27/4/94 West Bromwich Albion v Blues, The Boinging Stopped.

Life never does though. Right, here goes. I’ll start with my life first, certainly different but no less complicated. The extra clinginess that had been wearing me down, had turned out to be pregnancy. I was now the proud but personally devastated and extremely tired father of a son. I was also a home owner too, I was doing as much overtime that was available as I could. I had to, the stop gap couldn’t work. I’m being grossly unfair to her. It’s about time I referred her by her proper name, Trelayne was, is and most definitely will be in the future, an extremely honest, hardworking, loyal and faithful woman. She also lacks intelligence. It’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is. She couldn’t work because she had been struck down by severe postnatal depression, I hadn’t the mental maturity to even recognise, let alone be of any use with it at the time. Ultimately, it meant that I was really only managing to get to the home games, I’d amazingly been able to afford a season ticket. Blues had been quite close to going out of business. A local consortium had been on the verge of buying the club, but at the last moment, the now owners of West Ham, rode in on their white charger. The stress of what had happened behind the scenes when the BCCI collapsed, and the upheaval of actually having money to spend and the added pressure of expectations, had taken their toll on Terry Cooper, and he’d jumped ship at the first hint of dissension from us fans after a short run of defeats. The cavalier personality of Barry Fry had burst through the door. He then preceded to shop like your stereotypical retail addict with a purse full of credit and store cards. Back in those days, there wasn’t transfer windows, but there was a deadline day where players had to be registered to be able to play in the remaining games of the season. How he coped with going ‘cold turkey’, I’m not sure, but it meant almost instant relaxation of the squad. They started playing better and getting results. The original game should’ve been played on the Easter Monday, I even travelled over to Brum to team up with Tin man, Bucky, Ritchie and Webber, who met me the other side of the ticket barrier at New Street station. Bucky physically turned me round and pointed at the departure board. On the digital announcement board were the words ‘Today’s match between West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City has been postponed’. It had explained the glum expressions. It turned out to be the only game of the entire days fixture list to be called off. A very strong rumour was circulated soon after that the Baggies had got their youth team flooding the pitch with hosepipes in a successful effort to get the game postponed. 1 game out of 46 games? Suspicious to say the least. We’d won 3 out of the previous 4 games, belief was that the Baggies were running scared and hoped it would disrupt our flow. As Blues had applied to the Football League to have our last 3 fixtures as away games due to ground redevelopment, it meant that the last 4 games of the season would now all be away games. Not something that a club deep in a relegation battle, would relish. A relegation battle that also contained the Baggies. Because of the new rules concerning football grounds in this country, all clubs in the top two divisions had to compulsory convert their grounds into ‘all seater’. (Something that even now after 25 years, I absolutely hate with a passion) The Baggies were in the process of converting their ground too, the Smethwick end terracing had been knocked down but for a slither of it that had been temporarily reprieved to house the away fans. Ownership of mobile phones still hadn’t made it into working class life, and nor really had internet access. I’d had a frantic phone call on my landline from Walshy to inform me of the ticket situation. In cloud burst conditions, (I got soaked to the skin) I raced out to post him the voucher out of my season ticket and the money, so he could get me a ticket for the game. (The things us football addicts put ourselves through, when for a normal everyday situation, we wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow to, are beyond comprehension) Thankfully the game coincided with me being on early shift. I took a bag of clothes to work and changed into them just before I finished. I got the bus from the industrial estate I worked on and got the train over to Brum. I met up with Bucky and Tin man in a place just off Smallbrook Queensway called Mr Qs. A bar that contained at least a half a dozen pool tables. The mood was confident belligerence. Ritchie and his brother came in, Webber, so called because of his uncanny resemblance to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Even Sarah Brightman would’ve mistook him for the musician. Walshy joined us after he’d finished work, as did Pughey. The pool had given way to just drinking until it was time we needed to move. It made sense to grab a couple of taxis the short distance to the Hawthorns, sharing the fair between the occupants. Winding the windows down, we sang Blues songs back and forth at each other. All the terrace tickets had gone, so Walshy was only able to get seat tickets. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the view from what little bit of terracing we’d been given, looked awful.

The atmosphere was electric, it was fizzing. The two sets of fans only united in their hatred of the Vile. The game was as tight as was expected. Baggies, or should that be Boggies, (Sounds like Boggies in a Yam Yam accent anyway) managed to take the lead and from then on, dominated right up to the cusp of halftime when an enormous slice of luck fell our way. A short run and shot from Scott Hiley ricocheted off Steve Claridge and the nearest defender before falling to Claridge to put past the keeper. On balance, we hadn’t deserved to equalise, none of us cared. I suspect that some halftime talks can be aspirational, most probably fall on deaf ears, but some can greatly confuse. I believe Fry’s must have been of the aspirational sort, because Blues came out for the second half with purpose. It led to one of the most iconic talked about Blues league goals of the past 30 years. A bouncing ball through caused Naylor in Albion goal to come out of the penalty area and head the ball away, it fell to Louie Donowa around 45 yards out, and close to the touchline. Donowa controlled it before taking aim he chipped it with the accuracy of Tiger Woods (That bloke was untouchable back then) over the retreating keeper. It floated neatly into the net. It was a goal of simplistic beauty. It took the stuffing out of the Baggies and we capitalised almost straight after. Andy Saville tapping in a third. At 1:3, it should’ve been game over, but Blues had always been, are now, and will always be a club that goes in search of the most difficult way of doing something. Bland comfort is not in its dictionary. Luxurious four poster bed or a bed of nails, the former would always be shunned for the latter. After that build up, you won’t need me to tell you that almost immediately after we scored our third, Albion pulled a goal back. It made the remainder of the game excruciating to watch. The Baggies were attacking their fans packed in the Birmingham Road end, we were attacking a building site. We were playing a high line too, a line that was breached more than once by the usually ‘bet your house on him’ Bob Taylor. Ian Bennett was actually absolutely magnificent that night and stopped a one on one from Taylor that he had no right to even get near, let alone read it so well that he stood up with the ball in his arms as if it was as easy as putting his gloves on. It wasn’t doing our nerves any good and me and Walshy were forever time checking with Pughey. 60 seconds is an immensely long time when you’re trying to hold on to an eggshell fragile lead. It is of course, a psychological illusion, but it doesn’t do your heart any good. In these circumstances of what is, self induced mental torture, your heart must hate the brain for making it work twice as hard for no good reason. No doubt as time had been seriously been slowed down for us, so it will have been speeded up for the home support. For every second that felt like a minute to us, so each minute would’ve felt like a second to the Albion support. These were the days before the added time was announced on a digital board. It was purely guesswork. Guesswork that was to instantly evaporate, Claridge was put through on his own. He was even able to look over towards the linesman (Referee’s Assistant in old money) to confirm he was onside. Unlike Bob Taylor, Claridge rounded the keeper. He’d probably got enough time to circle round the keeper several more times without the stricken bloke managing to get anywhere near, before rolling the ball into the empty net. That obsession with the time was forgotten underneath a heap of joyous humanity. We’d won. That plan, if it did really happen, hadn’t worked.

Me, Walshy and Pughey split up, they were getting the bus back into town, I jogged back to Rolfe Street station. I didn’t need to, I was just so emotionally high from the win, and my body felt great. I stopped short of holding my arms out and making aeroplane noises like a six year old kid, as I jogged along. It had an added benefit of getting to the station before the main bulk of our support did and I also had time to be seduced into buying a t-shirt from someone selling them. It was a t-shirt I got a Hell of a lot of use out of to be fair. A talented Bluenose with a flair for art, had produced a drawing of an English bulldog wearing a 70s penguin shirt. Over time, it went from a black and white photocopy, to one with the shirt in royal blue, to being put on a t-shirt. I got a ticket from the booking office, showed it to the ticket collector, and went down on the platform. I was dying to relieve myself, and went behind the bus shelter type construction. Mid stream, I glanced up to see the ticket collector looking down from over the wall 50 foot above me, he drew a copper’s attention to my action, I finished up, moved round the front out of view, quickly taking my sweatshirt off and wrapping it round my waist, as they came down in search of me. I leant up the front of the shelter. The quick thinking move had the desired effect. The ticket collector had been too far away to recognise me close up, and was confused with where I had gone. They interrogated another Blues fan, but left empty handed. I’d got away with it. I changed trains back in New Street, catching the last one back to Telford. The walk back home to where I lived was a breeze. I’d a grin that you wouldn’t have been able to remove with a cheese grater. It was one that lasted until the Saturday.

FOOTNOTE:-  The 3 points had been enough to take us out of the bottom three. On the following Saturday, we could only manage a draw away at Bolton, Albion won and so did Oxford. It meant that going into the last game, there was a three way battle between us, Baggies and Oxford. Only one could survive. We were away at Tranmere, Oxford were home to Notts County and Albion were away at Portsmouth. Albion had the best goal difference out of the three clubs but we were all on the same points. It was one for ‘the bloke with the radio’. Each club did what it needed to, including the Baggies, although the referee was reputed to have blown the final whistle early at Fratton Park. Blues were relegated. Because of the way we had ended the season, losing only one of the last 10 and winning six, us Blues fans defiantly invaded the pitch, mobbing the players and Barry Fry as if they were conquering heroes. It was a strange feeling. We’d won the game, but we felt like we’d lost. Life never stops still.

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