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Second rate game but plenty thrills when Albion won the cup

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 18, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • Ray Barlow (on ground) prevents an attack by Tom Finney, and Jimmy Dugdale clears

  • Len Millard is hoisted shoulder high as he lifts the FA Cup

  • Preston's second goal, as illustrated in Billy Wright's album. Charlie Wayman puts it past Albion keeper Sanders

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1954 will forever be remembered as a golden year for football in the Black Country.

Wolves won their first Division One title after being runners-up three times, and West Bromwich Albion won the FA Cup: only missing out on the double right at the end of the season, thanks to their rivals' efforts.

On last week's back page, thanks to Tony Jones, we took a look at Billy Wright's Football Album of 1954, where the man himself talked about some of his greatest challenges. But Billy's book also features a lengthy piece on the Albion's cup victory, written by football writer Bill McGowran. Though he was satisfied the Baggies were the best and most deserving team, he was less than impressed with the game itself...

"Yes, it should have been a classic Cup Final," McGowran wrote. "All the newspapers said so. Two of the oldest clubs in the League – Preston founded in 1880 and West Bromwich Albion founded in 1879 – promised a match of high tradition and copybook correctness.

"But I'm afraid we didn't get that. We had a hard match, an exciting match, even a thrilling match. But as an exhibition of football ... oh dear!

"An elderly Lancashire man stumping out of Wembley after the final said loudly 'Ah've seen schoolboys play better football than you!'

"Maybe he was a trifle bitter in his disappointment because Preston had been beaten. But, as a critic of soccer, he was on the ball. It wasn't a classic final by any means."

"I saw West Bromwich beat Chelsea and Port Vale, I saw Preston beat Ipswich and Leicester. So, one way or another, I had a pretty good bird's eye view of the competition. And let me say here and now that this year, at least, the best team of the year won the Cup. It doesn't always work out that way. But this year justice was done.

"We went to Wembley with high hopes. For this Cup Final was full of individual possibilities.

"To begin with there was Ronnie Allen, whom many critics had voted the Footballer of the Year. This jack in the box centre forward had done more than any other man to make Albion the most dangerous attacking side of the season. His split second understanding with inside left Johnny Nicholls had wrecked defences throughout the land.

"Together, these two quick-thinking young players had ruined the stopper centre half system. Allen was the master of the quick feint, the swerving dash which drew the defence, leaving the open gap into which Nicholls could slip with almost telepathic anticipation to grab the goal scoring chance.

"There were Frank Griffin and George Lee, the West Brom wingers, whose switching methods could confuse even the eagle eyes in the Press Box. The wiseacres say that no team is stronger than its half back line, and it was in this department that West Brom were probably strongest of all. Jim Dugdale, the commanding centre half from Liverpool. But the star half-back, and in the opinion of many experts the finest wing-half in football today, was Ray Barlow, the tactician of the defence – a big chap who plays with the daintiness of a lightweight. Barlow's ball control is exceptional for such a burly customer, but he has dash and speed, too. Not only is he the master of the long, defence-splitting pass, but he can go for an opening with the speed and deadliness of an inside forward.

"Captain Len Millard, last of Albion's pre-war players, leading the team from left back, tenacious Jim Dudley at right-half ... a team of all the talents."

Their opponents, though, had Tom Finney, the Pride of Preston ...

"Voted Footballer of the Year, and the recipient of the annual 'Oscar' awarded by the Football Writers' Association, Finney has so many honours that he must be regarded as the most glittering star of our generation – always excepting the unique Matthews," wrote McGowran.

"So much," he continued, "for our expectations. Much of the football was distinctly second rate, but for those who prefer excitement to science there were thrills in plenty."

It's unlikely the travelling Albion fans were as disappointed as Mr McGowran. A clearance from the Preston defence intended for Finney hit Albion's George Lee, who centred it to Ronnie Allen for their first goal after 21 minutes. Preston equalised almost from the restart, and six minutes after half time they were ahead through a dubious goal which even the neutrals thought way offside.

Soon after, Tommy Docherty brought down Barlow and Ronnie Allen scored from the spot to level the match. Just as extra time seemed a cert, Frank Griffin "waltzed round Digger Marston and scored with a brilliant flashing shot from what seemed to be an impossibly narrow angle. Griffin at once disappeared under a mob of hysterical colleagues."

McGowran concluded that it was one of the poorest finals he had ever seen. Not that the striped half of Wembley would have cared.

Were you at Wembley that day? How did the game look to you? Write in, or send an email to gjones@blackcountrybugle.co.uk.

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