Ian Hart: When Alan Mullery averted a player strike

Alan Mullery
Alan Mullery

Last Wednesday’s release of the Albion’s Premiership fixtures move the realisation of the  dream ever closer.

The opening day visit of Premier League giants Manchester City on August 12 evokes memories for supporters of a certain age of 38 years ago when the Albion played their first game in the old First Division against the then FA Cup holders Arsenal.

Whilst domestic football has drastically changed in that period many comparisons can still be drawn.

The summer of 1979 saw limited transfer action from then Albion manager Alan Mullery, along with buying John Gregory from Aston Villa he did bring in a young defender from Portsmouth, Steve Foster, who went on to become an Seagulls legend, also representing England in the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, Mullery instead putting his faith in the players who had got him promoted the previous season.

But that pre-season wasn’t without incident, almost immediately after the players returned for pre-season training Mullery had a deputation of players led by then club captain Brian Horton arrive at his office with a collective request/demand for substantial wage rises, outside their contracts at the time but, in their words, in keeping with what other players at other clubs were earning in the same division.

Mullery not only recounted this story in his excellent autobiography but has spoken about it in his role as Club Ambassador in the lounges and boxes at the Amex.

At the time Mullery pointed out that players had verbally agreed contracts, they were just waiting to be signed – to then change ‘the goalposts’ was not only unethical but given the way the then chairman Mike Bamber ran the club a total non-starter.

Horton and co were a prepared to tough it out but so was Mullery, a deadline was set for players to sign, the Friday before the Arsenal game. If they didn’t Mullery had stated that he was prepared to field the reserves and youth team the following day at a packed-to-the-rafters Goldstone, almost certainly resulting in an emphatic defeat, but he was also prepared to sit in front of the assembled press and tell them the reason why he put out a weakened side.

The year being 1979 is quite apt in this particular story, as Mullery shares many traits and qualities with late Margaret Thatcher who came to power that year. He’s focused, driven and certainly not for turning, I’ve no doubt that if the players hadn’t backed down, and one by one on the Friday they all turned up and signed the original deals, he would have put out a weakened side against the Gunners the following day, accepting the potential consequences.

As it turned a full-strength Albion side were soon exposed to the harsh realities of top-flight football. Despite Gerry Ryan hitting the bar for the home side in the opening exchanges, Arsenal had three chances in the first and went in 3-0 up, they got a penalty in the second half and the history books show the Albion’s first-ever match in top flight football ended in a 4-0 reverse. Whether Manchester City record a similar scoreline on the opening day remains to be seen; if they do, while clearly not ideal it won’t be the end of the season there and then.

As it was back in 79-80, it’s a marathon not a sprint; more games will be lost than won but when Premiership survival is achieved (and more on that in the coming weeks) then it will be mission accomplished.

I had the privilege of attending the Worthing United Youth presentation on Saturday and had pleasure of meeting Worthing's latest Premiership Brad House, who, as reported in last week's paper, has signed a pro contract with West Brom.

A thoroughly nice lad, who is a credit not only to his family, but an inspiration to every youth footballer in this town as to what you can achieve with hard work and dedication.