Sunday, October 30, 2011

Aston Villa F.C. 1-2 WBA

match text commentary

with only 2600 tickets allotted to the supporters of west bromwich albion football club for an away day at villa park, i travelled to england knowing that i would not be attending this particular derby. even as a membership subscriber to the club's ticket scheme, i was not given a chance to buy a ticket.

this was, in fact, the first match that i have missed following in real time either through listening to online, watching on TV or attending live - and that includes all major competitions - in over four years.

on my second trip, two seasons ago and going for promotion in the championship, i saw the baggies play three times at home and once away to swansea, all in the space of two weeks. the match at liberty stadium was won 0-2, on a penalty by graham dorrans and a late goal by ishmael miller and all but clinched automatic promotion for the baggies. it was a match that was highly symbolic of the albion's success that year and a defining moment of the season. i remember the experience vividly... how time stood still for a moment as miller deftly cut back around swans goalie, dorus de vries, and fired home to emphasize the victory.

what i don't remember is having any particular difficulty in obtaining a ticket for the game.

this year - and with both teams in the almighty, bloody premier league - it was reported that the same trip to south wales was sold-out as 3000 baggies supporters travelled to the liberty stadium to witness their team's worst performance of the season to date, as the baggies conceded three goals and dropped all three points.

knowing that the swansea trip had been sold-out, i knew i would have to be online the moment that the ticket office opened if i was to get a ticket for the villa. however, after finding out that tickets would be available to season-ticket holders for a full 9 days before i would get a crack at it, i was not hopeful. especially after i learned (much to my chagrin) that only 2600 tickets were going to be made available to travelling away supporters.

in any case, on the day i woke myself up at 4 AM EST in order that i would be online as soon as the ticket office opened, and whatever tickets might still be available were scheduled to be released for purchase by those with club membership, like myself. this also coincided with tickets to the home game with liverpool going on sale to both season-ticket and membership subscribers. i logged into my account, clicked on the BUY TICKETS tab, which delivered me to the EVENTS SCHEDULE page from where one makes their selection and proceeds to CHECK-OUT to complete their purchase.

however, there was no link posted to tickets for aston villa (away). there were links to tickets for the bus trip from the hawthorns to villa park and the upcoming home match with liverpool, but nothing for the ticket i wanted. i sat for a few minutes, refreshed the page and waited for a link to appear. ultimately, it never did and i went back to bed knowing that i was not going to get an away ticket for the match against the villa.

by the time i woke-up again at 8.30-9.00, a link to tickets for the villa game had appeared on the EVENT SCHEDULE, but this only led to a message saying that the match was sold-out.

what is really bugging me at this point, is that villa park holds 42000 some-odd, while liberty stadium just barely scratches a capacity of 20000. how had there been 3000 tickets made available for a match in south wales and only 2600 for a game to be played barely four miles away? on top of that, villa's attendance is down by an average of 3000 seats per match this season. this is a loss of about 10% of their regular home support and i thought west brom would have at least 5000 spots allotted.

while i will never know the truth, it turns out that the villa is not particularly interested in accommodating away supporters.

for example, there is no real "away" end at villa park. visiting opposition supporters are shunted into two sections in a corner between the doug ellis and north stands, facilitating cut-price tickets to home supporters in the lower tiers of the north stand and ensuring that there is exclusively home support behind both goals. while the smethwick end at the hawthorns is shared, it is a significantly smaller stadium and visiting supporters are, in fact, given a traditional space behind the goal. under the present set-up, the smethwick can accommodate just over 2500 away supporters for regular league matches.

so, while there were plenty of tickets still available to the general public in the "home" sections of villa park on the day of the match, the two "away" sections were listed on the villa website as "0% availability". i'm sure there were more than one or two baggies who zipped up their jackets to conceal their shirts, hid their scarves under their coats and bought tickets to sit in hostile territory, but that is something i just wouldn't think to do.

in other words, i wasn't about to travel to birmingham without a ticket. neither would i have wanted to buy a ticket that would necessitate me concealing the fact that i am a west bromwich albion supporter, might put me at risk of being denied entrance or possibly even removed from the ground. not to mention having to sit in a section of the stadium with people i don't want to be with!

having promised myself that i would miss no opportunity to watch live football during my time in england, i had already implemented a contingency plan and bought a ticket to watch cardiff city at home to barnsley. however - and no matter how hard i try - i do not like cardiff city football club, and barnsley are only remembered with some faint and long past fondness on my part for having beaten liverpool in the quarter-finals of the FA CUP a few seasons back. i was hoping that with michael chopra gone i wouldn't hate the bluebirds as i once did. while this was indeed the case, i could still find no real sympathy with them, and i wish i had stayed in chilcompton and listened to the villa game on the ALBION RADIO. but then, i can stay at home in canada to do that - and watch it on TV too!

with the bright, blazing mid-afternoon sun at cardiff city stadium uncomfortably in my eyes and half-time just set upon us, i heard the first news of the albion/villa match announced on the PA system along with other scores of the day:

"aston villa 1, west bromwich albion 1..."

i clenched my fist and stabbed covertly at the air.

"yes!!!" i hissed to myself.

with the score 5-2 and just going into injury time, i decided i'd get a head start and see if i couldn't catch the 5.30 train from cardiff central.

i saw the third barnsley goal on the TV screen by the burger and pies stand.

that is surely that, i thought to myself, and hustled outside back in the direction i had come from.

i ran up the stairs onto the platform at grangetown and just barely made the train back to cardiff central where i caught the 5.30 going in the direction of bristol temple meads. i settled into my seat and called my mother on the cell phone to say that i had managed to get the early train and would be at bath spa within about an hour and a half.

"west brom won!!!" she said excitedly in answering, "west brom won!!! i just heard it on the news."

i was stunned by what my mother was trying to tell me. her excitement had taken me aback and i was almost speechless.

"that's great... wow... that's the best news all day... oh, that's just so great!!!"

when i got off the phone i smiled to myself and kicked at the floor to emphasize my joy at hearing that yet another old hoodoo had been dispelled and fallen by the wayside.

"BAGGIES!!!" i could only just contain myself.

i was happy enough in the moment knowing that i would see it on MATCH OF THE DAY.

it turned out to be a great day for the baggies despite the loss of shane long with a speculative knee injury that might see the young striker out for as much as six weeks. it was a dirty game played by the villa, and manager, alex mcleish, had told his defenders to get out and intimidate the opposition... hurt them, so to speak. alan hutton's tackle on long was shamelessly brutal football by today's standards and could easily have been justified a red card.

hutton wasn't even warned. however, there was an incident away from the play in the villa penalty area that saw villa midfielder, chris herd, dismissed for a stomp on jonas olsson. the baggies had a man advantage and a penalty. albion troubles with penalty kicks continued, as captain, chris brunt - normally a penalty taker of the highest order but having a poor run of form as of late - sliced the ball yards wide of the mark, wasting albion's first opportunity to equalize.

luckily, the baggies captain made up for it only minutes later with a perfectly delivered corner kick that saw jonas olsson heading the ball into the villa goal for honours even at the half; and another chris brunt corner kick in the 57th minute produced the opportunity for paul scharner to smash home the winner.

i've been to st. andrews to watch blues play. i've also bought tickets for and been to walsall, brentford, millwall, swansea, leicester city, bath city, yeovil town and bristol city. i was even at the old highbury stadium and stamford bridge in 1976 and made a single trip to the old wembley for an international friendly in 1974. while there are more than one or two of these experiences that have left me cold and without any feeling for the clubs involved, cardiff city was a low-point and the first time i have ever left a football ground before the final whistle.

travelling to see the baggies play in the championship two seasons ago was great fun. i saw them play six games in two visits, including the away match at swansea. not to mention that i could have made it to a seventh game if i had been enterprising enough to make the twelve hour return train journey to middlesbrough and back. truthfully, and with west brom now in the premier league, the championship provides much better opportunity for someone travelling from abroad with the intention of supporting their favourite football team live at the stadium.

i returned to canada too late (by just a few hours in fact) of even seeing the aston villa game repeated on TV and have only seen the footage offered on MATCH OF THE DAY and the 10 minute highlight video on the baggies website.

i am still fuming about this, and i probably won't get over it until my next trip to england sometime later in the new year. in my frustration, i have also promised myself that anyone seen wearing an aston villa jersey is going to get a hassle for it. even though it's not really my style, any villa supporter who crosses my path on this side of the atlantic will leave my presence understanding more about the historical animosity between their club and mine.

while i am thankful that the premier league has given us live TV coverage and repeats of all top-flight matches played over any given weekend, i shall have to wait until my beloved baggies are once again established as a major force in the top-flight and competitive european games have returned to the hawthorns on a regular basis before they'll be playing enough football for my convenience.

i won't be expecting that to happen too soon. i guess i can always hope for a cup run... a good home draw? hey, you never know!!

until then - and if you live in toronto and support the villa - you better stay out of my f**king way!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

WBA 2-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C.

match text commentary

this was sweet fare for the hawthorns crowd, and the first home win of the season.

while this was my first trip to the hawthorns this year - and my eighth visit in the last three seasons - it was, without a doubt, the most electric atmosphere i have yet encountered when attending football at the hawthorns. for the first time i could really feel what being in the premier league actually means for a club like west bromwich albion.

i am not always a fan of the top-flight and how it has created such a huge gap between the top four or five clubs and everyone else, but i have to admit that there is a level of intensity to being in the premier league that one cannot ignore. competing in the top-flight lends you a special status as every week you are seen on TV and known to football fans all over the world. it is a league where every game is of international importance - and for the baggies, they don't come more important than this one.

thankfully, roy hodgson has wisely continued to ignore all the blather about tactical formation and did just what he should have: field the most in-form individual players - those who are best adapted to the gaffer's system and those who understand his footballing vision.

all in all hodgson made four changes from the team that had drawn away to sunderland and home to fulham before the international break. nicky shorey - being off-form as of late, was replaced by billy jones at left-back. graham dorrans, james morrison and peter odemwingie were all on the bench, as somen tchoyi, jerome thomas and paul scharner all took a place in the starting eleven.

wolves started the match with a couple of incisive attacks down the albion flanks, testing albion goalie, ben foster, early on and forcing a finger-tip save that flashed across the face of the baggies goal on a shot from adam hammill. the wolves midfielder would have a similar and even better chance in the second half which would again be saved by foster and equally in similar fashion. however - and with hodgson's genius for defense and counter-attack - the more wolves pressed the baggies back line, the more opportunity opened up for the albion through the excellent forward play of shane long.

the republic of ireland international chased balls down the wings with a pace that surprised even the hawthorns faithful. his running of the channels was excellent and the young striker terrorized both wolves centre-backs, roger johnson and cristophe berra, all afternoon. he was confident on the ball and the quality of his hold-up play was evident from early on.

long served an early warning of intent when he took a long ball on the centre-line cleared from the back by chris brunt. making a good run just inside the opposition half, but having no immediate support, the albion forward held the ball up, took on the wolves defenders and moved himself into a position for an accurate but ultimately speculative long-range strike at goal. with nothing else on, he had made something happen.

i don't really know what to say about somen tchoyi... the one inescapable truth is that the baggies seem to play better when he's on the pitch. watching him play just makes you laugh - one way or the other. he doesn't much like to pass the ball; that's one thing. but there is a tenacious quality to his play. even when he's held onto the ball too long and the opportunity to pass has been cut off, he fights his way forward until he finds space or is knocked off the ball completely. he's not everybody's favourite, and maybe it's just the sense of fun that he brings to the occasion, but the baggies are most definitely a better team when he's in the side.

because he is a generally unorthodox player it's easy to underestimate tchoyi, but his unwillingness to give up the football and his play around the edge of the box lead directly to brunt's opening goal. he is much more useful than he first appears, and always looked dangerous throughout the match with his possession and holding up the ball on the periphery of the penalty area.

of course, ensuing results will form the final judgement on the season - and as it progresses - but it's safe to say that this match revealed the arguments and discussion as to the team's tactical formation to be largely superficial, and no more than distracting media hype and fodder for discussion on various online message-boards.

what was important here was the quality of the team performance and had little to do with actual tactical formation. it was also a good example of how a traditional 4-4-2 formation is meant to defend. that is, the baggies allowed the wolves some space to play through the midfield, but closed down the forwards then looked to clear and release a front-running hold-up player. the tactic worked brilliantly.

i mean, who would have put money on the baggies producing two clean-sheets back-to-back?

chris brunt worked tirelessly at getting back to defend, and was instrumental in breaking up several wolves attacks down the albion right flank. after some less than inspired performances for the republic of ireland, gareth mcauley was excellent and probably worth baggies "man-of-the-match" and looks to be the centre-half that the baggies have long needed to partner the ever-steady jonas olsson.

with four out of five goals scored within the first five minutes of their previous matches, the albion continued this particular trend when youssouf mulumbu picked up the ball just outside wolves penalty area and spotted albion debutant, billy jones, making a run outside the wolves defenders on the left of the box. jones timed his run to perfection, staying onside and taking mulumbu's pass to the bi-line before squaring the ball back for captain chris brunt to smash home his first league goal of the season in the eighth minute.

wolves missed their best opportunity of the match to draw level within minutes when what looked an absolutely certain goal was saved on the line by jonas olsson. the move started with a low-cross from matt jarvis giving nenad milijas a chance on goal which was parried away by ben foster. the ball fell to kevin doyle at the far post who looked a certainty to score on an open net from point-blank range. but the wolves striker was thwarted as jonas olsson, in a brilliant display of defending, threw himself in the way to block the shot on the line. an audible sigh of relief went through the hawthorns. wolves wouldn't come as close again.

the real brilliance of how roy hodgson sets out to play football lies in his emphasis on defending and use of the counter attack. the back four were resolute, even when under siege from the wolves attack. in fact, it was the wolves attacking that constantly lead to the albion breaking and creating the better of the opportunities throughout the match. it was also a proper display of how to defend from the front, with midfielders dropping back to help cover for their full-backs.

both paul scharner and youssouf mulumbu had opportunities to score just before the break.

with nothing else on, mulumbu's long range effort swerved dangerously and could only be parried away by wolves keeper, wayne hennessy, however no one was in a position to follow up and wolves cleared easily.

scharner's opportunity came on a concise baggies counter-attack, with shane long running the ball down the left channel and cutting the ball back for the austrian whose effort only just curled past the far post.

peter odemwingie came on for somen tchoyi in the 72nd minute, and it didn't take the nigerian international long to shake off the slump that has plagued his season thus far. opportunistically, odemwingie took a sublime back-heel from paul scharner and slotted the ball home to send the hawthorns into relieved delirium.

for the moment, the baggies are champions of the black country.

roy hodgson's albion are starting to look good. things are beginning to gel and i think the team have generally adapted to the way that hodgson has wanted them to play all along. although i wasn't lucky enough to get a ticket for the match at villa park next week, i fully expect an albion victory and another historical bogey to be dispelled forever.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sunderland A.F.C. 2-2 WBA

match text commentary

before this match had ever kicked-off, any albion supporter would probably have (even if somewhat grudgingly) taken the single-point away to a sunderland team that bought big over the summer, and have made no secret of their ambition to consolidate their place as a top-ten side in the premier league. however, after having seen the baggies go 0-2 up in the first 5 minutes - on goals by much-maligned winger, james morrison, and in-form striker, shane long - albion supporters would feel like this was two points dropped.

while overall team performance in the first-half was much better than either the away win at norwich or the 3-goal loss at swansea, it was not what we have come to expect from the baggies over the last few years under the likes of tony mowbray and roberto di matteo.

roy hodgson has stuck with the tactical gambit of controlling the tempo of the match through solid defending and incisive counter-attacking - especially away from home. while it may be a bit one-dimensional and certainly doesn't seem to make adequate use of the considerable talent that the baggies have in midfield, it was most effective in the win at norwich city. west brom allowed their hosts a significant advantage in possession but allowed no real scoring opportunities, and kept an all too rare clean-sheet. it was classically economical football played from the back, creating the better chances coming forward and west brom should have won by 2 or 3.

the first mistake against sunderland was not to push on more aggressively and find the third goal. with their opponents on the ropes and the home crowd having turned on them, a 3-goal deficit would have left the black cats too much of mountain to climb and no hope of coming back.

the sunderland home support have recently grown frustrated - and vocally demonstrative about it - with gaffer, steve bruce, and the general perception of the club's start to the season as being unacceptably mediocre. in fact, with the wearsiders having come back from a 2-goal deficit to equalize, they were quite amazingly booed off the park at half-time. the big money buying has brought with it some big expectations and a palpable, hostile impatience now permeates the atmosphere at the stadium of light.

for me, the difference in this match was sunderland midfielder, stephane sessegnon. the benin international had served notice in the 13th minute when a long ball into the albion penalty area ended with a low, hard shot running just wide of ben foster's right-hand post. the baggies got another scare 10 minutes later when a similar effort was turned in for an apparent goal by ex-birmingham city midfielder, sebastian larsson. having spotted his team-mate's run, larsson got in behind his marker and redirected another low, hard drive by sessegnon into the albion goal. however, it was called back as larsson had made his run a step too early and was correctly ruled to be offside.

the black cats kept coming and finally made the breakthrough when sessegnon's next ball in at goal - and again running at the albion left flank - was back-heeled by larsson to the on-rushing ex-arsenal striker, nicklas bendtner. his shot took a deflection and left the already committed foster flailing and going the wrong way with no chance whatsoever of making a stop.

the equalizer came only minutes later through a nicklas bendtner cross which found ahmed elmohamady in front of goal. the egyptian had gotten in behind his marker and buried a hard, pacey header to make it 2-2.

roy hodgson should probably have put youssouf mulumbu on sessegnon, man-marked him out of the game and worked to deny him possession much higher up the pitch. the sunderland midfielder was brilliant whenever given a chance to run with the ball between the half-way line and baggies' penalty area.

while the baggies were probably the slightly better team over the first 45 minutes, they were decidedly second best after the break. in fact, nothing about the second-half was as good as the first, and both teams exhibited the desperate need not to lose more than either showed the desire to push on for the win. nonetheless, it was the black cats who had the better of the chances when, once again, sessegnon ran aggressively at the west brom back line before slipping a ball out to elmohamady on the right. the egyptian had a clear look at goal and a decent angle from which to shoot. but ben foster stood up, made himself big and positioned himself well to make a decisive save and maintain the score-line.

while the stadium of light crowd has, in no uncertain terms, made their disappointment clear, baggies fans are not too terribly happy about this year's campaign thus far either. perhaps it was the last season's 10th and 11th place finishes, respectively, creating yet more false dawns in the wasteland of dashed dreams and despair that is called the barclay's premier league?

there's no doubt that the gaffer has got the baggies defending much better as a team, and it has only been individual errors that have worked against them. however, the passing play through the midfield, as well as the the odemwingie/long strike partnership, hasn't really gelled yet. in truth, the two strikers together haven't looked anywhere near as dangerous as when long was partnered with somen tchoyi in the first two matches.

but it is odemwingie who hasn't clicked yet. while there have been moments when a ball coming over the top and the nigerian's pace against isolated defenders has looked dangerous, his decision making has been poor and is looking so hard to score that he is not seeing the play around him. in fact, with only a single pass completed between odemwingie and long in this match, a true "partnership" couldn't really be said to exist, as such.

so much has been said and written by TV and radio pundits, as well as posts in online fan forums, about "formation". there is endless opinion and lament concerning the abandonment of the successful 4-5-1 formation that roberto di matteo was forced to use when he had run out of fit strikers at half-time in an fa cup-tie with newcastle united. while they continued playing this way through the back end of last season, this year roy hodgson has reverted to a more conventional set up featuring two strikers.

what should be obvious from the nature of how the baggies have dropped points over the first seven games is that their lack of success has less to do with the formation than it does individual form. shane long got off the mark early. so far, he has been the best player on the team and has continued to improve over the first seven games. chris brunt looks to have come into form, being instrumental in the baggies' opening goal and having had a really good all-around performance against sunderland. stephen reid has grown into the right back spot and has definitely added strength to what was perhaps the side's weakest position. gareth mcauley has come into the first team and immediately proved a solid partner for jonas olsson in central defence. on the other hand, graham dorrans has created one or two exciting moments, but hasn't shown any of the charisma and creativity of which he is capable. james morrison has been wildly inconsistent, and the usually steady left-back, nicky shorey, has been responsible for several costly fundamental errors. as for the defensive midfield, youssouf mulumbu has played pretty well, paul scharner hasn't. in other words: individual form is all over the shop... never mind debating "formation"!

at this point, i would suggest that "selection" is where hodgson and his staff should be focussing their attentions. after all, it is only seven games into the schedule, and whatever the supporters feel, or what expectations have been created, after a solid mid-table finish last term, we've all got to remember that the goal is to place 17th or better in the league table on the final day of the season. period.

with so much attention having been paid to the acquisition of striker, shane long, and the retention of last year's goal-scoring leader, peter odemwingie, there has, no doubt, been pressure on the gaffer to play these two strikers together at the first opportunity. odemwingie was kept out of the side for the first two games due to a recurring ankle injury, and didn't get a start until the disastrous away loss to swansea city, having only come on briefly as a substitute late in the game against stoke city.

shane long is set to become the club's record signing through performance related contingencies in his contract, and the albion were forced to offer odemwingie substantial improvements to his existing deal with the club in order to ensure his stay at the hawthorns. however, it is only long that has impressed so far, having scored 3 goals already and his play continuing to improve; while odemwingie has struggled and despite netting the winner in west brom's solitary win, has been desperately out of form.

right now, the gaffer has to figure out how to inspire better, more assured performances from his charges and stick with his concept of making the albion a difficult side to break down with a solid spine from back to front. he also needs the goal-scorers in the team to step up and create more goal opportunities. chris brunt, graham dorrans, morrison and mulumbu need to be more adventurous in attack; and perhaps the gaffer needs to give simon cox a start alongside shane long up front.

4-5-1? 4-4-2?

forget about everything else and sort out your best footballers, mate.