Monday, July 1, 2013

The Premier League: Modern Times

in assessing what has been the most successful season to date for the baggies since their initial return to the top-flight a decade ago, i find it's time to face up to the facts of life in the most popular football competition in the world. despite finishing 8th in the table - and laying claim to being the best of the second grade sides in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE - it was actually a very uneven season for the baggies, at least in terms of overall results if not actual footballing performances.

west brom started the season as the one of the league's form teams and were on the verge of going top of the table when a poor performance away to swansea signalled the beginning of a slump from which they never quite recovered. however, similar scenarios were played out at norwich, fulham, west ham and swansea, so the baggies kept pace with their immediate competition and their run of excellent results during the first half of the season carried them through to find success as the "best of the rest".

in actual fact, for a club like west brom to have distinguished themselves as such, is a more significant achievement than it is for manchester united to have won the league, and there is one big difference between these two sides that can't be overlooked. as one of the world's most popular and richest clubs, united can go with whatever they did this year, take stock of their resources and look to improve on it for next season. the albion, however, are left with a much more challenging set of problems and whatever they were able to achieve this season may end up having very little bearing on what they'll be able to achieve next season.

only the top five or six clubs in the PREMIER LEAGUE can look forward to the coming season with some degree of expectation. the rest of the league is left having to deal with varying levels of reorganization and often have to scramble to put together a competitive side ahead of each and every campaign. with chairmen and boards that are made up of businessmen who do not come from a football background, this is often a recipe for disaster.

it is possible - as with QPR this last season - to spend a great deal of money on expensive players who have experienced winning trophies both domestically and in europe. but this is no guarantee of success - the whole set-up often being no more than a high-priced gamble. you need look only as far as wolves - who had been both league champions and several time domestic cup winners in the old FIRST DIVISION - to see what damage the PREMIER LEAGUE can do to a football club.

also, as we saw with newcastle united this year, a good season is no guarantee that you will be left with adequate resources to build on for the next. the toon went from last year's excellent 5th place finish - and qualification for the UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - to a side that struggled to get results and only just managed to stay ahead of being involved in a scrap at the bottom of the table this year, finishing the season in 16th and only 5 points ahead of relegation.

the baggies had the good fortune of having had what has to have been the league's best loan signing, in the likes of romelu lukaku. with 17 goals in the league, the overall performance of the chelsea teenager was a major component in the baggies' success this year. when it comes time to replacing his attacking input west brom are left with no small challenge.

as a supporter who lives overseas and does not support manchester united, chelsea, arsenal, liverpool or manchester city, i am a member of a peculiarly esoteric fraternity. there is almost nothing in the way that the PREMIER LEAGUE is promoted here in north america that takes into account that someone like myself, who doesn't follow one of the top 4 or 5 sides, might even exist.

there are, of course, fringe elements that support big sides like aston villa, newcastle, everton and tottenham, but even these affiliations can be fleeting and there is nothing to encourage anyone to dedicate their support to a side that might fall out of the top-flight and disappear into the netherworld of the FOOTBALL LEAGUE. in fact, where SPORTSNET (and SETANTA SPORTS before them) used to carry at least one CHAMPIONSHIP game a week, this year, they wanted to save a little on the licencing budget (i would imagine) and opted for a weekly SPL game instead.

this was the first time in years - at least going back to the 2006-07 season - that the FOOTBALL LEAGUE (including the play-offs) was not seen at all on television in the particular broadcast region where i live. consequently, anyone following the english game on TV will not have seen any football that is competitive at the top end of the division.

i don't know what deals they're making for next year, but it is unlikely that the view of english football in toronto will become any more expansive very soon, and the average viewer who considers themselves a "fan" won't be looking for anything more than to follow a team that wins 85-90% of its matches. i know one guy - with claims of being a casual supporter - who says he used to support arsenal, but now they are "no good" (not having won anything recently in trophy competitions is what i think he meant), so he has switched allegiance and now follows chelsea. while this is hardly traditional behaviour, it is an attitude that is more and more prevalent with the supporter who follows the game through international TV broadcasts.

in this context, it is more and more the job of teams like west brom to drop enough points in the PREMIER LEAGUE to see to it that the status-quo is maintained, and that sides like manchester united, manchester city, arsenal, chelsea and liverpool perpetually compete as an elite mini-league who occupy the top places in the table, and thus hang on to their fan bases in the international TV market.

in fact, with the virtual monopoly that the two manchester sides - together with chelsea and arsenal - have established in occupying the CHAMPIONS LEAGUE spots for the last few years, together with similar situations in LA LIGA, the BUNDESLIGA and even now LIGUE UN, the FOOTBALL LEAGUE ONE was arguably the most exciting football competition in all europe last season.

besides my visits to the hawthorns and my primary football interest being invested in the baggies, i have also followed brentford's adventures in the FOOTBALL LEAGUE over the last few years. this year, where west brom began the season as one of the form teams in the top-flight and played some very exciting football in the process, it was the bee's that supplied the majority of my best and most exciting football moments over the second half of the season.

from the final and decisive day in the CHAMPIONSHIP, where hull city drew with division champions cardiff and won automatic promotion to the top-flight; or the final kick of the match at griffin park that propelled doncaster rovers up and out of LEAGUE ONE; through to the play-offs in LEAGUE TWO, league football provides a truly competitive environment that has long since disappeared from the top-flight.

it's really a shame that there was no TV coverage of the FOOTBALL LEAGUE this year. the drama off the final day and play-offs contrasted starkly with the narrow vision of english football as a competitive spectacle that the international supporter is afforded through following the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE on television, with its heavily biased focus on a handful of elite sides. the competition and excitement that still exists in league football serves to remind those of us who can remember what top-flight football used to be like before 1992.

i visit england twice a year for two weeks at a time and try to get out and watch as much football as i can. all i can say is that i would not be attending PREMIER LEAGUE matches at all if west bromwich albion, the team that i support, were not playing in the top-flight.

Follow West Bromwich (0813)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Final Day: The Champions at The Hawthorns

WBA 5-5 Manchester Utd. F.C.

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in the 1960s and 70s - long before the idea of the PREMIER LEAGUE had ever been contemplated and manchester united were still a popular english club rather than a rich and powerful worldwide commodity brand - the red devils and west bromwich albion played some of the best football seen on english television. this year, in the final game of the season, the two sides revived the tradition and supplied some real entertainment for those who were at the hawthorns for alex ferguson's final game, as well as for everyone who watched the live international TV broadcasts or saw the highlights on MATCH OF THE DAY.

in december, 1966, manchester united visited the hawthorns for a match which saw united edge the baggies by a score of 4-3 in a seven goal shoot-out. it was some of the best attacking football of the 1960s and is well remembered as an early MOTD classic. twelve years later, the two sides contested a match that would become legendary in the annals of english football as well as one of the best games ever seen on the popular saturday night highlights show. this time it was the baggies who triumphed on the day by a score of 5-3.

upon their return to the top-flight of english football three years ago, the baggies emerged as the only PREMIER LEAGUE side to take points at old trafford, when they held the eventual champions to a 2-2 draw.

whether a 4-0 thrashing the year that both teams returned to the first division in 1976, or a 3-2 victory in a third-round FA CUP replay the following year, the baggies have usually done well against manchester united. fixtures between the two sides have always produced competitive and entertaining football. they first met on the 1st of october, 1892 when west bromwich albion and newton heath played to 0-0 draw at the old stoney lane ground in central west bromwich. only since 1984 has the balance sheet tipped in favour of the mancunians, with the baggies recording only two wins and three draws against sixteen wins for united since then.

currently, the baggies have won 40, manchester united 52 with 30 games drawn.

for this particular match steve clarke chose a starting eleven that was designed to limit united's opportunities and would press the ball in all areas of the pitch. with just 5 minutes gone, however, manchester united made the most of an early opportunity on the counter. with an albion attack being broken up in the united penalty area, the red-devils quickly broke out with a few slick, short passes. the move culminating when play was switched with a long raking ball to javier hernandez breaking down the right wing channel. he put in an easy cross for shinji kagawa, who was allowed to take up a central position unchallenged in the middle of the box to head home past the helpless baggies' keeper, ben foster. less than four minutes later, jonas olsson's attempt to block antonio valencia's low, hard shot merely succeeded in redirecting the ball past foster for an own-goal that put the visitors up by two.

then, just on the half-hour mark, and united had another goal. this time, it was scored from an incisive attacking move in the albion final third and a good finish by alexander buttner. united were now up by a score of three-nil. the match was quickly becoming a blow-out and it was clear that the gaffer's plan to contain their opponents was just not working.

realizing that they had no recourse but to attack themselves, james morrison pulled one back for the baggies with a little over five minutes left in the first half. with united carelessly giving the ball away deep in their own half, the baggies produced a quick incisive scoring move. youssouf mulumbu astutely played the ball out wide to graham dorrans who put in a low hard, cross to morrison, waiting in the middle to slot home the goal. they had caught the united defence completely off guard and unprepared.

i think that steve clarke probably learned an important lesson about how to turn a game around when it is getting away from you. abandoning his original tactic, the gaffer substituted a striker for one of the fullbacks, with romelu lukaku coming on for liam ridgewell after the break. within five minutes the gambit had payed off and the unstoppable belgian youngster scored to pull the baggies back to within a goal and it looked like game on!

but the the match took another dramatic turn before the final score was to be played out.

manchester united went up 4-2 on a goal by robin van persie within four minutes of albion's second goal, and javier hernandez made it 5-2 just ten minutes later. both goals came from low, hard crosses played into the box from wide positions. the cross came in from the right wing for van persie and from the left for hernandez, and both efforts took advantage of jonas olsson's tentative defending in what was probably the worst game that the swedish centre-half has ever played in an albion shirt. this was underlined in the 66th minute when the defender found himself on the end of a perfect cross from james morrison, which resulted from a short corner kick. unmarked and the goal gaping in front of him, olsson managed no better than to volley the ball hopelessly over the cross bar and sailing up into the seats of the birmingham road end. while there was still over twenty minutes to play, i'm sure that this was the cue for the first wave of early exits to make their move and start heading for home.

i feel sorry for anyone who did leave early, as the best was yet to come despite all indications to the contrary.

romelu lukaku had been nearly unplayable since his half-time introduction and the albion striker changed the momentum of the game when he scored the baggies' third goal in the 80th minute.

within another five minutes, youssouf mulumbu had scored again for the baggies who now looked the better team and the game was completely turned on its head from the where it had all started with manchester united's first two goals. with the pace at which the goals were now going in, an albion victory began to look a distinct possibility and the hawthorns faithful could feel it.

so it was no surprise then when romelu lukaku completed his hat-trick in the 85th minute, drawing the teams level at 5-5. the possibility of a baggies victory was now very real and the hawthorns crowd urged them on. had there been another two minutes, i imagine the baggies would have found the winning goal, but a 10 goal draw was how it ended. in truth, and after all the turns this match had taken, it was probably a fair result all around.

this was a really good way to end the season for the baggies, and is a match that will be remembered as a PREMIER LEAGUE classic and seen on highlight reels for years to come.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Grandest of Mediocrity

Norwich City F.C. 4-0 WBA

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this was, without a doubt, the worst performance of the season by west brom. steve clarke (quite rightly) wanted to have a look at what he's got in terms of players who haven't seen much time in the squad this year - most notably markus rosenberg - and being free to experiment, he used his side's safe position in the table as an opportunity to have a look at some different attacking formations.

what had been a resounding success away to southampton a few weeks ago was an unmitigated failure on this visit to carrow road. fair enough. the gaffer could see this and made the appropriate adjustments going into the second-half. with his side still only down one-nil to kevin snodgrass' early goal, the baggies got back in the game and looked the better side for the first few minutes after the restart. that's when tragedy struck and put getting a result beyond the baggies on the day.

ben foster, coming well off his line in trying to make what would otherwise have been a routine clearance, missed the ball altogether and allowed grant holt to walk it into an open net to put city up by two goals.

in foster's defence, he may have been distracted by jonas olsson's clumsy backtracking, as his centre-half appeared to be moving into a position that threatened to close down the goalie's clearance. whoever is to blame for the amateurish mistake, it knocked the heart out of the albion. unlike the two previous matches - both good performances at the attacking end, if not the best defensively - the baggies quickly became inept in attack and their play going forward tentative. they went on to overcook every ball played into the opposition penalty area and created nothing for themselves in the way of opportunity to get back in the game.

the four-nil scoreline didn't so much reflect how good the home side had been, but rather how poor the baggies were on the day. although there is still an outside chance that the baggies will get a result when they close out the season against manchester united on the last day of the season, i wouldn't bet on it and standard logic would tend to dictate that their best opportunity for reaching the stated goal of achieving 50 points in the league table has now passed them by.

Manchester City F.C. 1-0 WBA

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with the best of intentions, steve clarke forgot that supporters generally aren't interested in evaluating resources or even being entertained by attractive football; they want results regardless of the circumstance. even if we have now been able to determine that markus rosenberg just might be a worthwhile footballer, or the gaffer learned an important lesson about when to make substitutions, nothing will make up for failing to get an expected result.

by and large, football supporters want to hear the final whistle the moment that their team has gone ahead in a match. never mind that a game of association football is supposed to be decided over a full 90 minutes of play. if their side goes ahead in the first five minutes, the average supporter would be happy if the contest ended right then and there.

if steve clarke had any doubts as to the matter, a quick listen to any of the rabid and raving critiques delivered in thick black-country dialect on tom ross' post-game radio show after the away fixture with norwich, he would have unquestionably been put right as to what is expected of himself and his team.

whether he listened in or not, the gaffer has got the point and stated to the local media in birmingham that the baggies will be going back to basics for the season finale at home to the league champions.

WBA 2-3 Wigan Athletic F.C.

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there probably wasn't a better game of football played in the PREMIER LEAGUE this week than west brom's home fixture with wigan. as per usual, the lancashire side were going for yet another one of their trademark end-of-season "great escape" routines - a situation that has inspired them to some top form football in the past - making a match with wigan athletic a perilous proposition for anyone coming up against them in the league at this time of year.

however, coming off a big win at saints, the baggies looked ready for the challenge and wigan actually played some of the most mediocre football that they have in weeks. it still didn't matter in the end. as exciting as the baggies were going forward, they were still subject to some slack defending on set-pieces (a problem all season) and even when the draw looked an inevitability, wigan found a way to get a late winner and keep their hopes for yet another top-flight survival run alive for yet another week.

the latics' best player on the day was without a doubt shaun maloney. the veteran mid-fielder was key in the creation of wigan's last two goals, and if they don't manage another "great escape" then he's someone who will probably see considerable interest from several top-flight clubs, any one of which who would do well in acquiring his considerable personal skill.

Southampton F.C. 0-3 WBA

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while for the past three seasons the baggies have suffered a loss of form that starts just around christmas and carries through until february when they go on a bit of a tear and manage to survive the PREMIER LEAGUE quite comfortably, they have stuttered a little this year. however, with an adventurous setup that included three attacking forwards, it seemed as though they had finally made the breakthrough with this trip to the south-coast.

all three of the starting forward line scored, and while this was somewhat of a sacrifice at the defensive end of the pitch, they still managed a clean sheet and we were rewarded with one of the baggies' best all-round performances of the year.

this was an extremely important result and keeps the baggies on course for the 8th place finish which the team has been building towards since just before christmas. while wins have been hard to come by for west brom since then, their contemporaries in the league haven't done any better with swansea, norwich, newcastle, fulham, west ham and stoke all having similar difficulties in producing a full three-point result in fixtures played over the last five or six weeks. of course, the top TV pundits will quote all the key statistics as evidence of the relatively poor quality of this year's almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE. for the rest of us - that is, supporters of the aforementioned clubs - will be more concerned about our sides keeping pace with their contemporaries in the league and out of the relegation battles. for the moment, that'll probably be good enough.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Towards a Stranglehold on 8th

WBA 1-2 Arsenal F.C.

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as the season draws to a close, and we head into the last six games of the current campaign, there's one real goal (beyond the stated target of reaching a 50 point tally in the league) that the baggies can aspire to: that is to finish the season in 8th place. they have occupied this spot in the table for a number of weeks now and if they can maintain their form and take the necessary points available from their remaining fixtures, that is almost certainly where they will finish.

it may sound somewhat absurd to say so, but for a side like west bromwich albion, this would actually be a more significant accomplishment than winning the league would be for a club like manchester united, where claiming the premiership title has become an annual expectation.

at this particular moment in time, this is about as well as the baggies could do in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE. to be fair, there are really no teams that currently sit ahead of the baggies in the table that don't belong there (i.e. liverpool, everton, tottenham etc.); and, with their status as a relatively new arrival to the top-flight, their present gate revenues, merchandising, budget, and the quality of players that are available to a club of their size, to finish anywhere in the top half of the table is, in all practical terms, a remarkable achievement.

West Ham Utd. 3-1 WBA

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west brom will finish their season fighting to stay ahead of swansea city, and establish themselves as the top "second grade" team in the country. in light of the relatively poor form of some of the larger (and richer) clubs like newcastle, aston villa and sunderland, that is what an 8th place finish in the league would represent this year.

in fact, the recent loss to a ten-man arsenal side probably ended the chance of overtaking liverpool (in 7th), as well as a missed opportunity at widening the gap between themselves and swansea, who sit 9th in the table. from their performance in the second-half - and their absolute battering of the north londoners for the last half-hour - the baggies should probably have won this by at least a goal. but, as my mother observed on a visit to twerton park after the first 15 minutes of a bath city home game:

"i should think a goal is jolly hard to get!"

it is one of the hard facts of football, and a goal is sometimes just too jolly hard to get!

while the baggies put in a good performance, and worked hard to press home their numerical advantage at home to the gunners, they were really quite poor in their previous fixture away to west ham. in fact, the match at upton park was one of only a handful of truly weak performances on the season, and a game where west brom really showed almost nothing in the way of quality football until the last ten minutes. graham dorrans' penalty brought the team to life, and some good attacking in the last few minutes saw the baggies create a couple of scoring opportunities that might have seen the game turn. however, poor marking on set plays and the hammers' peculiarly skilful long-ball game was beyond the baggies on the day.

Stoke City F.C. 0-0 WBA

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one of a couple of things that has stood out this season is the lack of success that the baggies have had against the london sides. indeed, while they did manage the double over QPR, west brom have only taken 5 additional points of a possible 30 on offer against teams from the capital. the other big let down has been the lack of quality - on all counts - of the local derbies.

both fixtures with the villa have seemed rather listless - especially when you compare these games with the atmosphere of the baggies/wolves matches of the last few years - and despite of the fact that both sides scored twice in the match at the hawthorns, it still never found the kind of intensity that you'd hope for in one of the oldest and most historically significant derby matches in world football. meanwhile, both games with stoke city - which once counted as a "staffordshire derby" - have been an absolute joke.

tony pulis, who seems to me an absolutely joyless man - as well as a ruthless and unpleasant manager - appears to favour a brand of football that features 9 defenders with a solitary striker and bypasses the idea of a midfield altogether.

in fact, late on in their most recent match against the baggies - a dreary 0-0 draw at the britannia stadium - a long, rather aimless clearance by one of the potters' defenders that went into touch had my brother and i in hysterics. it was a bit of play that rather looked more like a fly-half kicking for field position than something you would expect in a game of association football. stoke, who have found relative success over the last few seasons in the top-flight, play some of the most miserably dull football i've ever seen.

WBA 2-1 Swansea City A.F.C.

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despite the baggies' continuing incremental improvement every year for the last decade, it will still require several more seasons - with an increase in stadium capacity and some scrupulously intelligent use of TV revenues - before the albion will be able to harbour any serious aspirations of european qualification or have a big enough squad for a successful cup run. even then, the opportunities will be fleeting.

as long as the current structure of the PREMIER LEAGUE persists, a side like west brom will, in effect, be starting each season in the top-flight from scratch. by this, i mean, they will perpetually need to scramble every summer to sign indispensable players on an annual basis. where would we have been this last few seasons without peter odemwingie or romelu lukaku? the latter being a loan signing from chelsea; and odemwingie, a goal scoring talent who was surprisingly unpopular with his home fans as a top-flight player in russia. without these kind of signings, the team would run the risk of not having a consistently competitive PREMIER LEAGUE squad.

at the end of the day, aiming for the all important "40 point" cushion, hanging on to the core of the team (in the likes of players like olsson, mcauley, brunt, morrison, long and mulumbu), acquiring important loan signings, maintaining inventive and cosmopolitan scouting networks, as well as rebuilding and/or expansion of the west stand (or so i've read), are all going to have to remain the primary focus points for the club over the next few years.

Chelsea F.C. 1-0 WBA

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we know that this year is already a success, insofar as relegation/survival hasn't been a concern at any point of the current campaign - and while things have been a bit more inconsistent in the second-half of the season, the first couple of months gave us all some hope, if not expectation, of a long stay in the top-flight and perhaps, one day even playing again in europe.

we have to remember, the baggies were on the verge of going top of the league when they ran smack into a run of poor results, starting with the away fixture against swansea at the end of november.

it was really too good to be true, and it had to end somewhere. since then, results and performance have been just a bit patchy. however, west brom have been consistent enough in picking up needed points at crucial moments and haven't lost any ground since settling in around 7th or 8th place. as long they keep on getting the required results - and while they can't quite catch liverpool anymore - the baggies will stay ahead of swansea in the battle for 8th, and have earned the right to call themselves "the best of the rest" in england's top-flight for the 2012-13 season.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Abroad Again Back Home

WBA 2-2 Aston Villa F.C.

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i have been on vacation... again.

since my 50th birthday, when i returned to england after an absence of 34 years, i have been going back to visit twice a year. with my mother having initially gone back in 1986 - and then making a second permanent return in 1989 - england is now the family home. this offers me a great excuse to get to the hawthorns a couple of times a year, and i am also afforded the opportunity to visit other grounds and watch other teams. on my last visit, for example, i went to meadow lane for the first time and watched notts county play bury on the friday night before sunderland came to the hawthorns... yet another adventure in my ever growing number of overnight tours of midlands' football stadia.

on tuesdays - and when i am in london - i go watch brentford at griffin park.

one of the sad ironies of my trips these days, is that with the baggies playing in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE, i now only see them live twice a year. whereas, i went to six fixtures - and could have made it seven if i'd been able to get my ass up to middlesbrough on a sunday afternoon - the year they won promotion. also, much to my dismay, i can't get tickets to away matches anymore. evidently, top-flight football has its price. for two years running, i've seen brentford more times than i've been to watch the baggies; and last year, i went to both griffin park and the county ground at swindon more times than i was able to get to the hawthorns.

Everton F.C. 2-1 WBA

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i actually started this trip with the chelsea v brentford 4th round FA CUP replay at stamford bridge. this was the most oppressive atmosphere that i have yet encountered when attending football in england since the 1970s.

perhaps i am underestimating the fact that it was a local derby and the heightened security was warranted, but the general attitude of the stewards was excessive. for example, access to the club shop was physically blocked to away supporters and one particular steward outside the stadium took, what i felt, was an inappropriate interest in my activities as i photographed the brentford supporters coming down the brick-wall enclosed lane-way leading to the famous "shed end" of stamford bridge.

it appears that chelsea football club provides part-time employment for every dance-club bouncer and neighbourhood tough-guy in the west end of london.

while the bee's acquitted themselves well in the first-half, thanks to the goalkeeping of simon moore, it was all the LEAGUE ONE side had in them. after a decent crack at goal by adam foreshaw went just wide, and a poor decision by the referee saw marcello trotta's goal pulled back, the score remained 0-0 through half-time. however, the first chelsea goal came within minutes of the restart and that was the signal for the flood gates to open. the home side ran out easy winners by a score of 4-0.

it didn't matter and was surely something that we all knew was possible - and even likely - but by virtue of the fact that brentford took six thousand travelling supporters to stamford bridge, it was a significant event. i had been to a home fixture in the league last year that drew less than four thousand. of course, that match was on TV, so smaller than usual numbers at the gate would be expected.

WBA 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur F.C.

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my next trip was to cardiff on a tuesday night. ironically, i had been there before and felt no connection to cardiff city football club whatsoever and had not anticipated returning. however, that particular experience had been soured before the fact that i had gone to cardiff because i hadn't been able to get tickets to watch the baggies away to the villa, and i simply wasn't going to spend a saturday afternoon in england (or wales, for that matter) without going to the football. it was one of my first great experiences of disillusionment with life in the PREMIER LEAGUE. on this visit, however, i did the right thing and bought my ticket from brighton and hove albion and went as an away supporter.

i stayed at a charming old hotel around the corner from the train station, and travelled out the stadium on a local service that cost £1.80 return.

after my experience at chelsea, the atmosphere here was much more laid back. it was nice to see that the stewards were actually supporters themselves, and were engaged in the match rather than looking for beach-balls to deflate and half hoping for trouble to kick-off. with the visiting team playing a brilliant rear-guard action, and sealing the victory with a late goal on the counter-attack, it was a really enjoyable way to spend a tuesday evening.

Liverpool F.C. 0-2 WBA

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after a couple of days back home with me mum, it was time for the highlight of the trip: an overnight excursion to watch football in the midlands.

i had done this a few times before. that is, i had made the journey leaving the day before and taking in an extra match on the eve of going to the hawthorns. it is a tradition that began out of necessity when west brom's PREMIER LEAGUE fixtures with wolves were played on the sunday with a noon kick-off, at the behest of the west midlands police. this meant that i would have to travel to birmingham a day early anyway. so what better way to pass the time than checking out other football grounds?

having been to leicester city, walsall and birmingham city on previous trips to see the albion, i now found myself spending a cold friday night in nottingham. i have always wanted to go to meadow lane, and i felt a connection there that i almost never feel when going to a new ground.

needing to use the facilities, i found a bar just inside the grounds of the stadium. truthfully, it looked more like a workingman's club or legion hall than it did a pub, and i doubt if anyone inside was younger than sixty. it was an environment that appeared timeless where life had changed little in the last thirty or forty years. as i looked around the brightly over-lit room, with its ancient, yellowing white walls, marked by the odd outdated event poster, i couldn't help but wonder if there if would be a next generation of supporters who would one day be there to take their place. in a world of SKYsports and ESPN broadcasts that show top-flight domestic and european games, it's hard to imagine football's traditional working class environments surviving past the next couple of decades.

notts county's opponents were bottom of the league strugglers, bury f.c., who had brought perhaps two or three hundred supporters down from lancashire with them. while they were certainly vocal enough for their small numbers, the jimmy sirrel stand appeared near empty, belying the fact that there was a reasonable gate (for a televised LEAGUE ONE match on a cold friday night) of nearly six-thousand.

while notts were clearly the more skilled side in possession, they lacked any luck or ability to finish, and a defensive mistake gave the visitors an early one-nil lead that they carried through half-time. this, of course, prompted some good old fashioned midlands-style moaning and groaning over a smoke in the parking lot at the break. the conversation was thick with threats of not renewing seasons tickets for next year, complaints about ticket prices, questioning the intentions of the board and their immediate ambition (or lack thereof)... all the cliché pronouncements heard regularly in pubs across the midlands.

however, with just over 12 minutes gone in the second-half, the magpies hit back with 3 goals in the space of 7 minutes and ran out 4-1 winners on the night.

WBA 2-1 Sunderland A.F.C.

match text commentary

so, after a night in nottingham, i strolled down to the station and was at new street a good 2 hours ahead of kick-off.

this was my 11th trip to the hawthorns, and i am well familiar, at this point, with navigating the city centre and catching the local train from snow hill.

i have had extraordinarily good luck, as i have only seen the baggies lose once in all my trips to the hawthorns. of course, that was a christmas time fixture with blackburn rovers, when they were in the middle of their annual poor run of form, that traditionally starts in novemeber/december and carries through january/february. the only other occasion that i have been to the hawthorns that did not result in a victory was the re-scheduled fixture when carlos vela scored the equalizer in injury time to salvage a 1-1 draw with wolves and kicked off an 8 match unbeaten run under then new head coach, roy hodgson. despite my family and friends joking about my status as "good-luck talisman" for the baggies, the truth is, that i target matches that i think will be competitive and the baggies have a good chance of winning. i mean, i would just hate to travel the 3000 miles to see my team lose to the likes of manchester united or arsenal!

this was the second year in a row that i've been to the home fixture with sunderland. last year's game was without a doubt the baggies best overall performance of the year - and that includes the 5-1 win at the molineaux. this year's corresponding fixture wasn't in the same class, but the baggies were still good enough to hang on after going two-nil up (thanks to romelu lukaku) , before conceding a lone goal to the excellent stéphane sessègnon late on, for the final result of 2-1.

the big disappointment this year was my inability to get into the club shop. since the club's promotion, match day business has been picking up to such a degree that i would have needed to get there at least an hour and a half before kick off to get in a decent session of shopping for shirts and souvenirs. as it was, i had to line up for 15 minutes just to get in the door. however, i couldn't move and didn't get 15 feet past the entrance before i gave up, turned around and just got the hell out of there. it had changed so much since my first visit to the hawthorns for a match with plymouth argyle, that i thought, i'll do my shopping online and pay the shipping charges as long as it's like this, thanks!

of course, i really miss being in the same division with wolves, and i think that there is something irrational about a baggies supporter cheering the misfortunes of the dingles at the bottom of the CHAMPIONSHIP. i really miss the wolves fixtures at the hawthorns, and i hope to get a chance to travel to the molineaux for the derby one day. albion/wolves is the best rivalry in english football, and i really enjoyed the heightened intensity of these particular fixtures. i, for one, wish wolves only success until we're back in the same division.

my adventure that had begun at stamford bridge in such grand and grim fashion, ended rather modestly on a tuesday night at the broadfield stadium in crawley watching brentford away. i was staying at a hotel out near gatwick airport and crawley is only a 10 minute train ride south. i had gone out to the airport a day early in order to travel down and watch the match on tuesday, thus giving myself an extra day in london before having to leave on thursday morning.

in terms of a facility, crawley is a club that has come up into the FOOTBALL LEAGUE too quickly. they play in a quintessentially poor non-league stadium and employ an over-zealous security staff. it's not a particularly good place to watch football either. the designated seating for away supporters has the poorest sight-lines i have ever encountered at a professional ground.

there was 1500 travelling bee's fans that night, and it really felt like the staff was overwhelmed. i still haven't found out what happened, but during the break at half-time, the away supporters lounge was locked down, and the blue-coated "response" team moved in. there was much remonstrating and chanting from the travelling brentford support. i even witnessed an incident where a bee's supporter was having a verbal stand-off with one of the response team. the blue-jacketed steward then knocked a bottle of coca-cola out of his hand, which was the signal to strong-arm him out of the stadium, on the pretext that he had thrown it at them.

they wouldn't let us out into the parking lot to smoke, which i've only ever seen at much bigger clubs where the exits are more difficult to police. christ! we all still went out for a smoke during the half-time break at cardiff city stadium!

quite comically - and on the way in, a lone female steward was trying to pat down an entire crowd of travelling brentford supporters. eventually, most of us just got tired of waiting and walked around her and went through the turnstile.

brentford got their season back on track with a 2-1 win and now look dead certs for at least the play-offs this year. although, i have to say that i think in terms of actual promotion, they're probably a year or two early for anything but a struggle in the CHAMPIONSHIP. still, you've got to begin improvement and upward mobility somewhere, and uwe rösler has done a brilliant job whatever happens.

of course, i will be back to check on things all over again in october.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The FA Cup: Modern Times


match text commentary

on the 3rd of april, 1982, west bromwich albion set a record that had taken 110 years to achieve. when they took to the pitch at the old highbury stadium in north london to play second division, queens park rangers, for the right to contest that year's FA CUP final at wembley stadium, they were doing so for the 19th time. no other side had appeared in as many FA CUP semi-finals as the baggies.

their first cup semi-final was a 4-0 victory over local rivals, small heath (who eventually became birmingham city) in 1886. the FA CUP itself had started in 1872 and is acknowledged as professional football's oldest competition.

of course, history tells us that they lost the match against QPR on a late goal, when ally robertson - for some reason known only to himself - played a risky clearance in order to avoid giving away a corner kick. not aware that rangers' stiker, clive allen, was tracking the ball and well positioned to close down the play, robertson's attempt to clear caromed off the onrushing allen and flew straight into the albion goal. as allen ran to the touchline in celebration, he really hadn't known much about it.

that is part of the nature of football.

the imminent replay that centre-half, john wyle, had been discussing with his defensive partner only moments earlier, never materialized and the albion would not advance this far in the competition again for another 27 years. by this time, of course, both domestic cup competitions had lost much of their significance and were hugely diminished in both their economic and cultural importance.

1982 was also the year that tottenham hotspur set an all-time record for number of FA CUP final wins with 8. the baggies were still among the top FA CUP winning sides, having won the competition 5 times - the most recent being in 1968 with a 1-0 extra-time win over everton.

west brom had also done well in the somewhat less prestigious LEAGUE CUP competition, having made 3 appearances in the final. the baggies had won the last competition where the final was played over two-legs, beating west ham united by an aggregate score of 5-3 in 1966. ironically, they had failed to hang on to their title, losing to third division side, QPR, in the competition's first single match final played at wembley the following year. the baggies' last major cup final appearance was in 1970 when they again lost the LEAGUE CUP final in extra-time to manchester city by a score of 2-1.


match text commentary

there are several statistics related to albion cup runs over the years that are historically note-worthy. for example, when the club's goal-scoring hero of the 1960s, jeff astle, netted the winning goal in that '68 final, he became only the fifth player in the history of the cup to have scored in every round. also, long before the league and cup "double" became an expectation for the country's biggest and richest sides, west bromwich albion won a unique double that has yet to be repeated. in 1931, they won the FA CUP and promotion from the second division. it is the one record that they still hold that is unlikely to ever be repeated.

west bromwich albion's twentieth FA CUP semi-final came in a year when only one PREMIER LEAGUE side had qualified for the final stages of the tournament, in the likes of eventual champions, portsmouth football club. the other two teams, like the baggies, were CHAMPIONSHIP sides, barnsley and cardiff city. unlike west brom, these other two had already performed unlikely feats of giant-killing and had dispensed with top-flight competition already. for the baggies, portsmouth was the first PREMIER LEAGUE side that they had had to face.

in their semi-final with pompey, the baggies undoubtedly had the better of the play and probably should have won. however, despite battering the PREMIER LEAGUE side for much of the game, the goal they were looking for never came and portsmouth were able to squeek through on a tap-in by veteran striker, kanu.

at the end of the day, it was a reminder that the baggies had always been a "cup team" and having a good cup run was once an important component of the club's identity.

of course, the creation of the PREMIER LEAGUE changed all that.

winning the league has, in fact, always been the true measure as to who gets to proclaim themselves "champions of england". but before the PREMIER LEAGUE realigned the relative importance of all things football, it was really only of concern to football "insiders" - the people who actually followed their local clubs, paid their entrance fee at the turnstiles and endured standing in crowded terraces each and every saturday afternoon. it was by-and-large not something that caught the imagination of the general public. that particular honour was reserved for the FA CUP. with its full-on, all day media coverage, "cup final day" was a time for heroics and glory and supplied a major cultural touch-stone for the entire nation. while not everyone could tell you who had won the league that year, everyone remembered who had won the FA CUP. in the early days of TV - and right through until 1992 - it was the public face of english football and the whole country tuned in.

it now seems more of an unwanted distraction... a worry for managers who are either trying to qualify for the CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, the promotion play-offs or merely trying to avoid relegation. postponed fixtures from earlier in the season are sometimes now played on the same day. this is something that would have been unthinkable on a day where the whole country used to come to a standstill as the cup final took centre stage in the cultural collective.

supporters of manchester united, manchester city, chelsea and arsenal expect what is very often their club's reserve side to get their preferred starting 11 to the final. however, they are not overly concerned for too long if they don't. for everyone else, it is simply maintaining their place in the league that trumps all other concerns.

it seems strange, in these modern times, to remember how much more disappointed and hurt the celebrated west brom team of the late 1970s were by the cup semi-final loss of 1978 than they were by the league title that escaped them in 1979. in fact, at the time, tony brown had called the 3-1 loss to eventual champions, ipswich town, "the worst day of my life".

when steve clarke took the job of head-coach, he was introduced to the press by stating that a cup run (among other things) would be one of the baggies' goals for the season. however, this was merely an acknowledgement of his understanding of the club's unique history and was never really going to be a priority. at least certainly not like reaching the 50+ point tally (and finishing somewhere in the top 8 or 9) in the league was going to be. after all, what can winning a mere trophy be worth when compared to the £30 million base payments that a team makes from the television contracts paid out to those clubs competing in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE?

so, once again, the baggies encountered QPR in the cup and lost. after snatching a late equalizer in the first match at loftus road, they were beaten in the replay at the hawthorns by the excellent goalkeeping of rangers', robert green. even though it was a home fixture against a side that the baggies were expected to beat anyway, no one was too upset for very long. the standard logic of getting the cup competitions out of the way so they could concentrate on their currently slumping league form soon refocussed anyone who might have made the mistake of thinking it had been important in the first place.

sometime in the next 10-20 years, west brom will probably appear in yet another FA CUP semi-final, and for a little while, at least, some older supporters will briefly remember that it used to be something that was important to play for.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reading F.C. 3-2 WBA

match text commentary

anyone listening to the FREEradio broadcast of this match would have heard tony brown's voice begin to crack as he fought to hold back the tears at the end of one of the most dissapointing results for the club in recent memory. likewise, steve clarke appeared bewildered, red-eyed and shaken when he spoke to the BBC following the final whistle.

in a video interview on the club website, romelu lukaku revealed that he had actually, in fact, been reduced to tears in the dressing room despite his brilliant on-field performance. besides scoring two goals, the teenage striker had hit both the post and crossbar in the course of the game.

i pride myself on being a passionate but mature football fan. i generally look on my team's losses and points dropped throughout the course of a season with a philosophical eye. i am usually able to move on from the disappointments of the day and look toward seeing my team rectify matters at the next opportunity. however, there is one - sometimes two - fixtures in the course of every season that i struggle to come to terms with.

two years ago there was the infamous match away to blackpool that was marred by the blundering performance of referee, michael oliver. last year, my frustations were shared equally between stoke's visit to the hawthorns and the new year's day fixture (also at home) against everton. but this loss to reading was particularly cruel and will be nagging at me until the baggies pick up their next three points.

when gianni zuiverloon clumsily failed to control and gave the ball away to jimmy kebe in the dying moments of their 5th round FA Cup replay with reading in 2010, the baggies were 2-1 up and looked certain to be in the draw for the quarter-finals. in a single fleeting moment that all changed, as kebe took advantage to set up brian howard for the equalizer and send the match into extra-time.

while this levelled the score 2-2, and the baggies were still theoretically in the game, the pendulum had swung and west bromwich albion's hopes for a cup run were already gone. within minutes of the kick-off in extra-time the royals were up 3-2. the baggies would not get their opportunity to make up for the semi-final loss to portsmouth two years earlier, and zuiverloon would never start for west brom again.

i remember waking up in the middle of the night, haunted by a crushingly oppressive, nightmarish feeling of emptiness and disappointment. i soon got over it though, as their push for automatic promotion started to pick up momentum and nottingham forest's challenge began to fade. important wins against blackpool, derby county, coventry, swansea and preston north end re-energized both the team and supporters alike.

again, and this time in an all important PREMIER LEAGUE fixture, jimmy kebe came back to haunt the baggies and cause me to suffer the greatest amount of grief and frustration that i have yet felt since the baggies' most recent promotion to the PREMIER LEAGUE.

after making their best start to a top-flight season in over thirty years, west brom have suffered a drastic loss of form since having to play swansea away. they have generally been slow to start and their performances in the first half of all their most recent matches have been flat and unenterprising. while they have played better football in the second-half, this has been a real problem and has all too often lead to early capitulation and an inability to come from behind. the one exception to this being the recent home victory against norwich.

however, their trip to the madjeski stadium saw the baggies return to form - in terms of a footballing display anyway. aside from the early moments of the match, which saw the royals on the front foot and winning the the first few corners, the baggies were in control and had the majority of possession with james morrison and romelu lukaku linking up brilliantly. their attacking partnership almost always looked dangerous going forward and lukaku's brace seemed like it would be enough to see the baggies get back on track.

george thorne, having been brought back from a loan spell at peterborough, has done really well in covering the holding midfield role. he made his first team debut at old trafford on 24 hours notice and has been putting in solid performances since. thorne looks like he will be a real asset to the club in the immediate future. with claudio yacob still out injured and youssouf mulumbu having departed to the AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS there was good reason to be concerned, but the 20-year-old thorne played with maturity and a very clear, uncomplicated vision of the game.

in fact, the overall defending was excellent for 82 minutes. with jonas olsson having returned from a groin injury and gareth mcauley keeping pace with the high standards that he set last year, there is still much evidence of roy hodgeson's organizational work in the side, evidenced by the disciplined shape of the back four. until the last few minutes ben foster had very little to do in goal, and when the worst happened there wasn't much he could do about it anyway.

that's why this was such an absolutley unbelievable loss. for 82 minutes the baggies were the better of the two sides by a long way, and for the first time in weeks were playing an expansive passing game and really getting on top of the other team. they played at a more contolled pace, had the majority of possession and instead of sitting back, being slavishly over reliant on the principles of counter-attacking football, they got hold of the ball and worked themselves into precise and measured attacks.

it is unbelievable just how much the baggies were in control of this game. it was their best performance in weeks and it is inconcievable that they contrived to lose it on two very late set plays following jimmy kebe's opener.

i still didn't see it coming when the first reading goal went in, and i am convinced that they would have held on for the win - perhaps even having to ride their luck a bit - if olsson hadn't blundered into kebe and/or handled the ball to concede the penalty. i mean, suddenly dropping two-points out of the blue is a big let down. especially having been so comfortably in control.

to then not even be able to see it out on a free-kick near the centre-circle... the whole thing was just beyond belief. it was even beyond analysis and there was no real technical reason for it. it was all just a bit of a fluke. of course, you can blame olsson for the idiotically clumsy challenge that gifted reading the equalizer, and it was clear that ridgewell lost concetration on the free-kick and was caught looking the wrong way when the first goal went in. however, this was still quite incredible on any and all accounts.

whatever mistakes were made (the penalty aside) none of them were really bad enough to merit giving up three goals inside 8 minutes. the most unbelievable thing is how easy a time the supporters give jonas olsson. he was directly responsible for the home loss to stoke and nobody said a thing. against the royals, he dives into a bad tackle and gives away a pointless foul that set up the equalizer and everyone is rushing to blame rosenberg, dorrans, brunt or ridgewell... ridiculous!

we all knew that when the albion was in third place - and with a chance to go top of the league - that it wasn't going to last forever. the stated goal of the club at the outset of the season was to get to 50 points and improve as a mid-table side. that goal is still achievable, and the supporters who phone in to tom ross on the GOALzone, raging and ranting in a rabid, homicidal lather that "jeremy peace has no ambition..." would do well to remember that.

we have to remind ourselves, as well, that this is traditionally the time of year when the baggies struggle with the demands of the PREMIER LEAGUE anyway. claudio yacob, yussouf mulumbu, goran popov, peter odemwingie, steven reid, marc antoine fortuné, shane long and zoltan gera are all either injured or otherwise unavailable. jonas olsson has just come back after being out for three weeks with a groin injury and the side does look a bit threadbare at the moment. all things considered, this was a good game with an unfortunate freak result, and they wouldn't generally lose too many matches on a footballing performance of this quality. it was just horribly ironic that it had to come after a run of poor games coupled with even poorer results.

we didn't play well against either fulham or arsenal and we probably still should have at least drawn both those matches!

with a run of difficult fixtures coming up, i'm hoping that they realize that with nothing to lose, it's time to throw caution to the wind and find the energy to nick a few more points.

i'm sure everyone remembers that two years ago we didn't win a game from november until february. we then went 8 games unbeaten and lost only a single match in what remained of the campaign. on the last day of the season somen tchoyi scored 3 goals in ten minutes to earn a 3-3 draw away to newcastle that propelled us into 11th place. just as with reading scoring three goals in 8 minutes, these things don't happen everyday... or even every season!

i think the albion's season will pretty much turn on the game against villa at home. as long as they put their foot on the ball and control the game early, they should be able to come up with a result against a hugely inconsistent villa side that has now fallen into the relegation places.

it's a tough time now, and something that can be hard to live with as a fan. but i'm still sure we're going to do no worse this year than we did last year, and that's at the very least.