LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

West Bromwich Albion

Baggies yo-yoing after years of Premier stability

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

On the border of Birmingham and West Bromwich, West Bromwich Albion are Birmingham’s de facto third club, although they share equal rivalry with Black Country cousins Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The Baggies, as they are mysteriously nicknamed, have enjoyed several periods in the limelight, most notably around the cup-winning year of 1968, spearheaded by iconic forward Jeff Astle, and during the Ron Atkinson era of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Founder members of the Football League in 1888, West Brom won the FA Cup that same year, after two consecutive unsuccessful finals. If anything, the turn of the last century was perhaps the club’s heyday, making FA Cup finals, two against Aston Villa, winning one.

The only time Albion have won the league was the first championship after World War I, in 1919-20. Of their hundred-plus goals that campaign, more than a third coming from locally born inside-forward Fred Morris.

After another derby cup final, a 2-1 win over Birmingham in 1931, Albion’s next great season came in 1953-1954. Pushing local rivals Wolves close for the title, a team starring prolific striker Ronnie Allen beat Preston 3-2 in the FA Cup final. But it was their style of play, instigated by manager Vic Buckingham, who ten years later nurtured Johan Cruyff at Ajax, that most impressed.

For the League Cup win of 1966, goals came from Jeff Astle, Tony Brown and Graham Williams, who would all win an FA Cup medal two years later thanks to solitary goal by Astle against Everton.

Worshipped as ‘The King’ by Albion fans, his likeness welded to the wrought-iron gates at The Hawthorns, Astle failed to produce his club form for England, famously missing an easy chance against Brazil at the 1970 World Cup. His legend was evoked throughout the 2014-15 initiative when fans applauded at the ninth minute of every game, part of a campaign that led to a foundation being established. Astle’s career was spent heading heavy leather footballs and his gradual deterioration went unrecognised in his lifetime.

Albion’s next iconic centre-forward was Cyrille Regis, who formed an all-black trio with Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson that made West Brom an exciting proposition in the late 1970s. The peak came with the 5-3 mauling of Manchester United at Old Trafford over Christmas 1978. This, and a third-placed finish, helped earn manager Ron Atkinson, the job at United. His career in football came to a controversial end following racist comments after a TV broadcast.

In between, Atkinson returned to Albion but the club was already in freefall. Under Gary Megson and Bryan Robson, West Brom seemed to finish every season battling for promotion or relegation between Premier and Championship. Under Roy Hodgson, and with spectacular goals from Hungarian Zoltán Gera, a more stable run in the top flight seemed assured, before Hodgson left to manage England. 

Seasons of top-flight mediocrity followed – Pepe Mel saw out a scandal over a goal celebration by controversial striker Nicolas Anelka to keep Albion just above the relegation zone in 2014. On New Year’s Day 2015, Tony Pulis was called in to salvage a mediocre season typified by a FA Cup loss to Aston Villa. The only bright notes were struck by Burundi-born striker Saido Berahino, prolific but unhappy to stay at the Hawthorns, and prolific Venezuelan international Salomón Rondón.

WBA Megastore/Peterjon Cresswell

Following relegation in 2018, ex-Albion stalwart Darren Moore took over as manager but he was sacked by club owner Lai Gouchuan as WBA were lined up for the promotional play-offs that spring. It was not the first time that the Chinese billionaire had been capricious with his managerial dealings. Play-off defeat then came after a penalty shoot-out and, worse, at the hands of Aston Villa.

Gouchuan then surpassed himself after respected Croatian coach Slaven Bilić had gained Albion automatic promotion a season later, having conceded only seven defeats out of 46 games. Struggling in the top tier yet gaining a feisty draw at eventual runaway champions Manchester City, Bilić was replaced the very next day by Sam Allardyce, who singularly failed to keep Albion up. An unexpected 5-2 win at Chelsea and the excellent form of goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, England squad member for Euro 2020, proved the only highlights.

Ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Named after the hawthorn bushes that had to be cleared to make way for it, The Hawthorns has been the home of West Bromwich Albion since 1900.

In the club’s heyday in the 1950s, crowds of over 60,000 were recorded but by the installation of the Rainbow Stand meant that capacity was capped at 50,000 for the Astle era a decade later.

This in turn was replaced by the East Stand, by which time two other stands had been demolished as part of the post-1990 all-seater restructuring of grounds across England. Current capacity is just over 26,000.

The East Stand, through the Astle Gates, is where you’ll find the club shop and offices. Away fans are allocated Block A of the Smethwick End nearest to the East Stand; home fans closer to the West Stand, with its executive balcony. The Birmingham Road End, with its Woodman Corner adjoining the East Stand, was the legendary home end in the pre-1990 days, when the Woodman pub stood behind it. It’s now quieter and all-seated, and pub-less, but still in full voice when the familiar pre-match cadences of The Liquidator allow Baggies fans to express a somewhat negative attitude towards Aston Villa.

getting there

Going to the ground – tips and timings

The Hawthorns is the only one of Birmingham’s three stadiums to have lent its name to the nearest station, metro/trains running every 10mins direct from Snow Hill (metro and trains) and Moor Street (trains). It’s a 7-12min journey. The stadium is signposted from the station – head up to the railway bridge, turn right onto Halfords Lane, and the stadium is 5-7mins on the right. Note that there’s a better choice of bars near the metro stop for the Jewellery Quarter, halfway to The Hawthorns.

Buses 74 and 75 run along main Birmingham Road behind the home end. From St Paul’s metro stop on Constitution Hill alight at Middlemore Road. Buses run every 10-20mins and it’s a good 25min journey, worse in heavy traffic.

The sat nav code for The Hawthorns is B71 4LF. There’s no parking around the ground. There are 182 spaces at The Hawthorns train station (B66 2HB, £4) and 300 free spaces at the Mercure Birmingham West Hotel (B70 6TU), where you might be going for a pre- or post-match drink anyway. It’s just off the roundabout, a 10-15min walk from the ground.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

When in the Championship in 2018-19, Albion attracted average home gates of 24,000+, so so availability is an issue for many games. Tickets go on sale around five weeks in advance. A ticket office (Mon-Fri 10am-3pm, Sat 9am-noon, match days) operates behind the East Stand accessed from Birmingham Road, plus there are online sales. For information, contact the club on 0121 227 2227 or tickets@wbafc.co.uk.

Prices, banded A and B, are set around £35/£25, under-21s £25/£20, under-17s £15/£10.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The Stadium Megastore (usual opening times Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-3pm, Sun 10am-2pm, match days vary) is by the ticket office behind the East Stand, accessed from Birmingham Road. Souvenirs include second kits of yellow and green, and third ones of red and yellow, plus copies of WBA, The Longest Season, a superbly illustrated look at 2019-20, with top-class photography by Adam Fradgley. 

On match days there’s another merchandise outlet just inside the Astle Gates.

stadium tourS

Explore the ground inside and out

Stadium tours (£10/£6) usually take place on occasional Sundays (10am, sometimes also 1pm). Check online for details.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

With few – in fact, no – bars in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, it may be an idea to stop off at the Jewellery Quarter before/after the match. A short walk from the metro station of the same name, straight ahead as you exit, the Jewellers Arms (23 Hockley St) is a decent local with its own pub team proudly displayed, and food worth ordering.

If you’re willing to walk 20min, and it is worth the walk (you could even bus it for a couple of stops along Birmingham Road), The Vine is part-pub, part-curry house. Norwich might have Delia Smith, Chelsea Marco Pierre White, but West Brom have a gastronomic temple hidden at the end of an unassuming stretch of warehouses and quiet residential housing. A homely, narrow bar, its little alcoves equipped with televised football, leads to a middle bar/restaurant and, through the back, to a sit-down curry house. Chicken tikka, masala tikka and all sorts, starting at £8.50, are accompanied by naan breads of every stripe. Bring your Stella through, order from the guys cooking up a storm at the open grill, and devour.

From the ground, head past Halfords Lane along Birmingham Road, follow it across a rather dangerous roundabout, then take the first left at a Shell garage. That’s Roebuck Street, and The Vine is at the bottom. There’s more Indian food, plus plentiful beers and big-screen sport at The Royal Oak, a 7-8min direct walk to the ground along main Holyhead Road. 

The alternative is the bar at the Mercure Birmingham West Hotel, decorated with framed shirts and equipped with a TV. It’s the other side of the same roundabout along Birmingham Road from the stadium. Cross with care.

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