The 1996-97 season was comfortably the worst in Albion’s history
Last week, I focused on the great escape of 1981 when Albion were victorious in their last four games to retain a place among England’s elite.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that things couldn’t have been any worse 16 years later. If you’re reading this thinking 2014-15 is as bad as an Albion campaign can be, let me introduce the 1996-97 season, comfortably the worst in the club’s history. It stank. It was atrocious. It was morbidly depressing. Then it became exhilarating.
The previous May, fans had snapped the crossbars at the Goldstone to highlight the absolute mess caused by Archer selling the ground – illegally, by altering the club’s constitution – with no alternative venue in place.
Come August, and knowing it would the famous old stadium’s final season, the atmosphere was dark. The performances on the pitch mirrored the mood on the terraces but no-one blamed the players. Mass walkouts, whistle protests, and a pitch invasion that resulted in a two-point reduction, saw Albion enter December 12 points adrift in Division Three – the basement – staring the Conference in the face.
Steve Gritt arrived – welcomed by illiterate graffiti – with the impossible task of salvaging the Albion’s league status.
What followed was miraculous. Fans United in February witnessed supporters from around the country show their collective support of Albion’s perilous plight. From winning just two home games before he replaced Jimmy Case, Gritt somehow inspired an unbeaten home run, gradually closing the huge gap – despite a horrific away record – to level on points with Hereford United after a Goldstone-closing victory over Doncaster Rovers.
So, the final game was a winner- takes-all – at Hereford. Albion needed just a point, thanks to a slightly superior goal difference, helped in no small part by the 5-0 Fans United thrashing of Hartlepool United.
There will never be another Albion game as gut-wrenchingly stressful as the one at Edgar Street on May 3rd, 1997. An incredibly nervy first half – and on the pitch – ended with Albion a goal down. Many fans wept during the interval, fearing the worst, but a palpable surge in emotion and adrenaline emanated from the Blackfriars Street End as the most important 45 minutes in the club’s 96-year existence kicked off.
Then Robbie Reinelt came on. On the hour, Craig Maskell took a lofted clearance on his knee, volleyed from 20 yards, hit the post and the ball pinged across the box to be met by an onrushing Reinelt. Cue absolute pandemonium. The goal that means we all have a club to support today.
Never again – although some goals would be nice.