During the international break, we’ll be assessing Albion’s top ten post-war managers in the top flight, based on points won per game, three points for a win, minimum of 50 games played.
In at number 10, a man who had two stints at the helm, Ronnie Allen…
In the aftermath of Ron Atkinson’s departure for Manchester United, taking on the Albion manager’s job could hardly have been more difficult. With the Throstles having slipped away a little from the peak of 1978/79, to lose the manager to the club with the greatest spending power in the country was disconcerting to say the least. Rumours engulfed the club about which players might follow him, and for a time, all was turmoil.
The move to appoint Ronnie Allen was seen as an attempt to bring some stability to the situation, in part because he was an Albion legend, in part because his brief spell in charge at the start of 1977/78 had been such a success, when he had used so many of those core players in his team. And, in no small part, because his eye for a player was unparalleled, as Cyrille Regis had reason to know all too well.
“Ronnie Allen changed my life, as simple as that! He was the chief scout here under Johnny Giles and he saw me playing for Hayes in 1977. He believed in me, that’s the truth of it.
GOAL OF THE SEASON… Regis nets against Norwich in 1982
“The story goes that when it went to the board as to whether or not to buy me after Giles had okayed it, they weren’t sure about paying the five grand up front and then another five after ten games, but Ronnie told them that if they didn’t want to pay for me, he’d do it himself!
“I had a bit of luck because he took over when Giles left at the end of the season, we had a few injuries and he had no worries about throwing me in. I’d started well for the reserves, I got a hat-trick of headers against the first team in a practice match, so he just told me to go and play that night against Rotherham in the League Cup.
“I’d been here a couple of months, two months off the building site, but when a manager shows belief in you like that, you want to play for him. By the following Saturday night I had three goals in two games, I’d scored in the First Division against Middlesbrough, and I was on my way. That was down to his trust in me”.
At the start of the second spell at the helm, they were tumultuous opening weeks, dominated by a transfer request from Bryan Robson, already the best player in the country, the intended destination obvious from the outset.
Amid it all, the Baggies had a UEFA Cup tie to play, suggestions abounding that Robson would not be allowed to leave while we were in Europe. The continent did not delay him long, for Grasshoppers Zurich defeated us 4-1 on aggregate in the first round and Robson and midfield colleague Remi Moses were away to Old Trafford.
THE TEAM OF ’82… Ronnie Allen lines up alongside his players
The disarray found us in the bottom two after seven games but lancing the Robson boil lifted the mood a little and while we were hardly electrifying, improvement came, largely off the back of Albion’s number nine, who knocked in two hat-tricks inside the first dozen games. Cyrille put his prolific form down to the new found freedom he had under Allen.
“He understood attackers, he understood me. He’d done a lot of coaching abroad, he had lots of experience, but he had a European mentality. In that season especially, he saw something in me which no other manager had seen and he allowed me to do things that no other manager would, or even thought about to be honest.
“I never had a lot of stamina, that was how I was, and maybe a few late nights and a few drinks didn’t help! I had power and I had pace, it was explosive, it wasn’t the long distance runner thing that Ally Brown had.
“Because of that continental influence, Ronnie understood that. If you watched the Spanish strikers of the time, they weren’t chasing left-backs down, coming back for free-kicks, they were doing what they were good at. For that season, Ronnie said to me, “I don’t want you coming back across the halfway line”. It was music to my ears.
“What he was good at was not telling you to do the things you couldn’t. I couldn’t run all day, so Ally did that. Give it me to my feet because I could hold the ball up, I was a strong boy, then you could play around me. Or get it to me so I could run on goal and scare the defenders to death. Don’t get me running the channels and chasing lost causes because after 25 minutes of that, I’m no good to anybody!”
Regis was the centrepiece of a team that, by the turn of the year, had gradually righted itself. At the end of January 1982, we had endured an epic League Cup run to reach a semi-final with Tottenham, we were in the fifth round of the FA Cup and we looked solid enough in mid-table. But just when it looked as if things were on the up and up, they were quickly to slip the other way as Cyrille remembers.
“He brought in Gerry Summers as a coach and he didn’t really get on with the boys in the team. There was a bit of resistance to him from the players who’d been there a while because in the past, all we’d done was play five-a-sides and it had worked pretty well!
“Looking back, we were wrong because you look at the state of the game now and it’s much more professional, preparation is better and all of that, but then, we knew what we knew which was playing five-a-sides, good tempo, competitive, get a good sweat on, the boys policing themselves, the manager motivated you, that was the way it was done. And when push came to shove, Ronnie had the sense to ease off on it, Gerry went and we went back to what we knew”.
We won only one league game in 15 through February, March and April to plummet headlong into the relegation scrap, taking our eye off the ball as we advanced on both cup fighting fronts. A fractious 0-0 draw against Spurs at The Hawthorns in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final and they duly completed the job in London with a 1-0 win.
But three days later, the players responded in the grand manner, beating Norwich City in the fifth round of the FA Cup. The win came courtesy of a goal that demonstrated all the attributes that Regis had, the ones that Allen wanted to see explode into life.
Collecting the ball on his chest in the centre circle from Ally Robertson’s pass out, he turned and disappeared in a trail of cartoon smoke before smacking the ball from miles out, into the top corner, winning the “Goal of the Season” as well as the game.
Coventry City were inevitably defeated in round six, Regis and Gary Owen on target and we had Second Division QPR in the Highbury semi-final, one of the most truly dreadful games of all time – it made the game with Everton over new year look like a classic. A Robertson clearance hit Clive Allen and flew past Mark Grew in goal, summing up the day.
That left us with a relegation scrap with an injury ravaged team. A Mayday win at Molineux was crucial – Regis and Monaghan with the goals – as Wolves were sent on their way down, but the key game was number 41 against Leeds at The Hawthorns. A Leeds win would have saved them, defeat would send them down. Steve Mackenzie and Cyrille saw them off 2-0 and their supporters took it all in good spirit by smashing up the ground.
Albion survived by the skin of our teeth, but change was once again in the air, just when some stability might have been the preferred option. Ronnie Allen moved on to become the club’s first General Manager, a sign of our lack of cohesion which would eventually swamp us through the second half of the 1980s. Looking back, Cyrille admits he could see which way the wind was blowing but chose to ignore it.
“When Ronnie left, or moved upstairs actually, that was when I should have gone too. But I loved the club, I was with my mates, I was having a great time, and the fact that Ronnie was still around, even after he stopped being manager, that anchored me to the Albion. Like I said, he changed my life”.
RONNIE ALLEN – 1.26 points per game:
Played 62, won 20, drawn 18, lost 24, goals for 77, against 79, points 78.