I FELL in love with live football when my school mate’s Dad took me to watch Walsall at Fellows Park. We’d swap ends at half time. I loved it – the smell of the grass, the banter on the terraces, and the glorious game.
Stan Jones, who played for both Walsall and the Baggies, was an early hero. A colossus of an individual who could have been a movie star. The Midlands’ answer to Kirk Douglas. A dead ringer for Spartacus.
I fell in love with the Baggies a little earlier although I was too young – so said my Dad – to attend the 1968 FA Cup Final against Everton. Why? I remember watching the game at my mate’s house (the Walsall fan) in glorious black and white. How I screamed as Jeff Astle’s bullet hit the back of the net. I still have a framed copy of the pink Sports Argus produced that day which lurks in a garage somewhere in Hertfordshire (I must dig it out).
My Dad – an enthusiastic WBA fan himself – eventually took me to see the Albion play QPR at the Hawthorns (5 October 1968). We stood in the Woodman Corner and we won three one. I was hooked. I was obsessed. I couldn’t get enough of the Blue and White drug although I still popped over to Fellows Park (usually mid-week) with my mate and his Dad to watch Stan.
Apart from Stan, Astle was my boyhood hero as were Bomber Brown, ‘hole in the heart’ Asa Hartford, Bobby Hope (what a left foot), Len Cantello and wee volcano Willie Johnston. I kept scrapbooks of all the match reports cut from the back of the Daily Express – books I still have to this day. I diligently recorded details of all the Albion scorers and poured over the match programmes.
For a number of years, me and Dad had season tickets in what is now the East Stand. We watched some magic football – and also some turgid stuff (thank you Don Howe). Boxing Day was always a treat. Bar the odd FA Cup match, it was the only time that Dad would take me to away matches. Highfield Road (former home of Coventry City) was always a highlight.
When university, studies and women called, I drifted in and out of football. It’s a shame really because I didn’t get my full fill of the glorious game played under Ron Atkinson. What a team. Robson the engine room, hard man Remi Moses, elegant Brendon Batson and of course the mercurial Laurie Cunningham and dynamic Cyrille Regis.
If there’s one game I wish I had gone to, it was when we went to Old Trafford and beat United 5-3 (30 December 1978). A day when Laurie Cunningham defied the relentless (and vile) boos and thrilled football lovers with his sublime skill. Regis wasn’t far behind.
I’ve got a video of the game somewhere although I occasionally find it on YouTube when I’m in need of cheering up. Catch it if you can and marvel at footballers who simply wanted to thrill the crowds with their speed and grace.
I do remember Leeds coming to the Hawthorns in 1982 and rioting – I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Maybe it scarred me because it wasn’t until we hit the pits of the old Third Division with Bobby Gould that my love of WBA truly reignited again. I started going home and away – and as my boys came on stream, I took them (home and away). We ended up having season tickets in the Birmingham Road end. We rarely missed matches and went on tour to Sweden and Scotland. Match badges were bought as were pennants and away club mugs (oh dear). All kept to this day.
And, of course, if West Brom weren’t playing, we’d go and watch a game elsewhere – be it Boston United, Rushden & Diamonds (saw Billy Sharp score a hat-trick for them in the 2004/2005 season) or Darlington (we came back on the train with the Dagenham & Redbridge team, Darlington’s opposition). Football was our weekend fix.
Only when my eldest son Matthew went to university did this WBA bond between us break although he’s gone on to earn a living from football, being one of Chris Wilder’s assistants at Sheffield United (he’s still at heart a Baggies fan).
Before lockdown spoilt the party, I was a season ticket holder in the Halfords Lane Stand, just behind the away dug-out. My youngest son James also had a ticket just behind me (don’t ask why he refuses to sit next to me).
I still love the Albion with a passion, despite the plight the team finds itself in, and I long for the day I can return to the ground and smell the grass and take in the atmosphere.
Yes, I’d rather have a Bilic than an Allardyce in charge – an Ardilles than a Pulis – but I love them all. Some of the best and worst times in my life have been watching the Albion, but overall it’s been an enriching experience.
Among the best: standing in the Woodman when we beat Swansea to get into the League Three play-offs. And then thrillingly beating Port Vale in the final at Wembley. And of course, the Great Escape under Bryan Robson – and ANY time we went to Molineux and came home with three points (the FA Cup game in 2007 sticks in the memory because our train was horribly delayed and we didn’t get there until half time – we won 3-0 and left our Tesco bag on the home seats).
Among the worst: watching football under Tony Pulis and now under Allardyce (albeit remotely). And going to Stoke when Pulis was in charge of the Oatcakes and ALWAYS losing in the freezing cold. And – of course – the battle of Bramall Lane in March 2002 when Sheffield United had three players sent off and the match was abandoned. I have never been so angry leaving a football ground as I was that day. The assault on Andy Johnson (another footballer with film star looks) by George Santos was unforgiveable.
Oh, and finally, having a front tooth punched out of my mouth at an Albion dinner by someone who took exception to the fact I was born in Kingstanding, not West Bromwich.
Once a Baggie, always a Baggie. Thanks Dad.