Can in-form West Brom match the impact of Albion's stylish 1978-79 team
21:30 GMT, 17 October 2012
It was a time of dwindling crowds due to the spectre of hooliganism. And in industry, a period of deep recession.
Anyone would think that living in and around West Bromwich in 1978 would be something of a hardship. But there was one thing that lifted the gloom. Saturday afternoons at The Hawthorns where, for one season only, something special was happening.
Flamboyant manager Ron Atkinson was putting together one of the most attacking and entertaining sides the top flight has ever seen. What’s more, he thumbed his nose at convention, breaking down racial barriers to give three black players centre stage.
West Bromwich meets Philadelphia: Albion's 'Three Degrees' Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis team up with the real Three Degrees
Steve Clarke’s current crop occupy sixth place in the Barclays Premier League. Four home victories is their best return in 93 years. But while the Scot’s side are functional, pretty and capable of testing champions Manchester City on Saturday, they do not capture the imagination as Atkinson’s outfit did.
Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown, who scored a staggering 218 goals from midfield, played in the West Brom team of the 1960s which reached four finals, but says that his biggest regret is that he never won the league title in 1978-79.
‘We should have won the league that season,’ he said, ‘and I mean no disrespect to Liverpool. It just came together for us. It really was for that one season. For a variety of reasons, that team broke up afterwards. But when we were together, something clicked.
‘We had everything. We scored goals for fun. We would get on to the coach together for away games knowing that someone was going to get a good hiding.
‘We went to Old Trafford and scored five. We had the power of Cyrille Regis, the artistry of Laurie Cunningham, the all-round brilliance of Bryan Robson, the best attacking left back in the country in Derek Statham.
Main man: Ron Atkinson had West Brom playing exciting, attractive football in the late seventies
‘Len Cantello in midfield was a woefully underrated footballer. Two centre halves who did what centre halves are supposed to. I owe Ally Brown so much because the runs he made enabled me to score my fair share.
‘It was wonderful, magical. And to top it all, we had Ron Atkinson managing us.
‘To be fair, the groundwork was done by Johnny Giles. He drilled into us the value of possession. When Ron came in, he wanted us to move the ball a bit quicker.
‘Those two values worked with that group and especially with Ron around. He was a brilliant motivator. We just worked on the basis that we would score more than the opposition.
‘He would say, “Go out and entertain me. You’ve got 30,000 outside and they want to be given a show. Go and do something special”.
‘Then he would walk around the dressing room. He would pull me to one side and say, “You are my No 1. You will do it today for me. You’re the one they’ll be talking about tonight”.
‘Of course, I felt 10 feet tall. Trouble was with Ron, he’d then go over to the other side of the room and say exactly the same thing to Laurie Cunningham!’
Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Regis were three superb footballers. They also happened to be black. It is difficult to imagine now, but their part in highlighting race issues should not be forgotten.
Robson said: ‘We went to the opening of Andy Gray’s nightclub and Cyrille, Brendon and Laurie were there. So were the American supergroup, The Three Degrees. It was too good a photo opportunity to miss. Albion’s black players posed with the girls and from that moment on, we had our own Three Degrees.
‘I’m convinced that stunt helped break down prejudice. At the
Real deal: Laurie Cunningham starred for West Brom before leaving for the Spanish capital Madrid
time, I remember away supporters leaving hundreds of banana skins at the Smethwick End. We have come a long way since then.’
West Brom had qualified for the UEFA Cup that season, earning a mouth-watering tie against Argentinan ace Mario Kempes’ Valencia in the Mestalla Stadium.
‘It was the match that earned Laurie Cunningham his move to Real Madrid,’ recalled Brown. ‘There was no-one to touch him at that time. He was graceful. He used to glide over the pitch. He absolutely tormented Valencia’s right back.
‘All of a sudden, we were sitting there in the second half when Laurie received the ball. Hundreds of oranges started raining down on to the pitch. Their crowd had got that fed up with Laurie, they were pelting him with fruit.
‘One of the lads pointed it out to him afterwards and he said with a wry smile, “I suppose it makes a change from bananas”.’
High flying: Shane Long has helped West Brom climb to sixth in the Premier League this season
But for all the talent, all the goals and all the class of that group of players, it ended with West Brom finishing only third in the league.
‘It really was the coming together of different elements,’ added Brown. ‘I think we had several world-class players, but that fact has not been recognised. Take Robson, for instance. I saw him as a 15-year-old. A skinny waif, really. They prepared a special drink to build him up. It consisted of raw eggs, Guinness and sherry. Horrible!
‘But he turned out to be a world-class player. Laurie went to Real Madrid, Cyrille was one of the most powerful forwards in Europe at the time — a real handful. And then we had Ron who gave us the freedom to go and express ourselves.
‘You know, it’s a decent team this one. But whatever they go on to do — and I really hope they are successful — they cannot recreate what we had. For all sorts of reasons, it really was special.’