Friday, April 04, 2008

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

Well, it wasn't exactly forty years ago today, but it was forty years ago West Bromwich Albion, the last of our four FA Cup survivors, last won the Cup. They stand alone amongst the four clubs left in this year's competition as being the only club to have won the competition more than once, but you'd have to be considerably older than I am in order to be able to remember it. In fact, Albion have won the FA Cup five times - twice in the nineteenth century and then again in 1931 and 1954, but it is their last win, in 1968, that their supporters regard as the iconic one. It was a run that nearly ended before it started. They needed a penalty to earn a draw against Colchester United in the Third Round, and another replay in the Fourth Round against Southampton. They then knocked Portsmouth out in the Fifth Round (meaning that both Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion have beaten each other on the way to winning the FA Cup), and then finally saw Liverpool off after two replays in the quarter-finals. The semi-final was a proper internecine affair against Birmingham City at Villa Park. Albion started the match as favourites and won 2-0.

Their opponents at Wembley were Everton, and there wasn't much on paper between the two sides. Everton had finished the season in fifth place in the First Division (which had been won by Manchester City, of all people), while the Albion had finished eighth. The year before, Albion had lost in the League Cup final to Third Division Queens Park Rangers after having led 2-0 at half-time.Whilst Albion had Jeff Astle and Tony Brown, Everton had Brian Labone and Ron Springett. It was a match for firsts - the first match to be covered in colour by the BBC and the first FA Cup final in which a substitute (Dennis Clarke for West Bromwich Albion - substitutes had only been introduced in 1965 and were still only very seldom used for tactical reasons) - but, in truth, it was a poor match and finished 0-0, and looking likely to go to a replay for the first time since in had been played at Wembley. Three minutes into extra time, however, Jeff Astle thrashed the ball in from the edge of the penalty area for the only goal of the match, and it was the sort of match in which Everton didn't have anything left to give.

West Bromwich Albion are one of those clubs that are very good at false dawns. If told anyone in 1968 that a club from the Midlands would be winning the league championship in four years' time, Albion would have been most people's choices. Aston Villa were in a decline that would see them in the Third Division by 1971, Wolves had only just been promoted back to the First Division and Derby County (who would be fashioned by Brian Clough into League Champions into League Champions by 1972) had just finished fifth from bottom in the Second Division. Albion would go on to the European Cup Winners Cup quarter-finals the following season and then lost the 1970 League Cup final to Manchester City. The purple patch ended, however, with the departure of Alan Ashman in 1971, and they were relegated two years later. Jeff Astle sadly dies in 2002 at the age of 59.

As with the other three contenders, this weekend's matches are uncharted territory for West Bromwich Albion, and what I've noticed over the last seven days is that those that had been talking of the Cup as a hindrance to their promotion aspirations have largely fallen silent. The fact of the matter is that even if they don't get promoted this season, they'll be there or thereabouts next season, and (I'll say this yet again) this is the best chance that West Bromwich Albion could possibly have to win the FA Cup. It promises to be a magnificent weekend of football.


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