Soldiers And Artists – The Tony Mowbray Era

mowbray

I first started going to The Hawthorns with my Dad in 1995. I’d been to see Birmingham a few times, but my Dad finally got me to the Albion. We were playing Sunderland. I don’t really remember the result, I think it ended 1-1, but I do have one lasting memory. That memory is a ball played across the field to Stacy Coldicott, who was out wide.

Coldicott, like many of the players at the time, was nothing special. The Albion were a hard working team but that really was it for the most part. The Nineties were not a great time. But I fell in love with Albion because of Stacey Coldicott. As that ball went across the pitch to Coldicott, who had no players around him, he did something I’ll never forget. Did he score a wonder goal? No. Did he have a moment of brilliance and control a football like nobody I’d ever seen before? Absolutely not. What did he do?

He caught the ball.

Nobody around him, ball still in play; he inexplicably catches the ball. In doing so, he gets a yellow card.

I’m sat in the stands in hysterics. The few games I’d seen at Birmingham had never made me laugh – they’d made me feel scared (Cardiff fans ripping seats out and throwing them around still vivid in my mind), they’d made me feel excited…but they never made me laugh. All in one huge cock up, Stacy Coldicott had embarrassed himself but also made a fan out of me. I loved laughing, and therefore I loved the Albion. I was hooked from that moment.

1995-96Circa-Stacy-Caldicott-722x1024

The years that followed were dreadful. Alan Buckley’s West Brom were shocking…that 11 game losing streak…Ray Harford’s Albion boring but too short lived…Denis Smith’s Albion were erratic…and then Brian Little came along and came so, so close to sending us down before change of board and the arrival of one Gary Megson. In school in Birmingham all my mates supported Villa, Birmingham, Manchester United, Liverpool…one Arsenal fan…and I could see why for most of it. I loved Albion but for a long time it was impossible to really enjoy watching Albion.

And so life goes on. Times change and the turn of the Millennium sees promotions and a change in fortune. But West Brom yo-yo between the leagues, and we either get relegated or go up. We weren’t fancy to watch…there were some great moments…but for the most part we weren’t exciting. I found myself loving watching the likes of Arsenal because they played football how I felt it should be played. It was neat, it was stylistic, it was fun, it was enjoyable. It’s that enjoyment that we all want from football at the end of the day.

On 13th October 2006, 11 years after my Stacey Coldicott moment, Albion hired Tony Mowbray to replace Bryan Robson. I didn’t really know much about Mowbray; I’d heard he’d done well in Scotland with Hibs and knew little bits of him as a player at Ipswich but that was it. His first job was to try to get the club back in to the Premier League. We finished fourth and got in to the play offs, beating Wolves in the Semi Finals (two amazing games) but ultimately losing to Derby in the final 1-0.

play off final

This was a make or break time. Several of the players in the team at the time didn’t want to play for the club, there were rumours that there was unrest…something had to give. Mowbray sold key players…Jason Koumas, Curtis Davies, Diomansy Kamara…and he bought in his own players. Chris Brunt and James Morrison were signed. Ishmael Miller joined the club to play up front alongside Kevin Phillips. The shape of the team changed. The make up of the team changed. Tony Mowbray talked of wanting ‘soldiers and artists’ on a football pitch and he had formed that team.

The midfield was incredible, the attack was sublime…Albion were brilliant. We played football better than anybody else in the league. We could outscore anybody and everybody. It was a dream to watch when it worked, and even when it didn’t work there was still always that feeling that we only needed one chance.

The game that showed how far we’d progressed for me was John Gregory’s last game as QPR manager. It ended 5-1 and it could have been more. It was a masterclass. Kevin Phillips was sensational – his second goal my favourite of his Albion career. I had fallen in love all over again. This was the Albion I wanted to see. This was the Albion I was proud to go to everybody and say “That is my team.” We were electric.

Tony Mowbray had transformed the club. There was a fear at the start of the season that with the loss of the likes of Koumas and Davies that the club would struggle but, instead, we were better than ever. Defensively we were always suspect, but we had a midfield and strike force that made that almost impossible to care about. You score 3 against us? We’ll score 4.

It wasn’t all golden. In the March of that year Leicester came to the Hawthorns to beat us 4-1 (a game made famous by Luke Moore getting sent off pretty instantaneously)…Colchester United beating us 3-2, Coventry beating us 4-2…these games happened. It was perhaps the risk with our style of play; we played an expansive brand of football and if a team countered it it could be a disaster. But fortunately these were just odd games. We went on to win the league. We deserved it. Tony Mowbray deserved it.

mowbray trophy

Alongside the league performance, we also had an incredible cup run. I think back to when I started watching Albion in 1995 and I could have never dreamed of seeing them in an FA Cup Semi Final but Mowbray got us there. One handball and a poor refereeing decision cost us that game against Portsmouth. I still believe that, had the ref seen Baros handle the ball before Portsmouth’s goal, Albion would have won the FA Cup that year. It would have been an incredible double. Regardless, it was an experience I will never forget. A moment I will always treasure. Watching Albion walk out on to the Wembley pitch in the FA Cup – it was sensational.

mowbray wembley

Tony Mowbray’s footballing philosophy was the same as my own. His near three years at the club were the favourite of my lifetime. We were entertaining, we were adventurous and we were good. Outside of football, I found Tony Mowbray an inspiration. After losing his first wife to breast cancer aged just 25, he just continued to move forward. Such personal tragedy had hit him but he remained focused, he achieved so much. He is a soldier, with the mind of a footballing artist.

On Saturday (27th October), Mowbray returns to the Hawthorns for the first time since leaving the club for Celtic. Some fans felt let down by Mowbray but I always felt, with his history with Celtic and the size of a club such as Celtic, he had to go. He gave Albion three brilliant years, and while it’s a shame that the Premier League year with Mowbray never worked, his time at the club remains my favourite period.

My hope is that he’s welcomed back to the Hawthorns with massive applause. My fear is that his Blackburn side do to us what his Albion sides used to do to many others.

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