Having lost the first leg of their play-off semi-final 2-1, Albion faced an uphill task in the return match at The Hawthorns. Yet a passionate crowd of more than 26,000 and an electric performance by Ardiles’s team overturned the deficit on the night. “The atmosphere in the ground for the return leg was the best atmosphere that quite a few of us ever played in,” Paul remembers. “The atmosphere was absolutely electric, and there was a lot of drama in that game: we got two early goals, which was great, and then there were the sending-offs.”
With Albion’s Micky Mellon given his marching orders, shortly followed by Swansea’s former Albion striker Colin West, and Albion leading 3-2 on aggregate, the wait for the final whistle was an anxious one, as Paul recalls. “At one point, we were actually down to nine men when I went off with a cut head, and they had to drag the doctor out of the bar to come down and patch it up! He wasn’t the most mobile of people to start with! When the final whistle came it was just a huge relief to finally get to Wembley.”
Albion were one game away from the promotion that the club so desperately craved, but standing between the Baggies and a return to the second tier was a Port Vale side which had caused Ardiles’s team considerable problems over the course of the campaign.
“We’d had a tough time with Port Vale that season,” Paul remembers. “They had a really strong team at the time – Robbie van der Laan, Ian Taylor in midfield, and Peter Swan at the back.” Vale were no pushovers, and the 45,000 Albion fans at Wembley could have been forgiven for getting edgy after a goalless first half. “It was a fairly tight first half,” says Paul, “but even though there hadn’t been much in the way of chances for either side I felt that we were just about on top. We came in at half-time and there was a real belief among the lads that this was ours for the taking.”
The match turned on an incident on the hour- mark, when Vale’s centre-half Peter Swan was dismissed for a professional foul on Bob Taylor. Albion took full advantage of their numerical advantage and put the Valiants to the sword. Ardiles’s side emerged as 3-0 winners, courtesy of goals from Andy Hunt, Nicky Reid, and Kevin Donovan. The Baggies were back in the second tier.
“The promotion that season came as a terrific lift,” Paul remembers, “and it was a big relief for some of us who’d been at the club for a few difficult years. A whole weight was lifted off the club really.”
Within weeks of victory at Wembley, however, Ardiles had left Albion for Tottenham. Ardiles’s erstwhile assistant, Keith Burkinshaw, was next to fill the managerial hot seat at The Hawthorns.
“Having Keith as manager offered us an opportunity for continuity,” Paul reflects. “I felt that he could have brought somebody in to complement himself, someone new with fresh ideas. But all the same, we liked Keith. He was the polar opposite of Ossie in terms of his personality, but we respected him. I think we needed to strengthen at that point (after the promotion) though, and I don’t really think that we did. That made the next season (1993/94) a struggle.”
Throughout the 1993/94 campaign, Albion were never far from danger at the bottom end of Division One. With games running out, Burkinshaw’s side were marooned in the bottom three, and looked set for relegation back to the third tier. A home win over Grimsby Town gave Albion hope, before a hard-fought 1-0 win at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park on the final day of the season kept Burkinshaw’s Baggies up by the slimmest of margins, on goal difference.
“The relief and the excitement and the celebrations after winning that game at Portsmouth were as good as the year before when we gained promotion,” Paul remembers. “We felt once we’d overcome that hurdle that we’d got the chance to move forward. It was a fantastic day. Of course, Lee Ashcroft scored the goal which saved us. In the second half, with us one-nil up, I remember there being a shot on our goal and thinking, ‘Oh no, that’s in’, but from somewhere Tony Lange, who was an unsung hero for us, tipped the ball around the post with an outstretched arm. There was a bit of controversy of course, because the referee basically abandoned the match a few minutes early when the crowd started invading the pitch. It was a great day for us, though, keeping us up with the added bonus of relegating Birmingham City,” Paul grins.
Despite the team’s heroics at Fratton Park, however, Burkinshaw’s days as Albion manager were numbered. Early in the 1994/95 season, after a disappointing start to the campaign, Burkinshaw was sacked, to be replaced by Alan Buckley.
“I liked Alan Buckley,” says Paul. “He was very fiery. He came to Albion as a bright young manager who had built a terrific team at Grimsby and taken them through the leagues, and he was extremely ambitious. I enjoyed having him at the Albion, and it was during his time there that I became a first-choice defender. One year we started well, got to the top of the league, and then had a record run of consecutive defeats, which was just bizarre! We picked up later in the season, and ended up comfortably in mid-table after all that. That was a strange season.”
Perhaps one of the highlights of Paul’s time at Albion was his tremendous record in derby-game clashes with Wolves, the old foe. During his time at West Brom, Paul played in nine Black Country derby games, and only ever ended up on the losing side once.
The league double that Albion achieved against the men from Molineux had proved priceless in the 1993/94 season, Burkinshaw’s side accruing six precious points from the two matches. The first of the two games, at The Hawthorns in September 1993, was especially memorable for Paul. After Steve Bull had opened the scoring for Wolves, Paul capped a fine team move to head home Albion’s equaliser, before Darren Bradley’s thirty-yard rocket put Albion 2-1 up. The Baggies eventually emerged as 3-2 winners after a thrilling encounter.
“Throughout my time at Albion, we could always compete in tough games,” says Paul. “In the mid-nineties Wolves spent big and had some strong teams, but we managed to have some great victories over them. There was always a special atmosphere in the Wolves games; I used to enjoy playing against them, particularly Steve Bull, and later Don Goodman. Bully at that time had peaked a little bit, but he was still very dangerous, a real handful. I was watching one of the old Wolves games back recently and we were kicking lumps out of each other – there’d have been no one left on the pitch nowadays! The Wolves combination of Steve Bull, Don Goodman and David Kelly up front was a really dangerous one. The games against those guys were great. We had a lot of success against them, and they were always good battles.”
Albion had a few heroes of their own, from Paul’s consistency at the back, through to front men such as Bob Taylor and Andy Hunt, who led the forward line with distinction through the mid-nineties. “I have to say that Bob Taylor stood out for us,” Paul reflects. “He was a great target and a tremendous goal-scorer; a great outlet as a centre-half. You didn’t have to be too precise with your passing; you could just knock it in Bob’s general direction and he would protect possession for you.
“As far as goalkeepers were concerned, Stuart Naylor was probably the best shot-stopper that I ever played with. He was absolutely amazing in one-on-one situations and general shooting practice in training. His only real downside, speaking as a centre-half, was his hesitance in claiming crosses. For his size he probably wasn’t as dominant aerially as he could have been.”
Paul, Stuart Naylor, and Bob Taylor were among those who enjoyed lengthy spells at Albion, at a time when the club’s managerial status resembled something of a merry-go-round, with the late Ray Harford succeeding Alan Buckley in 1997, soon to be followed by Denis Smith.
“I liked Ray Harford, he was a very good coach,” Paul remembers. “His training sessions were very innovative in terms of how they were set up. We had a lot of respect for him, and he was a very genuine guy. The thing with Ray was that he didn’t relish being a manager. He found it difficult to make decisions and to leave players out when everyone was fit.
“After Ray went to QPR, Denis Smith came in, and again he’d built his reputation with a terrific team at Oxford who had overachieved for a number of years. Personally, by this time I’d started to get too many injuries, so I was probably a disappointment for Denis, as I was never fit under him, and I never played enough.”
Increasingly, Paul found his appearances restricted as he was blighted with injuries in the late nineties. “Nowadays, with sports science being what it is, clubs can manage the players a lot better; they know when players are liable to get injured, whereas in my generation and generations before, if you were a first-team player and you were fit, you played, simple as. When you were coming back from injury and weren’t really fully fit, you still played, which happened to me a bit, and the likelihood was that you ended up getting injured again. I was frustrated with myself by the end of my time at Albion.”
“Gary Megson was exactly the sort of person that Albion needed at the time he came in, and he made it very clear that he was the new broom and that there was going to be change. I’d had my testimonial, so I felt that a change of scenery would do me good,” Raven added.
Paul played what proved to be his final game for Albion in a 2-2 draw at Barnsley in April 2000, almost eleven years since making his debut for the Baggies. Spells at Grimsby Town, Carlisle United, and Barrow followed, before he ended his playing career in 2006. Paul had spent the majority of his playing career at West Brom and is remembered fondly upon the terraces at The Hawthorns. Few players gave the club such dedicated and enduring service in helping Albion to recover from the dark days of the early nineties, and to establish themselves once more as a club with a solid foundation which could go on and compete in the Premier League.
Paul still works in football, as an Education Adviser at the PFA. When you mention his playing career at West Bromwich Albion to him, he smiles warmly, the memories come flooding back, and he tells a tale to which all experienced Albion fans will be able to relate. “Well, it was a rollercoaster, that’s for sure – it always was, throughout my time at West Brom.”
It is thanks to the likes of Paul Raven, through years of dependability and long service, that the West Bromwich Albion rollercoaster has, since 1992, enjoyed plenty of staggering highs.
What's your favourite memory of Paul Raven? Have your say here at Baggies Banter.
Source: WBA MAD