Shropshire Star

Former West Brom star Derek Statham revved up by desire to make it as a footballer

On reflection, it’s just as well Derek Statham didn’t listen too much to his school careers officer.


In love with football since first kicking a ball around the garden of his Wolverhampton home aged two, a young Statham had only one answer when asked his plans for life after St Joseph’s School.

“I told them I was going to be a professional footballer,” he smiles. “The response from the career officer was always: ‘No Derek, let’s get serious’.

“They forced me to do something else as a back-up and as I liked cars, I ended up taking a mechanics course.”

Knowing how to fix motors could never be described as useless knowledge, yet Statham has rarely needed it since as, contrary to any teacher scepticism, his first ambition was realised.

After playing his first matches for Forest Star in the Walsall Junior League, he was signed by Albion on schoolboy forms, making his debut in 1976 aged just 17 and scoring past Peter Shilton in a 2-0 win.

More than 35 years on from the last of his 378 appearances for the Baggies, supporters are still talking about him. Around 100 or so crammed into West Bromwich Dartmouth last week for an evening with a man generally considered the finest left-back of his generation.

England manager Ron Greenwood was one of the few who didn’t agree. How Statham ended up with just three international caps to his name remains one of West Midlands’ footballs greatest puzzlers – or insults, depending on your mood.

“That’s a long story,” Statham sighs, when the question is put to him during a chat with the Express & Star ahead of the main event.

Overwhelmingly, memories of his career are positive. Statham is happy to have lived the experiences he did, rather than linger too long on those he didn’t. He still lists his England debut against Wales in 1983 as his proudest moment.

His emergence at Albion coincided with that of the club’s last truly great team, of which he was quickly established as a key component.

Described by former team-mates as often being the life and soul of the dressing room, it feels pertinent to ask Statham what he believes made the Baggies tick?

“Obviously, we were a very good team on the pitch,” he says. “But the camaraderie off the field and in the dressing room was second to none.

“At other clubs it was good. But I don’t think you could replicate what we had at Albion.

“John Giles started the whole thing off when he came in as player-manager in 1975. I was an apprentice then and he eventually introduced me to the side.

“He had sorted out the dressing room right away. There were no prima donnas in there, they will all good, honest professionals, who played hard but worked hard.

“They socialised together, which I think goes a long way. You look after your mates on the pitch as they do off it.

“That was built by John and continued by Ron Atkinson, who was all about camaraderie. He didn’t really coach as such but built the dressing room togetherness. We’d drink together and eat together. It was all one big happy family and I think it showed on the pitch.”

That spirit, when combined with the talent of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Bryan Robson and Statham himself, made the Baggies a serious force.

“We had some of the best players in the country but they would do anything for anyone else in the dressing room,” he says. They didn’t think they were better than anyone else and that took us a long way.”

Looking back, the dressing room atmosphere is what Statham misses most. So too the travelling.

“You hear some ex-players complain about the travelling we had to do but I loved it,” he explains. “I thought it was fantastic. I have seen most of the world doing the thing I loved.

“With England I went to Australia and of course, at Albion we went to China in 1978.

“That was a big experience to say the least. A lot of the people had never seen foreign faces. We’d have thousands following the team bus. I think they thought we were aliens.”

He adds: "Being a professional was a great life.

"Obviously, the money is different now. But it was still very good money back then. In terms of an average wage, we were 10 or 12 times that for doing something I would have done for nothing anyway.

"Had I not made it as a professional, I would have played at weekends - Saturday and Sunday - anyway."

There’s a sparkle in Statham’s eyes when he talks about his career. But he’s quick to bring up the regret at how an Albion team which produced some of the club’s most memorable results ultimately failed to land a trophy.

Statham identifies the two FA Cup semi-finals in particular, against Ipswich in 1978 and QPR in 1982, as the moments which got away.

“We didn’t really turn up in either,” he says. “In 1982 year we were in the semi-finals of both cup competitions and lost them both.

“You can’t really put your finger on why we didn’t turn up. Perhaps we froze? We just didn’t play that well on the day and the opposition did.

“When we lost to Ipswich in 1978 I was still a teenager and I remember thinking: ‘This is OK, we’ll be back next year, or the year after’.

“Obviously we got to the same stage four years later but after that never really had a sight.

“You only really ever get eight, nine or 10 chances in a career to get to a final and if you don’t take them, you never know when they are going to come round again.

“You don’t really appreciate that when you are young. When you get older, you realise that.”

Statham has lived in Spain for more than two decades but still keeps a keen eye on Albion’s progress and travels over four or five times a year to take in a game see old friends.

“It is great to see my old team-mates,” he says. “We had such a good time when we were together. It is nice to catch up and reminisce.”