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Fifty years on: West Brom heroes relive FA Cup glory

By Matt Wilson | West Bromwich Albion | Published:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the last time Albion lifted the FA Cup.

Jeff Astle, third from left, helps hoist Clive Clark, who is holding the lid of the FA Cup, after Albion’s win at Wembley in 1968. Skipper Graham Williams can be seen in the middle, holding the body of the cup, following the team’s 1-0 victory

The Baggies were underdogs that day, or ‘rank outsiders’ as Jeff Astle’s widow Laraine puts it, because Everton had thumped Albion 6-2 just two months previously.

But Astle scored a left-footed winner in extra-time to give Albion their fifth FA Cup and ensure he had scored in every round.

However, a nip-and-tuck final with a 1-0 scoreline doesn’t do justice to the full story of a dramatic and remarkable cup run.

Last-minute disallowed goals, outfield players going in goal, kidnap threats, and painted boots all feature in the story of a team who battled through replay after replay just to get to Wembley.

Welsh full-back Graham Williams was Baggies captain that season, and he revealed that Albion’s cup run nearly ended before it had even started away at Third Division Colchester in the third round.

“We had a goal scored against us in the last minute,” Williams told the Express & Star this week. “We were all swearing and cursing, calling each other names, but suddenly the referee pointed to a free-kick to us in our penalty area.

“I still don’t know to this day why it was disallowed, but when we got back in the dressing room we all said ‘Our name must be on the cup this year’. We brought them back to The Hawthorns and gave them a tonking.”

The fourth round was just as hairy though, because Baggies keeper John Osborne was injured during a replay at Southampton.

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There were no substitute goalkeepers in those days, forcing Williams to go in goal.

“I’m only 5ft 7in!” said Williams. “Tony Brown was normally the stand-in goalkeeper, but we thought we can’t put him in goal, we need to score.

“So I went in goal at half-time and I had to put John Osborne’s kit on. He’s 6ft 3in, he’s got long arms. The shirt was so long it was coming out the bottom of my shorts!

“In the dressing room Bobby Hope said ‘we’ve got a midget in goal, don’t let them get the ball in the air.’

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“Well John Kaye came back to centre-back and he and John Talbut were magnificent, they got everything in the air.

“But at Southampton the goals were right up to the fans, they could almost touch you. The home supporters were flicking cigarette ends and nuts and bolts at me, trying to make me lose concentration."

But sure enough, Bomber Brown scored and Albion went through 3-2 before ‘cruising’ past Portsmouth in the fifth round - the only round Alan Ashman’s men didn’t need a replay to get through.

Graham Williams on the Wembley steps.

Next up was Liverpool, who would finish third that season, five places above Albion in the First Division.

The teams played out a goalless draw at The Hawthorns, but Liverpool’s celebrations riled the Albion players.

Laraine Astle didn’t travel to the away games because her daughter Dawn was only a few months old at the time, but she remembers this game vividly.

“It was 0-0 when the final whistle went and (Liverpool defenders) Ron Yeats and Chris Lawler ran to each other celebrating as if they’d won just because they’d got us back at Anfield,” she said.

“Jeff said that the players had noticed that. They thought they were too cocksure, and it spurred the Albion on.”

The Baggies drew 1-1 at Anfield with Astle – who else – scoring Albion’s goal, to set up a second replay at the neutral venue of Manchester City’s Maine Road.

“That’s when we started training in Southport,” explained Williams. “We would train on the beach, but the daft thing about it is it was was Liverpool country so we’d have people coming up to us all the time.

“You hear about teams going away for warm weather training, we were in Southport, playing five a sides on the beach in January. It was quite cold!

“We stayed at the Prince of Wales around the same time as the Grand National. Jeff was pleased as punch, racing was his other love. He got a lot of tips, but as they say, don’t listen to a jockey!

“We outplayed Liverpool at Man City, it was the best game in the run. We won 2-1 but it should have been more.”

Albion were through to the semi-final, and waiting for them at Villa Park was Second Division side Birmingham City.

It was a Midlands ding-dong and things got pretty serious in the build-up to the game when a threat was made on Williams’s family.

“I lived in Four Oaks, which is Birmingham and Villa country,” he explained. “The police got a letter that my wife and children were going to be kidnapped.

“So I didn’t go to Southport when the team went on Monday, and waited until Thursday.

“It turned out to be a hoax, but I did think if anything happened I wouldn’t get the police involved, I’d just fetch my mother in law down from Wales because that would frighten anybody!”

Even though Blues played in a division below, it was no easy game for the Baggies and Osborne, now fully recovered, was in sparkling form.

“Birmingham put up one hell of a fight,” recalls Laraine. “The 2-0 scoreline makes it look like it was easy, it wasn’t.

“Afterwards Jeff told me he felt sorry for Fred Pickering, the Birmingham centre-forward. I’d never heard him say that about any opposition player before and he never did again.

“I remember John Osborne’s green jersey flying all over the goal. Fred had a header destined for the top corner, suddenly there was John tipping it around the upright. It was a great pity the semi-final wasn’t the final.”

Jeff Astle celebrates the winning goal.

Albion had made it. Although this crop had been to Wembley the year before for a League Cup final, they had lost that match against QPR, and they were underdogs for this one too.

“Apart from the local press and the Albion fans nobody gave us a chance of winning because Everton trounced us in the league,” Laraine said.

“I’ve still got the itinerary that the club sent me, we had to meet up and went by train. It said ‘Please do not be late.’ Like we were going to be!

“I’ve even kept the rail ticket. I’ve kept absolutely everything. All the moves and all these years later.

“Jeff's shirt is on the wall, his medal is in the safe, I’ve got everything. Jeff even kept his shorts and his red socks.

“We played in all-white then but the BBC were showing the final in colour TV and asked the club if they could introduce some colour. That’s why we played in red socks!”

That wasn’t the only thing Albion had to change about their appearance that day.

Having travelled down to London 24 hours before kick-off, the club struck up a commercial deal with Adidas, which meant all Albion players had to wear Adidas boots for the final.

“The funniest thing about it is we weren’t even offered any boots and most of the team wore Pumas,” recalls Williams. “We had to paint our boots black and put three white stripes on them!

“I think we were given £500 for the kitty. As well as Adidas, we were sponsored by Milk, so after the game we’re all drinking milk instead of champagne!”

After 90 minutes of tense play typical of a final, Astle bagged the winner three minutes into extra-time before Albion held on to a famous victory.

“It meant everything to him,” said Laraine.”He knew the fans wanted him to score, he knew the fans were willing him to score.

“He didn’t want to let them down, and when he scored, he scored for them.

“It was hell of a burden on his shoulders but they had a lot of faith in him and it gave him faith in himself.

The team pose with the trophy, complete with makeshift Adidas boots.

“After the game, he didn’t say a word to me. We were staying at Park Lane Hotel, it was Room 715.

“I heard the door go and walked out the bathroom. Jeff was standing there with his adidas bag and his medal.

“He looked at me with a big grin on his face, I looked at him, he held his arms out, I ran up and hugged him.”

Football would end up costing Astle his life at the age of 59 when a degenerative brain disease brought on by heading heavy leather balls killed him.

“I’m eternally grateful he didn’t score with his head that day because I can watch back the Wembley goal and not cringe,” said Laraine.

“People say it was a one-off, but he scored 30 goals with his left foot, he scored more than people gave him credit for.”

After the game, Prime Minister Harold Wilson said to Astle “Great goal son!” on the Wembley steps.

“He was really chuffed with that,” said Laraine. “But what he was looking forward to more than anything was sitting on top of an open-top bus and holding the cup aloft for the fans.”

The next day, 250,000 people lined the streets from Birmingham to West Bromwich to welcome Ashman’s team back from London with the trophy and it took the coach two hours to make the journey.

The Baggies haven’t reached an FA Cup final since then, although they’ve been knocked out at the semi-final stage four times. But the team of ‘68 remain the last Albion side to lift a major honour.

This Saturday, the club are the marking the 50th anniversary with a special dinner at The Hawthorns.

Joseph, who at five-years-old is Jeff’s youngest grandson, will be wearing the same rosette that Laraine wore in 1968.

“I’ve had a cold recently,” said Laraine. “And when Joseph has come round, he’s been looking after me so I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor.

“He said ‘No, I’m going to play football like my grandad Jeff and I’m going to make him proud of me.’”

Matt Wilson

By Matt Wilson
Football MMPJ - @mattwilson_star

Sports reporter at the Express & Star, who primarily covers West Bromwich Albion.

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