No matter how hard I try, I just cannot understand the mystery and the complexity of the human brain. Can somebody please explain to me how and why it is possible for a fifty-year-old man, who cannot remember what he had for dinner last night, to remember the West Bromwich Albion team from the 1978-79 season? Bear in mind that I am a life-long Chelsea fan living 120 miles from the West Midlands.
My wife, for example, will ask me to recall a simple conversation we may have had only hours ago, and I am stumped. Utterly clueless. She will often grow frustrated when I cannot answer her questions. I think she is just jealous because of my ability to not only recall the entire West Brom ’78 team but also some key facts and statistics from that same season.
What makes this unbelievable feat of memory even more amazing is the fact that Chelsea were relegated in that season after finishing bottom with a massive twenty points. The other so-called “big London teams” didn’t fair too well either, with Arsenal finishing seventh and Spurs down in the eleventh spot. This was certainly a season to forget for most of the fans I knew living just north of London.
The only colours I was interested in were the outrageous tones of the West Brom away kit.
In the late 1970s, the BBC and the rest of the nation were in love with Liverpool as they were the Champions of Europe in 1978 and, for the third time in four seasons, they were winners of the old First Division (what the Premier League used to be called before the arrival of “Big Business” and the entrepreneurs at Sky TV, but that’s a story for another time). As of late, the BBC love affair with Liverpool is back after their recent success in Europe and impressive league form. Yes, they will win the Prem this year – unless they have a meltdown Kevin Keegan 1996-style (I would love it) or some bizarre global pandemic puts a halt to all things football (this one not so much)…
Anyway, back to West Brom.
In my eyes, and the eyes of the nation, West Brom were the real Champions of the 1978-79 season, pushing Liverpool hard, finishing third, and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. West Brom had a new manager that season too, bringing in Big Ron Atkinson* who was a pioneer of the English game when he made the brave decision to play three black players – yes, I know, THREE! – at the same time which was totally unheard of in an era that was sadly plagued by racism.
These three talents were Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, who were fondly branded ‘The Three Degrees’ after the American Motown group. I like to think they gained their nickname because they were a harmonious trio on the pitch and entertained the crowd with their sportsmanship, link-up play, and the ability to score from tight angles. Unfortunately, we all know the actual reason for the comparison: there were three of them in the band and they all had black skin. It’s as simple and as racist as that. Sadly, this way of thinking was deemed acceptable in 1970s Britain.
As a ten-year-old, I just thought these men were fantastic players. Possessing both speed and skill, the trio were part of a great team that played attractive football (unlike my Chelsea). It never occurred to me to think about the colour of their skin – the only colours I was interested in were the outrageous tones of the West Brom away kit. I think the green and yellow stripes paired with the green shorts and yellow socks still makes for one of my all-time favourite kits of any club.
Sorry, I almost forgot to actually name the team. Here are the twelve players who made the most appearances for the Baggies that that season…
Goalkeeper: Tony Godden,
Defenders: Brendan Batson, Derek Statham, John Wile, Ally Robertson.
Midfielders: Tony Brown, Bryan Robson, Len Cantello, John Trewick.
Forwards: Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Ally Brown.
So, I have a confession to make; I got the team wrong when I first tried to recall it. I had included David Mills in midfield, perhaps due to the surname, instead of Len Cantello. Also, I had Willie Johnston in midfield (the drug cheat who was sent home from the Scotland World Cup squad in 1978) instead of John Trewick. These are honest mistakes. Both players did play a handful of games in that impressive season, eighteen games for Mills and seven for Johnston. Give a rambling old man a break.
Nowadays, youngsters can find out about any team or player from around the world by surfing the inter-web or watching the pundits play on those big screens on the likes of BT Sport. Back in the day, the best way to find out anything to do with players or their teams was to consult the oracle of the time, the mother of all books, worshipped like the Bible – the Panini sticker album. Break-time would inevitably be spent swapping stickers – got it, got it, got it, need it, got it, and I’ll give you five stickers for shiny. There was no better feeling than being one of the first kids to complete the album and that is exactly how I came to learn about West Brom.
*Big Ron was later sacked by ITV for making a racist comment after commentating on a game in 2004. Hard to believe really, after what he had achieved when breaking down cultural barriers in that 1978-79 season.