As Bad As Things Got: West Bromwich Albion, 11th May 1991
The story of West Bromwich Albion’s team of the late 1970s is a well-worn tale. Under the managership of Ron Atkinson, the club became one of the most progressive in England, becoming the first to field three black players and breaking new ground by touring China. The end of that period in the club’s history, however, would come suddenly and tragically, and the chain of events that would follow on from it would, in just a decade, lead the club to the lowest point in its history.
Tom Silk was a self-made man. An engineer by trade, his company Hampson Industries had done well for itself through innovative problem solving and embracing new markets, and he was invited to join the board of directors of his local football club in 1965. When Albion fell into the Second Division in 1973 for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, it was time for a change in the running of the club. Bert Millichip took over as the club’s chairman, but his conservative instincts were tempered by Silk’s taste for thinking outside of boxes.
The club spent three years in the Second Division before being promoted back under manager Johnny Giles, who’d been appointed into the position a couple of years earlier. Gile’s relationship with his bosses was always somewhat tempestuous, with frequent clashes over the board over what Giles perceived as the club’s parsimony in the transfer market and being excluded from the club’s decision-making processes. Giles quit on the day that Albion secured promotion back to the First Division in 1976 but was persuaded to stay on, only to resign in April of the following year, with the team well-placed in the First Division.
His successor turned out to be the man who’d significantly change the club’s fortunes for the next few seasons. Ronnie Allen had been the club’s record goalscorer, and joined their coaching staff in January 1977. Six months later he was the manager, and although his time in charge of the club would be brief, it would also turn out the be influential. Allen recommended the signing of Laurie Cunningham from Orient and Cyrille Regis from non-league Hayes. Brendon Batson joined them from Cambridge United the following year. After Allen’s departure to take up an advisory position in Saudi Arabia his replacement, Ron Atkinson, would build one of the most attractive teams to watch in the whole country, all the while smashing many of the the racially ignorant prejudices of the time into the bargain. Under Atkinson, Albion peaked by finishing 3rd at the end of the 1978/79 season.
Significantly, Atkinson was Tom Silk’s type of manager, and the two would strike up an immediate friendship. This, however, would come to a sudden and tragic end in September 1980. Silk was a qualified pilot, and flew his wife to the south of France in the middle of that month to celebrate their wedding anniversary. However, upon arriving in France their flight was diverted from Nice to St Tropez and was refuelled for the return journey. On the way back, the plane crashed in a mountainous area, killing both onboard. Ron Atkinson had been invited to join them for the vacation, but opted not to travel because it was during the football season. There was no formal investigation into the accident, but it is believed that Silk’s Lear Jet may have been refuelled with the wrong type of fuel.
The effect of Tom Silk’s death upon the club would take a long time to fully reveal itself. Atkinson left the following summer for Manchester United (Bert Millichip also left in the summer of 1981 to take over as the chairman of the FA – Silk would have been expected to replace him), and would soon return to purchase Bryan Robson and Remi Moses, two of Albion’s most important players, for £2.5m. Ronnie Allen returned to take over as manager, but with the team fragmenting they only avoided relegation on the last day of the 1981/82 season, though they did also reach the FA Cup semi-finals before being beaten by Second Division Queens Park Rangers. Allen was hustled upstairs at the end of the season.
Much of the following decade would be one of almost imperceptibly slow decline for West Bromwich Albion. Allen’s replacement was Ron Wylie, but he only lasted a year and a half before quitting. Apparently unable to resist the temptation to try to return to the late 1970s, the club again called on Johnny Giles (this time alongside Nobby Stiles and Norman Hunter), but he lost his first match at home to Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup, and by the time of his departure in October 1985 the club was in full blown crisis mode. Without Silk’s involvement, the invention had gone from the club’s decision-making, while the best players had all been sold. Stiles took over as sole manager, but only lasted four months in the position.
His replacement could scarcely have been a more controversial one. Ron Saunders had taken Aston Villa to the 1981 Football League championship, only for him to walk out and join their rivals Birmingham City in February 1982 over a contract dispute. Saunders had taken a financially-crippled Birmingham down in 1984 but led them straight back, but walked out on Birmingham to join Albion in February 1986. By this time, however, their position was almost completely hopeless. They were already ten points adrift of safety when he joined, and they finished the season on just 24 points – the worst performance in their history – and 17 points from survival. Saunders tried to rebuild team, but without success. He was sacked in February 1987, with the team entrenched in the lower half of the Second Division.
Things hadn’t improved that much by the end of the decade. Ron Atkinson returned, but he was unable to recreate the magic of a few years earlier and Albion ended the 1987/88 season avoiding relegation to the Third Division by a single point. There was a degree of improvement at the start of the following season, by Atkinson was tempted abroad by Atletico Madrid in October 1988, and was replaced by Brian Talbot. Talbot was a managerial rookie and took over as player-manager, but he started well, with five consecutive wins which took them briefly to the top of the table, including a 4-1 win at Birmingham City in his first match, but this couldn’t be maintained and Albion finished the season in 9th place in the table, five points from the play-offs. The following season saw Albion finish two places and three points above the relegation places.
West Bromwich Albion were, then, largely absent from the wave optimism that blew through football in England following the 1990 World Cup. By the start of the 1990/91 season, daggers were drawn for Brian Talbot, with the early optimism that had greeted his original appointment having all but evaporated. By the midway point of the season, a home match against Wolverhampton Wanderers on the 29th December 1990, they were in 17th place in the table, again only just above the relegation places. In front of a crowd of 28,500 at The Hawthorns, a late goal seemed to be enough to give them a precious win, only for an even later goalkeeping error to salvage a draw for Wolves. Three days later, they lost to Leicester City in the league.
The Third Round of the FA Cup can be a double-edged sword. Some clubs may welcome the distraction of the Cup, but those who need positive distraction rarely find it. Albion had been given what should have been a comfortable draw at home to non-league side Woking. Woking were a team on the up, having been promoted to th Premier Division of the Isthmian League at the end of the previous season, but this still should have been a comfortable home win for a Second Division team of professionals.
The benefit of hinsdight, however, allows us the perspective that this was never going to happen. As late as half-time, though, all seemed to be going okay, Albion led 1-0 at the break thanks to a Colin West goal after haf an hour, and although the football hadn’t been particularly sparkling, it looked as though Albion should at least be able to maintain this lead and progress to the next round of the competition. The second half of this match, however, turned out to be probably the most calamitous in the entire history of the club. Tim Buzaglo, an estate agent by day and also a Gibraltarian international cricketer, scored an improbable hat-trick in 15 minutes at the start of the second half, with Albion’s fragile confidence shattered by conceding just a couple of minutes after the break.
A fourth Woking goal came from Terry Worsfold towards the end, with a late consolation goal for Albion barely registering amongst the now-incandescent home supporters. At the full-time whistle, Woking had won 4-2 and Buzaglo was carried on the shoulders of Albion fans who’d invaded the pitch to protest against both Brian Talbot and the owners of the club. Brian Talbot was sacked three days later along with his player-coach, a little-known journeyman by the name of Sam Allardyce. His former assistant Stuart Pearson took over on a caretaker basis, while the club tried to figure out what to do next.
Under Pearson, the team did at least briefly stabilise, with two wins from their next four matches, but Pearson apparently wasn’t considered for role on a full-time basis. Bobby Gould, who’d had success with Coventry City and Wimbledon during the 1980s, was the board’s choice to replace Talbot, but his reputation for an agricultural style of football made him an unpopular choice with supporters, provoking further protests ahead of his eventual appointment at the end of February 1991. After a goalless draw with West Ham United in his first match in charge, however, Gould spent the whole of March 1991 living down to the fans’ expectations. Albion lost their next six matches in a row, and by the end of March they were only one place above the relegation places.
It is something of a statistical improbability that West Bromwich Albion went unbeaten for their last nine matches of the season but were relegated anyway. The problem was that they only won two of these nine matches, drawing the other seven, and by the end of the season they’d won just 10 games out of 46, having drawn 18. On the morning of the last day of the season, they were three points adrift of safety but with a superior goal difference over one of the teams above them, Plymouth Argyle – the other, Swindon Town, had a marginally superior goal difference – and level on points with Leicester City, who were one place below them in the table, with a trip to Bath to play mid-table Bristol Rovers in their final game of the season.
Hundreds of West Bromwich Albion supporters travelled to Twerton Park for the match, and things couldn’t have started much better for them when, after just three minutes, Rovers’ top scorer Carl Saunders led with an elbow in a challenge on Paul Raven, earning himself a red card for his troubles. Albion, however, were set to hit a very familiar wall. Going into this match, they’d drawn each of their four previous matches 1-1. Killing off games had been a problem all season, and Albion couldn’t even manage it against ten players when their survival depended on it. Bristol Rovers hit the crossbar and had a goal disallowed before a deep cross from the left was headed in by Anthony Pounder to give Rovers the lead.
A very late equaliser allowed a little hope that something could be salvaged from it all, as did news filtering through that Oxford United had scored a late equaliser against Leicester City. This news, however, turned out to be a little premature. The Oxford equaliser – which would have relegated Leicester in Albion’s place – was disallowed and despite having gone unbeaten throughout their last nine matches of the season, including five consecutive 1-1 draws, West Bromwich Albion, who’d been founder members of the Football League 103 years earlier, would be starting the following season in the Third Division for the first time in their history.
Bobby Gould hung onto his job, and Albion’s life in the third tier started in style, with a 6-3 win against Exeter City on the opening day of the 1991/92 season. They even led the table, by the end of September. Soon enough, though, familiar problems started to manifest themselves. The sale of Don Goodman to Sunderland for £900,000 in December led to sit-down protests against the board – Tom Silk’s brother John had been chairman since 1988 – but Gould replaced Goodman with Bob Taylor, signed for £300,000 from Bristol City, and Taylor’s goals helped to propel them back to the top of the table by the start of February 1992.
In the last third of the season, however, their form collapsed. A 3-0 win at Birmingham City put them top of the table again on the 8th February, but Albion won just two of their next 15 matches and ended up short of even the play-off places with room to spare. On the last day of the season a trip to Gay Meadow to play Shrewsbury Town saw them win 3-1, but the match was disrupted by a pitch invasion by travelling supporters, who snapped the crossbar at one end of the pitch. Gould left at the end of the season, to be followed by John Silk. He was replaced by Osvaldo Ardiles, who took them back up via the play-offs at the end of the following season, with Bob Taylor scoring 30 goals for them that season. Gould wouldn’t manage another club side until Cardiff City, in 2000. John Silk left the club shortly afterwards. Albion would finally make their first appearance in the Premier League in 2002.
How different might West Bromwich Albion’s 1980s have been had Tom Silk not been killed at the start of the decade, though? Ron Atkinson has said that he would not have left the club in the summer of 1981 had Silk still been at The Hawthorns, and Bryan Robson has said the same, although the idea that Robson would have stayed with Albion for the whole of his career had Silk been there seems fanciful. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that the cold wind blowing through English football’s industrial heartlands wasn’t exclusive to the Albion. Wolves, Birmingham and Aston Villa all had their problems throughout the decade, for reasons both related to the state of the game itself as well as that of the broader economy.
Indeed, the 1980s were a terrible decade for most of the founding twelve members of the Football League in a general sense. Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley all dropped to the Fourth Division, while Derby County and Notts County both dropped to the Third Division, Blackburn Rovers stagnated the whole decade in the Second Division and Aston Villa ended up there, just five years after becoming the champions of Europe. Stoke City set a record low points score in the First Division in 1985, picking up just 17 points from 42 matches and ending up a jaw-dropping 33 points from safety. Only Everton had a reasonably successful 1980s, winning the First Division twice, the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup in three years, between 1985 and 1987. Whether West Bromwich Albion might have been able to continue their progress of the late 1970s with Tom Silk as chairman, though, is one of football’s great unknowables. Considering the success under Ron Atkinson at the end of the 1970s, it certainly can’t be completely ruled out.