Friday, April 27, 2012

Liverpool F.C. 0-1 WBA

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we will only know with the passage of time, but this may have been the moment that heralded the return of west bromwich albion as one of the country's top football clubs. that is not to suggest that they will ever win the league title (or even challenge for a top-four finish, for that matter); and they certainly won't win the UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE. but long term survival in the PREMIER LEAGUE? an FA or LEAGUE CUP final? qualification for the EUROPA LEAGUE?!? these are all certainly possibilities and achievable goals for a club of the size and resource of west bromwich albion.

when the PREMIER LEAGUE began in the 1992-93 season, west bromwich albion was just coming out of the worst period in the club's history; as well as the lowest finish in the league ever - 7th in the old 3rd DIVISION.

that same year, the baggies - having finished 4th in the new LEAGUE DIVISION 2, won promotion through a 3-2 victory over swansea in a two-legged semi-final; and in their first wembley appearance since 1970 they beat port vale 3-0 to make their return to the second-tier.

following several years of relatively mediocre football, west bromwich albion were returned to the top-flight (now called the PREMIER LEAGUE) under the guidance of gary megson and featuring the prolific goal-scoring of lee hughes. however, this was one of the weakest teams ever to qualify for the competition and they were relegated immediately. thus began a decade of flirtation with promotion/relegation scenarios between the top-flight and what is now called the FOOTBALL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP. the baggies have not played in the same division for more than two years consecutively since.

this, of course, will change next year when the baggies will be competing in the BARCLAY'S PREMIER LEAGUE for the third season running. depending on what they actually go on to accomplish during their time in the top flight - and however long that might be - this just may be the match in which they finally arrived as a bona fide PREMIER LEAGUE side. the baggies defended like demons against a misfiring liverpool and took their late chance to win the match in opportunistic fashion and in the manner of a club instilled with a culture of "winning".

make no mistake - this match was won more by the management of roy hodgson, and his philosophy that to win in football you have to keep the other side from scoring than it was down to any individual performances. it's no coincidence that the baggies did not concede in any of their recent victories. even their loss to manchester city, with its final scoreline of 4-0, might have been worse had it not been for the form of goalie, ben foster and the play of centre-half, craig dawson, who deputized for jonas olsson on short notice, as the big swede had picked up an injury during the pre-game warm-up.

while not all west brom supporters have been supportive of the gaffer as a tactician - or appreciated his style of football - it has seen the baggies through the successful end of one season, and - as things stand at the minute - an even more successful season this year. after this win west brom is 10th in the table and on course to finish ahead of where they did last year. i'm not surprised that there are some discontented fans. since as early as the 1950s, aggressive attacking football has been the order of the day at the hawthorns, and i can see how a diet of away wins would starve a home season ticket holder, but there is no arguing with success and they learned to live with tight, disciplined football under gary megson for that very reason. eventually, everyone will have to defer to the gaffer and admit that its been a good time for the club and there's every reason to believe that it can continue.

it was in the 75th minute - and with the baggies defence having weathered relentless attack by the reds - youssouf mulumbu pressured liverpool right-back, glen johnson, into giving the ball away in dangerous area and at a crucial time in the match. the congolese midfielder then pushed the ball on for peter odemwingie and with space opening up in front of him, the nigerian took on reds' goalie, pepe reina, giving him a look at the far post but putting the ball in the net on the spaniard's near-side. there was little reina could do but stand and watch as the albion had scored their first goal at anfield in their last five visits.

it was fitting that the baggies earned this victory 45 years to the day since they had last posted a win at anfield. the winning goal that day was scored by club legend, jeff astle. at the time, west bromwich albion were in the middle of a golden period for the club, which saw them win both the LEAGUE and FA CUPs as well as appearances in two more wembley finals.

the baggies were by no means dominant going forward and luis suarez looked the best player in that respect for long periods - especially in the second half. but ben foster in the albion goal has been playing better and better as the season moves towards its climax, while jonas olsson and gareth mcauley showed, once again, why they are the best centre-half pairing to wear the navy-and-white stripes since the days of ally robertson and john wile. the duo threw themselves into a series of tackles and blocked shots that were essential to the albion's defensive performance and ultimate victory. however, the real star for the baggies was striker, shane long.

while the irish international has been in and out of the side through injury and illness for much of the season, his tireless running of the channels, winning of aerial balls and pressing play up front was a major factor in the win. his work against liverpool was first class and as good as any showing he has put in all year. long's was the standout performance in a team of standout performances.

it has been a year of dispelling long time hoodoos and putting them to rest, but this was one of the really big ones. next, the baggies will try and complete the double over aston villa (at home) and cement their place as the top team in the west midlands.

Monday, April 23, 2012


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the baggies 6th home win of the campaign served as a fair reflection of west brom's season overall thus far. this match, for example, was an important win against a side that is currently just one step ahead of the relegation places. while pretty much already safe, the baggies are themselves just one step ahead of that.

last year, west brom were forced to depend on heroic wins against the likes of arsenal, liverpool, everton and aston villa (not to mention being the only side in the league to take points at old trafford in a 2-2 draw) to finish a final place of 11th in the league table. this season, however, has seen them take critical points from teams in and around them in the table. it's also worth noting that this campaign the baggies neither found themselves sitting on course for a CHAMPIONS LEAGUE spot going into october, nor did they countenance the very real threat of relegation in february going into march.

while i imagine that there are some season ticket holders who would disagree, but it has been a very consistent season; and one that will have helped lay the crucial groundwork for future PREMIER LEAGUE campaigns. the hawthorns faithful can now look forward to next year with the expectation of yet more incremental improvements to the playing squad with an apparent plan for expansion of the stadium.

still, and with expectations raised by the immediate success found under manager roy hodgson, there was plenty of complaining to be found on phone-in radio shows and internet message-boards over the course of this season.

while there has been the usual assertions about chairman, jeremy peace, his tight-fisted control of "the cash" as well as his perpetual "lack of ambition"; more surprising has been the criticism levelled against the gaffer himself. roy hodgson has been berated for everything from his tactically "boring" and "defensive" football, to the issue of his age and out-dated coaching methods. considering what a truly magnificent job he has done at the club, other supporters and pundits of all stripes have found this most perplexing. while i believe it is just the meaningless bleating of a few arm-chair experts who are no more than a vocal minority, one can also take it as a measure of the kind of unrealistic thinking and expectation that the BARCLAY'S PREMIER LEAGUE can create at a football club.

i have no doubt that essentially, these criticisms derive primarily from the baggies' poor home form throughout the first half of the season. following a 2-1 home victory against bolton wanderers back in november, it took west brom until february to register their next home win. this was done in a rather spectacular trouncing of top-flight perrenials, sunderland, by a score of 4-0, and did much to re-invigorate the home support for the rest of the season. it is only by virtue of one of the best away records in the league that the albion got through this campaign and have ensured they will be playing PREMIER LEAGUE football again next year.

there's no doubt that the baggies have been a better side since the return of captain, chris brunt. he has been the team's most consistently influential player over the past few years; and since west brom's return to the PREMIER LEAGUE, the northern ireland international has captained the side, improved his defending and continued to serve up first-rate set-plays and defence splitting passes. while there is definitely a marked difference in the number of goals that brunt scores as a PREMIER LEAGUE player and his somewhat more prodigious output in the CHAMPIONSHIP, his overall contribution is immeasurable. all too often, though, he goes under-rated and unnappreciated as countless internet message-board posts will bear out.

i would suggest that there are few players anywhere - and in any tier of english football - who could be out injured for three months and play to the level that brunt has since his return to the first team. barring his participation in an overall poor team showing against newcastle - a match that brunt acknowledges he should not have made himself available for - he has come back into the first team in top playing form and only minutes short of full match fitness.

the real feature of this match is that it heralded the return to form of graham dorrans. this was the third decent performance as a starter in recent games, and some small indication that dorrans is finally over the troubles - both on and off the field - that plagued him last season. the scottish midfielder who was so important, and led the club in goals, during the promotion season of 2009-10 has - for whatever reason - not been the same since west brom began life the PREMIER LEAGUE. however, since coming into the team in the last few weeks he has started to show glimpses of the player that we all knew he could be, and it was dozza's long range strike in the 21st minute that settled this match at the hawthorns.

the baggies now have 42 points and really needed a result from this one to prove that they are legitimate and long term top-flight competitors. for the first time in over a decade, the baggies will playing in the same division for more than two years running.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Elusive Final Point

Manchester City 4-0 WBA

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more than any other game i've seen this year, west bromwich albion's visit to the etihad stadium was nothing less than a highly convincing argument for full-time elite european football.

as the club's head of publications, dave bowler, had said during an ALBION RADIO transmission earlier in the season: "what are we doing in the same division as manchester city? that's what i'd like to know!"

mr. bowler's comment is, of course, a rhetorical reference to the fact that manchester city are currently the biggest spending football club in the world since being acquired by the ABU DHABI UNITED GROUP, and west bromwich albion are one of the english top-flight's smaller and more unusual clubs - being without any outside investment and required to actually turn a profit in order to keep the club a stable and going concern.

finding themselves with only a single-point needed for the magic "40-point" mark, the baggies went to manchester with modest hope that they might just actually get something from this encounter following city's apparent self-implosion, and amidst the dissaray of mario balotelli's shocking and highly distracting behaviour that helped contribute to their loss against arsenal on the weekend.

the sky-blues, who have been top of the league for much of the season - and appeared to be favourites in the quest to dislodge cross-town rivals, manchester united, as league champions - have looked nothing less than jaded millionaire superstars as of late, and a string of poor results have seen them drop to second in the table - 5 points behind united.

after having held city to a goalless draw on new year's day at the hawthorns, and considering their recent form, the baggies had every reason to believe that they might get a result - even fielding a "weakened" team from their home win against blackburn on the weekend. this was a gross miscalculation.

having dropped balotelli and re-instated the alienated wantaway striker, carlos tevez, the sky-blues were a team absolutely transformed. they took full advantage of every mistake and allowed west brom nothing as they cruised to a 4-0 win and were every bit the side that had beaten manchester united 6-1 and had looked like unstoppable favourites to win the league title back in october.

a brace from sergio aguero along with goals by david silva and the returning tevez accounted for the one-sided score-line.

in the end, this was nothing more than a chance for roy hodgson to rest the core players in his sqaud and give the likes of simon cox and nicky shorey a chance to get 90 minutes of football under their belts. while the baggies did well enough to get in at the break only 1-0 down, city cut loose in the second-half and two goals in the space of 4 minutes showed this to be a futile effort for hodgson and his men, and did indeed make one wonder what the albion (and perhaps 12 or 13 other PREMIER LEAGUE clubs) are doing in a competition with a team that has this kind of resource.

WBA 3-0 Blackburn Rovers F.C.

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truthfully, this score-line flattered the baggies. but then again, they were fairly good value for the win all around and goalie, ben foster, proved his worth to the club once again, showing why they desperately need to sign him from blues for next season.

with the score at 1-0 to the baggies, the ex-england keeper made a spectacular double save that can only be described as "game winning".

the baggies, it seemed, had learned a lesson from their recent match away to wigan and attacked aggresively from the outset. applying relentless early pressure west brom forced 4 corner kicks inside the first 6 minutes.

with captain, chris brunt, back in the side following his first major career injury, the quality of the baggies' set-play delivery was outstanding. on the fourth corner of the game, gareth mcauley rose to direct the ball into a crowd and martin olsson's attempted clearance only ended up in the roof of the rovers' net to open the scoring. while this was credited as an own-goal, it was the power and pace of mcauley's header rather than any defensive error on the part of olsson that had created the goal. olsson was a bit unlucky under the circumstances and there was little else that the swedish defender could have done.

the baggies continued to dominate for the first 20 minutes or so, but went off the boil as rovers raised their game and definitely had the better of the play going in at the break.

with the lancashire side still dominating play in the early going of the second half, rovers' striker, david hoillet, slipped a clever back-heel to aiyegbeni yakubu who had found space inside the baggies' 18-yard box. while the nigerian's effort required a smart save from foster - and with the shot rebounding to an unmarked bradley orr directly in front of goal - it was only foster's unbelievable reaction to the second effort that prevented rovers from getting back into the game at a time when they were unquestionably on top, controlling more of the ball and having the better of the run of play.

had they equalized, one could easily have imagined blackburn going on to win the match from this point, and it was unquestionably the moment on which the game turned. within 15 minuted the baggies were 2-0 up on a goal by marc-antoine fortune and rovers were a beaten and demoralized side. on 84 minutes, liam ridgewell glanced a graham dorrans cross past rovers' keeper, paul robinson, to give the score-line its proper gloss.

the baggies are now on 39 points and have all but guaranteed they will be competing for an unprecedented third year running in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In search of Form and Finish

Everton F.C. 2-0 WBA

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it's almost as if their loss to manchester united brought the high-flying baggies back down to earth. since their visit to old trafford - and on the back of three big wins just prior to that - west brom's form has gone out the window and the team seem to be at a loss for what to do next.

in regards to last week's home defeat to newcastle, it was a continuation of the form that the baggies had shown the week before at wigan, where they were lucky enough to get away with a draw. the problem of the moment would seem to be one of motivation. the baggies are coming up against teams who have either the opportunity of qualifying for europe or are fighting against relegation. the baggies, on the other hand, seem aimless and without purpose.

they simply need one win and one draw from any of the next seven matches to reach the magic "40-point" mark and are already probably secure for a place in next year's PREMIER LEAGUE anyway. so there is definitely a diminished sense of urgency about the side and that has been plainly evident since their historic home victory over chelsea. perhaps if they had spent money on bringing big names players to the club (thus creating a heightened sense of expectation) or their home form in the league had been better, then the situation might be different. who knows?!?

the truth is that the baggies had probably already secured top-fight football for next season when gareth mcauley tapped home the game's only goal to nick an important 3-points from chelsea at the hawthorns four weeks ago. since then, however, they have put in three really tepid performances against wigan, newcastle and everton, respectively, and have looked like a side that just doesn't know where it's going or understands anything of its current objectives.

indeed, while the (somewhat unrealistic) goal of european qualification that many of us had hoped for after last year's solid mid-table finish never materialized, the baggies have also kept clear of drop-zone all season. they did not spend the money that some of their contemporaries - like stoke city and QPR - did, and one of the league's best away records (offset by some poor home performances) has kept them in and around the middle of the bottom half of the table, and safe from the threat of relegation throughout the campaign.

WBA 1-3 Newcastle United F.C.

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after being absolutely taken apart by this year's surprise team, newcastle united - who themsleves are on course for european football next season - the baggies travelled to goodison park to complete a trio of losses to the toffees, who not only did a league double over the albion on the season - having won what was a rather listless fixture at the hawthorns back in january - but also knocked west brom out of the LEAGUE CUP in september after extra-time in a match that the baggies had every opportunity to win.

the albion just haven't been showing up lately and looked truly anemic on this particular trip to merseyside.

aside from james morrison - who is now out for the rest of the season - and striker, marc antoine fortune, the only player who has continued to put in good performances week in week out is goalie, ben foster. baggies fans can only hope that the club can sign the ex-england international for next season - a circumstance that will be complicated if birmingham city can manage to win promotion this year. he is, debatably, the best goalie that has ever played at the hawthorns and has been a big part of the team's successes this year. keeping him at the club is of the utmost importance.

while i was glad to see chris brunt back in the team, he should not have made himself available for the encounter with a newcastle side who are threatening to finish in the top four this season. however, one has to admire a footballer, in this day and age, who still wants to play as badly as the baggies captain does. not only was brunt still coming back from the first major injury of his career, but was apparently also suffering most recently from a case of tonsilitis. however, his presence in the side didn't help any and the baggies went to goodison park as aimlessly and without purpose as they have been all season. once again, they paid for it with a loss, going down to the in-form toffees by a score of 2-0.

it may sound a strange thing to say, but the baggies have been very consistent this year. i'm sure that there are one or two sesaon-ticket holders that would argue the point, but two or three poor results have usually been followed by two or three decent performances and just when it looks like they might be in danger of dropping into a relegation fight, they have managed to pull out of it and have done what has been needed to keep their head above water and on course for top-flight football again next season.

of course, this quality has been somewhat mitigated by poor results at the hawthorns this year, and hasn't done much to endear the current sqaud to the home support. however, they have turned this around somewhat since the new year, and if previous form is any indication, the albion are due for a win when they welcome blackburn rovers to the hawthorns on the 7th of april.

Wigan Athletic F.C. 1-1 WBA

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this was probably the worst performance - beginning to end - that the baggies have delivered all season. while there was plenty of moaning over the reverse fixture played at the hawthorns back in december, this really was a mediocre performance.

the home side attacked aggresively right from the outset and didn't let up. the baggies were under pressure from the kick-off and could find no answer to a wigan side who came forward at will with an impressive display of precise passing football. in fact, it was a mystery how they weren't 3-0 up at the half!

on the part of the albion this was el stinko football of the worst kind and i can only hope it bodes nothing in regards to form for whatever fixtures are left to be played this season. while the baggies are probably already safe, realistically they still need 4 more points to call it job done.

to be fair, wigan have become a little bit of a "bogey" team for the baggies as of late. west brom have taken only two points from their four encounters with the latics over the last two seasons, and have not won this fixture since a late season victory during the ill-fated 2008-09 campaign.

since then, and their subsequent return to the PREMIER LEAGUE, there are few teams that the baggies have had such a tough time getting results from. the albion have had historic wins over the likes of arsenal, liverpool, chelsea, aston villa, newcastle, stoke city; and over the course of last season they were the only team in the league to take points at old trafford! in some cases these were fixtures in which the albion had not seen success in over 30 years.

of course, the fact that they took an away point from this encounter should be regarded as a good result. however, they were lucky that wigan couldn't make more of their chances and aren't the best at defending set plays. paul scharner, who has been the hero in several of the baggies' away wins this season, headed the equalizer from a chris brunt corner in the second half to claim a valuable point. there was little else to take as a positive from this match besides a measure of defensive grit and the continued fine form of goalie, ben foster.

anyone can have a bad day at the office, so i will be generous and happy with the away point. however, if the baggies don't show better form than this they will quickly find themselves looking over their shoulder, struggling to find the one win that they'll need to ensure top-flight football at hawthorns next year. let's just hope that this was just one of those days.