As you might expect of one the Football League's founder members, West Bromwich Albion are very big on history – and FA Cup history in particular. As they prepare for tomorrow's Wembley semi-final against the only remaining Premier League side in this year's competition, Portsmouth, thoughts and emotions at The Hawthorns are turning once again towards wish fulfilment in the world's oldest football competition.
Even turning into the gates to the East Stand car park offers a reminder of times past, in the form of a double representation in cast iron of a celebrating No 9 with both arms raised – a loving memorial to the inimitable Jeff Astle. The Wembley winner Astle thrashed home against Everton in 1968 took the FA Cup to West Bromwich for the fifth time, a sequence of achievement which is amply celebrated in the memorabilia which lines the walls between the club's reception and trophy room.
Albion won the Cup in 1888 and 1892, but here is a ticket for the 1935 final, which saw Albion lose 4-2 to Sheffield Wednesday, priced at "five shillings – incl tax". Here are two huge photos taken at the same moment in Albion's 3-2 win over Preston in the 1954 final – one showing a forward taking a penalty, one a goalkeeper at the other end, bent around his own post, head turned from the action. "Albion keeper Jim Sanders cannot bear to watch as Ronnie Allen scores from the penalty spot", reads the legend.
And here are five postcards featuring "a tough training session" on the eve of Albion's 1931 Cup final win (2-1 against Birmingham), an accomplishment they coupled, uniquely, with promotion to the top flight. Now there is an aspiration for Tony Mowbray's men as they enter the closing stages of a season in which both those prizes are within their grasp. For the current Baggies players, history is very much in the making.
Asked whether he would take an FA Cup win or promotion to the Premier League, Albion's combative full-back, Paul Robinson, is unequivocal. "I'd definitely take promotion', he says. "But the lads are all excited about the challenge of playing Portsmouth. They are where we want to be next season, and it's a great chance to show what we are capable of."
Mowbray believes that Albion, who have scored 99 goals this season, are playing in an expansive and technically accomplished fashion which is better equipped for Premier League football than the helter-skelter skirmishing that characterises much Championship action.
Tomorrow's match may offer further confirmation of his hunch, but Albion know they must still win their games in hand in the Championship, fixtures which will crowd in in the Wembley aftermath should the result go against them.
Mowbray fits into a broader football pattern in being a player whose primary accomplishments were toughness and spirit who now, as a manager, seeks to create sides in which skill and flair are predominant. It is a philosophy he employed at Hibernian, whom he steered to two top-four places in succession.
Such was the fluent style of Albion's 1954 Cup-winning side, who narrowly missed the League title in the same year, that they earned the nickname "Team of the Century". Mowbray, a craggy centre-back whose qualities are still celebrated in his home town of Middlesbrough, where he spent the first decade of his playing career, would fight shy of such hyperbole being linked with the side he has fashioned at Albion since arriving in October 2006.
But he makes passionately clear how he views the responsibilities of any team bearing his imprint, and what an opportunity now lies before the players under his charge.
As someone who supported Middlesbrough before he played for them, Mowbray was among the Boro faithful as they contested the 1997 FA Cup final. Although Middlesbrough lost, to Chelsea, he felt that a place at Wembley had given the fans something he side had never been able to offer.
Such tangible moments, he maintains, can consolidate teams in the memories of their fans, not to mention offering a link to those who brought about such success in the years that follow.
He mentions Bobby Hope, who is still working behind the scenes for Albion 40 years after playing a key part in their last FA Cup final win. "Bobby doesn't ram that win down our throats, but it's great to know that he was a part of that and that the players who shared the experience still keep in touch all this time later," Mowbray says.
"At Boro, the team which earned promotion in 1987 after the club had narrowly avoided going into liquidation is still held in great respect. When I was managing at Hibernian I like to think we were getting to the level where we were able to do something memorable. You work with players, day after day, and you see them improve and suffer and laugh, and eventually you get to the point where you want to stick a badge of honour on that team."
Victory over Harry Redknapp's men tomorrow would pin such a badge firmly on Albion's lapels, less than a year after the side which Mowbray inherited mid-season from Bryan Robson lost the Championship play-off final to Derby.
"This is a game where the motivation won't need to come from me, really," says Mowbray. "The players will be over-hyped if anything and it will be a question of calming them down and making sure we play our football and try to impose our style on Portsmouth, which won't be easy to do.
"How can we beat them? By scoring goals against them, which this team can do freely. That's the challenge. Let's just wait and see."
When Astle was the king of Wembley
For most football lovers of a certain age, Jeff Astle will be forever remembered for the goal chance he missed for England against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup. But for Baggies fans, the finest moment for "The King", as they still refer to him, was his winning goal in the 1968 FA Cup final against Everton.
Astle's goal meant that he had scored in every round of the competition, and that night, according to local legend, the words "ASTLE IS THE KING" appeared in huge white letters on Primrose Bridge in Netherton. The bridge became known as "the Astle Bridge", and after it was demolished nearly 30 years later, the words "ASTLE IS THE KING – PLEASE NOTE DUDLEY COUNCIL" appeared on the new version.
Astle died in 2002, having enjoyed new-found cult fame – or infamy – with his tuneless renditions of popular favourites on the Fantasy Football League TV programme. A campaign was launched to have the bridge officially named in his honour. This has not yet happened, sadly, thanks to fears of attacks by supporters of Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers.Reuse content