MORE THAN 18 years ago, Jeff Astle, a member of England’s 1970 World Cup squad and a prolific goalscorer in the late 1960s and early 1970s for West Bromwich Albion, died. Astle’s passing was greatly mourned, because not only was he a notable and popular player, but there was a hint that Astle’s death had been accelerated by his profession. A lifetime of heading heavy leather balls may well have contributed to his physical and mental decline. He was just 59 years of age. “The King”, as he was known, was dead.
Astle was the pivotal figure in a West Bromwich Albion team that won the FA Cup in 1968 and he joined a select band of players who scored in each round on the way to lifting the famous old trophy.
Albion’s achievement is still notable – only one other team from the Midlands (Coventry 1987) has won the FA Cup since Alan Ashman’s men surprisingly beat Everton in May 1968.
West Bromwich Albion have only won the League Championship once, in 1919-20, but they have won the FA Cup five times. Back in the mid-to-late 1960s, they were renowned cup-fighters.
Albion were relegated from the top flight in 1938, but had to wait until 1948-49 to regain their place in Division One. In 1954, they won the FA Cup and were runners-up in the Football League – the Baggies were close to pulling off the first post-war double. In the late 1950s, Albion were a difficult side to beat and finished in the top five in three consecutive seasons. Although they slipped from these relative heights, Albion went on to win the Football League Cup in 1966, beating West Ham United over two legs. They reached the final again, under Jimmy Hagan, in 1966-67, meeting Queens Park Rangers at Wembley. Winger Clive Clark gave Albion a two-goal lead, but the third division side came back to win 3-2. In the summer of 1967, Albion appointed Alan Ashman as manager. He had achieved considerable success at Carlisle United playing attack-minded football. Ashman would bring an adventurous style to the Hawthorns and Albion would return to Wembley in 1968.
Albion started the 1967-68 poorly, losing at home to Chelsea by a single goal. In fact, they won just once in their first seven games. Things improved in September, but there was a shock for Albion when they went out of the Football League Cup to Reading. It wasn’t until December that they made any consistency in the league. At times, though, Ashman’s occasionally swashbuckling team would turn it on – such as in October when two goals from Jeff Astle beat Don Revie’s title-chasing Leeds United side 2-0, and a month later, WBA beat Burnley 8-1 at the Hawthorns.
December was good, although it started with a defeat at Manchester United. Then Albion won at West Ham and Chelsea and pulled off the double against Manchester City, a pair of results that would look better and better as the season progressed. Albion had run into form at the right time – they couldn’t realistically challenge for the title, but the FA Cup started in January for them and they ended the year in fifth place, eight points behind leaders Manchester United.
Albion travelled to Colchester United for their third round tie, and the fourth divison side were within a whisker of sending their first division visitors home red-faced. Tony Brown’s penalty had kept them in the game, but Colchester had a goal disallowed in the dying seconds. The replay was a formality, with Albion winning 4-0, with goals from Astle (2), John Kaye and Clark.
In round four, Albion were held to a draw at home (1-1) by Southampton, Brown again on target. In the replay, goalkeeper John Osborne was injured and skipper Graham Williams took over in goal. It was a tense affair at the Dell, but Albion scraped home 3-2, with Astle scoring the winner in the final minute (his second goal of the game, Brown netted the other).
It was back to the south coast in round five to Portsmouth and goals from Astle and Clark gave Albion a 2-1 win.
The next round would pair Albion with Liverpool, the toughest test for Ashman’s men on the road to Wembley. It took three games to win the tie, the first game, at home, ended 0-0 and a 1-1 draw at Anfield sent the tie to Maine Road, Manchester. Albion won 2-1, goals from Astle and Clark. The real hero was John Kaye, however, who injured his head during the game and donned the classical British centre back headgear of a blood-stained bandage. The win set-up a semi-final with Brummie neighbours Birmingham City at Villa Park.
Meanwhile, in the league, Albion remained inconsistent, although they scored plenty of goals. They were stuck around the eighth position in the table. The semi-final against Birmingham, who were in the second division, saw Albion score twice from four shots and their opponents have a string of chances they failed to convert. Albion won 2-0 and would meet Everton in the final.
A few days later, Albion raised eyebrows when they trounced Manchester United 6-3 at the Hawthorns in one of the pivotal moments in Albion’s history. Astle hit a hat-trick and inflicted great damage on United’s championship aspirations. “Albion hit United for 6!”. The season finished with a 1-3 defeat at Arsenal, leaving Albion in eighth place. Astle, by now coming under the scrutiny of international selectors, netted 26 goals in the first division.
With 75 goals, Albion were the third highest goalscorers in the first division in 1967-68, behind the two Manchester clubs. Everton had a group of players who ranked among the best in the country – they had ended the season in fifth place. They had World Cup winner Alan Ball in their ranks and players like Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey, Tommy Wright, Gordon West and Brian Labone. On the way to Wembley, they beat Southport (a 1-0), Carlisle (a 2-0), Tranmere (h 2-0), Leicester (a 3-1) and in the semi-final, Leeds United 1-0 at Old Trafford, with Johnny Morrissey scoring the only goal. They were tagged as favourities for the cup.
The media promised a free-flowing attacking final, but like so many others, it fell short of expectations. Brian Glanville, reporting in The Sunday Times, said, “There were, alas, some dreadful, physical fouls by both sides.” Everton had the greater share of play, but Albion put in dogged resistance.
But Everton had the chance of the game in the final seconds of normal time, Jimmy Husband, often an under-rated player, but one that was seen by neutrals as a weak link in the Everton line-up, headed over from close range with the goal gaping. It was a dispiriting miss and as extra time got underway, Albion clinched the game with a goal from Astle. His first attempt, with his trusty right foot, was blocked but the ball came back to him and he hit it with his “dummy leg”, his left (Astle’s own description) high into West’s net. It won the cup and sent Astle into the record books and Albion into Europe in 1968-69.
Birmingham went mad with excitement. Within hours of Astle’s goal, his name was scrawled in huge letters – “Astle is King” – across a prominent canal bridge in Netherton which will forever be known in local folklore as the “Astle Bridge”. The next day, 250,000 people lined the streets to welcome Ashman’s team back to the Midlands.
Albion’s team was founded on an exciting attacking formation that included some rich talent. Astle was the jewel in the Hawthorns’ crown. He was said to have been born in the same street as DH Lawrence. He would later win five England caps and regularly top the goalscoring charts. And he could sing too, as evidence when the laddish duo Baddiel and Skinner adopted him as a feature slot on one of their football-oriented programmes. Tony Brown was a magnificent and versatile player, often rated as Albion’s most valuable performer by opposition fans. Brown had a second coming in the late 1970s and holds the club’s appearance and goalscoring record. One England cap just didn’t seem enough. Bobby Hope was a tricky inside forward who briefly played for Scotland and Clive Clark was an experienced player who had scored at Wembley a year earlier.
Albion’s goalkeeper was John Osborne, ain many ways, an unlikely looking footballer. He arrived at the club from Chesterfield, who had established themselves as something of a goalkeeping production line. He went on to work in cricket for years. In front of him was skipper Graham Williams, a Welsh international who played more than 300 games for the Baggies. Doug Fraser, the other full-back, was another long-server after joining Albion from Aberdeen. In the centre of defence, John Kaye was an uncompromising figure having been converted from a forward. John Talbut, a Geordie, arrived from Burnley. In addition to these experienced players, Albion also had youngsters like Ian Collard and Graham Lovett. The average age of this team was just 25.
Alan Ashman, talking after the game, said he wanted his team to use the FA Cup win as a springboard to win the Football League in 1968-69. Bold words, perhaps, but in those days, there was more possibility of an “outsider” winning the big prizes. But Albion finished 10th and never threatened to challenge – this was the age of Leeds United’s multi-front pursuit of glory, after all. Ashman also called for a barn-storming European campaign in the Cup Winners’ Cup. After beating Club Bruges and Dinamo Bucharest, the Baggies went out to Dunfermline Athletic. They did go very close to retaining the FA Cup, though, losing in the semi-final to Leicester City. By 1971, Ashman had gone and two years later, Albion were relegated. Wembley seemed a long way off. To quote Astle again, “There was nothing to match that moment.” And how right he was….