Baggies and Boxing Day memories

December, 23, 2011

It's said you never forget your first time. And I'm not about to argue. Now, I remember very few of the details, but I'll never forget how exciting it was. On Boxing Day 1967, I crossed the most important threshold in life: I attended my first football match. West Bromwich Albion 3, Manchester City 2. Fast-forward 44 years (gulp!) and I'll be rooting hard for my beloved Baggies to upset City again this Boxing Day.

In the Beatles' heyday, I was a little kid getting the most wonderful of Christmas presents. I was one of 44,897 people crammed into the Hawthorns. Today, the fire marshal's head would explode at such a notion, but back then it was pure bliss to stand on the Smethwick End (although I probably spent most of the game on my dad's shoulders) drinking in the wonders of the packed, pulsating stands framing the green rectangle of heaven.

I remember nothing of the goals, but can still vividly recall the linesman as he perched atop the shoulders of Albion goalkeeper Johnny Osborne and reattached the net to the crossbar. Who knows how that situation arose, but with dear old Ossie, the comic possibilities were endless. According to the reports I spent a very happy time sifting through on the Internet this afternoon, the Albion, in time-honored fashion, blew a two-goal lead before a Jeff Astle strike won the game in the last minute. How could I not be a lifelong Baggies fan after that?

A repeat of that 1967 result on Monday would generate plenty of headlines. But the biggest surprise of that day is how it proves the old adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Manchester City of Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell headed to the Hawthorns on the back of a 12-game unbeaten streak. The blue half of Manchester was sick and tired of playing second fiddle to Manchester United. And even though Manchester City tripped up unexpectedly at the Hawthorns and then lost again to the Albion 2-0 at Maine Road four days later -- apparently in those days it wasn't unusual for teams to play home-and-home series over the Christmas holiday period -- City went on to win the title.

The Citizens have not been English champions since. In the first 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge recently, City manager Roberto Mancini's men looked like world-beaters. Yet they couldn't close the deal against Chelsea and lost their first EPL game of the season. That's the problem with not winning the big prize for over 40 years; no one will believe you can until you do.

But there really isn't any reason why this City team shouldn't win the Premiership this season. The squad is deep; it has potential goal scorers all over the park and moves the ball at a pace few opponents can keep up with. Which could put a damper on my Christmas celebrations. West Brom manager Roy Hodgson's back four are slower than an internal FIFA corruption investigation. They also have a bad habit of conceding penalty kicks at home. And then there is the little problem of constantly giving up goals from set plays.

As a renowned "Blue Moon"-singing ESPN executive producer told me this morning: "I hate to be the harbinger of doom, but I can't see anything other than three points for us on Boxing Day." And despite having a touch of the Australian lovesick flu, "Cityzen Moonatic" knows his football. A couple of weeks back he told me Spurs would thump my Stripes 3-1. (That I could understand, but losing at home to Wigan -- quick, pass me the eggnog!)

I digress. Those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. And Boxing Day 1967 will always be a historic day for me. After grabbing six points on the road at Blackburn and Newcastle this week, I'm up for the proverbial Christmas miracle on Monday. Should it not come to pass (and the way David Silva passes, it's unlikely that the past will repeat itself), I'll take comfort from another history lesson. The last time my beloved Baggies played Manchester City on Boxing Day, not only did the men from Maine Road go on to become champions of England, but West Bromwich Albion went on to win the FA Cup.

I'll never forget that silver pot shining in the midday sun as Jeff Astle & Co. paraded the Cup along the Birmingham Road from an open-top double-decker bus. I sat on my dad's shoulders that day as well.

Happy holidays.





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