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Wolves great Mike Bailey sure to get a warm welcome at the AMEX

All being well, a man who deserves to be revered by fans of both Brighton and Hove Albion and Wolves will attend the teams’ Premier League clash at the Amex this Sunday, courtesy of the Brighton matchday programme.

By Nick Szczepanik

Mike Bailey was a dynamic midfield player who played for England and captained Wolves for over a decade, hoisting the League Cup in 1974. As a manager, he led Brighton to the best league finish in their history, 13th in 1981-82. And on September 22 1981 the team reached fifth place, their highest-ever league placing – ironically after a 1-0 win at Wolves.

Mike had just taken Charlton Athletic to promotion from the old Third Division in summer 1981 when Alan Mullery resigned as Albion manager. Mike was the only man interviewed for the job and he set about building a neat, compact side who were competitive against any opponents, with Jimmy Case, Tony Grealish, Steve Gatting and Don Shanks replacing the departed Brian Horton, Mark Lawrenson and John Gregory.

His first season included away wins against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and then-high-flying Southampton as well as a first-ever victory over Arsenal. In front of a tight defence and a hard-working midfield, Michael Robinson and Andy Ritchie finally convinced as a strike partnership that had only sparked fitfully under Mullery. “I loved that season,” Mike, now 77, says. “I enjoyed those days.”

Albion recorded a memorable away win at Tottenham in Mike Bailey’s first season.

Ritchie, who scored the goal at Molineux that sent the team briefly into fifth place, told me earlier this season: “Mike got everyone playing together. Everybody liked Mike and John Collins, his coach, who was brilliant. When a group of players like the management, as you see at Liverpool now, where the players love Jurgen Klopp, it takes you a long way. When you are having things explained to you and training is good and it’s a bit of fun, you get a lot more out of it.”

Fans also enjoyed Bailey’s programme notes, which were a refreshing change from the usual anodyne comments. He spoke his mind about referees, rival managers, the media and even his own players. To Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw’s labelling of Albion as defensive after the win at White Hart Lane, he retorted: “A look at the league table will show his team have scored no more goals than us.”

There is simply no longer the money around for big transfers,” was his explanation of a lack of signings in his second summer in charge. “Some of the players allowed off-the-field problems to affect their game,” he wrote after a contract dispute. “There wasn’t enough determination from some players, but if others had followed Tony Grealish’s example the problem would not have occurred” was his verdict on a defeat at West Bromwich.

Unfortunately, although the team was notoriously difficult to beat, the less open style was not to the liking of some supporters. They had been spoilt by Mullery’s free-scoring side during their rise through the divisions and were unimpressed by hard-fought draws and 1-0 wins, whatever the league position. Falling gates, although part of a nation-wide trend, rang alarm bells. A combination of the impatience of chairman Mike Bamber and opinions expressed at a fans’ forum persuaded Mike to modify the team’s style and results tailed off.

John Vinicombe, the unique and opinionated Argus chief sports reporter of the time, who had clashed with the manager over what he saw as negative reporting, wrote at the end of the season: “It is Bailey’s chief regret that he changed his playing policy in response to public, and possibly private, pressure with the result that Albion finished the latter part of the season in most disappointing fashion.

Accusations that Albion were the principal bores of the First Division at home were heaped on Bailey’s head, and, while he is a man not given to altering his mind for no good reason, certain instructions were issued to placate the rising tide of criticisms.”

Mike’s second season began with some good home results, including victories over Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United, but the road form was poor. With gates hovering around 10,000, four straight defeats in November and December led to the axe.

Columnist and broadcaster Ian Hart wrote in the Brighton & Hove Independent last year that “at the time, the Albion operated a very successful lottery scheme, which involved door to door collectors. Lottery supremo the late, great, Ron Pavey was reportedly summoned by then chairman Mike Bamber, who asked Ron to get his collectors to ask the people on the doorsteps why they were staying away.

I’m told Pavey promptly reported back that the majority of stay-away fans were doing so because the football was boring. Bamber promptly sacked Bailey and the rest is history.”

He’s a smashing bloke, I’m sorry to see him go, but it had to be done,” Bamber said at the time. Not everyone agreed. Dudley Sizen resigned from the board in protest. As every Albion fan knows, chief scout Jimmy Melia took over and led the team to the 1983 FA Cup final but also relegation.

Some 36 years later I have no doubt that if Bamber hadn’t listened to the lottery collectors and not sacked Bailey, the Albion wouldn’t have got to the cup final – but they also wouldn’t have got relegated,” Ian Hart wrote. “And what could have been achieved if Bailey had been allowed to finish his job?”

It was sad, but that’s football,” Mike’s wife Barbara told me. “The press offered him a lot of money to take a photograph of us sadly watching the final on television, and Mike wouldn’t do it. The money would have been useful, but we decided no.” Which was very much to Mike’s credit.

However, he did speak to the News of the World. “It seems that my team has been relegated from the First Division while Jimmy Melia’s team has reached the Cup Final,” he said. “I found the previous manager, Alan Mullery, had left me with a good squad, but, naturally I built on it and imposed my own style of play.

We were organised and disciplined and getting results. John Collins, a great coach, was on the same wavelength as me. We wanted to lay the foundations of lasting success, just like Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley did at Liverpool.

The only problem was that winning 1-0 and 2-0 didn’t satisfy everybody. I tried to change things too soon – that was a mistake. When I left, we were 18th with more than a point a game. I’ve never known a team go down when fifth from bottom.”

And, as for criticisms that the football was boring, Bailey pointed out that “Nobody said that midway through last season when we were sixth and there was talk of Europe.”

Some years later, Mike spoke at a Wolves fan forum and was asked whether he had enjoyed managing as much as he had enjoyed playing.

I enjoyed management when we won,” he said. “I enjoyed the every-day stuff and I enjoyed transforming teams, getting the players to play how I wanted them to and getting success out of it. Barbara says I would never have lasted as a manager because I was too worked up on match-days –a nervous wreck she described me as.

We had a good side at Brighton and did really well. The difficulty I had was with the chairman. He was not satisfied with anything. I made Brighton a difficult team to beat. I knew the standard of the players we had and knew how to win matches. We used to work on clean sheets. With the previous manager, they hadn’t won away from home very often but we went to Anfield and won. But the chairman kept saying: ‘Why can’t we score a few more goals?’ He didn’t understand it.”

Mike was born in Wisbech and grew up in Norfolk, retaining the local accent to this day despite spells in South London with Charlton and his 11 years in the Black Country. Charlton spotted him as a 16-year-old and he spent eight years at The Valley, making his first-team debut in 1960 and soon becoming captain. “I was supposed to go up to Norwich City, but it didn’t happen and Charlton came in for me so I went down there,” he says. He made four England under-23 appearances and In 1964 Alf Ramsey gave him his two England caps, in a friendly against the United States in New York in May 1964, a 10-0 win, and a Home International against Wales at Wembley in November, a 2-1 victory.

He moved to Molineux in 1966, inspiring Wolves to promotion back to the first division in his first full season. During his spell as captain, Wolves were an attractive team, with winger David Wagstaffe providing crosses for strikers including Derek Dougan, Hugh Curran and John Richards while Bailey drove them on from the centre of midfield in the number four shirt that was his personal property. “We were a team that kept going no matter who we were playing,” he says.

He led them to the 1972 Uefa Cup final, in which they were beaten by Tottenham over two legs. In 1974, they beat Manchester City 2-1 at Wembley in the League Cup final with goals by Kenny Hibbitt and Richards. It was Bailey’s pass to Alan Sunderland that began the winning move, Richards sweeping in Sunderland’s deflected cross. “Definitely my best moment as a player,” he says.

He later played for Minneapolis in the North American Soccer League before returning to England as player-manager of Hereford United, taking over at Charlton in 1979. He later coached in Crete and at Portsmouth and Leatherhead as well as working as a scout. I met him during one of his scouting missions at a League One ground and he was a fascinating mine of information and insight.

The blurb for his biography, The Valley Wanderer, describes “a man who was fiercely competitive on the field, and still is on the golf course, but whose laid-back disposition makes him hugely well-liked by former team mates and opponents alike. Mike Bailey is a reassuringly down to earth man who is admired by all who meet him, whether they are celebrities or ordinary folk.”

He will be guaranteed a warm welcome at the Amex. “I’m really looking forward to going back,” he says, adding diplomatically of a match that is certain to divide his loyalties: “I would think Brighton will get a draw.”