Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Fixture Too Far

WBA 1-2 Norwich City F.C.

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as there was no TV or internet streaming coverage that I could find, my only source of media for this fixture was through listening to john dunn and dave bowler on the ALBION RADIO transmission through the club website's ALBION PLAYER media service. this is usually how i would take in a game, anyway, even if it was live on TV.

again, it was home disappointment for the baggies, but much more personally, it was disappointing for me as they will now not be playing on the 18th of february at all, when i will next be in england. ironcially, i had booked a trip with the idea of seeing the sunderland game at the hawthorns on the 25th. of course, realizing that the PREMIER LEAGUE is suspended on the weekend before that on account of the FA CUP, i decided to gamble that the the baggies would make it through to the 5th round.

at first i was rather philosophical about where i might be on the 18th of february, but as the date has drew nearer, i became more and more optimistic about the possibilities. i eventually convinced myself that the albion couldn't possibly lose twice to norwich in the space of two weeks - and certainly not twice at the hawthorns! by the morning of the game i was more concerned with where the baggies would be drawn in the next round than i was with the outcome of the game. i was already taking a west brom win for granted.

so here i was, starting to imagine that i might see the baggies at home to spurs or away to the the villa or blues - when canadian international, simeon jackson, took full advantage of a basic mistake by craig dawson to win the game. receiving a throw-in in his own half, the young albion centre-half brought the ball down but inexplicably failed to properly clear or control the ball. the canaries' striker, who had come on as substitute in the 64th minute, stepped in and left him for dead, neatly sliding the ball wide of keeper ben foster and into the far corner of the net to provide the winning goal.

once again, we're all left wondering just how the baggies could they have possibly lost at home again after having so thoroughly dominated the statistics? they outshot the canaries 13-7 - 10 of their shots were on target! they had more of the ball than norwich and won 7 corners to only 3 for the visitors. they were even creating the better chances - and right from the outset too.

jerome thomas had an early effort tipped onto the crossbar by canaries goalie, jed steer, which set the tone for the baggies dominance in both statistics and opportunity. peter odemwingie then had a decent long range effort stopped by steer, before the nigerian international put simon cox through on goal where he was met by the norwich keeper astutely coming off his line to deny the baggies' striker from point blank range.

it's truly a shame that the domestic cups have become so devalued in the PREMIER LEAGUE era; especially for a club whose historical renown has always been inextricably linked to their successes in cup competitions.

with my flight already booked, this result was a monstrous drag and one wonders when the albion might start to have a bit of luck at the hawthorns. of course, as i won't be going to watch the baggies playing in the FA CUP when i am next in england,and i suppose a trip to my local conference team, bath city, will be how i spend the afternoon of the 18th. i will, however, be at the hawthorns on the 25th when the baggies host sunderland and try to put an end to the string of poor results that have dogged their home games since november 19th.

it's the same thing that we've been seeing all season - the baggies are playing decent football but getting no results at home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Contrast Stark and Clear

Stoke City F.C. 1-2 WBA

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the baggies cannot seem to win at home. conversely, they are all but unbeatable on the road.

the gaffer doesn't understand it. the players are equally perplexed, and the home supporters are downright miserable. just what is going on at the hawthorns this year?

while everyone who follows english football with any regularity knows that the second year after a promotion is the most difficult, those who count themselves among some of the most intelligent and witty football supporters in the country have found the truth behind this wisdom rather hard to swallow.

since the days when vic buckingham was manager, and with players like ray barlow and ronnie allen in the side, it has always been a mandate at west bromwich albion football club that the team should play an attractive attacking game based on scoring more goals than their opponents. however, the wiser heads in charge of running the club this year have opted for a tactically defensive approach as being more pragmatic in realizing their goals of survival and continued competition in the most prestigious domestic league in the world.

roy hodgson has added real steel to what was sometimes a tentative and mistake prone defence. i don't think anyone would disagree that goalie, ben foster, is a huge improvement on previous starter, scott carson; and defenders, gareth mcauley and craig dawson - in varying partnership with the redoubtable baggies veteran, jonas olsson - are a full cut above anyone who has played at centre-half since the days of john wile. young fullback, billy jones, has shown that he's a first class defender on either side of the pitch, while veterans like stephen reid and nicky shorey have provided a steadying influence in providing cover for attacks down the flanks.

up front, the talent of new striker, shane long, has been apparent since the the outset of the season, and the full range of his game was revealed in the baggies' win over wolves back in october. the irish international has all the qualities needed for successful counter-attacking football, and has even surprised some of the hawthorns faithful with his pace, skill in the air and first-class hold-up play.

unlike the naive but beautiful passing game promoted by tony mowbray, or the raw inexperience of roberto di matteo, hodgson knows that to play in the same league with the likes of manchester united, liverpool, arsenal and chelsea, the most successful style of football will likely be found in good defending paired with quick, incisive counter-attacking. what he has found, however, is that this is of little use when playing at home against footballing contemporaries like wigan, stoke, everton and norwich city who themselves play pretty much the same way.

WBA 1-2 Norwich City F.C.

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nowhere has this been more evident than in the last two matches; a home loss to the canaries, who they beat 0-1 earlier in the season at carrow road, and last weekend's away victory at stoke, where the reverse fixture at the hawthorns produced an undeserved 0-1 win for the visitors.

unlike the free-flowing football with lots of goals that the baggies play when competing in the football league, the gaffer has set the side out to keep its shape and frustrate anyone trying to get a look at goal. in fact, ben foster has, more often than not, had very little to do in terms of spectacular saves, and the well organized defence has seen the side through even without the indispensable jonas olsson marshalling the back-line.

outside of the top five or six sides, the premier league has become a predominantly counter-attacking league. in the early 21st century, the mark of any successful side, whether it's chelsea or birmingham city, is their ability to defend and counter-attack. while the top clubs have the players and individual skill to play a more complete style of football, the second grade premiership sides are having to rely increasingly on their ability to hold out and hit back on the break.

this season, for the baggies and their manager, roy hodgson, the tactics have somewhat backfired. west bromwich albion are keeping pace with what would usually be expected of a recently promoted team, and despite the fan reaction to what has been perceived as "negative football", they look set to survive and will likely be competing in an unprecedented third consecutive premier league campaign next year. however, they have only managed 8 points from home games this year, compared to the 17 they've collected on the road.

only the two manchester clubs, chelsea and spurs have better away records than the baggies.

the inexplicable and perhaps unlucky home results have not gone over well with the home support. when wigan athletic came to the hawthorns in november, things turned ugly and the home side were booed from the field as they went down in defeat to the league's bottom club by a score of 1-2. any other year, their renowned black country wit would have seen them through the tough times, but something has happened to the atmosphere at the hawthorns and perhaps last year's 11th place finish has created unrealistic expectations.

there is no doubt that a gap in perception now exists between the hawthorns faithful and the management. where RH has been adamant that it is a matter of "unlucky results" rather than "form" that has seen the baggies without a home win since beating bolton wanderers on the 19th of november, the supporters are less forgiving and are critical of the football they have been seeing at the hawthorns this season.

"yeah, it's strange," hodgson told the BBC following the victory at stoke, "there seems to be a bit of a hoodoo on us at the hawthorns. i would be happier, to some extent, if we were playing badly or being outplayed and as a result losing matches there, but the everton game, and the wigan game, and the norwich game - three recent games... we've been a little bit unlucky to lose them because we haven't played badly at all..."

at the moment, it would be hard to get the average west brom supporter to agree and make this kind of distinction.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hard Times at the Hawthorns

WBA 4-2 Cardiff City F.C.

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i have to admit that i have found it hard to keep up with my blogging since the baggies' home loss to wigan athletic. it seems that we have gone from being some of the best home supporters in the top division of english football to some of the worst.

this has no doubt been brought about by the club's woeful home form in the league. so, and on the tail of yet another home defeat, perhaps the FA Cup would be a welcome distraction to the concerns of the league, and an all too rare chance for simon cox to get a start at his natural striker's position in partnership with peter odemwingie.

the young striker, now in his third season with the albion, took the opportunity to show his quality as a goal-scorer by putting a hat-trick past a cardiff side who themselves are chasing promotion from the championship.

while this was more like a classic albion performance with plenty of goals and a 4-2 score-line, the domestic cup competitions have become so devalued in these days of ridiculous money, that cox' performance still did little to satisfy the home faithful. even scoring three goals against a side with whom the baggies are probably more truly competitive with than any of the top six clubs in their own division, relatively few supporters, or so it would seem, appear convinced that simon cox can play premier league football.

with the focus of the professional game now concentrated almost exclusively on a club's league form - and with the rise of season-ticket culture - the domestic cups are of hugely diminished interest at the higher levels of both the premier and football leagues. in fact, for a competition that used to set attendance records for domestic football in england, some of the bigger clubs attract cup-game crowds only half the size of those for a regular league fixture.

while i hope that his goal-scoring performance is enough to impress the gaffer and get simon cox a place in the starting eleven - for a few games at least - the more vocal of the baggies' support will still judge a cup hat-trick as being of little consequence and will continue to assert that cox still "ay' good enough" to play in the almighty, bloody premier league.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. 1-0 WBA

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this has to be hailed as a brave effort from the albion, and to echo the sentiments of RH following a well disciplined defensive display by the baggies, this was indeed "an honourable defeat".

with the injury list piling up and a wretched home form to deal with, the most recent results are beginning to erode whatever cushion the albion had, coming into the new year, between them and the relegation places. this may very well have been a draw had the baggies not been on the wrong end of a series of recent penalty decisions.

when the ball was played into jermain defoe on the edge of the 6-yard box by a rampaging gareth bale with just over an hour gone, it appeared that this was in the back of everyone's mind. despite having craig dawson and gareth mcauley providing adequate marking for the diminutive striker, the baggies' defenders were momentarily tentative and not giving away a penalty was clearly in dawson's mind. their hesitation allowed defoe just enough time and space to turn and find the corner of the net, just beyond the reach of goalie, ben foster.

in context, it was another loss when at least a point seemed on offer, but the the team's overall defensive display and disciplined shape was definitely something positive to cling to, and indicates how difficult it will continue to be to beat the baggies away from the hawthorns.

WBA 0-1 Everton F.C.

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i'm sure that i'm not the only football fan who felt like he had been used after this dismal new year's display.

who could possibly have benefited from a noon kick-off on new year's day?

this was just a bad idea all around. i'm sure that anyone who was unfortunate enough to have paid the £40 ticket price would've been happier with a late kick-off rather than having to be at the hawthorns three hours earlier than usual - and most certainly on the day after new year's eve!

nor was it of any convenience for me having to wake up at 6.30 AM for a 7 AM kick-off.

the truth is that the premier league - and to a lesser extent football in general - will ever increasingly have to do the bidding of skySPORTS and its insatiable appetite for turning football into TV money.

not only are we at the time of year when fixtures traditionally come thick and fast, but with upcoming FA Cup games to be played on the weekend, the premier league obviously feels that it has to squeeze in this extra set of matches to make up for what it perceives as upcoming lost TV revenues.

i have to admit at the excitement i first felt when, 20 seasons ago, english football went live on TV here in north america. it was one of those things i could only have dreamed about as a kid. however, i'm beginning to feel like the dream is over, and that life in the premier league is more like having to live with a miserable psychological condition than watching a football competition.

for the baggies, this was a total disaster. to an already depleted side with at least two long-term injuries, we can now count club captain, chris brunt, who somehow managed to fracture his ankle in stoppage time and will be out for 8-10 weeks.

to add insult to injury, the baggies gave up an 87th minute goal to toffees' substitute, victor anichebe.

this was just terrible football all around and an insult to everyone who made the effort... a real disgrace!