For a land thousands of miles away, Argentina has played a big part in the Albion story. Claudio Yacob currently patrols our midfield and is going to be a key man if Albion are going to extricate themselves from the relegation quicksand currently lapping about our knees.
Back in June 1992 and many years before the advent of Yacob, it was Osvaldo Ardiles who arrived at The Hawthorns to supply the kiss of life to a still twitching body laid to rest, returning us to our best and blowing away the cobwebs of seven years of accumulated misery, an act for which the diminutive maestro has perhaps still not received due recognition, for without him and his ideals, perhaps there would have been a funeral after all. Albion were on the brink.
But before the arrival of Ardiles, the fleeting visit of another Argentine from the World Cup Class of ’78, conferred upon the already impressive 1978/79 season the imprint of celestial majesty that transformed it into one of those all too rare campaigns delivered to us from the hand of God himself. For this was the season when the Circus of Heaven came to West Bromwich with Mario Kempes its ringmaster.
For those of us in our early teens, the World Cup of 1978 remains a vivid memory, seen through the confetti of tickertape that was de rigeur for the hosts’ games. Subsequent revelations, not least about the game with Peru that saw them through to the final, have added a cynical hue to their achievements, but at the time, the vibrancy of that team, the ecstatic religious fervour of its support and those colour drenched pictures beamed to us each night were the thing of imagination with the added benefit that the hosts played in blue and white stripes, if not quite the right blue.
It was a team of genuine talent, including giants such as Passarella and Ardiles himself, along with the gangly Tanatini, soon to be of brief and blessed Birmingham memory, Bertoni and Luque. But chief among equals was their main attacking threat, their goalscorer, Mario Kempes, the man who came to increasing and yet more glorious life as the tournament rolled on, the number 10 who would reach out and grasp immortality by the hand in the final that was to become his as he scored twice to place the golden trophy in he hands of his hungry nation.
Like all the great heroes, the ones that endure, Kempes looked the part as well as played it. For youngsters in thrall to the likes of Genesis, Pink Floyd and Rush, to watch Kempes burst through one defence after another with that long mane flowing behind him was to have every teenage fantasy come to life at once – you could front Led Zeppelin and win the World Cup at the same time, or so it seemed.
And then the 1978 World Cup was over – blackened forever in memory of course by the tragedy of Willie Johnston – and placed in its box, only to be seen on the odd highlights package. While there was the national excitement over Tottenham’s capture of Ardiles and Villa, we were resigned to not seeing Kempes, Luque and the rest for four more years, if ever again.
For these were different times, youthful reader. There was no foreign league football on TV. Ever. Indeed, outside a major international tournament, there was no live football on TV in England at all beyond the misadventures of the England team and the FA Cup and European Cup Finals. In a domestic league almost totally devoid of any footballers from beyond these islands, the only time we saw these exotic beasts was in midweek, on blurry highlights on “Sportsnight With Coleman” or the ITV equivalent, should they meet English opposition. Even then, before UEFA bloated its competitions beyond the rescue of Rennies, the competitions were so tightly focused that such opportunities were rare. And so we bade a fond farewell to Kempes, expecting never to see him again.
Back then Albion were good. Very good. Godden, Batson, Statham, Wile, Robertson, Cantello, Tony Brown, Robson, Cunningham, Regis, Ally Brown. Not one player of our Premier League era, with the possible exception of Foster, would have got in that side, good as they are. With Ron Atkinson – and the crowd – encouraging attack, attack, attack, we were taking England by storm and heading to the top of the First Division.
We weren’t doing bad in the UEFA Cup either, beating Galatasaray with ease, then SC Braga comfortably enough too. We awaited news of the draw – it wasn’t televised then – and when it came, it could not have been better. Valencia. Kempes! Mario Kempes, coming to the Albion! We were so enthralled that the fact that he and Rainer Bonhof of West Germany, another world class giant, would surely duff us up didn’t seem to matter. Kempes was coming to the Albion – it was like Floyd setting up to play in Hateley Heath.
Tickets were duly secured – my £10 junior season ticket in the Smethwick saw me safely in the ground – and we waited to see what damage would be inflicted in the first leg which was out in Spain. As it turned out, there was none. Laurie Cunningham eclipsed even Kempes, produced one of the great individual Albion displays and sold himself to Real Madrid in the process as we secured a 1-1 draw. Even then, we couldn’t possibly beat them at home could we? As legend will tell you, the winter of 1978/79 was perhaps the worst of the last 40 years, bitterly, endlessly cold, snow piling up around us, eventually costing Albion dear as we advanced on three fronts into the new year, games being lost to the cold as our failure to invest in undersoil heating proved disastrous.
We knew none of this in early December ’78, though we were frustrated by the trip to Goodison Park being called off on the Saturday prior to our Wednesday meeting with Valencia, none of this being glad of an extra rest malarkey. Even so, it was hard to concentrate on such matters knowing that soon, Kempes would walk amongst us.
Being youthful, just one chance to see him was not enough, so a plan was hatched. UEFA regulations ensured that the visiting team should be allowed to train on the opposition pitch the night before the game to acclimatise themselves to the stadium, floodlights etc. Though this was behind closed doors, they still had to get in and out of the stadium. And so, braving the cold – and honestly, it was bloody freezing – a knot of hardy youths stood in Halfords Lane, waiting for Valencia to finish their preparations and get back on the bus.
Amid the wait, there were times when the cold bit so deep that brass monkeys were refusing to come out, a concern for those of us with newly develop, and still unused, nether regions. But damn the possibilities of sacrificing a future sex life, Kempes was here!
Eventually, the doors opened and out trooped the Valencia men. These were the days when footballers were not masked by headphones bigger than their bodies and all consuming snoods, but a time when they walked and talked just like you and me. Except in Spanish in this case. Signatures were sought and given, but even in the act of getting these unknown Spanish tyros, we never took our eyes off the door. We weren’t going to miss him, not even for Bonhof.
And then, there he was – Kempes. Honestly. Him. Here. In West Bromwich. Just imagine if you’d only ever seen Lionel Messi on the telly in a couple of European Cup finals and then here he was in God’s country for the night. That was how it was. And we were in his presence a whole night early. His signature was secured – on a page of his own, naturally – he got on the bus and we stayed to watch it roll off into the night. This was exotica of the most intoxicating kind and we had been mainlining it.
Mario Kempes – the player the Spanish called ‘El Matador’
A day later, every bit as cold, a packed Hawthorns that was simply electrifying. Near 40,000 bodies pressed tight together, steam escaping from us and off into the sepulchral Black Country sky, the brown of my dad’s highly fashionable suede coat rubbing off onto my equally of the moment parka. And then the teams came out, together as I recall, a rarity in those days when the teams just came out when they were ready and not in unison.
Formalities were engaged in, Kempes and John Wile exchanging pennants in the centre circle, Kempes striding around The Hawthorns as though it was about to become his personal kingdom, intimidating, magnificent.
But Albion were imperious. I don’t care what era you want to know, be it Pennington and Morris, Glidden and Richardson, Allen and the great Ray Barlow, none of them served up a night such as this one. Two goals for Tony Brown, a penalty and a marvellous volley, two goals disallowed, a Regis header off the post. Albion were unstoppable and we were delirious in our 2-0 victory.
Even then, even in defeat and shackled by Wile and Robertson, you could not take your eyes off Kempes. Here was a star, a great, we would never see him again, maybe never even see the like of him again. Wall to wall football was something we never imagined then. Even in defeat, there were moments, touches, runs of power and excitement. There was a free-kick from 25 yards, blazing goalwards, bucking and twisting in the air in days before light plastics made such tricks commonplace. Godden produced a wonderful save and retained his clean sheet.
But even now, across the decades, I wish he’d never smelt it and the ball had flashed into the top corner instead. And now, when I close my eyes and remember it, you know what? It did. But we would have still won.
© Nigel Molesworth for @awaycolours 2014