I don’t really remember when I first became aware of football as a kid. It was just always there. Every scrap of wasteland was a pitch, every battered can a ball. WBA, Wolves and Villa graffiti was daubed on every pub car park wall and slashed into most of the red leather bus seats of the Midland Red fleet. In the Black Country, the heavily industrialised core of the West Midlands, football is totally tribal.
West Bromwich Albion were formed in 1880, one of the founder clubs of the first ever Football League, starting as the West Bromwich Strollers in 1878 formed by a dedicated group of manufacturing workers at the Salter Spring Works in West Bromwich. The club roots are therefore firmly knotted into the industrial heritage of the area and in its early years, workers from nearby heavy industry would flood through the turnstiles of the Hawthorns, their heavy industrial protective clothing giving rise to “the Baggies” tag which has been long used to refer to the club as well as the fans.
For me, football dominated childhood Saturdays during the season and talk was always of Albion. Legendary names like Jeff Astle and Ronnie Allen were as familiar as any other in the streets where I grew up. Our road was an ‘Albion road’ and all the scarves were navy and white. On home game Saturdays, garage doors would rise in unison and Ford Cortinas and Escorts would be reversed in formation before the mass driving over to West Bromwich to the ground we Albion fans now call “The Shrine.” Even to this day, 30 odd years later, the sight of those Hawthorns’ floodlights still send a shiver down my spine, sending me hurtling back to the days when the team ran out to the old reggae tune ‘The Liquidator’ by the Harry J Allstars and Bryan Robson wore the Captain’s no 7 shirt.
West Brom in the veins. That’s how it always been. The emotional attachment you feel to your local football club especially when its been handed down the family line is hard to explain to non-fans, but you can never walk away and my God at times you want to run. Supporting “The Baggies” is not for the lily-livered. You have to be stoical, very stoical.
Albion are as big a part of my family as any of us. Dad and Grandad were big Albion fans and this was passed to me and my brother like the family name via striped DNA. At games today, I often think about Dad, back in the 50s, sat on the railway sleepers that were wedged into the bank that is now the Birmingham “Brummie” Road End watching his beloved Throstles after leaving his bike down “someone’s entry” close to the ground. And then there’s my much beloved Grandad, Daniel Nock, long gone, who stood opposite where I sit now, in flat cap and rainmac, cigar in hand at the Hawthorns of the 60s when Albion flew high, winning the League Cup in ’66 and the FA Cup in ’68. The ground gives me the strangest feeling of being ‘at home’ it sounds corny but its true. For me, there is something very special about that place and I know that essential feeling won’t fade.
When I was growing up, football was everything and everywhere. Saturday afternoons were spent at my Nan and Grandad’s in Blackheath. Nan and I would listen to the match on the radio, waiting for Dad, Grandad, my brother and champion onion growing twin neighbours Ernie and Ivan, to return from the match. If we won, and in the late 70s this was more often than not, Grandad would come charging through the back door armed with chips and tales of my childhood hero Cyrille Regis and total Albion legend Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. These were the days when I was told I was too young to go and Dad forbid it absolutely. I therefore had to rely on my brother’s tales of his experiences of the Smethwick End stand. Stories which I held in awe, tales of the crush of the terraces and the sporadic violence that by then was rising in the English game, of bricks and coins being thrown across thinly segregated fans.
In the late 1970s, West Brom were quite the golden team and this was a great time to be a fan, a welcome distraction for many from the pains of a severe economic depression that was hitting the Black Country hard, with the old steel and manufacturing industries that had propped up our communities for a century or more, beginning to falter and break down. Football took on an even stronger role for local people needing a focus and an escape.
In 1979, WBA finished third in the Old Division 1 and qualified for European football. This was the flair team still feted by fans today and only in the last two seasons have we seen (with some joy) an Albion side rise to anywhere near their level. Albion then fielded three black players in the same team, something that was then totally unknown in English football – Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and the wonderfully gifted, sadly late, Laurie Cunningham. These incredibly talented footballers became known to fans as ‘The Three Degrees’ and acted as pioneers of black players in football, inspiring a generation.
Cyrille was and still is a tower of a man and is still hugely loved and admired by Albion fans. A superbly strong, powerful player, he was to become for many the true benchmark of everything a centre forward should be. Brave, big, fast and the scorer of some absolute thumping belters from distance and beyond. He didn’t get knocked down very often. In late 2011, I was lucky enough to meet Cyrille while he was collecting for charity outside the Hawthorns before a home game. It was wonderful to tell him he was my Albion hero and I nervously but proudly showed him the back of my shirt as proof, emblazoned as it was with ‘Regis 9″. He seemed very surprised to see a fan with his name emblazoned on a recent home shirt and was as gracious as I’d always imagined him to be. It was a great moment for that WBA loving kid that’s still very much me.
Players like Regis, Batson and Cunningham had to face down hideous racism just to do what they did best, week in, week out. There is a much viewed video of West Brom’s famous 1978, 5-3 victory over Man Utd at Old Trafford on You Tube. In the footage, you can clearly hear Laurie Cunningham in particular, being booed repeatedly by the Man Utd fans. It is undoubtedly due to the colour of his skin and unusually for the times is even mentioned by commentator Gerald Sinstadt who makes reference to the “repeated booing of the black players’. The skill shown by Cunningham as he cuts through the United’s midfield is breathtaking. He simply carries on regardless and is described by Sinstadt as “booed but unperturbed”, showing what a truly skilful and wonderful football player he was. All three of these players responded to racism in this way and let their football make their response to the ignorance and the mindless chants. To me and hordes of other fans, ‘the Three Degrees’ made our club that bit more special and we took them to our hearts.
In terms of the Albion story, the years that followed on from the success of the late 1970s were mixed and difficult for Baggies fans. My first ever league game was West Brom v Liverpool in February 1981. We won that game 2-0 against the then league champions with a Bryan Robson miraculous back heeled goal. I guess as a kid, I thought this was always how it was going to be. It didn’t work out quite like that. I had to wait thirty more years to sit and watch my club do something truly special, when I was lucky enough to watch Albion beat Arsenal at the Emirates in a Premier League game in September 2010. But it was worth the wait. It was a joy to hear Albion fans on the phone to their loved ones after the game shouting “I feel like we’ve won the Cup!”… other young fans in their 20s proudly proclaimed on Facebook “This is the best day of my life!” It seems ridiculous but I know what they mean. That day in 1981 in the old Rainbow Stand with my Dad with his packet soup packed tartan flask and mini pork pies was one of mine and I’ll never forget it.
In 1992, I persuaded my Dad to come with me to go and see the Albion together for the first time in years. By then they we were languishing in what was the old Division 3. The Hawthorns was tatty and attendance was poor. We were playing Leyton Orient and the performance was lack lustre to say the least. I remember feeling gutted to see the club on its knees after what we had been and I know it was even harder on my Dad who’d see the joyous days of Jeff Astle. But, I was still heartened by the singing of the Brummie Rd and Smethwick End stands and the fact that the hardcore of supporters had stuck with the club. At half time, I went and touched the grass of the Hawthorns pitch, no one seemed to care that I jumped the barrier. It wasn’t the wonderful flair football I’d watched Albion play as a kid but at least we’d scraped a draw. There were many ups and downs to follow – too many to catalogue here – as Albion were to be crowned the classic ‘yo yo’ club – with successive promotions and relegations stressing the hell out of Albion fans for season upon season.
I met one of Albion’s promotion winning bosses, Roberto di Matteo, at Wembley in August 2010. Albion had seen promotion back to the Premier League under Di Matteo during the 2009-2010 Championship season. My friend approached Di Matteo and brought him over to have a photograph with me ‘for my Dad’ as she told him. I remember greeting him mumbling something about being a West Brom fan, probably with the kind of face a Chilean miner might look at his rescuer. God knows what he thought but he obliged with good humoured grace, guess I was remembering that cold, dark day in November 1992 and being ever so grateful for what he and others like Ardilles and Megson and Roy Hodgson after him had brought back to our club.
In 2010, my annual WBA membership renewal came through with a promo leaflet from the club emblazoned with a picture of the Hawthorns and Jeff Astle and had the words, “You were born a Baggie and you’ve been part of the team ever since” written across it. At first I thought it was a bit cheesy then I was surprised that it brought half a tear to the eye, because it’s true enough. It is about belonging and this is what the local football clubs we love do for us.
The club I was ‘born’ into has sometimes been the bain of my life but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Blue and white striped veins, or “Albion ‘til I die”, that’s just the way it is.
I hope to God the days of 1992 are banished for ever, but if they came back I know I’ll still love the club and always will. But I’d moan and we do like a good moan when we get going. That’s why we’ll keep singing Psalm 23 whatever the score – you never know when you are going to need some help to get to those green pastures and quiet waters. To this day, I’ll never tire of hearing thousands sing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ in Black Country accents. It can be no coincidence that this is Albion’s football ‘hymn’ and you’ll hear it sung by fans at every match. If ever there was a hymn for the need for faith when you are facing the dark nights of the soul then this is it and my God there’s been a lot of those for us Albion fans. 3-0 up at half time, think you’re safe? Think again. Its what we call “typical bloody Albion” but try and make us stay away – we can’t. We are Albion.