Harty on . . . comparisons with Albion’s 1986-87 season

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A CREDITABLE point, with a 0-0 draw on the road at Cardiff on Tuesday evening, left the Albion one place above the Championship relegation zone on 30 points, with 16 games left.

It prompted some fans on the internet to draw comparisons with 1986-87, which saw the Albion relegated after finishing bottom of the old Division 2 (the Championship today), with 39 points from 42 games.

In retrospect, that campaign almost 30 years ago might be seen by many as the beginning of the Albion’s troubles, which ultimately saw them lose the much-loved Goldstone Ground and face near extinction.

August, 1986, arrived having seen the somewhat distasteful removal of popular manager Chris Cattlin towards the end of the previous season. The club went on a huge charm offensive, with the return of club legend Alan Mullery.

There was the predictable upturn in season tickets sales and, with a squad containing the likes of Gerry Armstrong, Terry Connor, Danny Wilson, Steve Penney and Dean Saunders, there was renewed optimism.

What fans weren’t aware of at the time was that the club was already in the early stages of what would eventually become financial meltdown. While Mullers’ squad weren’t pulling up any trees at Christmas, a season of mid-table mediocrity looked almost a certainty.

On January 3, 1987, the Albion won 3-1 at Grimsby to move into 15th place, eight points clear of relegation, on the same day defender Gary O’Reilly was sold to Crystal Palace for £40,000.

That was reportedly for no other reason than to cover the club wages going out of the bank that week. Two days later, Mullery was sacked for ‘lack of commitment’, despite having previously been given five years to rebuild the club.

Despite a radio station interviewing apparent bookies favourite Malcolm Macdonald, the club went for an internal appointment with former Worthing manager Barry Lloyd moving up from reserve team boss.

What followed, on the face of it, was a catastrophic capitulation with only two wins in 19 league games, which saw the Albion relegated.

Lloyd was very much the fall guy. Despite promotion from Division 3 the following season and a Wembley play-off final in 1991, he was still perceived to be one of the most unpopular managers in the club’s history.

In hindsight, that is extremely unfair and, coming from one of his most vociferous critics, needs some clarity.

In my opinion, and that of many other people, the return of Mullery was merely a smokescreen. Had they appointed Lloyd, the preferred and ultimately cheaper option back in the summer of 1986, the backlash from the fans would at first have been extremely noisy, followed by low crowds.

Lloyd later recalled in a radio interview with me that, on his appointment, he was not only told there was no money, he also had to cull the squad to get the wages down, with a number of highly-paid players leaving for free or extremely cheaply.

A prime example was Dean Saunders, who left for Oxford for £60,000, which enraged many supporters, who thought both Lloyd and the club had been duped.

Far from it, Lloyd actually got £60,000 more than Oxford were originally prepared to pay, a fact which a number of fans continue to airbrush from club history to this day.

In short, the whole season was a ticking time bomb both on and off the field and engineered the opportunity for Greg Stanley, and subsequently Bill Archer, to take over and ultimately asset strip the club.

For supporters to make comparisons between then and now is a fusion of a classic knee-jerk reaction and somewhat wide of the mark.

Mistakes have been made at the Amex in the last year, both on and off the field, and things are currently nowhere near perfect. But, in Chris Hughton, Albion have a man who has the ability to get the best from his current squad.

To reiterate, under Sami Hyypia relegation was a certainty, with Hughton in charge, I’m confident the Albion will survive.