Great Reputations: WBA 1978-79 – uncrowned people’s champions

Cyrille Regis in action against Chelsea in 1978-79. Photo: PA

THE PASSING of Cyrille Regis is an appropriate time to assess the West Bromwich Albion team of 1978-79, a side that would have been very popular champions should they have kept pace with the all-conquering Liverpool unit of that era.

Albion played with an attitude that was as flamboyant as their manager at the time, Ron Atkinson. Love him or hate him, Atkinson always divides opinion, but you can never deny that his teams were worth watching. If awards were given for popularity, Atkinson’s charges would have been the “people’s champions” in much the same way that QPR 1976 and Ipswich Town 1981 might have been garlanded.

History will be very kind to that Albion team and doubtless there’s scarcely a match goes by when Baggies fans of a certain age don’t look wistfully across the Hawthorns pitch and long to see Laurie Cunningham slalom his way past defenders or Regis power his way through to score a spectacular goal. Or indeed, to catch the evergreen Tony Brown (with or without his perm) finding the back of the net.

Albion were popular partly because they represented something other than “Liverpool again” or Clough’s ruthlessly efficient post-title Forest. It was a new team in contention. Of course, recent history has focused on the fact they had three black players in their line-up, but West Ham had fielded a trio of black players as far back as 1972.

When Albion wore their vivid yellow and green second strip, they looked somewhat other-worldly. Little Laurie Cunningham and big Cyrille Regis, athletic, skilful and clever, were the stars of the show. Sadly, both are no longer with us, Cunningham dying in a car accident and now Regis taken all too soon by a heart attack.

Albion won promotion back to the first division in 1976 after spending three seasons in the second. Johnny Giles led them back to the top drawer but resigned upon winning promotion. The club persuaded him to stay on and in 1976-77, Albion finished a very respectable seventh. Ronnie Allen, a former favourite from the 1950s, took over, but in January 1978, Atkinson arrived from Cambridge United. At the end of 1977-78, Albion had bettered their first season back by one place.

The team that would eventually win so many friends was largely already in place. Tony Brown had been with the club since 1963 and was a pivotal figure in Albion’s successes in the 1960s, winning the FA Cup in 1968 and two years earlier, the Football League Cup. Albion reached four finals between 1966 and 1970 and Brown appeared in them all. The 1978-79 season was an “Indian summer” for “Bomber” Brown.

Len Cantello had arrived at the Hawthorns in 1968 and was often an underrated player, while defender John Wile was signed in 1970 from Peterborough United. Ally Brown joined from Leicester in 1971 and Bryan Robson and John Trewick were blooded in 1974. Derek Statham, Regis and Cunningham all made their bows in 1977. Atkinson went back to Cambridge to sign the dependable Brendan Batson, a former Arsenal full-back born in Grenada, and goalkeeper Tony Godden was secured from non-league Ashford Town. Effectively, Atkinson inherited the squad, mostly from Giles, but his attacking philosophy turned them into a riveting proposition. Atkinson preached entertainment, flair and a fast-moving, skilful style. “Go out and entertain me, go and do something special,” was his mantra.

Regis and Cunningham

Ironically, Albion’s two gems were both Londoners. Laurie Cunningham, who joined the club in March 1977 for around £110,000 from Orient, was from north London. At Orient, he came to the fore in 1975 as a skilful performer when London football was largely in a depressed state. There were constant stories that he would sign for one of the capital’s big clubs and it was something of a surprise when West Bromwich Albion signed him. The club had clearly got its scouts in London, for later in 1977, Cyrille Regis was spotted by Albion manager Ronnie Allen. Regis was playing for Isthmian League Hayes, where he had scored 24 goals in 1976-77. Albion’s board was not convinced, but Allen managed to persuade the club to table £ 5,000 for Regis.

In time, the impact of both players, as well as the less celebrated but also influential Batson, would be seen as game-changers in English football’s gradual shift to a multi-cultural sport. It wasn’t easy and at away grounds, racist chants and anti-social behaviour prevailed at some clubs. Football crowds predominantly comprised white working class men.

Even the most myopic and ignorant terrace dweller had to admit that Cunningham and Regis were a cut above. Moreover, the trio, who became known as “the three degrees” (a reference to the female Philadelphia soul trio of the same name), were role models to thousands of black youngsters playing the game.

Cunningham became one of the first black players to win a full England cap, but the 1978-79 season was to be his last with Albion, for the Baggies sold him to Real Madrid for close to a million pounds in the summer of 1979.

Regis stayed and cemented his position as a club icon. He was never as prolific as he perhaps should have been, his manager claiming that he needed to score more “scruffy goals”, but he was capable of netting truly memorable strikes. Eventually, he left for Coventry City in 1984, a move that saddened most Baggies fans. It was strange to see the strong and muscular front man in another club’s colours.

When Laurie met Cyrille…and Brendan

The relationship between Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, in terms of playing time, was brief. The two were on the same pitch in league games just 60 times. The first occasion was on September 3 1977 when WBA beat Middlesbrough 2-1 at the Hawthorns. Regis scored on his debut. The last time was on May 14 1979 at White Hart Lane, a game that Albion lost 1-0. It was also the last league game featuring the famous “Three Degrees”.

The best in years

The 1978-79 season, the club’s centenary, came after a highly successful and ground-breaking diplomatic tour of China. Albion started the league campaign well, going unbeaten in five games. They beat Ipswich Town 2-1 on the opening day and won their next two games against QPR and Bolton. Their first defeat came at Derby County and their home record went a couple of weeks later against Tottenham. But then Albion showed their credentials with an unbeaten run that stretched from mid-October to the beginning of February. In those 13 league games, Atkinson’s side produced some brilliant football and earned a string of impressive results.

Coventry City were beaten 7-1 at the Hawthorns, but it was the Christmas period that saw them really capture the headlines. Manchester United were beaten 5-3 at Old Trafford, with Cunningham and Regis both catching the eye in a stunning display. On January 13, after a 1-1 draw at Norwich, Albion hit the top of the table for the first time in years. Then came a prolonged period of bad weather that seemed to affect Albion’s momentum.

Atkinson strengthened his squad by signing Middlesbrough’s David Mills for £ 500,000 – a record fee at the time. It was a price tag that the midfielder struggled to live up to, and the transfer failed to have the desired effect. Albion’s title bid was damaged by two defeats in February, 1-2 at Liverpool and 1-2 at home to Leeds United. They then regained their composure with six straight wins, but five draws in six put paid to their hopes of overcoming the mighty Liverpool.

Nevertheless, Albion had the chance to finish runners-up and if they had avoided defeat against Nottingham Forest in their last game, they would have achieved that landmark. However, they had to settle for third place, nine points behind the champions.

Away from domestic football, Albion had also enjoyed a run to the last eight of the UEFA Cup, beating Galatasaray, Braga and Valencia (World Cup winner Mario Kempes et al) beaten before Red Star Belgrade beat them 2-1 on aggregate. There was some consolation in that third place in the league gave them European football once more at the Hawthorns and Cyrille Regis was named PFA Young Player of the Year. Regis, Cunningham and Statham were all voted in the PFA team of the year for 1978-79.

The legacy

West Bromwich Albion have won the Football League just once and they’ve lifted the FA Cup five times, the last occasion being 1968. Most of their successes are tinged with sepia, but the memory of the 1978-79 Baggies has endured. From a footballing perspective, their style and swagger was a joy to behold, they were just not robust enough, or resourced enough, to deal with the Anfield machine of the time.

But their social impact is even more important and that’s why Albion’s team of that era will live on as one of football’s trail-blazers. Every black player in the UK today owes them something, but more broadly, English football is indebted to Regis, Cunningham and Batson for showing society the way forward.

Some of Albion’s best sides…

FA Cup winners
Football League champions
FA Cup winners and FL runners-up
FA Cup winners
Third in the Football League
Roberts Pearson Heath Osborne Godden
Aldridge J.Smith Rickaby Fraser Batson
H.Green Pennington Millard Williams Statham
Horton Richardson Dudley T.Brown Wile
Perry Bowers Dugdale Talbut Robertson
Timmins McNeal Barlow Kaye T.Brown
Woodhall Jephcott Griffin Lovett Cantello
Bassett A.Smith Ryan Collard Robson
Bayliss Blood Allen Astle Cunningham
Pearson Morris Nicholls Hope Regis
Wilson Gregory Lee Clark A.Brown


2 thoughts on “Great Reputations: WBA 1978-79 – uncrowned people’s champions

  1. 1978/79 was the first season I followed football, and I remember that WBA team pretty well, They were the only team that really kept pace with a strong Liverpool side throughout the season.

    Sad that another prominent figure from that formative time in my football life has gone.

  2. My first match at the Hawthorns was in 1953, I think. We lost to Portsmouth. Great to see those key teams, but who would make the All-time greatest 11? Don Howe, Bobby Robson, Derek Kevan, Willie Johnstone not mentioned above. For me the All-time 11 would be, Foster; Howe, Wile, Kaye, Statham; Barlow, Setters, Hope; Allen, Astle, Johnstone.

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