On the whole, the 1985/86 football season was a pretty sorry affair for clubs in the Midlands. Aston Villa, Coventry, and Leicester hovered dangerously close to the Division One drop zone throughout the campaign, but nothing could prevent Birmingham City from the fate of relegation. The demise of Wolves continued, as they fell into the league basement. Although fans of rivals West Bromwich Albion may have found this amusing, they had enough of their own problems to consider.
Managed by Johnny Giles, West Brom had managed a solid mid-table finish during the previous season. Admittedly, top scorer Garry Thompson would depart for Sheffield Wednesday, and ex-England international Steve Hunt was dropped by the manager after a row relating to his playing position. Yet Giles brought in experienced strikers in Garth Crooks and Imre Varadi, and a battling 1-1 draw at home to Oxford United – Albion played the last 32 minutes with ten men – didn’t suggest that the team were about to hit choppy seas.
Injuries to Crooks, Tony Grealish, Gary Owen, and Ally Robertson didn’t help matters, yet nine consecutive league defeats would set the tone for the season. A 2-0 defeat against champions Everton was hardly a surprise, but the 5-1 reverse at Watford set alarm bells ringing. Steve Mackenzie scored twice against former club Manchester City, but Albion still lost 3-2, and 3-0 defeats against Chelsea and Aston Villa unsurprisingly resulted in the club hitting bottom spot in the table, a position they would remain in for the rest of the campaign.
The last team Giles would have wanted to see visit the Hawthorns in the midst of West Brom’s abysmal run was Manchester United. “United's run has to end sometime and our sequence of losses can't go on forever,” Giles said none-too-convincingly before the league clash with Ron Atkinson’s side. The 5-1 hammering highlighted the fortunes of both clubs; United’s victory was their ninth consecutive league win, and West Brom’s eighth defeat on the bounce. Nine in a row signalled the end of the Giles regime.
The 3-0 defeat against Coventry was the final straw for the manager who had been so successful at the club in the 1970s. “When you are having the kind of results we have experienced this season, management is not a pleasant business,” Giles revealed, as his resignation was reluctantly accepted by chairman Sid Lucas. Skipper Robertson indicated that the players needed to take a good look at themselves. “We let him down and the full responsibility for his departure is down to us.”
Filling Giles’ shoes became a struggle. Turned down by former stalwart John Wile, and Mansfield manager Ian Greaves, the opportunity to manage the struggling club unsurprisingly seemed unappealing. Youth team manager Nobby Stiles temporarily took over from brother-in-law Giles, but hardly sounded thrilled by the prospect. “I don’t want the limelight. All you get is aggravation.”
Stiles initially stopped the rot with draws against Tottenham and Leicester, and on October 19, it was thirteenth time lucky for the Baggies. A 2-1 derby win over Birmingham, saw a 19-year-old Carlton Palmer make his debut, and goals from Varadi and Canadian international Carl Valentine gave Albion their first league win of the season. Boosted by the mini revival, the players convinced Stiles to stay on. “The players’ support and attitude encouraged me to give it a go.”
The three-match unbeaten run under Stiles would prove to be a papering over the cracks exercise. Six losses and two draws in the league prior to Christmas saw the club reach the halfway point with an unenviable record of Played 21 W 1 D 5 L 15 F 15 A 52 Pts 8. Desperately searching for a solution, Stiles invested £150,000 in target man George Reilly from Watford.
A win over Reilly’s previous club Watford on December 22 – goals from Hunt, Robbie Dennison, and Varadi – gave Baggies fans an unexpected Christmas present, with Stiles confident that the team could claw back the nine-point gap to safety. “At least we have broken the ice. There will be a few clubs above us now who will be worrying.”
The optimism would be sorely misplaced, however. Five defeats in the next six, coupled with an FA Cup exit, indicated that a new year would not bring about a change of fortune. A fine display from keeper Tony Godden at least helped Albion win Stiles’ final match in charge, away at an equally poor Birmingham team; the Times preview highlighted the plight of both clubs: “Seldom can a Midlands derby have been awaited with so little interest other than morbid curiosity.”
Twelve points from safety, and with just thirteen matches remaining, Ron Saunders was handed the impossible job, a month after leaving Birmingham in the wake of their FA Cup embarrassment against Altrincham, and eight home league defeats in a row. “There is a difficult job of work to be done here,” Saunders admitted, in the understatement of the year. “We have a problem in staying up. If we can, so much the better, but if not, it will not be the end of the world.”
Saunders immediately set about ruffling a few feathers at the club, dropping a number of regular players and signing Lincoln keeper Stuart Naylor, Stoke centre back Paul Dyson, and Bury centre forward Craig Madden. Hunt left for Villa, with Darren Bradley coming the other way. But shuffling his pack didn’t help matters. A 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford was followed up with a 5-0 thrashing at White Hart Lane. It wasn’t a case of if but when Albion would fall through the trapdoor.
There was time for one final bright spot in the gloom. Andy Thompson’s winner against Southampton provided Albion with their final league win of the season, albeit in front of a crowd of just 7,325; a mere 6,201 turned up for the penultimate home match of the season, a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, emphasising the position of the club.
The season was neatly illustrated when the club team coach failed to arrive at noon before their evening match at Luton, forcing players to make the journey in four cars; the 3-0 loss demonstrating that Saunders’ men also failed to park the bus successfully. Relegation was finally confirmed on April 12, with a 1-0 defeat at QPR. The only surprise perhaps was that the club had managed to cling on until the 38th match of a disastrous campaign.
The statistics of West Brom’s 85/86 season do not make pretty reading. Just four wins, 26 defeats, 35 goals scored, and 89 conceded, with Varadi the top scorer on nine goals. Relegation had seemed a nailed on certainty from September onwards, and it would take until 2002 for top flight football to return to the Hawthorns.
Still, at least throughout their season from hell, the club tried to promote an anti-smoking campaign with their iconic kit that was visible in many a Panini album up and down the country. Little consolation to the diehard Albion fans obviously, and you probably have to wonder how many were driven to taking up the harmful habit after watching their team during a season to forget.