Picking up from where I left off, 82/83 season started early. I’d wasted my birthday money on a Blues shirt. For one week only, I was as proud as proud can be. The train drivers were on strike, but me being me, had this money burning a hole. I badgered Les to chaperone me to Wolverhampton on the bus. It didn’t, but the bus journey felt like it took a month to get there. I went in the first sports shop I came to and bought a Blues shirt. I loved it, I still think it’s the best kit Blues have ever played in. Even if the insignia and emblem were just ironed on, it was a Blues kit. Thing is, I paid full price for this shirt, seven days later, Blues paraded their brand new playing kit at the pre-season photoshoot. It wasn’t even being produced by the same company anymore. My pride and joy was already out of date. Pre-season brought my first friendly too. Shrewsbury Town away. I wasn’t to know at the time, but public friendlies are meaningless. There is only ever 0ne team that tries, mostly, neither do. Friendlies are half hearted occasions. Fans will vindicate their attendance by claiming it’s a chance to see new signings, that it’s a chance to see how the players fit in. Absolute rubbish. First and foremost, nobody wants to get injured. It’s about just getting fit in a match situation. That can be done behind closed doors. A friendly match is an excuse for managers to try different things without the pressure of getting something out of the game. There’s no league points available, the result really only matters to the fans. It’s hollow. Beating a team from a higher level might make you feel good, gives you hope that the coming season will be a good one, but it’s hollow. I have over the years, known Blues to win almost all of their pre-season friendlies, and yet be relegated. I’ve also known Blues to lose the majority of their friendlies, and then get promoted. They point to absolutely nothing. You can claim it’s a day out, but once you’ve noticed that there’s gaps in the usual support because they’re doing something much more worthwhile, and you’ve announced your presence at the ground, before realising the players aren’t really bothered, that the first substitution is the catalyst for half of the players at least, to be substituted, sometimes, the whole side at half time. It dawns on you, you’re wasting your time, effort and money. So me and Les caught the train from Wellington to Shrewsbury. We were First Division, Shrewsbury were Second Division. Surely it was going to be a landslide victory in front of thousands of travelling Brummies. Nope. There was around 800 of us. We did take the lead. Harford, I won’t bother telling you how he scored. Shrewsbury equalised with around 10 minutes to go. I think I was the only one who was truly upset. When the season did actually start, it didn’t start well. The first ‘proper’ game I went to was Liverpool, the first home game. The visitors spent the whole game sat on the hallway line, passing the ball between the back four and the goal keeper. They operated with a well rehearsed offside trap. We continually kept falling into it. Other than a point against this mind numbing football, not a lot made the game memorable. Ok, two things made it memorable. It was another night game under my belt and at one point, after being caught offside for what must’ve been the one hundred and fifteenth time, Mick Harford, out of sheer frustration, belted the ball (Amazingly, not with his head.) against the perimeter fencing around the pitch. it was heading straight for me, I naturally and instinctively, ducked. Obviously, the ball rebounded off the fence. I felt a wee bit stupid to say the least. I suppose I have the consolation of making Harford laugh, as he’d spotted me trying to duck out of the way of a ball that was never going to hit me. I wouldn’t have felt so bad at the time, had Les ducked too. Of course he’d just stood there laughing and shaking his head at my reaction like older brother’s do in situations like that. The 0:0 draw was to prove the only point from the first 5 games. We’d shipped 17 goals when that player I hinted about in my last post, turned up. Noel Blake wasn’t actually the tallest of defenders, but his physique and determination, made him look taller. He was still 6 feet tall, but even back when he signed, that wasn’t particularly tall for a centre half. But he was a colossus of a defender. The Kop forgave his dalliance with the dark side of Brum, once his true allegiance had been established. He was Blues, he was one of us, he was someone we could identify with. Birmingham’s social landscape was evolving, the multi racial lines were becoming increasingly blurred as Brummie youth mixed. Colour was less and less of an issue. In terms of supporting Birmingham City, the only colour that mattered was Royal blue. I suppose I’d better point out if you hadn’t already guessed, Noel Blake is black, black and rightly very proud of it too. It was still only the early 80s, although there were many more black players than there was in the 70s, only around half of teams had what was really, only a token gesture. That’s actually under stating the situation, black players were still having to work twice as hard to have their undoubted talent recognised. We started picking points up and shipping less goals, but the points were just that, they came from draws. Saunders might’ve been trying to make us hard to beat, but sacrificing the attacking side of the game, meant that we were finding it hard to win too. I don’t remember anything from a 1:1 home draw with Watford, but the following Saturday, the 2:3 loss to Luton was different. Saunders had picked up Jim Blyth from Coventry. As a shot stopper, he wasn’t a bad keeper, but this was in the days when it was fashionable for the goalie to kick it as far as he could, with the hope that it would start an attack in the opposition’s half. For him, goal kicks were his kryptonite. He was simply hopeless with them. It was like watching him trying kick a medicine ball a distance. Luton quickly discovered this, were alert to it. It culminated in the defender’s taking it in turns to take them. Coupled with an injury crisis in the striking department that had defender Colin Brazier playing makeshift centre forward, I suppose it was inevitable that the points would be going back to Bedfordshire, but it didn’t make for easy viewing. Up until now, I had only attended league games, 25 of them in fact. The next game was to be my first venture into a cup competition. After a 1:1 first leg draw on a school night in Shropshire’s county town, the second leg had been scheduled during half term. Val was back down in England visiting and came with us. The first eye opener was the meagre crowd that turned up. Only 7,861 hardy souls decided to bother. Things were definitely on the slide, both at Blues and in football in general. The game itself was light relief compared to the league struggles, and we easily won the game 4:1. What I remember most about the game, was the train home. From where we were sitting, we could hear a handful of Shrewsbury fans talking between themselves. Me and Les found a lot of what they were claiming about the game, highly amusing and poked fun out of them. The more they talked, the more me and Les giggled and got louder. Val, worried about the numbers, spent most of the journey trying to quieten us down. it was only when I got up to get off the train, that I looked back at the rest of the carriage expecting to see just a handful of Shrewsbury fans that I understood Val’s concern. Half the carriage was Shrewsbury. There was definitely a lot more than just that handful I had in my mind. Other than it being my first Albion game, the only thing I remember about beating them 2:1, was giving Martyn Bennett stick for being a self confirmed Vile fan. For that reason, it was a sweet victory. I don’t know how the moniker came into being, as I didn’t go, but Manchester City away on November 20th is when the name Zulu Warriors was coined. It was a name that fitted, it was a name that has become synonymous with the Blues support since, and a name that has become infamous with supporters of other British football clubs.
Also in this month, Telford United, as they were back then, embarked on a F.A.Cup odyssey that was to propel them from Non-League also rans to media darlings. Stan Storton, a window cleaning company owner, had assembled a side that saved their best performances for the national stage. First up was Wigan Athletic, a club that hadn’t long been in the League, but they had been promoted since being elected. There wasn’t straight promotion into the Football League in those days, the Non-League kids had their noses pressed up against the windows of the Football League, forlornly hoping that the door would open up and a League club would be booted out in favour of one of them. It hardly happened. Telford managed to get a draw up at the old Springfield Park. The town of Telford was bitten by ‘Cup fever’, including me and Les. Other than Telford claiming a League scalp with a 2:1 win, the only thing I remember from what was actually quite an enjoyable game, was after a lot of goading from a contingent of Telford that had congregated near the 500 ish, Wigan support, a group of Athletic fans moving menacingly towards the Telford contingent. The Wigan mob were greatly outnumbered, yet the Telford contingent retreated as far and as fast as they could along with the bravado they’d been showing. The second round brought a home draw with Tranmere. I was allowed to go on my own with friends, as Telford were, and still are, based in Wellington. Although creditable, the 1:1 draw was a bit of an anti climax after the victory against Wigan. Telford narrowly lost the replay 1:0.
Back to Blues and a home game versus Sunderland. Jim Blyth was still having trouble with his kicking, but had obviously been practicing. His keeping was still of a good standard. A collision with one of the Sunderland players, resulted in a lengthy spell of treatment for the Blues custodian. This was back when you didn’t have a million substitutes. In fact, you were only able to make one. If a goalkeeper had to be scraped up and glued back together in the changing room, an outfield player would have to don the green jersey. (They were ALL green back then, yellow was reserved for international games.) Luckily, Blyth was able to carry on, but you could see that his arm was in a bad way. It turned out that he’d broken it. The young Tony Coton took over between the sticks thereafter. 3:0 was the score against them lot on Boxing Day, a match that WE couldn’t get to because there were no trains running because it being Boxing Day. I don’t know how he did it, but Les had managed to get a space in the car of a family of Telford based Blues fans that were going to the game. If I tell you that my jealousy lasts to this day, it’s not an understatement. He claims that there wasn’t any space left in the car, otherwise he’d have asked if I could go with them. I claim that he could’ve asked if I could ride in the boot. It was to turn out to be the biggest crowd at St Andrews in all my Blues supporting years. 43,864. While Les was squashed in the Kop watching Blues win against them lot, I made do with second half commentary on radio 2. I still say I could’ve gone in the boot. West Ham came to St Andrews on February 5th, in what was an emphatic 3:0 victory. We’d managed to secure the services of Howard Gayle who was deemed surplus to requirements at Anfield. In all honesty, he probably was, but he was to prove a good addition to us. On his day, he was electrifying. When he didn’t fancy it, he was more useless than a dead battery though. Against West Ham, he fancied it, they all did. 3:0 didn’t flatter us, 4:0 wouldn’t have flattered us and it would’ve been had Kevin Dillon not ballooned his penalty kick over the bar. He hit it so high that it smacked off the roof of the Tilton. No mean feat. In fact, it was probably more difficult to hit the roof from a dead ball 12 yards out, than it was to back heel it into the back of the net from the spot. March 19th brought my first ever double. The first time I’d ever seen Blues play against a club home and away in the same season. West Bromwich Albion if you’re interested and haven’t fallen asleep reading this tripe. I have quite a few memories of this game. Wow, can you lot groan a little bit more quietly please. That was quite deafening. I remember as we were walking towards the ground, needing to tie my shoelace. As I’m knelt down tying it, a middle aged Blues fan decided to play leap frog over me. (Not THAT kind of leap frog. Get your mind out of the gutter.) He looked back at a now dumbfounded me with a grin. Blues were poor and Albion won 2:0 without too much trouble. Getting to the Hawthorns had proved quite easy, getting back wasn’t. I’m completely and utterly blaming Les for catching the wrong train from Smethwick Rolfe Street. (Told you I hadn’t let Boxing Day 82 go.) Of course I knew that not all trains only went to Wolverhampton or Brum (I didn’t.) It became apparent that once we started going through stations neither of us recognised, we’d caught the wrong one. What Les should have done (Told you, I haven’t let THAT game go.) was get off at the next station. He waited until he could ask the guard, who told us to get off at the next station and retrace back to New Street. The next station was Blakedown, a back water of a place. It had a few houses and a telephone box, so Les rang Mom to admit to HIS mistake. (I reckon that boot would’ve been quite comfortable.) Deadline day brought a little bit of transfer activity and the arrival of a self confessed Bluenose. Off went Kevin Dillon to Portsmouth for £200,000, and Alan Curbishley to the dark side for £100,000. As Curbishley went to the dark side, as Robert Hopkins escaped from there. As we walked up towards St Andrews for the game against Notts County, we wondered how we were going to shape up without two of our more influential midfielders. The 3:0 win was a false dawn. The next game I went to should’ve been my second double, and the return of the Boxing day game. We got the bus from town to Vile Park and squashed in the Witton End. We lost 1:0. The most prominent memory I have was fighting between Blues and Vile in both the Witton Lane stand and also the Holte End. The Zulus were starting to make a name for themselves. April 9th, and with games running out, Norwich and an old Blues favourite came to St Andrews. Keith Bertschin was to haunt us as we were torn apart. 0:4. Things were getting desperate. With 6 games to go, Blues needed to win 5 of them. Relegation was seemingly impossible to get out of. 5 games out of 6? We hadn’t won consecutive games all season, what chance had we got? First up was Coventry away. A late late goal from Les Phillips was enough to bring the points back. A week later, Everton were the visitors to St Andrews. Another 1:0 win with another late late goal but this time from Robert ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. I didn’t get to this one but Les went. He seemed to have a renewed sense of hope when he got home after that game. A long trip to Sunderland the following Saturday only added to that hope. Yet another late late winner in a 2:1 win. It was now 3 wins on the bounce now, surely we couldn’t manage it. Easter Monday brought fellow strugglers Brighton and Hove Albion. They at least would have the consolation of a cup final to look forward to if things didn’t turn out the way they hoped. After so many late goals, taking the lead through Ian Handysides so early in the game, possibly wasn’t the best thing to do. Brighton equalised and 1:1 was the way it finished. Other than taking the lead so early and then feeling so flat coming away from St Andrews, is all I remember. 2 games left, the first at home against high flying Spurs. If Brighton had the F.A.Cup final to look forward to, Spurs had the U.E.F.A. Cup final to look forward to. Could Blues celebrate just staying up? The game plan of Mick Halsall marking Glenn Hoddle worked magnificently. Hoddle hardly had a kick, though he was kicked a few times by Halsall, who followed him everywhere. Thing is, had Hoddle done the same, he may have prevented Halsall opening the scoring. After having the wind taken out of our sails by Brighton, we battled and fought for everything. With time running out and watches nervously looked at, Blues scored the second to put the game beyond doubt. I’ve made a lot about Mick Harford’s ability with his head, but this goal was the best I ever saw him score with it. He met the cross as his leap was taking him off the pitch. Even now, after seeing it many times on YouTube, I still don’t know how he managed to score. It was that good that had it been a shot, it would’ve been one of those free kicks from 25 yards out, that bends round the wall with the outside of the right foot, that beats the keeper on the side that the wall isn’t covering. In fact, I might just have a watch on YouTube again and just marvel in it. So 4 wins from 5. Me and Les didn’t go down to The Dell, but plenty did. Blues had fought back so well, that a point was actually all we needed as they travelled down to the south coast. A point wasn’t what we got though, what we got was all 3. Yet another, late late goal from Harford, though not with his head. It was miracle accomplished. I still think I would’ve been perfectly fine in that car boot though