Into the top flight

Into the top flight

In 1973, however, the new chairman, Mike Bamber, signalled his ambition for the club when he secured Brian Clough as manager.

The appointment of one of the most prominent figures in football thrust Albion into the spotlight – which was awkward as they lost 4-0 at home to amateurs Walton & Hersham in the FA Cup and then 8-2 to Bristol Rovers! Clough didn’t stay long, but his former assistant, Peter Taylor, assembled a good side including inspirational captain Brian Horton and a new young star in striker Peter Ward.

In this period there also began a great rivalry with Crystal Palace who, although some 40 miles away, were Albion’s nearest league neighbours. Having not faced each other for some time, the pair’s fortunes now coincided for several years, and a number of controversial clashes stoked the increasing rivalry.

By The Argus
Peter Ward celebrates at St James' Park.

Indeed, it was Palace’s nickname of “Eagles” that prompted Albion fans to retort with a chant of “Seagulls!” The new nickname took off at a game between the two in February 1976 when more than 33,000 fans crammed into the Goldstone Ground to see Albion win 2-0, and has been in popular use ever since.

In 1976, Taylor resigned and was replaced by Alan Mullery, who took the team to promotion in his first campaign thanks largely to the 36 goals of Peter Ward, a club record for one season. But this time, rather than fight for Second Division survival, Albion challenged for a second promotion and bought impressive new players like Mark Lawrenson for more than £110,000. The average gate rose to more than 25,000 as fans flocked to the Goldstone to witness the attempt, but Albion were denied on goal difference by Spurs on the last day of the season.

Mullery and his team renewed their efforts in 1978/79 though, and secured a place in the First Division (now the Premier League) on 5 May 1979 with a 3-1 win in their final game, away to Newcastle United – a momentous day in the club’s history that was celebrated wildly on the 350-mile trip home.

After a summer of expectation, the first match in the top flight, a home game against Arsenal, was lost 4-0. Albion looked out of their depth and fell to the bottom of the table. But then a win at Nottingham Forest, the champions of Europe, in November 1979 restored confidence, and they went on to finish four places clear of relegation.

A year later the team struggled throughout, but won its last four games to avert relegation on the last day. In 1981/82, under manager Mike Bailey, they finally made an impact at the other end of the First Division table and challenged for a UEFA Cup place for a time before falling away to finish thirteenth. Playing highly defensive football, they gained victories at the likes of Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs.

However, the team made a poor start to the 1982/83 season and were soon in trouble. Bailey was replaced by Jimmy Melia, but the side went from bad to worse and were relegated after four seasons at the top table.