ONE OF the all-time greats of Wolverhampton Wanderers led Brighton & Hove Albion to their highest-ever finish in football.
Midfield general Mike Bailey played for Wolves for 11 seasons between 1965 and 1976, leading the team to promotion from the Second Division in 1966-67, helping them to top-flight positions of fourth and fifth in 1971 and 1973, getting to the final of the UEFA Cup in 1972, and lifting the League Cup at Wembley in 1974.
Mike Bailey holds aloft the League Cup after Wolves beat Manchester City 2-1 at Wembley.
It was perhaps a hard act to follow Alan Mullery as manager of Brighton, particularly as the former Spurs and Fulham captain had led the club from Third Division obscurity to the pinnacle of English football within three years.
But Bailey had just got Charlton Athletic promoted from the Third Division and in the 1981-82 season led Albion to a 13th place finish, a record which was only threatened in 2017-18 by Chris Hughton’s side, who eventually ended up 15th.
Unfortunately, even though Bailey’s team was relatively successful, the style of play he adopted to achieve that position was a turn-off to the fans who deserted the Albion in their hundreds and thousands.
Eventually, chairman Mike Bamber felt he had to address the slump in support by sacking Bailey in December 1982. “He’s a smashing bloke, I’m sorry to see him go, but it had to be done,” said Bamber. There are plenty – in particular Bailey! – who feel he acted a little too hastily.
Bailey shared his feelings in an interview he gave to the News of the World’s Reg Drury in the run-up to the 1983 FA Cup Final.
Mike Bailey talks to the News of the World; his often frank programme notes; his assistant, John Collins, a former Luton Town player.
“It seems that my team has been relegated from the First Division while Jimmy Melia’s team has reached the Cup Final,” he began.
Wanting to put the record straight having been hurt by some of the media coverage he’d seen since his departure, he explained: “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.”
Bailey resented accusations that his style had been dull and boring football, pointing out: “Nobody said that midway through last season when we were sixth and there was talk of Europe.
“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.”
It was clear from the outset of Bailey’s reign that he didn’t suffer fools gladly and there were numerous clashes with players, notably Steve Foster, Michael Robinson and Neil McNab, the displaced Gordon Smith and Mickey Thomas, a Bailey signing who repeatedly went missing because his wife didn’t like it in the south.
Bailey would vent his feelings quite overtly in his matchday programme notes; he was not afraid to hit out at referees, the football authorities and the media, as well as trying to explain his decisions to supporters, urging them to get behind the team rather than criticise.
Happier times as Mike Bailey becomes Albion manager and signs Tony Grealish to replace outgoing stalwart midfielder and skipper, Brian Horton.
Attempting to shine a light on the comings and goings associated with his arrival, he explained: “The moves we have been making are designed to provide Brighton with a better football team and one that can consolidate its position in the First Division, rather than struggle, such as in the last two seasons.”
By Christmas, the team were comfortably in the top half of the table and in an interview with the Argus, Bailey said: “I must admit that as a player and captain of Wolves I was a bit of a bastard, slagging others off, and that sort of thing. But being a manager, one sees everything in a different light. I am still trying to learn as a manager, especially now that I am with a First Division club.”
Three months later, shortly after he had appeared at a fans forum at the Brighton Centre, he very pointedly said: “It is my job to select the team and to try to win matches.
“People are quite entitled to their opinion, but I am paid to get results for Brighton and that is my first priority.
“Building a successful team is a long-term business and I have recently spoken to many top people in the professional game who admire what we are doing here at Brighton and just how far we have come in a short space of time.
“We know we still have a long way to go, but we are all working towards a successful future.”
As he assessed his first season, he said: “Many good things have come out of our season. Our early results were encouraging and we quickly became an organised and efficient side. The lads got into their rhythm quickly and it was a nice ‘plus’ to get into a high league position so early on.”
He had special words of praise for Gary Stevens and said: “Although the youngest member of our first team squad, Gary is a perfect example to his fellow professionals. Whatever we ask of him he will always do his best, he is completely dedicated and sets a fine example to his fellow players.”
Meanwhile, in his own end of season summary, Argus Albion reporter John Vinicombe maintained: “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.”
Vinicombe recorded that the average home gate for 1981-82 was 18,241, fully 6,500 fewer than had supported the side during their first season amongst the elite.
“The Goldstone regulars, who are not typical of First Division crowds (but neither is the ground) grew restless at a series of frustrating home draws, and finally turned on their own players,” he said.
At the beginning of the following season, off-field matters brought disruption to the playing side. Arsenal’s former FA Cup winner Charlie George had trained with the Seagulls during pre-season and senior players Foster, Robinson and McNab publicly voiced their disappointment that the money wasn’t found to bring such a player on board permanently.
McNab in particular accused the club of lacking ambition and efforts were made to send him out on loan. Similarly, Robinson was lined up for a swap deal with Sunderland’s Stan Cummins, but it fell through.
Meanwhile, Albion couldn’t buy a win away from home and suffered two 5-0 defeats (against Luton and West Brom) and a 4-0 spanking at Nottingham Forest – all in September. Then, four defeats on the spin in November, going into December, finally cost Bailey his job. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when, in his final programme contribution, he blamed the run of poor results on bad luck and admitted: “I feel we are somehow in a rut.”
It would be fair to say Bailey the player enjoyed more success than Bailey the manager. So, where did it all begin?
Born on 27 February 1942 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, he went to the same school in Gorleston, Norfolk, as the former Arsenal centre back Peter Simpson. His career began with non-league Gorleston before Charlton Athletic snapped him up in 1958 and he spent eight years at The Valley.
During his time there, he was capped twice by England as manager Alf Ramsey explored options for his 1966 World Cup squad. Just a week after making his fifth appearance for England under 23s, Bailey, aged 22, was called up to make his full debut in a friendly against the USA on 27 May 1964.
He had broken into the under 23s only three months earlier, making his debut in a 3-2 win over Scotland at St James’ Park, Newcastle, on 5 February 1964.He retained his place against France, Hungary, Israel and Turkey, games in which his teammates included Graham Cross, Mullery and Martin Chivers.
England ran out 10-0 winners in New York with Roger Hunt scoring four, Fred Pickering three, Terry Paine two, and Bobby Charlton the other.
Eight of that England side made it to the 1966 World Cup squad two years later but a broken leg put paid to Bailey’s chances of joining them, even though he got one more chance to impress Ramsey.
Six months after the win in New York, he was in the England team who beat Wales 2-1 at Wembley in the Home Championship. Frank Wignall, who would later spend a season with Bailey at Wolves, scored both England’s goals. Many years later, Wignall was playing for Burton Albion when a certain Peter Ward began to shine!
In 1965, Bailey broke his leg in a FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough and that was at a time when such injuries could be career-threatening.
“I was worried that may have been it,” Bailey recalled in his autobiography, The Valley Wanderer: The Mike Bailey Story (published in November 2015). “In the end, I was out for six months. My leg got stronger and I never had problems with it again, so it was a blessing in disguise in that respect.
“Charlton had these (steep) terraces. I’d go up to them every day, I was getting fitter and fitter. But it was too late to get in the 1966 World Cup side – Alf Ramsey had got his team in place.”
Bailey missed out on the 1966 England World Cup squad but he won Football League representative honours and enjoyed success as captain of Wolves.
During his time with the England under 23s, Bailey had become friends with Wolves’ Ernie Hunt (the striker who later played for Coventry City) and Hunt persuaded him to move to the Black Country club.
Thus began an association which saw him play a total of 436 games for Wolves over 11 seasons, leading a side with solid defenders like John McAlle, Francis Munro and Derek Parkin, combined with exciting players like forwards Derek Dougan and John Richards, plus winger Dave Wagstaffe.
However, when coach Sammy Chung stepped up to take over as manager, he selected Kenny Hibbitt ahead of Bailey so the former skipper chose to end his playing days in America, with the Minnesota Kicks, who were managed by the former Brighton boss Freddie Goodwin.
Nevertheless, Bailey’s contribution to the team famous for their old gold kit saw him inducted into the Wolves Hall of Fame in 2010.
On his return to the UK, Bailey became manager of Hereford United, then he returned to The Valley as manager of Charlton and, immediately after getting them promoted to the third tier, took over at Brighton in the summer of 1981.
A somewhat extraordinary stat I discovered about Bailey’s management career in England through managerstats.co.uk was that he managed each of those three clubs for just 65 games. At Hereford, his record was W 32, D 11, L 22; at Charlton W 21, D 17, L 27; at Brighton, W 20 D 17, L 28.
In 1984, he moved to Greece to manage OFI Crete, and he later worked as reserve team coach at Portsmouth. Later still, he did some scouting work for Wolves.
Pictures from various sources: Goal and Shoot! magazines; the Evening Argus, the News of the World, and the Albion matchday programme.