By the time that Paul Raven left West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 2000, the long-serving centre-half had amassed over three hundred appearances in Albion colours, playing under nine different managers during his time at The Hawthorns.
Now, aged forty-three, Paul looks back on his Albion career with fond memories. The eleven years that he spent playing for the Baggies were filled with drama and trauma; highs and lows. They were certainly never dull.
After making his first-team debut for Doncaster Rovers as a seventeen-year-old, Paul was just eighteen when Albion manager Brian Talbot brought him to The Hawthorns. Paul signed for Albion in conjunction with another young player by the name of Ronnie Robinson, who also made the move from south Yorkshire to the Black Country. Robinson lasted just five months at Albion, making one solitary first-team appearance for the Baggies. Raven’s Albion career, however, was to prove far more enduring.
“When I was first told that Albion wanted to sign me,” Paul recalls, “I didn’t know where West Bromwich was! In those days, no agents were involved. I was taken by Albion’s chief scout to meet Brian Talbot one Saturday after a match. Doncaster had just had a big debt called in by the Inland Revenue, and basically I was told by them, ‘You’re going’. I was so young and naïve that it wasn’t a case of me saying, ‘I don’t want to go’ – I just took it that I had to.
“I came down to West Brom and just thought, ‘This is so different from what I’ve been used to’. The way it works in football, you don’t really get a chance to reflect. After I’d agreed to move to Albion on the Saturday night, I was in training there on the Monday morning! It all happened very quickly.”
The early days
Brian Talbot, Albion’s player-manager, had taken the hot-seat after Ron Atkinson’s sudden departure for Atlético Madrid in October 1988. Talbot’s team were challenging for the play-offs, eventually finishing ninth in the league in 1989, and Paul came into the Albion side for the final three matches of the season. It was to prove a successful initiation at The Hawthorns for the youthful defender, who was deployed at right-back in games against Portsmouth, Sunderland, and Hull City, three matches yielding eight points and, most importantly from a defensive point of view, three clean sheets.
“It was a good start for me, coming into the team at the end of that season,” Paul remembers. “It was a big step up from the Fourth Division, and it probably took me the next three years to settle in fully. Brian (Talbot) had two good centre-halves initially, Stacey North and Chris Whyte. Martin Bennett’s injuries meant that he was never going to play again, which was a big regret for me, because my two mentors in the reserve team were Sam Allardyce and Martyn Bennett. It would have been great to have played with them in the first-team, but I missed out on that experience.”
Paul’s appearances in the 1989/90 season were sporadic, and this remained the case the following campaign, after Gary Strodder was brought in as the first-choice centre-half. Paul played only thirteen games in 1990/91, a campaign which was to prove catastrophic for Albion, culminating in the club’s relegation from the second tier for the first time in its long history.
After making only seven appearances for the Baggies in the dismal 1991/92 season, in which Bobby Gould’s side missed out on the play-offs and thus remained mired in the Third Division, Paul could have been forgiven for wondering where his future would lie. The arrival of a new manager in the summer of 1992, however, kick-started Paul’s Albion career and the club’s long-awaited revival.
The Ardiles years
When the Argentinean World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles replaced Bobby Gould as Albion manager in 1992, Paul initially wondered whether or not the new man at the helm would give him a chance.
“When Ossie first arrived, he had Graham Roberts at the club, and I thought Graham would be an automatic choice for Ossie after they’d played together at Tottenham – even though Graham was getting older, he had played at the top level for England. As it turned out, though, Ossie moved Graham on that summer. He didn’t want him around for whatever reason. I found myself in pre-season in the first team. We had a great pre-season, passing the ball around and developing Ossie’s style of play, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got a real chance here.’”
Ardiles was renowned for the fluid passing football that he encouraged, employing a diamond formation as Albion launched their assault on Division Two. Rumour had it that Ardiles’s motto was, ‘If they score four, we’ll score five,’ much to the despair of his more pragmatic assistant, Keith Burkinshaw. Paul recalls Ardiles’s high-tempo attacking game with a smile.
“Playing in Ossie Ardiles’s team was perfect for me,” says Paul. “When Ossie first came in, he didn’t know the players he had, so we had a series of practice games in training before the summer break. In these practice games he just tried to encourage us to pass the ball; you could see the type of directive you’d get from him. I was a bit worried to start with, because I was suspended at the start of the season. But thankfully, I got into the team in the third game and stayed in throughout.”
The 1992/93 campaign was to prove a breakthrough season not only for Albion as a club but for their young number five. Paul made a total of fifty-three first-team appearances over the course of the campaign, even chipping in with some important goals along the way.
“When I first broke into the first team at Doncaster, I got a few goals,” Paul remembers. “In my first season there, I scored three in five games, which got me noticed a little bit. I did have an eye for a goal. At the Albion, we created a lot of chances with Ossie as manager, and I ended up with eight goals that season, which was a great return for a centre-half!”
The season ebbed and flowed, with Ardiles’s Baggies never far away from the promotion hunt. After a blistering start to the season, even a slight wobble in the October of 1992 hadn’t derailed Albion in their challenge at the top of the league, and by Christmas Ardiles’s side were very much in the promotion picture. For Paul, one particular game from that period, a Boxing Day clash with Chester City at The Hawthorns, lives long in the memory.
“I always remember the Chester game, as it was the only time I ever scored two goals in a game! It sort of sums up my luck really, because at the time nobody could see them!” Paul laughs. A thick fog had descended over the Black Country on Boxing Day 1992, and on an afternoon when the Birmingham Road End could barely discern the Smethwick End at the opposite end of the ground, only a very select few of the Albion faithful actually managed to see Paul’s lethal double as his two powerful headers secured a 2-0 win for Albion. “Both of the goals are on the internet,” says Paul, “so they’re immortal on there! The second one was a really good header, but nobody could see it! I got a bit of stick about that!”
As the season wore on, Paul further established himself as a first-team regular, playing fifty-one consecutive games, chipping in with goals in victories over Rotherham United, Chester City, and Wigan Athletic, and scoring a late equaliser to rescue a valuable point for Albion in a 2-2 draw at Hartlepool.
Paul recalls, “The season went really well, but we were always a bit vulnerable in certain games against unfancied teams, and we did suffer a couple of heavy defeats that season where it never really happened for us. It was hard when you were trying to play with this certain style; sometimes you have to tear up your passing game and switch to another mode of play.”
Despite occasional blips, including a 5-1 hammering at Stockport’s Edgeley Park and a 5-2 Easter Monday thrashing at home by Peter Shilton’s Plymouth Argyle, Ardiles’s side made it to the play-offs, where they faced Swansea City in the semi-final.
“People will tell you that although you don’t want to go up by the Play-Offs at the outset, but if you do go up by the Play-Offs it actually feels better than automatic promotion,” says Paul. “The first leg down at Swansea was a big disappointment to us. It was throwing it down with rain, we never played at all. We never got going. It was just really deflating.”
Read Paul’s thoughts on gaining promotion at Wembley, beating Wolves and his final days as an Albion player under Gary Megson in second part of WBA-MAD’s exclusive interview next week.
Source: WBA MAD