8. Aug, 2021


Pete Best should have been the Beatles drummer, Jimmy White should have been World Snooker Champion and Enn Rietel should have played Del Boy.

Glorious nearly men who looked on as Ringo Starr, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and David Jason wrote their names in history.

Football has always had its share of heartache. May I refer to you to Exhibit A, the West Bromwich Albion football team circa 1978-1982. Younger readers may associate the Baggies with struggles to maintain their Premier League status. Too good for the Championship but not good enough for the top flight, covers it.

But in the era of disco Albion played sexy football long before Ruud Gullit landing on these shores. Managed by the flamboyant Ron Atkinson West Brom's attacking displays charmed fans up and down the country. I dare say Wolverhampton was the notable exception.
The Hawthorns side were also trendsetters, three of their biggest stars were black players who had to endure the worst excesses of racism. Striker Cyrille Regis, graceful winger Laurie Cunningham and dependable full back Brenden Batson were often subject to vile taunts from the terraces.

But the trio often had the last laugh, most notably when the Baggies visited Old Trafford on December 30th 1978. Manchester United were in transition bet they still. boasted Joe Jordon, Jimmy Greenhoff and Lou Macari amongst their ranks.

The home side took control when Brian Greenhoff's volley sped past Tony Godden. But Atkinson's men were soon level, Derek Statham found Cunningham on the level. With boos ringing in his ears the wide man playied in Tony Brown, The strikers first time shot arrowed into the net and silenced the yobs.

Before half time Albion took the lead with a superb goal. Cunningham weaved his way past Sammy Mcilroy and Steve Coppell before finding Regis. Big Cyrille back healed the ball to Len Cantello who finished emphatically. Still United refused to buckle as Gordon McQueen's header made it 2-2. The home side were in front when Mcilroy capitalized on sloppy Baggies defending. But the Red Devils returned the favour when Brown eluded a forest of red shirts to make it 3-3 at half time.

Both sides spurned second half chances before the Black Country club hit the front. With 80 minutes on the clock, Godden's goal kicked was flicked on by Regis. Cunningham latched on to the knock down and finished with aplomb.

Fitting the game's iconic moment sealed Albion's win. Man of the match Cunnigham collected the ball in his own half and made haste. The winger found Alistair Brown.. Brown cut inside Brian Greenhoff before releasing Regis, who flashed a drive beyond the hapless Gary Bailey. Little wonder commentator Gerald Sinstadt screamed "What a goal." as the Baggies made it 5-3.

But despite this wonderful exhibition WBA only finished 3rd thus continuing a depressing theme. In the spring of 1978 they lost an FA Cup Semi Final to Ipswich Town. Albion topped the First Division in December 1979 before a terrible Winter disrupted their rhythm as countless games fell victim to the elements. In 1980/1 the Baggies again finished 4th behind local rivals Aston Villa.

Albion still had style, as they trotted out in that wonderful Green and Yellow stripped away kit. With future England captain Bryan Robson driving them on from midfield. Meanwhile Regis, Cunningham and Batson had been christened the Three Degrees by Big Ron. The trio were named after the all black girl group fronted by Shelia Ferguson. When the Motown superstars played a gig in Birmingham, they visited The Hawthorns.
Hence the famous picture showing the three players clad in fur coats while the three singers donned a West Bromwich Albion shirt.

But the writing was on the wall. In 1981 Atkinson left to become Manchester United manager. Within months Robson joined him at Old Trafford. Laurie Cunnigham had already been tempted away by Real Madrid. Perversely the Baggies greatest chance of silverware came after the trio had departed the West Midlands. In 1982 West Brom faced Second Division Queens Park Rangers ine FA Cup Semi Final. As in 1978 WBA failed to show up, a dour Highbury encounter was decided by Clive Allen's freak goal.

The following year Bryan Robson lifted the FA Cup for Big Ron's Manchester United. Cyrille Regis also picked up the old trophy in 1987 as Coventry City defeated favorites Tottenham Hotspur in a memorable final. Sadly Regis and Cunningham both died young while Ron Atkinson's successful commentary career was ended by ironically a racist remark in 2004. Although they never captured silverware few will forget that brilliant Baggies side.