Hopeless Football League Teams 1: West Bromwich Albion, 1990-91
Regular readers will know our Great Teams series, which recently clocked up a quarter-century of posts with this piece on Swansea’s 1978-79 vintage. Here, our Baggies correspondent Frank Heaven takes a slightly different tack, picking at an old wound in the shape of Albion’s Division Three bound plonk from 1990-91. The first in a new “Hopeless” series, we’ll look to follow this up with similar contributions in the very near future.
Buzaglo, Bath, and Bobby Gould.
Three names that still send a shiver down the spine of West Bromwich Albion fans – two decades after the most traumatic season in the club’s history.
Albion’s proud cup pedigree, their attacking football traditions and their unbroken 103-year run in the top two divisions – all were reduced to ruins.
The season kicked off in the summer of 1990 – when a warm glow of optimism filled the national game.
Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90, the return of English clubs to European competition and a heady backdrop of socio-political change put an extra spring in the step of most football fans.
But for Albion – now four years out of the top flight – it was hard to see anything other than a hard slog ahead.
Manager Brian Talbot was looking out of his depth.
A stream of good results put Albion on top of the Second Division at the turn of the year. But that early form faded after an FA Cup third round exit against Everton. Albion missed out on the play-offs, and spent much of the following season in the bottom half of the table.
The guts of the team were sold – David Burrows to Liverpool, Carlton Palmer to Sheffield Wednesday and Chris Whyte to Leeds United.
Talbot’s signing were never in the same class: Shrewsbury’s Northern Ireland international midfielder Bernard McInally, deft of touch but lightweight; the versatile but limited Craig Shakespeare from neighbours Walsall; lumbering West Ham centre half Gary Strodder.
Talbot himself had hung up his boots now, and with former Chelsea hard man Graham Roberts looking long in the tooth, Albion lacked experience.
The squad had its honest triers. Gary Robson could match his more famous brother for effort but not quality. England Under 21 international Darren Bradley was a jack of all trades but master of none. Tony Ford was mid-way through a career that would eventually clock up 931 appearances at eight league clubs.
Albion’s one class performer and cutting edge was up front – Don Goodman. But the other strikers – including two former Sheffield Wednesday players in Gary Bannister and Colin West – offered limited support.
Early season mediocrity
Albion continued where they left off the previous term, languishing in a lower mid-table position throughout the autumn. The football was poor. The free-running style of Talbot’s late-’88 Baggies was a distant memory, as a more direct route became the norm. Fans were getting restless.
At the season’s mid-point just after Christmas, Albion drew 1-1 with Wolverhampton Wanderers before over 28,000 at The Hawthorns, the visitors grabbing a share of the spoils at the death.
The result left Albion in 15th place on 27 points, in theory well on course to reach the accepted 50 point safety mark – particularly as only two teams from 24 would be relegated that season.
What happened next has been replayed, and replayed again, on many an FA Cup nostalgia wallow.
One Tim Buzaglo
Albion had been drawn at home to Woking of the Diadora League, one level below the Conference. There seemed little chance of an upset with the home side leading 1-0 at half time.
Enter Gibraltan international cricketer Tim Buzaglo. In a bizarre second half, he bagged a 15-minute hat-trick, as Woking stormed into a 4-1 lead. Match of the Day cameras capture visiting players and fans celebrating each goal with increasing delirium and disbelief.
Colin West scored a late consolation to make it 2-4, but the day was Woking’s. In surreal scenes at full time, Albion fans stormed the pitch and carried Buzaglo around on their shoulders. It struck a chord with the visitors from Surrey; to this day, the odd Woking hat and scarf can be seen at Albion games.
Manager Geoff Chapple and the hat-trick hero were whisked off to the BBC studios, and the striker found himself as star guest on Match of the Day. A shy man, Buzaglo later admitted he found the attention overwhelming.
Back in B71, things had got ugly. Angry demonstrations from supporters led to Talbot’s sacking, along with coach Sam Allardyce, while assistant Stuart Pearson was kept on in a caretaker manager role.
Who would the next manager be? The strong favourite was Bobby Gould, a former player at three West Midlands clubs, including Albion, mastermind of Wimbledon’s famous 1988 FA Cup final win over Liverpool, and the man who had assembled Coventry’s winning team from the year before on a shoestring.
That appealed to the Albion board. But not the fans – who felt his long-ball style of play would be a betrayal of the club’s footballing traditions. “We don’t want you Bobby Gould,” sang the Birmingham Road End.
Meanwhile, things were looking up on the pitch. Under Pearson, the team had remembered how to pass the ball again, and with Strodder and young Daryl Burgess forming a promising centre half pairing, put together a healthy run of seven points from five games. This included a 3-0 win at Blackburn in early February, which left Albion eight points clear of the relegation places.
The board did not listen to the fans. Gould was appointed, and the team promptly went on a run of six straight defeats, slumping to third from bottom.
With panic mounting, Gould plunged into the transfer market on deadline day. In came £250,000 Stockport County striker Paul Williams, who at 6’4″ could politely be described as a target man, plus Winston White from Burnley and Arsenal youngster Kwame Ampadu.
The rot was stopped with a 2-1 win at home to Swindon.
But in the return Black Country derby at Molineux, Albion again threw the lead away in the dying minutes, to draw 2-2 – a grim end to a game marred by Wolves fans chipping off lumps of the crumbling South Bank and lobbing them at the visiting fans.
Next, Albion faced two relegation crunch matches. At home to Leicester City, one place above them in the table, an injury-time Don Goodman strike nicked a 2-1 win, sparking a pitch invasion. Ten days later, Albion secured a point at 23rd-placed Watford.
With the final three games against mid-table teams, Gould could seemingly breathe easier. But Albion fluffed their lines. In a tragi-comic home game against Port Vale, both Williams and Goodman missed penalties, the match ending 1-1. The last Hawthorns fixture of the season against Ossie Ardiles’ Newcastle produced the same score.
It meant the final Saturday would be a straight shoot out with Leicester for survival – both were locked together on 47 points, but Albion’s goal difference was 15 better.
Leicester were to play Oxford at Filbert Street, while Albion would travel for the first time in their history to the non-league ground of Twerton Park, Bath, temporary home of Bristol Rovers.
Despite the tension, the visiting fans remembered their sense of humour; hundreds of Black Country beds were stripped of their sheets, which became makeshift togas for the Roman-themed fancy dress party on the final away match of the season.
Within three minutes, Rovers were down to 10 men. Surely, Albion could not mess this up. Yet incredibly, the home side went ahead, and then – deckchairs and Ambre Solaire far from their minds – defended with tremendous tenacity as Gould’s desperate men threw everything forward.
An equaliser finally arrived in the closing minutes, but with Leicester a goal up, it was too little, too late.
At full time, confirmation of the score from Filbert Street was greeted with mocking joy from the locals – prompting ugly scenes, and the odd claret spillage on the makeshift togas.
So that was that.
It had begun over a century ago in the autumn of 1888, the first season of the Football League, but West Bromwich Albion’s long stay in the top two divisions finally ended just before five o’clock on 11th May 1991. Their relegation left only Everton from the league’s 12 founder members never to have dropped into the third tier (a record they still hold).
While 1990-91 was undoubtedly the lowest point in the club’s history, the following season almost matched it.
Albion started out as red hot favourites for promotion from Division Three, and were among the front runners for most of the season, but without ever being convincing.
The board began to feel the force of the fans’ ire after selling Don Goodman to Sunderland for £900,000 in December. A sit-in protest followed a 2-3 home defeat against Swansea in January – the visitors’ three goals overturning a 2-0 home lead with 20 minutes left.
Gould was given some of the Goodman money to spend in January, and – in arguably his one positive contribution to the club – brought in Bob Taylor from Bristol City for £300,000.
Taylor scored in his first two games, wins against promotion rivals Brentford at home (2-0), and then an impressive 3-0 at St Andrews against Birmingham City.
That result put Albion on top of the division, but from there it would all be downhill. Just two wins came from the next 15 games, and the fans’ frustration about both the poor form and Gould’s tactics boiled over.
By the last game of the season, at Shrewsbury, Albion were out of contention even for a play-off place. The visiting fans invaded the pitch two minutes before the end, one group carrying a coffin marked ‘Gould RIP’, and another vandalising the goalposts Scotland ’77 style.
Gould was out within a week, followed shortly afterwards by chairman John Silk.
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