besides coming back for the baggies' derby with their biggest rivals, i also wanted to squeeze in a couple of additional matches to make up for the football i had missed at christmas.
first off, the match had been scheduled for the 18th of december, but - like almost all other fixtures in england that day - ran afoul of the unexpectedly bad weather. with FA CUP games still to be replayed, the match was initially rescheduled for february 22nd. however, we were all well aware that the west midlands police were going to request that the match be moved to a noon kick-off over the cup's 5th round weekend should both the baggies and wolves get knocked out of the competition prior to this. at the time of rescheduling, however, both teams were still involved.
the albion were promptly knocked out by their cup nemesis reading, who put them out of the competition both this year and last, while wolves survived through a draw with doncaster rovers. at this point, it was a matter of waiting for the results of the 4th round replays and subsequent draw for round five before making any definite travel plans.
i was already taking no chances and knew i had to be in the midlands - and within an hour of birmingham - if indeed the black country derby was going to be played on the saturday. in light of this, i planned a trip to stoke for port vale's friday night home game with bradford city. this would leave me well enough situated with enough time to get to the hawthorns for a noon kick-off should wolves lose their replay with doncaster. they did not.
i was now left waiting on the result from wolves 5th round home fixture with stoke city.
in the meantime, i had changed my plans to travel to stoke on the friday in favour of a night game at leicester with bristol city as the visitors.
wolves were then knocked out of the cup in a 1-0 loss to stoke city at the molineux. knowing that the west midlands police would take quick steps to change the date, i had to wait for the outcome of the cup draws set to be played on the 19th.
birmingham city, after their 3-2 win over coventry, were drawn in a home fixture against sheffield wednesday. i now knew that the west brom/wolves game wouldn't be moved to the saturday with a cup game at st. andrews on the same day.
i was now free to book my ticket with a departure date that would see me in london on the 16th and departing on the 23rd. this would mean travelling to the leicester on friday. i would then go to birmingham, anyway, for the FA CUP game at blues and then return for baggies/wolves match on the last night of my trip. but i had not figured on the fact that they might move the match to a sunday. which, of course, is what they did.
all the better! i was at the walkers stadium on friday, st. andrews on saturday - and after spending the night in birmingham, i was at the hawthorns, as planned, for a noon kick-off on the 20th of february.
Leicster City F.C. 2-1 Bristol City F.C.
i found leicester a very pleasant experience with a surprising gate of 29,000 on a friday night. while i have a suspicion that there are more than a few fair-weather fans who were there in support of the team's current success, i had not realized how big a club leicester city really is. in my short time in the city i encountered an extensive and serene university campus, a big modern rugby stadium, a large park named in honour of nelson mandela and an obviously lively downtown club scene - and most of this on my walk to the match from the hotel.
of course, among other players of note, i got a chance to see david james in goal for bristol city.
from the point of view of the neutral, this was a terrific match. after an early leicester goal by yakubu and bristol city equalizer, the bulk of the matched was played poised on a 1-1 scoreline. bristol city played a really top notch game, keeping it tight with a sound defensive formation and then exerting a high tempo attack with a really good spell of possession late on. tactically, and as the away team, they went for the win at the right time. the home team responded, though, with some late defending to preserve at least a draw, before substitute, martin waghorn, scored the winner in injury time. an excellent evening's entertainment and another positive advert for CHAMPIONSHIP football.
Birmingham City F.C. 3-0 Sheffield Wednesday F.C.
my first trip to blues was a bit of a disappointment. the fans of our local rivals are a rough and barbaric inner-city cousin to the evidently more cultured black country folk from up the road. i felt uncomfortable in supporting blues (something i wouldn't usually do), but in light of it not being a league match and birmingham city being the club from whom i had purchased my ticket, i felt obliged to exchange my navy for royal blue - just for a few hours, anyway.
while i did consider the initial option of purchasing my ticket from sheffield wednesday, i wouldn't travel with visiting supporters other than the albion (or brentford, for whom i have a soft spot) under any circumstance whatsoever. even travelling with the baggies can be a bit rowdy for my liking, and the visiting supporters section is never the best place to watch the match from.
i also felt a bit confined as i had a bored steward sitting at the end of the adjoining block of seats, so i refrained from taking my usual photo of the kick-off.
there was an unfriendly feeling about the place. from the ridiculously cramped little club shop, or a line-up for the toilet at half-time, to the stadium's dreary highway landscape surrounding, it was all curiously unwelcoming. it certainly ai' the hawthorns!!! while i have always admired blues website for its extensive media content and quality of its online ticket service, i found the place itself bleak and cold.
i was seated, however, next to a charming middle-aged woman who was an obviously enthusiatic blues supporter. we commented on the impressive display of the sheffield wednesday supporters. she pointed out a character known as "mr. tango", who was, of course some ridiculously over-weight yorkshireman invariably wearing no shirt and boldly leading the rowdy but good natured wednesday support in song, dance and general party spirit.
"brilliant. isn't he?" she asked rhetorically.
i was most uncomfortable with her friendly attentions and having to feign any real feelings for blues.
"it's nice to have an early goal for once," she beamed following the home side's opener in the first few minutes.
"yes," i said, nodding my head in an attempt to display my support.
i have to give her credit. she was the best of sports fans, acknowledging a good tackle on the part of the owls as well as the better efforts of her obviously beloved blues. she would unconcsiously clutch at my shoulder as a birmingham city break would develop or a long range shot would go whistling over the wednesday goal.
"megson's doin' 'is nut," she pointed out in regards to the owls' new manager.
sure enough, sitting on the opposite side of the field from the dugouts you could hear him loud and clear screaming at this players in utter frustration. he was indeed "doin' 'is nut".
while blues scored early on through new signing, obafemi martins, and eventually won the match 3-0, i was most impressed by the travelling wednesday support. they outsang, outdanced and outchanted the home supporters all day long, and numbering 5,000 in a gate which only saw a 14,000 total, they constituted no mean presence. even after going 3-nil down they just kept jumping up and down and singing:
always look on the bright side of life,
da-doo da-doo da-do da-doo
it was absolutely brilliant and i can only hope that baggies support would be so good if ever faced with the generally dire situation that sheffield wednesday find themselves in at the moment - and besides not playing very good football on the day.
the coolest thing about going to blues was that i got to see kevin phillips play, as he came on as substitute at the beginning of the second half. while the game was already over, i'm happy to have merely seen him run around the pitch a bit, perpetually strolling back from an offside position and helping to kill the game off for birmingham city as they continue their good cup form this year. here was a blues players i was happy to cheer for and would've liked to see score.
i was happy enough to hear the final whistle and caught a taxi back to new street station, where i picked up my bags from the left luggage service and walked across the street to the COMFORT INN.
WBA 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C.
live text replay
i was up at 7.30 the next morning and aiming to catch a local train to the hawthorns at 10.30. i checked out of the hotel and again left my travelling bag and laptop at the left luggage service. with plenty of time to get there i meandered over to snow hill station and had a smoke before embarking for the trains.
as soon as i caught sight of the stadium i knew i was back in familiar territory. i smiled inwardly at the sense of belonging i experienced as the strangeness and cold feeling from having been at blues the day before dropped away. i was happy and confident of an albion victory. i had arrived.
i wasn't sure what to expect. i certainly hadn't seen any wolves supporters around the city centre or anywhere on the trains, and wasn't surprised to see that the gates for the visitors entrance at the smethwick end of the ground were closed and an unusually high police presence controlling the immediate area. without too much inspection or scrutiny of the situation i figured i'd walk round the long way and come in through the east stand parking lot.
the club shop was lively with action, there was a qeue at the ticket office, and a monstrous stretch limo was parked in front of reception. with the fact of a first ever PREMIER LEAGUE black country derby, both baggies and wolves desperately needing a result and roy hodgson making his debut in charge of west brom, it was certainly an auspicious and historic occassion.
it was evident, even without youssouf mulumbu in the side, that hodgson had done some tightening up of the back four and reset out how the midfield was going to defend. still, it was evident to most of us that gonzalo jara was still sitting way too far infield, allowing too much space for wolves' left-winger, matt jarvis, to go forward in.
unfortunately, it just wasn't one of the classics that we'll be watching on video for years to come. both teams were cautious, given the occassion and the critical need for league points in an approaching relegation battle. the baggies first-half performance was again disjointed and uneven due to the lack of youssouf mulumbu in central midfield, but the baggies did produce a couple of good opportunites that required timely reactions from wolves goalie, wayne hennessy. jonas olsson came close on a chris brunt corner-kick but his effort was saved. paul scharner then put in a header that curled just wide of the visitors goal. all in all, it was wolves defenders who had the better of the first 20 minutes or so.
the old-gold went ahead, scoring through a free-kick some three or four yards outside the albion penalty area. the move was simplicity itself and taken straight from training ground routines on set-pieces. with two wolves players hanging over the ball and the baggies forming up a wall, jostling for good defensive positions and picking up their marks inside the box, the ball was played square to midfielder jamie o'hara who had peeled off the back of the wolves front line and moved out of the box to a high central position some 20-25 yards out.
it was a clever move and and o'hara's curling shot beat albion keeper, boaz myhill, and nestled firmly in the top right-hand corner. there wasn't much that could be done about it, and myhill was caught holding only a slightly higher position than would have been necessary to make the save. given the height and distance of the shot, however, questioning the welsh number two's positioning is speculative at best.
while the visitors section of the smethwick went wild, the rest of us groaned at a circumstance with which we are all too familiar. the baggies were a goal down with only about 5 minutes of the first-half left to play.
the albion thoroughly dominated the second-half but not before matt jarvis - who had the beating of gonzalo jara all day - came close to putting the old-gold up 2-0 when a miscued header by a back-tracking paul scharner fell perfectly for the wolves winger to score their second five minutes in to the second period. however, boaz myhill's quick reacton in coming out to cover the angles forced jarvis' shot wide of the albion goal.
the baggies then again came close as jonas olsson beat wayne hennessy only to see his effort cleared off the line by matt jarvis, making up for his miss from a few minutes earlier. wolves, it seemed, were riding their luck a bit and depended on the good form of their welsh international goalie.
after carlos vela was brought on, the baggies upped the tempo and kept attacking the stout wolves defence. the mexican winger forced hennessy into a top-notch save as his low, hard blast at goal deflected off the back of wolves defender, karl henry, which could have easily seen the baggies draw level. the move finally ended with an over-cooked cross from albion striker, marc-antoine fortune. time was just beginning to slip away with less than 15 minutes normal time left on the clock.
what looked to be the baggies' best chance of the match went begging when fortune found himself wrong-footed as the ball ran past him directly in front of a gaping wolves' goal. as the 90 minute mark approached, some of the less optimistic baggies supporters started to make their way from the ground. it just did not appear to be albion's day.
however, and with 4 minutes injury time to be played, the baggies kept pressing and finally equalized in dramatic fashion with almost 92 minutes gone on the clock. steven reid moved the ball forward into space and this helped to fashion a 12 yard effort from midfielder james morrison. the initial shot was saved but bobbled by hennessy and carlos vela picked up the rebound to equalize in the most dramatic of fashions.
the hawthorns went wild. the day was saved. i wondered why anybody leaves a football match with only a 1 goal difference before the final whistle, as i thought of the baggies support that had made an early exit only to miss the high drama at game's end.
there are some draws that feel like a loss and some that feel like a win. this one felt a bit like a win and everybody save the wolves supporters were definitely buoyed by the baggies earning a late draw in a match they might just as easily have won.
even at this early stage of his tenure, roy hodgson's influence could already be felt in the way that the baggies approached this game, and there will no doubt be several essential changes he will make in regards to the starting squad over the next few weeks. for his first match in charge, hodgson did ok.
while it wasn't the high that one gets from a definitive win, i was happy with the result and returned to the west country feeling fine. my short tour of the midlands had found its satisfying end.