Billy Lane is a name those of you who have some knowledge of Albion history will no doubt have heard of. Having managed the club for ten years, the second longest tenure in Albion history, he achieved the club’s first Football League promotion and steered the club through one of its greatest eras. One recently recognised with a smart new clothing range in the club shop.
The fifties was a decade of great transition in the UK. The times of rationing and fear of war were ending, and the freedom, prosperity and excitement of the swinging sixties were just around the corner. And there was possibly no team that represented this change better than Billy Lane’s swashbuckling Albion side.
Billy Lane was born in Tottenham in 1904, starting his playing career at his local team where he made a limited impact on the first team, before spells and Leicester and Reading where he had similar difficulties to get playing time.
It wasn’t until be move to Brentford where he scored 84 goals in 123 appearances that he was able to demonstrate his talents. And then again at Watford where he scored 70 goals in 125 games, including a hat-trick against Clapton Orient in two-and-a-half-minutes.
His playing career was ended abruptly by the outbreak of the Second World War, in which Lane served as a Physical Training instructor.
After the war he took this penchant for goals and his experience from the war into his managerial career, to turn Albion into a swashbuckling side that would pull in huge crowds and lead to ground-breaking success on the pitch.
Billy Lane was initially appointed assistant manager to Don Welsh and was put in caretaker charge when Welsh left the club to take the Liverpool job.
Albion had been going through some tough times in the Division Three South. A division they’d been in since joining the Football League in 1920 and a division Billy Lane would eventually see them promoted from for the first time.
The past two seasons under Welsh were about rebuilding from the low ebb of the club finishing bottom in 1948, which required it to seek re-election to the Football League. Don Welsh, brought stability and steadiness, albeit with a rather defence minded side.
But Lane’s attacking style was quickly effective, overseeing a 9-1 win against Newport County, a club-record for the biggest ever Football League victory. A result that helped get him the job full time and a decision that led to him spending ten years with the club.
With Lane now at the helm on a permanent basis, attendances continued to rise, and goals continued to flow throughout the 1951-52 season, with the club scoring 87 goals that season, equalling their then best ever football league total, one they’d soon break.
Albion would break the 80 goal-scored mark in six of their next seven seasons, a mark they’d only broken three times in their previous 25 Football League seasons.
Albion were embarking on an unprecedented period of success, which culminated in the winning of the Division Three South title in 1958 at the 31st attempt.
Lane wanted his team to play with the purpose and flair that had characterised his own game. And that style was regularly demonstrated by some of the great names in Albion history that represented the club during this time. His message to the players was simply “go out and enjoy yourself.”
One of those greats was Albert Mundy who was Albion’s leading scorer for three seasons from 54/55 to 56/57, but who missed out on promotion after leaving for Aldershot midway through the promotion season. In total he scored 90 goals in 178 outings in his four seasons at the club. Putting him equal 6th with a certain Bobby Zamora in Albion’s all-time goalscoring chart.
Another player who thrived under Lane was Johnny McNichol, considered by those who saw him as one of the best who played for the club. He was made club captain by Lane in 1951 and was a huge part of the initial improvement in the club’s fortunes during Lane’s early seasons at the club, before McNichol left for Chelsea where he would win the First Division Championship.
In his place came Jimmy Leadbetter, who signed from Chelsea as part of a £12,000 deal for Johnny McNichol. Leadbetter scored 33 goals in 115 appearances at Brighton beginning with a debut goal in the 4-1 home win over Crystal Palace. But he also proved too good for third division football and moved on after three seasons at the Albion, going onto play an important part in Alf Ramsey’s successful Ipswich Town side.
Throughout the 1950s the club played attacking football, attracted big crowds, and made several bids for promotion under manager Billy Lane. In 1955/56 they won 29 league games, scoring 112 goals, but could still only finish second to Leyton Orient, missing out on promotion by just a point.
The breakthrough finally came in 1957/58 when promotion was secured in spectacular fashion, with a bumper crowd seeing Albion go 5-0 up by half time.
Appearing in only his seventh League match, Adrian Thorne, scored five goals in this famous 6-0 win over Watford. A win which sent Albion into the Second Division for the first time.
Adrian Thorne recalled to the Argus that Billy Lane adopted a fatherly approach in his early days at the club. “I had come from a sheltered environment and when I first went into the senior dressing-room and heard all the swearing I thought, what have I got into? Billy was aware of this and would ask the players not to use bad language when I was there. That was rather embarrassing for me but Billy could be a bit touchy about language.”
Glen Wilson, Albion’s record goalscorer who was a key figure during Lane’s tenure described Billy Lane in the Book ‘Albion – The first 100 years’ as “a very shrewd man”. Going onto say: “He could frighten the life out of you, but he could also be very nice. He never gave any tactical talks, he felt players should know their opposition. He would only come into the dressing room before kick-off to shake everyone’s hand.”
Lane gave his promotion winners the chance to prove themselves at the higher level, and they did just that finishing a respectable 12th in their first season in the second tier.
But Lane’s swashbuckling free-scoring style was not as effective at the higher level and the four seasons that followed saw Albion’s goalscoring ability diminish.
After two seasons of relatively comfortable mid table finishes, Albion started the 1960/61 season badly with a 4-1 defeat away to Derby County the first of six defeats in their opening nine games. And by the end of October Albion were bottom and staring relegation in the face.
In response, Billy Lane persuaded the board to pay a club record £15,000 fee to Chelsea for inside forward Tony Nicholas, who had fallen out with Chelsea manager Ted Drake, along with the signature of centre forward Dennis Windross from Middleborough.
But the season continued to go badly for Albion. While Nicholas boosted the attack, Windross’s move from Middlesbrough to the Goldstone left the crowd unimpressed and relegation worries persisted all season.
A 3-0 win at home to Liverpool in January provided some joy, but no wins in the next ten games meant Albion were right in the relegation mix and only a 2-1 win at home to Huddersfield in their penultimate game secured Second Division football for the club the following season.
Nonetheless, at the end of the season Billy Lane decided it was his responsibility and after ten years in the job, the club’s close-shave with relegation prompted his resignation. The players were not happy to see him go, and many were shocked. But the club reluctantly accepted his resignation.
When he left, he was fourth longest serving manager in the Football League. His longevity at the club meant Billy Lane is one of the oldest to manage the club in its history. He was 57 when he left in 1961. Only Chris Hughton (60) and the great Charlie Webb (60) have been older as Albion managers.
It was somewhat fitting that Billy Lane’s final game in front of the Goldstone faithful secured another season in the Second Division. A League Billy Lane spent so much of his time at the club fighting to get into.
He was replaced by George Curtis who in the face of a very restricted budget, led the club to relegation back down to the Third Division. And worse was to come in his second season, which saw Albion again struggle. Not helped by the number of experienced names who had left and were being replaced by youngsters. A trend which led to his team being dubbed “Curtis’s Cubs”, but unlike Man United’s “Busby Babes” of the previous decade this Albion side contained nowhere near a comparative level of quality or talent and continued to struggle on the pitch leading to a second consecutive relegation.
As Tony Nichols said to the Argus, “There is a complete difference between managers and coaches and George was definitely a coach. When George took over he told all the players, ‘any problems, don’t see me, see Joe Wilson’. George just didn’t want to know. Once, when I went to see him for the refund of a taxi fare of 9s.6d., he handed me a ten shilling note. I started to walk out of the office and he called me back and asked for the change. He wasn’t joking.”
In many respects Billy Lane was indeed regarded highly and is regarded higher than most Albion managers, not just his unfortunate successor.
This was even the case with some of those who he rejected. Gordie Howieson was one of those and on getting the news he dreaded, said: “Billy Lane was very kind. After telling me that I couldn’t really kick a ball properly he said I should make my way commercially. Later he offered me £6 a game to play on a match basis. Some of the senior pros were not easy on the likes of us. I used to knock around with Peter Martin and Don Bates and we were resented for using the courtesy facilities available at Brighton Tigers matches.”
Sadly, following the subsequent demise in the wake of Lane’s departure it would take Albion a further decade to return to the Second Division, after which they were immediately relegated back to the third tier.
In some ways you could say this shows the frail legacy of Lane’s time in charge at Albion, with his great side quickly undone. But that would be an unfair summary of his time with the club.
In many ways this contrast in fortunes instead highlights the assured and shrewd nature of Lane’s leadership, which ensured the club achieved great things during his time with the club. All whilst doing so in an exciting and entertaining way. His time as manager truly is one of the great periods of Albion history.