Highly-respected West Bromwich Albion author and historian Dave Bowler looks back on 4,999 Albion league games, ahead of match No.5,000 against Sheffield United on Wednesday. The Baggies are just the sixth side to achieve the feat, joining Preston North End, Burnley, Wolves, Derby County and Bolton Wanderers in the 5,000 club.
“Wednesday night is Albion’s 5,000th league game”, they said. “Tell us all about it in less than 1,000 words”, they said. All the best…
5,000 games, if you ignore injury time, represents 7,500 hours of football. If you stuck all those games together, end to end, and started on January 1st, you’d be finished at midday on November 9th. It doesn’t seem very long, does it, considering those 5,000 games have managed to keep the Black Country utterly obsessed for 135 years, but as Albert Einstein once pointed out on ‘Match of the Day’, it’s all relative when it comes to time.
The fun started at Stoke’s Victoria Ground on September 8th, 1888. Albion, the FA Cup holders, won 2-0. There were no league tables published at the time, not least because they hadn’t decided on a way to separate teams on equal points, but had they introduced the goal average rule they settled on from the start, the Throstles would have been the first team to top the Football League. This would therefore have been the perfect moment to close down the competition forever and leave us as champions in perpetuity.
The first home game was played at Stoney Lane on September 29th, 1888. It was league game number four, and Burnley were beaten 4-3. In 1900, we moved home and The Hawthorns saw its first league football on September 3rd. We ended that season by getting relegated for the first time, but by then it was too late to get our deposit back.
A First Division title was collected in record breaking style in 1920 as Jesse Pennington lifted the trophy, before probably the single most significant game of them all, May 2nd 1931, a 4-2 victory over Charlton Athletic which meant, after beating Birmingham in the FA Cup final a week earlier, the Albion became the first – and still the only – club to do the double of FA Cup and promotion in the same season. Somebody send Pep Guardiola a basket of fruit for ensuring it remained that way last Saturday.
There have been moments of hilarity along the way, from relegating the Villa in 1959 to ‘Keith Curle is an Albion fan’ in 1997. Has there ever been an Albion day out like the one at Bradford when Igor scored that penalty? A more raucous night than the Swansea play-off? Or a more sombre occasion than the day we mourned the passing of Jeff Astle on the eve of our game with Walsall? Pitch invasions have greeted promotions and survivals, empty stands and a chorus of boos – as well as togas in Bath and a giraffe in Blackburn - have dealt with relegations, but all of it remains grist to history’s mill, seared into the memory of those who were there.
As we are approaching game 5,000, we should note that the number five has played a role too. There was the day we sent Wolverhampton into meltdown with a 5-1 win at Molineux when Keith Andrews scored possibly the funniest goal in our history, for example. Or the 5-3 win at Old Trafford, a snowy day when the fleet footed Laurie Cunningham brought footballing ballet to the masses.
Just under 10% of the games – 494 – have been played in the Premier League which, to be honest, has ruined our statistics – 117 wins against 238 defeats. Despite that, overall we remain just about on the positive side of the ledger with 1,907 wins to 1,843 defeats in those first 4,999 games, 7,557 moments of goalscoring joy offset by 7,284 occasions when the opposition has been offside and a referee has failed to notice.
Across all those games, Tony Brown has played in 11.48% of them, better than one in nine, which is just ridiculous when you consider he hasn’t turned out for us in over 40 years. He’s also scored 2.88% of our goals, which might be considered a bit on the greedy side. At the other end of the extreme, Morten Skoubo, a two minute substitute back in 2004, was on the field for just 0.0004% of our league history. Blink, and you’ll miss it, as most of us did.
There is something richly poetic about the fact that Albion will reach the landmark at Bramall Lane, because if you want a game that truly was one in 5,000, it came in 2001. After all, the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ is the only game among the previous 4,999 that didn’t go the full 90 minutes and yet the result still stood.
So let us celebrate 4,999 days of absolute joy, deepest despair and precious little in between. None of us were here for the first one and, breaking news, none of us are going to be around for the 10,000th either, due somewhere around the year 2143. So you’d be well advised to seize the day, enjoy every moment of every game and, every now again, just reflect on the fact that we are all of us just links in the chain, accepting the Albion as a treasured gift from our ancestors, cherishing a family heirloom that we pass on to the generations to come. Onwards…