Tony "Bomber" Brown.
Tony Brown was born in Oldham at the end of the Second World War and grew up an asthmatic child in Manchester. The scrawny infant did not appear cut out to become a record breaking footballer but he was instructed to take part in as much sport as possible by his doctor and assured that the condition would simply disappear at some point.
This diagnosis would prove correct, Brown’s asthma clearing up when he was 14 by which time he was a schoolboy footballer of some repute.
Having represented both Manchester and Lancashire schools at inside forward Brown was attracting the attention of both City and United with the Maine Road club making the first approach.
Young Tony Brown’s loyalties lay with the red half of the city, however, so it seemed natural for him to join the Old Trafford club when their interest hardened. Brown’s head ruled his heart in deciding that United had too many star names and budding talents on their books already though and he turned their offer down.
At this point Brown was invited to West Bromwich Albion who also offered him terms after he had impressed in a trial match. This was a chance the youngster was prepared to take and the rest, literally, is history.
Tony Brown would spend the next twenty years with Albion and go on to break virtually every appearance and goalscoring record going at the club.
Brown initially joined the club as an amateur in 1961 and it was not until May 1963 that he made his debut for the reserves, scoring in a 3-2 defeat to Manchester United. He then turned pro at the start of the following season and made his league debut two days later in an away game at Ipswich Town, scoring the equaliser as the Baggies came from behind to win 2-1.
In a highly encouraging start Tony Brown also scored in his first game at the Hawthorns in a thrilling 4-3 victory over local rivals Aston Villa.
The Albion fans would come to love Tony Brown for many reasons and his penchant for scoring against Villa was surely one of his most endearing features.
In his early days Brown was employed both on the right wing and at inside right but his outstanding quality was always his eye for goal. Not a typical poacher Brown’s finishing was of the explosive type, dangerous from long distances and lethal from around the edge of the box.
Without ever getting quite the same recognition Brown was to become for Albion what Peter Lorimer was for Leeds and it is easy to believe that had he played for the Elland Road club his career might have been far more vaunted.
Hampered somewhat by injuries it would take the youngster a couple of years to truly establish himself in the Albion first team.
He had proved his goalscoring capabilities during the 1964-65 season. Brown scored 9 goals in just 17 first division appearances including a hat trick against Sunderland and also plundered four in a game on three separate occasions for the reserves.
It was the following season that Tony Brown really came to prominence, however, as both he and Albion enjoyed a wonderful campaign.
Brown continued to score at a goal every other game in the league as Albion finished a creditable 6th but was even more prolific in the League Cup, scoring at better than a goal a game as the Baggies captured the trophy.
Having beaten Walsall in the 2nd round Albion enjoyed a superb 4-2 win at Leeds, slaughtered Coventry 6-1 in a replay and despatched Aston Villa 3-1 before thumping Peterborough United in the semi finals.
Albion only managed a 2-1 victory in the 1st leg at the Hawthorns but then, led by another Tony Brown hat trick, stormed to a 4-2 win at London Road in the second game.
This would be the last year of the two legged final in this competition and after losing 2-1 at West Ham in the 1st leg the Baggies stormed to a 4-1 victory at home in the 2nd to take the cup 5-3 on aggregate. Brown’s goal at the Hawthorns meant that he had scored in every round of the competition and his first record had been set.
This was the start of a productive few years for West Brom. The side was particularly strong in attack with Brown’s knack of finding the net backing up the prolific Jeff Astle while Clive Clark offered a threat down the left hand side with the probing Bobby Hope pulling the strings at inside left. The Baggies were competitive and secure in the first division while proving themselves to be formidable cup opponents.
Tony Brown’s direct, no nonsense approach was particularly effective in Albion’s cup exploits and his nickname, “Bomber”, was already well established.
The Baggies set about defending the League Cup in style with Aston Villa thrashed 6-1 at the Hawthorns on the way to a second successive final. This would be the first League Cup final to be held at Wembley and Albion were clear favourites to defeat third division QPR.
Everything looked set for a comfortable victory as two Clive Clark goals put them in control at half time but Rangers, inspired by Rodney Marsh, fought back in dramatic fashion to claim a 3-2 victory and leave Brown and his teammates shellshocked.
This season also saw the clubs’ first venture into Europe in the Fairs Cup and Tony Brown made his mark on the competition with a forthright hat trick against the Dutch team DOS Utrecht as the Baggies stormed to a 5-2 victory in the 2nd leg at the Hawthorns after drawing in Holland.
This adventure would be summarily ended by the Italians Bologna who won both legs of their 3rd round tie comprehensively, however.
The 1967-68 season saw Brown’s role in the team beginning to change as he was sometimes used in a deeper, more central role than previously. During the next few seasons he would be employed in this position more often although his approach remained the same, get forward at every opportunity and never pass up a decent shooting opportunity.
Brown was not a totally one dimensional player, however. He could handle himself in a challenge and his distribution, as Jeff Astle would certainly testify, was sound and occasionally inspired. At all times he was a player who was most effective when operating at full throttle and acting instinctively.
In 1968 it was the FA Cup that had West Brom homing in on Wembley again. The club enjoyed a reasonably comfortably passage through to the semi finals where a massive derby clash with Birmingham City at Villa Park awaited them.
In a close, fiercely fought game Albion prevailed 2-0 with Tony Brown and Jeff Astle the predictable scorers.
So the Baggies were back at Wembley for the second time in a year, this time as underdogs, and they managed to erase the memory of the defeat against QPR with a 1-0 extra time win over Everton, Jeff Astle banging home the most famous of all his Albion goals.
Brown’s form was attracting attention from outside the Hawthorns and he was selected for a Young England team that took on the full England side at Stamford Bridge and earned a goalless draw.
Competition for places in Alf Ramsey’s midfield was certainly extremely fierce at this time, however, and Brown would find himself overlooked time and again for the national team, indeed it would be another couple of years before further representative honours came his way in the shape of appearances for the Football League against the Irish and Scottish Leagues.
Brown and Albion continued to thrill their supporters with their cup exploits. The club reached another FA Cup semi final in 1969 only to lose by the only goal to Leicester City and there was real disappointment in the Cup Winners Cup as the Baggies were knocked out in the quarter finals on a 1-0 aggregate to Dunfermline Athletic after losing the 2nd leg at the Hawthorns.
Brown had supplied three goals as Bruges of Belgium and Dynamo Bucharest were knocked out in the previous rounds.
Brown and Albion were back at Wembley in 1970 in the League Cup, having once again disposed of Aston Villa along the way, but were again runners up after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City.
This marked the end of the road for this fine side as the club began to struggle in the league over the next few seasons and stopped making an impression in the cup competitions.
Tony Brown, however, was reaching his peak and as Albion began to wane he went from strength to strength. In 1970-71, when the club finished 17th in the first division, Bomber actually topped the Division One goalscoring chart with 28 goals, a magnificent return.
This included two hat tricks, one in a 4-3 win over Manchester United at the Hawthorns, and Brown was also integral in one of footballs’ most controversial incidents.
West Brom travelled to table topping Leeds United deep into April without an away win all season to take on the team apparently destined for the Championship.
With The Baggies winning 1-0 and Leeds throwing men forward in search of an equaliser Brown intercepted a pass inside his own half and surged forward. The only Leeds defender in his own half was Paul Reaney, way over on the other flank, while Brown’s teammate Colin Suggett was standing in a massively offside position in the centre of the pitch.
Everyone stopped for what seemed an age, including Brown, but the referee, correctly, waved play on as the ball had not been passed to Suggett. Brown carried the ball up to Gary Sprake before squaring to Astle, also suspiciously offside looking, to tuck home.
Albion celebrated, Leeds rioted, but the goal stood, Albion eventually won 2-1 and the Championship ended up going to Arsenal. All good fun.
Finally Tony Brown’s performances earned him England recognition. He was included in the squad for the Home Internationals and was selected for the second of the three games at home to Wales.
This game was just about as disappointing as it could have been for the debutant. The much changed England team failed to gel and produced little football of note in a grim 0-0 draw.
Brown had one clear chance early on but headed over the bar and was then deemed offside as Francis Lee slammed home in another rare attack.
Alf Ramsey would never give Brown another chance and neither would his successors. The merits of Brown’s England claims can be argued forever without a satisfactory answer being reached but it is certainly hard to argue his case ahead of players like Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters, Tony Currie and Colin Bell.
Instead of pitching in to England’s cause Brown remained a vital part of West Bromwich Albion’s. The appointment of Don Howe as manager saw the maturing midfielder becoming more of a fulcrum in a team in transformation and with Astle’s star beginning to fade his goals were more important than ever.
Brown managed another 17 in 1971-72 as the club finished 16th and then got 12 of the 38 scored by the team altogether as Albion finished bottom of the table in 1972-73.
This meant that Tony Brown would be playing outside the top flight for the first time in his career, there seeming little thought from anyone that he might now actually leave the Hawthorns and seek to remain in the first division with someone else.
Another prolific season in Division Two saw Bomber reach the landmark of 150 league goals when scoring in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa, surprise surprise, in front of over 43,000 fans at the Hawthorns and he became one of a select band to score hat tricks in the Football League, both domestic cups and in Europe when he put three past Notts County in the FA Cup.
Clearly inspired by his cup hat trick he then smashed four past Nottingham Forest at the City Ground a week later.
These personal heroics were not enough to get Albion promoted, however, and it would be another two seasons before the Baggies would return to the first division in 1975-76.
Albion needed to win their last game of the season to be certain of promotion and the script looked written for Brown with the game taking place at Oldham, the town of his birth.
This was undoubtedly a frantic afternoon at Boundary Park. There were over 22,000 fans crammed inside, over half from the Midlands but with a fair contingent of Bolton Wanderers fans present as well, they being the team who might benefit from an Albion slip up.
There was only one goal in the game scored, inevitably, by the Bomber.
Albion were good enough to finish comfortably in the top ten in the first division the following season and with some excellent youngsters coming through and a couple of inspired signings the club enjoyed a brief period among the countries elite.
This side was actually groomed by Johnny Giles and Ronnie Allen but became higher profile when the flamboyant Ron Atkinson took over as manager.
The club had produced its’ own crop of outstanding youngsters, most notably Bryan Robson and Derek Statham, supplemented these with the exciting signings of Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis and had an experienced core of players to help bring these players on.
As well as Bomber Brown the Baggies could still call on the ever reliable John Wile, Alistair Robertson and the mercurial winger Willie Johnston.
This team would establish itself as one of the countries finest over the next five years and also prove one of the most entertaining. Although Tony Brown was now well into his 30’s he remained a driving force and continued to contribute more than his fair share of goals.
In 1977-78 Brown slammed in 19 league goals and figured prominently in his clubs’ march to the FA Cup semi finals. There were memorable victories over Manchester United, Brown getting Albion’s first in a 3-2 replay victory at the Hawthorns, and a 2-0 quarter final triumph over Nottingham Forest who were threatening to carry all before them that season.
A farewell Wembley appearance was not to be, however, as Albion fell 3-1 to Ipswich Town in their semi final at Highbury. Trailing to two early goals Brown was at the heart of a determined response but all the Baggies could muster was a Brown penalty with fifteen minutes remaining, you didn’t save that one did you Paul Cooper?, and Ipswich went on to clinch victory on the break in the last minute.
Brown’s time with the Baggies was now drawing to a close but the 1978-79 season provided a couple more genuine highlights. The Bomber finally overtook Ronnie Allen’s league goals tally when notching in a 3-1 win at Leeds and he also grabbed both goals as West Brom put Valencia out of the UEFA Cup at the Hawthorns, a 2-0 win giving them a 3-1 aggregate victory.
There would be no European glory, however, as Red Star Belgrade ground out a 2-1 aggregate victory in the quarter finals although the clubs’ final 3rd place in the first division would be the highest achieved in Tony Brown’s time at the club.
The following season Brown found himself unable to hold down a regular place in the Albion first team and in April 1980 he set off for the United States to enjoy a couple of summers turning out for the Tea Men of New England and Jacksonville, the franchise moving after his first season there.
On returning to England at the start of the 1981-82 season Brown was still registered with West Brom but with no prospect of first team football the old soldier signed for Torquay United for the princely sum of £6,000.
You might have thought the club would have offered the stalwart a free transfer but they obviously reckoned he was still worth a bob or two.
Brown joined another veteran in Bruce Rioch at Plainmoor but the season was a struggle. The club would finish 15th in Division Four and although Brown chipped in with 11 goals from his 34 appearances this was mainly due to a late run when he scored five times in six games.
After a handful of appearances the following season Brown finally decided enough was enough and the curtain came down on one of the most productive of all football careers.
By way of personal honours Tony Brown had one League Cup winners medal, one FA Cup winners medal, one England cap and three Midlands Footballer of the Year awards to call his own.
He had also smashed almost every appearance and goalscoring record on West Bromwich Albion’s books. Nobody has ever scored more goals in the league, FA Cup or in Europe for the Baggies than Tony Brown.
Jeff Astle managed one more in the League Cup.
Nobody has ever played in more games for the club in any of the three major domestic competitions or in Europe. In all Brown pulled on the Albion shirt more than 800 times over the best part of twenty years and in anyones’ book qualifies as a true club legend.
Tony Brown’s service was recognised with not one but two testimonials, the first in 1974 when a combined Albion and Villa side took on a combined eleven from Birmingham and Wolves, the second in 1981 when Ron Atkinson took his Manchester United team down to Torquay.
Through his years of service the swashbuckling Brown left a vast store of memories for the Baggies fans with his hard running and harder shooting. Of the 270 goals he plundered for the club in major competitions many were memorably spectacular and the defining image of Brown, other than his Captain Pugwash moustache in the 1970’s, is undoubtedly as he thunders into a volley, back arched, every sinew straining yet still perfectly balanced as he sends another rocket goalwards.
Of all the goals he scored his personal favourite was a stunning 35 yard rocket on the volley in a cup tie at Sheffield Wednesday in 1970. No doubt Baggies fans of a certain vintage can spend many a happy night getting very drunk deciding which was the one they loved best.
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