Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Dream (Again) is Over...

Bolton Wanderers F.C. 2-2 WBA

match text commentary

while it probably looked like fare for a slow news day at first, the possibility that roy hodgson might become the next england manager was already nagging at those of us who follow west bromwich albion when the baggies took to the field for one of the oldest, historically significant and fiercely competitive local derbies in english football.

it was the first time in many years that the baggies were favourites to win this fixture with aston villa, and the management - as well as those involved in the senior squad - were probably already aware, to some extent, of what was coming. early the next day, it was officially announced that the FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION had approached the club with a formal enquiry seeking permission to speak to the west brom boss in regards to the supreme job with the national team. while roy hodgson will finish out the season with the baggies, his reign at the hawthorns has ended.

when roberto di matteo was sacked following a poor run of results, there was no one i would have wanted to take over more than hodgson. the man who once took switzerland through to the knock-out stage of the FIFA WORLD CUP and fulham to the EUROPA LEAGUE final, was always my first choice to take over. while di matteo's sacking was baffling to more than a few, this appointment turned out to be a stroke of genius as he led the struggling baggies from the brink of a relegation battle to a more than respectable finish of 11th in the league. the gaffer masterminded wins in 8 of their last 12 fixtures and registered only 2 losses.

we will never know what hodgson might have accomplished had the FA not come calling, but it is safe to imagine that he would have taken the baggies on to bigger and better things. there is no doubt that he has already secured a place of honour in west bromwich albion folklore, alongside the likes of such managers as vic buckingham and alan ashman. i believe his legacy will be felt at the hawthorns for years to come.

this season, and following this pair of hard fought draws, the baggies are guaranteed of finishing no lower in the table than last year (11th), with the possibility of finishing as high as 9th - and even the potential to finish above the mighty liverpool.

the much anticipated home fixture with aston villa did not really live up to expectations, but was otherwise an engrossing defensive battle featuring two of the league's best goalies. the baggies started brightly and created the first real chance of the game through the attacking of shane long and peter odemwingie in the 8th minute. long's ball into the villa box skipped awkwardly past defender, carlos cuellar, giving odemwingie the opportunity to back-heel a goal at the far post. villa keeper, shay given was alert and read the situation perfectly as he got down to make the save that allowed cuellar to clear off the line. this good spell of possession finally broke down with west brom's nigerian international being caught coming back from an offside position.

gabriel agbonlahor had the best chances for the visitors in the first half. the villa striker had the beating of baggies' right-back, billy jones, all day and created two excellent opportunities to score on the counter-attack. the first came in the 28th minute when jones tried to bring the ball down just inside his own half. the young right-back was beaten out by agbonlahor's raw pace. however the villa striker took one touch too many as goalie, ben foster, was equal to the task and bravely came out to win the challenge. as the action moved fluidly from end to end, emile heskey put agbonlahor through on goal with a clever flick-on into space. as with the previous occasion, foster successfully challenged for the ball seeing to it that the scores were still level when they went in at the half.

WBA 0-0 Aston Villa F.C.

match text commentary

once again, referee, mark clattenburg, came under question when he let a clumsy handball by chris brunt in the baggies 18 yard box go un-punished. however, he more than made up for it by not making a much more obvious call on allan hutton's flagrant bit of "goalkeeping" as the aston villa defender punched away a powerful liam ridgewell goal-bound header in the 48th minute. the situation should have seen the villa man red-carded and a penalty given, but mr. clattenburg was consistent in the wide berth he was affording for the benefit of the doubt. on the ensuing corner-kick, gareth mcauley managed to find himself the space to get on the end of a free-header in front of goal, but his effort went just wide of the far post and the move fizzled out.

beyond this, in the second half neither team really seemed to find any rhythm. there was a real "stop-start" feeling to the tempo as the defences controlled the play throughout the contest. west brom had the better of the chances on the day, but both goalies were in superb form. peter odemwingie came close in the 68th minute, but excellent defending on the line - again by carlos cuellar - helped preserve the draw for the villa.

it was an odd decision, i thought - and as did a number of professional pundits - to leave hodgson in charge of the baggies for the last two games of the season. there would be the immediate worry of the integrity of the team being compromised through not needing to win anything, coupled with the fact that everyone now knows the boss is leaving. in fact, chris lepkowski of the birmingham mail expressed his feelings that it was downright innappropriate. however, roy hodgson showed that he is a manager of profound integrity and played the away fixture against bolton wanting a win, and the gaffer wouldn't think of doing anybody any favours.

the baggies made the better chances going forward throughout, and it was only a questionable penalty and the cruellest of own goals that saw west brom 2-0 down with 74 minutes gone.

at this point, the baggies could very easily have packed up - secure in the knowledge that they will have finished in a respectable league position regardless of a result at the reebok - and played out the last 15 minutes in "damage-control" mode. but with little to be gained (other than consolidating their stranglehold on 10th in the league table) - and playing against a team desperate to avoid relegation - the albion came forward and attacked with vigour and commitment, putting bolton under considerable pressure for the rest of the match. chris brunt pulled a goal back with less than 16 minutes left, and simon cox was then brought on as the gaffer implemented his standard drill for mounting a last-ditch come-back.

cox got on the ball early and often, put himself around well in a central position behind shane long, and found the pay-off just as the game moved into injury time. taking a pass from long 12 yards out and with his back to goal, cox worked himself into position for a shot, taking three bolton defenders with him. putting the ball across goal he found james morrison at the far post and the scottish midfielder slotted the ball home to bring the baggies level. this was much to the disgust of the trotters' support, who - sensing that their days in the top-flight were numbered - immediately began an exodus from the reebok as the 5,000 travelling west brom supporters broke into the traditional chorus of psalm 23.

as usual, i wondered why cox has not been used more regularly at his natural position of striker. he has most often been started as a make-shift right winger when injuries have dictated the need. most sources close to the club have cited that the young striker will likely look to be leaving the club when his contract is up at the end of the season.

it will be interesting to see who succeeds hodgson at west brom. more importantly it will be interesting to see what they do with what he has left behind. the one thing that you can count on, is that whoever it is, they will be working in a very well organized system that knows it business and includes the club's technical director, dan ashworth. much of the coaching staff is made up of people who will be at the albion a long time - like dean kiely, for instance; and they will have to want to work in what is an all ready highly structured system.

i was looking forward to roy hodgson being at the hawthorns for a long time, and if the england job hadn't come along he might have even seen out his career at west brom. but i have faith that the club will hire the best man that they can, but suggesting who that might be is a problem for another day and subject for another article. in the mean time, you can bet that hodgson will be hungry to end his time at B71 in high fashion by taking points from arsenal and really giving the baggies support something to remember him by.