only that, but they had a very special teacher to help them with it, Lord Shankly of Liverpool having been drafted in by Atkinson to offer him a pointer or two as he got to grips with managing at this new level.
Which of them concluded that stopping John Robertson from playing was the key to beating Forest, we don’t know, but it was the right move, without a shadow of a doubt. Robertson barely looked like a footballer – the chain smoking winger with a penchant for carrying a couple of pounds overweight would be thrown out of every club in the land these days – but God he could play.
Rivalling Johnston for a spot in the Scotland team that was bound for the World Cup in Argentina that summer, Robertson had carved countless teams to shreds with his use of the ball through the season, his crossing for Woodcock and Peter Withe a thing of beauty, as was his ability to cut in from the left and smack a shot at goal.
But at The Hawthorns, Robertson was reduced to the role of a virtual bystander. When the ball came anywhere near him, Paddy Mulligan was at him straight away, backed up by Mick Martin from midfield, the way that Len Millard and the great Ray Barlow had doubled up on Tom Finney in that cup final win of ’54. Robertson, great player that he was, could not find a way through.
On the other side, it was a different story. Clough knew the threat that Willie Johnston possessed, and detailed Martin O’Neill and Ian Bowyer to stop him. They couldn’t. Johnston was in the mood from the first moment, having come onto the field wearing a tartan hat. He tortured and tormented Forest and was having such a high time of it that as one crossfield pass came his way in front of the Forest dug out, he tried to trap it with his backside, sending Clough into apoplexy.
minute lead. Derek Statham played a free-kick to Ally Brown who nodded it on to Martin, the ball bouncing up kindly from his first touch to give him an opportunity to lob the ball over the advancing Shilton and in.thJohnston set the tone, but it was a day full of fine performances from the Throstles, Mick Martin able to leave is defensive duties for long enough to give Albion a 16
The only concern among the Throstletariat at half-time was that we were just that one goal to the good and that such a slender advantage might not be sufficient against Clough’s team. There was no need for us to have worried, for two minutes into the second half, the lead was doubled.
Mulligan’s long clearance bounced into Forest territory, and Regis was off on the chase. As the ball came down some 25 yards out, there was no need for a touch, no need to get it under control. Instead, there was blur of sinew and power as Cyrille caught the ball on the full and absolutely creamed the air out of it, leaving Peter Shilton helpless and his side hopeless, Albion heading off into the distance.
It was a goal of sufficient majesty to win any game of football, the kind of goal that was needed to finally put down this commanding, seemingly invincible Forest team. Clough’s men mounted comeback, but John Wile and Alistair Robertson were in no mood to give an inch, Tony Godden in fine form when called upon behind them.
FA Cup semi-final. We were going to end our ten year drought weren’t we…thRapturous scenes followed the final whistle as spectators poured onto the pitch. Forest’s treble dream was over, though they did enjoy the rather nifty consolation of a first ever Division One and League Cup double. As to ourselves, Albion were in a record 18