I don’t really remember when I first became aware of football as a kid. It was just always there. Every scrap of wasteland was a pitch, every battered can a ball. WBA, Wolves and Villa graffiti was daubed on every pub car park wall and slashed into most of the red leather bus seats of the Midland Red fleet. In the Black Country, the heavily industrialised core of the West Midlands, football is totally tribal.
West Bromwich Albion were formed in 1880, one of the founder clubs of the first ever Football League, starting as the West Bromwich Strollers in 1878 formed by a dedicated group of manufacturing workers at the Salter Spring Works in West Bromwich. The club roots are therefore firmly knotted into the industrial heritage of the area and in its early years, workers from nearby heavy industry would flood through the turnstiles of the Hawthorns, their heavy industrial protective clothing giving rise to “the Baggies” tag which has been long used to refer to the club as well as the fans.
For me, football dominated childhood Saturdays during the season and talk was always of Albion. Legendary names like Jeff Astle and Ronnie Allen were as familiar as any other in the streets where I grew up. Our road was an ‘Albion road’ and all the scarves were navy and white. On home game Saturdays, garage doors would rise in unison and Ford Cortinas and Escorts would be reversed in formation before the mass driving over to West Bromwich to the ground we Albion fans now call “The Shrine.” Even to this day, 30 odd years later, the sight of those Hawthorns’ floodlights still send a shiver down my spine, sending me hurtling back to the days when the team ran out to the old reggae tune ‘The Liquidator’ by the Harry J Allstars and Bryan Robson wore the Captain’s no 7 shirt.
West Brom in the veins. That’s how it always been. The emotional attachment you feel to your local football club especially when its been handed down the family line is hard to explain to non-fans, but you can never walk away and my God at times you want to run. Supporting “The Baggies” is not for the lily-livered. You have to be stoical, very stoical.
Albion are as big a part of my family as any of us. Dad and Grandad were big Albion fans and this was passed to me and my brother like the family name via striped DNA. At games today, I often think about Dad, back in the 50s, sat on the railway sleepers that were wedged into the bank that is now the Birmingham “Brummie” Road End watching his beloved Throstles after leaving his bike down “someone’s entry” close to the ground. And then 풀싸롱 there’s my much beloved Grandad, Daniel Nock, long gone, who stood opposite where I sit now, in flat cap and rainmac, cigar in hand at the Hawthorns of the 60s when Albion flew high, winning the League Cup in ’66 and the FA Cup in ’68. The ground gives me the strangest feeling of being ‘at home’ it sounds corny but its true. For me, there is something very special about that place and I know that essential feeling won’t fade.
When I was growing up, football was everything and everywhere. Saturday afternoons were spent at my Nan and Grandad’s in Blackheath. Nan and I would listen to the match on the radio, waiting for Dad, Grandad, my brother and champion onion growing twin neighbours Ernie and Ivan, to return from the match. If we won, and in the late 70s this was more often than not, Grandad would come charging through the back door armed with chips and tales of my childhood hero Cyrille Regis and total Albion legend Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. These were the days when I was told I was too young to go and Dad forbid it absolutely. I therefore had to rely on my brother’s tales of his experiences of the Smethwick End stand. Stories which I held in awe, tales of the crush of the terraces and the sporadic violence that by then was rising in the English game, of bricks and coins being thrown across thinly segregated fans.
In the late 1970s, West Brom were quite the golden team and this was a great time to be a fan, a welcome distraction for many from the pains of a severe economic depression that was hitting the Black Country hard, with the old steel and manufacturing industries that had propped up our communities for a century or more, beginning to falter and break down. Football took on an even stronger role for local people needing a focus and an escape.
In 1979, WBA finished third in the Old Division 1 and qualified for European football. This was the flair team still feted by fans today and only in the last two seasons have we seen (with some joy) an Albion side rise to anywhere near their level. Albion then fielded three black players in the same team, something that was then totally unknown in English football – Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and the wonderfully gifted, sadly late, Laurie Cunningham. These incredibly talented footballers became known to fans as ‘The Three Degrees’ and acted as pioneers of black players in football, inspiring a generation.