This article was first featured in Issue 4: Stranger Things which was released in Spring 2017, bringing you the stories behind the Stranger Things that lie beneath the surface of the world’s most popular sport.
There’s a misnomer in sport that winning is everything, football, in particular, is an arena full of legendary losers and beloved ‘nearly men’. Both Ferenc Puskás’s Hungarian side and Johan Cruyff’s Holland were defeated in World Cup finals by perennial party poopers Germany, but it’s the romance of the Mighty Magyars and the fluidity of Total Football that are internationally celebrated.
The same can be applied to a host of teams in domestic football. Newcastle United conspired to throw away the title in ‘96 but their scintillating football, coupled with Kevin Keegan’s mild televised breakdown, make them one the era’s most iconic teams. The West Bromwich Albion side of the late 70s are another example. Their search for silverware was scuppered by Brian Clough’s Trentside miracle and the presence of a dynastic Liverpool team, and while those two giants of the era are widely celebrated, it is the former whose legacy is perhaps most enduring.
It is a side that deserves credit for a variety of reasons. The footballing elite in England wasn’t quite as entrenched as it is today but the Baggies still came from relative obscurity when they finished third in a hard fought title race in the 1978/79 season. Notching a number of impressive results along the way, a 5-3 demolition of United at Old Trafford being the highlight.
Cobbled together in true underdog fashion it was a side that took a number of the game’s biggest names from obscurity to the mainstream. ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson arrived from Cambridge, Bryan Robson was breaking through the academy and while it’s a name that will mean little to those outside the midlands, club legend Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown was causing havoc in the centre of the park. What made that side so important was that it was the first in the British game to feature three black players – Brendon Baston, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis – dubbed ‘Three Degrees’ by Atkinson after the American musical trio.
Thankfully in the modern era this is no longer a rarity, but in the late ‘70s both football and Britain were radically different. The country was lurching from crisis to crisis which reached its apex with the infamous, bitterly cold winter of ’79, the harsh conditions saw retail sales plummet and the economy stagnate, while the public sector was mired in strike action. The discontent allowed the far-right, and essentially racist, National Front to enter the political mainstream. The terraces, with its working class base, became a prime target of the party. The abuse that the Albion trio received as a result, as well as other black players of era, was appalling and on a mass scale.
It’s something that is striking and disturbing when you watch footage from that era. It’s one of the first things you notice about the thrilling 5-3 victory at Old Trafford. In the build up to Albion’s second a barrage of boos greet Cunningham as he picks up the ball on the left touchline, and it maintains its volume as he drives at the heart of the United defence and pokes a ball forward to Regis, only when he backheels it for the onrushing Len Cantello to lash into the top corner do they finally dissipate. Depressingly Old Trafford was far from the most hostile reception they received. Trips to the East End were particularly venomous, with The Den and Upton Park the most notorious.
They weren’t exempt from abuse at home either. The Hawthorns, wedged between the Black country town of Smethwick and the area of Handsworth on Birmingham’s northern edge, was an industrialised area with a sizeable immigrant population, making it an obvious target for those on the far right. In 1973 the National Front claimed 16% (a then party record) of the vote in a West Bromwich by-election, while not long after Cunningham’s arrival some unrepeatable graffiti was scrawled on the back of the Hawthornes Pub.
The arrival of the Three Degrees team did much to combat the unpleasant atmosphere in the area. This was due largely to their on-field impact as all three quickly became idolised, with crowds greeting them on matchdays or at the training ground, eager for autographs or even to discuss recent games. So sought-after were they that on one occasion local police had to intervene as demand was so great for Cunningham’s autograph it was feared he could be crushed. It was hard for the resentment to fester at the level it had when three of the area’s heroes were black, at a time when football clubs were so wedded to their local community.
Outside the West Midlands their ability as footballers that did much to undo the notion that football was a game that belonged to some and not others. The effervescent Cunningham made a particularly big impression. There was little in the way of creativity in the English game at the time and those who possessed it soon got it hammered out of them by uncompromising centre halves. Cunningham was part of a small batch of English based players whose talent shone through despite the game’s ugliness. His teammates often described him as ‘balletic’ and he did seem to glide across the pitch, he appeared seemed regal, flitting in and out of games, on a higher level to those around him. Those who faced him tended to describe him in these almost artistic terms, similar to how some of the game’s greatest, like Cryuff were talked about, and he certainly had some of that class. It was his creativity that propelled West Brom into the top three.
Yet while Cunningham was the era’s antithesis, Regis was its epitome. A hulking centre forward who bullied opposing defenders, his strength even earned him the nickname Smokin’ Joe, after heavyweight boxer Joe Frazier. He arrived at the Hawthornes via Hackney Marshes with stops at Moseley and Hayes along the way, and his game had a distinctly non-league feel to it.
It was that aspect of his game that made him an instant hit with the West Brom fan-base, where the number 9 shirt was almost sacred. Since the early 1930s they had possessed some of England’s finest centre-forwards, with Billy Richardson and Derek Kevan both possessing Dixie Dean-esque goalscoring records. The West Brom fans had been desperate for someone to fil the prestigious striking berth since Jeff ‘The King’ Astle left in 1974 following a brilliant 10-year spell at the club, and in Cyrille they had finally found someone to fill the void. He scored the winning goal against Middlesbrough on his league debut and the fans sounded their appreciation with a chant of ‘Astle is back, Astle is back’, his powerful approach swiftly made him a terrace favourite.
Batson is perhaps the least well known of the trio, probably due to his position at the heart of defence while Cunningham and Regis racked up goals and assists, but he also made a vital contribution that season. He had accompanied Atkinson from Cambridge where the pair at first bickered before uniting, with Batson skippering the club to promotion from the fourth to the third tier.
It was a uniquely tough level for a black player to play at. The abuse directed towards Cunningham at top level was disguised in a huge crowd, while attendance was so small during Regis’ non-league days he managed to swerve some of the era’s nastiness. Batson on the other hand, in the the third and fourth tiers, could often hear and see the faces of those throwing obscenities and monkey noises in his direction. He understandably struggled to control his temper, receiving a few red cards for his robust response to opposing players’ racist comments and on one occasion he even tried to jump into the stands to confront a Bradford fan who had been goading him throughout the game. Yet his temper seemed to cool after his move to West Brom, and after an initial rocky start he soon became a mainstay in Atkinson’s side.
While race is often the first topic mentioned when discussing that West Brom team it’s important to note just how impressive they were as a footballing unit. The aforementioned Old Trafford result is obviously the highlight, but they also handed out footballing lessons on both Chelsea’s and Leeds’ home turf. Difficult places to go in every sense. They hit Coventry for 7 in a midlands derby, won 3-0 at Molineux in the Black Country derby and even went on a European adventure, defeating Galatasaray, Braga and Valencia on route to a quarter final appearance in the UEFA Cup. They delighted both their supporters and neutrals that season with a succession of fine displays.
However, ironically the side that did much to combat the resentment that grew in that bitter winter was defeated by the cold snap, as a dozen games were frozen out leaving Albion playing 6 games in late April, all of which they failed to win. Whereas Liverpool, due to Anfield’s undersoil heating, didn’t have to deal with a similar backlog, seeing them eventually finish 9 points clear of the Baggies.
West Brom couldn’t recapture the magic of that year in subsequent seasons either. The loss of Cunningham to Real Madrid at the end of the season hit hard as the side lost a great deal of guile and trickery and the squad slowly broke up. Cunningham met a tragic end, dying in a car crash in Madrid in 1989. While Atkinson now seems like a relic from an era of unacceptableness, his legacy forever tainted by a racist comment about Marcel Desailly that was picked up on by ITV. However, despite the lack of silverware, and what transpired in the following years, the ‘Three Degrees’ and their supporting cast deserve their place, earned through both their scintillating style and off-field contribution, as one of the most important sides English football has ever produced.