Book Review: Born to be a Baggie
Born to be a Baggie
by Dean Walton
Published by Amberley Publishing
What does it mean to be a football fan? The question is perhaps best answered in pictures, rather than words, which is what Dean Walton has done in ‘Born to be a Baggie: a pictorial history of West Bromwich Albion fans’.
The book centres on Walton’s beloved Black Country team, and the trials and triumphs of its supporters through the decades, as captured on camera by the author and other contributors.
But followers of other teams will recognise and appreciate the experiences – promotion parties and relegation wakes, anti-board protests and pitch invasions, jam-packed terraces at cup semi-finals, sparser scatterings in leaner times – all set against the changing faces and fashions of the fans, not to mention the transformation of English football grounds.
Starting in the football boom of the 1950s, we see 61,800 fans sardined into the Hawthorns for a cup tie with Newcastle. There are more jam-packed terraces for semi-finals at Villa Park, Hillsborough and Highbury, at Oldham for the 1976 promotion clincher where the away following numbered 15,000, and at Fratton Park when 10,000 travelling Baggies saw Albion escape the drop on a dramatic final day in 1994.
Fashions change from smart Sunday best and dapper Brylcreemed hair at the 1954 cup final, to shaggier cuts and flares in the 60s and 70s, and then perms and peroxide blonde in the 80s, the decade when Adidas Sambas replace Doctor Martens as the footwear of choice. Replica shirt styles swing from the skin tight yellow-and-green away top of the late 70s to the baggy ‘bar code’ of the Acid House era at the turn of the nineties.
Glory days in the 50s and 60s see fans decked out in rosettes, hooped scarves and top hats for Wembley trips, while European away trips to Bucharest, Belgrade and Zurich in the 70s and 80s bring the Union Jacks out in force – including ill-advisedly tight shorts in some cases.
Clubs also have their low ebbs, and Albion’s 1991 FA Cup defeat to Woking is commemorated, with the Surrey team’s hat-trick hero Tim Buzaglo chaired from the Hawthorns pitch by home fans. Relegation to the third division at the end of that season is marked by the tears of a toga-clad female fan after a draw with Bristol Rovers in the Roman city of Bath.
Unprecedented fan protests followed the next year, recalled here by a post-game ‘sit in’ after a 1-3 home defeat by Leyton Orient and, infamously, a coffin carried to Shrewsbury to signal the end of manager Bobby Gould’s tenure.
There are other, sometimes dark reminders of the ‘pre Premier League’ era. A 70s pitch invasion, flares-a-flapping, high fences hemming in away fans at Stamford Bridge and Stoke, narrow turnstile entrances down graffiti-strewn alleyways. There are reminders of the more antiquated grounds from this time – the mish-mash of stands at the Manor Ground, Springfield Park’s grass bank away end, remnants of The Shay’s speedway track.
There’s also a poignant shot from the last game played in front of the Birmingham Road End terrace at the Hawthorns.
The old grounds gradually give way to the smarter, yet often anodyne, new stadia post Hillsborough. Away wins at Molineux, Villa Park and the Stadium of Light all feature, along with the promotion celebration after Albion returned to the top flight after 16 years’ absence at their now all-seater home.
Inevitably perhaps, given the arrival of smartphones, there are more photos from recent years, with many of the protagonists from the 70s and 80s now looking somewhat balder and greyer – though still following their chosen team through thick and thin.
Being a football fan is about more than looking forward to the next game; it’s also about the memories – good and bad – which help fuel the pre-match chat, particularly during more mundane seasons. An away trip to Maine Road or the Mestalla, a derby win at your local rivals, a cup exit at a non-league team, taking over an away ground for a crucial promotion game… If you were there, they were unforgettable experiences, and Walton brings them to life here.
The book also includes a foreword from Cyrille Regis, fondly recalling his legendary spell at the Hawthorns from 1977 to 1984, written just before the great man’s untimely passing in January 2018.