West Bromwich Albion 1968 – Jeff Astle’s Baggies

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.

Background

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.

The final

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.

Aftermath

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….

Manchester United 1968 – triumph before the fire went out

WE’VE ALL seen the footage of George Best rounding the keeper, of Bobby Charlton weeping, of Matt Busby embracing the players, remembering the fallen of Munich, and of Eusebio congratulating Alex Stepney on a superb save. It’s an episode in the history of the game that is as vivid as the unfamiliar blue shirts that Manchester United wore on May 29, 1968.

Manchester United’s European Cup triumph, along with England’s 1966 success and Celtic’s ground-breaking triumph, represents the peak of the 1960s. United had reached the goal they set out to achieve a decade earlier and it was not only Manchester that rejoiced, the entire nation (possibly with the exception of the blue half of Manchester) shared United’s glorious Wembley win against Benfica.

Who would have believed that it would be their last piece silverware for nine years, last European Cup for 31 and that six years after beating Benfica, the Red Devils would be relegated and shorn of their most glittering star?

Champions

United won the Football League championship in 1966-67, their second title in three years. The period 1963 to 1967 was a clear indication that Matt Busby had rebuilt United after the calamity of February 1958.

United’s team of 1966-67 was built around youth products – George Best, Shay Brennan, Bobby Noble, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, John Aston, Bobby Charlton and David Sadler had all come through the club’s much-heralded system. Players like Denis Law (£115,000 from Torino), David Herd (£35,000 from Arsenal) and Tony Dunne (£5,000 from Shelbourne) and Alex Stepney (£55,000 from Chelsea) had cost money, but United liked to develop their own talent.

United won the title in the penultimate game of the season at West Ham, a resounding 6-1 victory. They finished fourth points ahead of Nottingham Forest to claim their place in the European Cup for 1967-68. United’s future looked exciting.

Challengers

In 1967-68, United faced strong competition from Leeds United, Liverpool and near neighbours Manchester City. The smart money was on United regaining their crown, especially as Best was in fine form, arguably at his very peak. In fact, he was named Footballer of the Year in England and European Footballer of the year in 1967-68. But Manchester City had assembled a young, vibrant team under the Joe Mercer-Malcolm Allison axis that was now in a position to challenge for honours. In addition, Leeds United’s relentless ultra-professionals and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, along with Everton, were all in with a shout.

The first real hint that United’s crown was slipping came at the end of March 1968 when City won 3-1 at Old Trafford. But the key moment in the title race was a month later when City won 2-0 against Everton in their final home game while United were trounced 6-3 at West Bromwich Albion. City went top for the first time of the season with two games to go. But both of their fixtures were away – at Tottenham and Newcastle. United, meanwhile, were at home to Newcastle and Sunderland.

United had no difficulty beating Newcastle 6-0 (a Best hat-trick and two from Brian Kidd) and City won 3-1 at Tottenham to stay top on goal average. The two Manchester rivals went into the last Saturday on 56 points. On paper, United should have beaten Sunderland but they surprisingly lost 1-2 at Old Trafford. City were involved in a dramatic 4-3 win at St. James’ Park, giving them the title. United were naturally disappointed at losing their crown, but they at least had the prospect of winning an even bigger prize.

The European canon

Back in 1968, it was widely felt it was very tough for an English club to mount a dual challenge at home and abroad. Some felt this was a lame excuse to explain away under-achievement in Europe, but the 42-game programme was certainly more arduous than many of the continent’s major leagues.

The 1967-68 European Cup was a strong field and included United’s bete noire, Real Madrid, Juventus from Italy, Portugal’s Benfica and holders Celtic.

United started their campaign with an easy task against Malta’s champions, Hibernians, but they came up against the unacceptable face of European club competition when they met Sarajevo. A 0-0 draw in Yugoslavia was followed by a rough and tough game in Manchester. United won 2-1, but the Sarajevo team was bad tempered and combative, constantly hounding the referee and occasionally aggravating George Best.

The next round proved to be a tough hurdle. United won 2-0 against Polish champions Gornik Zabrze but had to be grateful for an own goal and a last minute Brian Kidd effort. The two-goal lead was just enough, but a goal from renowned polish striker Włodzimierz Lubański put pressure on them in the second leg in Chorzów on a frozen, polar white pitch. United squeezed through, but old rivals Real Madrid were waiting for them in the semi-finals.

George Best receives treatment during Manchester United’s European Cup games against Real Madrid at Old Trafford.

United won the first leg in Manchester 1-0, Best firing home a spectacular first-half strike. There were huge doubts that this would be enough to get Busby’s men through to the final and the game was being played just four days after United had lost the league title race. In Madrid, the home side went 2-0 ahead through Pirri and Gento, but a bizarre own goal by Zoco brought United back on level terms. Amancio made it 3-1 on the stroke of half-time.

With just over a quarter of an hour to go, it looked as though Real Madrid would go through to the final, but bizarrely, United conjured up two goals from unlikely sources. First David Sadler, appearing to handle the ball, bundled it over the line from a cross. Years later he recalled how the 125,000 crowd fell absolutely silent as the ball went into the net. Then Best created a chance for veteran defender Bill Foulkes to score a rare goal to make it 3-3.

The final has become the stuff of legends. May 29, 1968 was a balmy evening and Wembley was bathed in sunlight. The whole country seemed to be willing United on to win the European Cup. Benfica had regained their crown as Portuguese champions and Eusebio, their star striker who had lit-up the 1966 World Cup, had netted 42 goals in the process. United had looked tired at the end of their own domestic programme, but they had been resting for almost three weeks.

United were without Denis Law, whose knee injury had kept him out of the semi-final. It was an opportunity for Brian Kidd, on his 19th birthday, to take centre stage with Best and Charlton. The United skipper opened the scoring with, of all things, a glancing header in the 53rd minute. Jaime Grace equalised with 11 minutes remaining. It might have got worse when Eusebio was clear on goal but he was bravely denied by Alex Stepney. As the United custodian gathered the ball, Eusebio stood and applauded the man who had just thwarted him. The game moved into extra time and as the players sat on the Wembley turf, Busby tried to persuade them that Benfica were shot and that United’s stamina would win through.

And so it proved. Best restored United’s lead in the 92nd minute, taking advantage of the fatigued Benfica defence and rounding goalkeeper Jose Henrique to score – a classic Best goal if ever there was one. Two minutes later, Kidd scored with a header at the second attempt. And then in the 99th minute, Charlton swept the ball past Henrique for the fourth goal. United had sewn-up the game in a dramatic eight minute spell. It was, effectively, the end of the rainbow for the club and a fitting memorial to the “Busby Babes” who had perished in Munich a decade earlier.

Where exactly was the burn-out?

So was it the feeling that “we’ve done it all” that led to United’s decline from 1968? Looking at it coldly, with no allegiance to the club, there may have been motivational issues, but what had United done? They had won two league titles and the European Cup, no mean feat and for the times, a major achievement. But the players should still had plenty of mileage. When you consider the number of titles and medals won by Liverpool, just a few years later, there’s no way that United should have been suffering from “burn-out”.

Was it the players, or the club and its management? To criticise Matt Busby is tantamount to heresy, but 10 years after Munich, he may have felt that his time was up. Certainly with his team peaking in 1968, he may not have had the energy or will to rebuild another United team having been through the process in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Busby’s day was over, but Manchester United failed to plan for his departure and in an era when so many fine managers were around, the selected men who were not in the same class as the man who had guided the club since the war. United didn’t recover until the mid-1970s when Tommy Docherty took them back to the top division and won the FA Cup for them. But it was not until 1993 that they would lift the title again. For a club like Manchester United, that’s a very long gap.

But let’s remember what 1967-68 really meant. They were the first English club to win the European Cup. Enough said, really.

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