Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reading F.C. 3-2 WBA

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anyone listening to the FREEradio broadcast of this match would have heard tony brown's voice begin to crack as he fought to hold back the tears at the end of one of the most dissapointing results for the club in recent memory. likewise, steve clarke appeared bewildered, red-eyed and shaken when he spoke to the BBC following the final whistle.

in a video interview on the club website, romelu lukaku revealed that he had actually, in fact, been reduced to tears in the dressing room despite his brilliant on-field performance. besides scoring two goals, the teenage striker had hit both the post and crossbar in the course of the game.

i pride myself on being a passionate but mature football fan. i generally look on my team's losses and points dropped throughout the course of a season with a philosophical eye. i am usually able to move on from the disappointments of the day and look toward seeing my team rectify matters at the next opportunity. however, there is one - sometimes two - fixtures in the course of every season that i struggle to come to terms with.

two years ago there was the infamous match away to blackpool that was marred by the blundering performance of referee, michael oliver. last year, my frustations were shared equally between stoke's visit to the hawthorns and the new year's day fixture (also at home) against everton. but this loss to reading was particularly cruel and will be nagging at me until the baggies pick up their next three points.

when gianni zuiverloon clumsily failed to control and gave the ball away to jimmy kebe in the dying moments of their 5th round FA Cup replay with reading in 2010, the baggies were 2-1 up and looked certain to be in the draw for the quarter-finals. in a single fleeting moment that all changed, as kebe took advantage to set up brian howard for the equalizer and send the match into extra-time.

while this levelled the score 2-2, and the baggies were still theoretically in the game, the pendulum had swung and west bromwich albion's hopes for a cup run were already gone. within minutes of the kick-off in extra-time the royals were up 3-2. the baggies would not get their opportunity to make up for the semi-final loss to portsmouth two years earlier, and zuiverloon would never start for west brom again.

i remember waking up in the middle of the night, haunted by a crushingly oppressive, nightmarish feeling of emptiness and disappointment. i soon got over it though, as their push for automatic promotion started to pick up momentum and nottingham forest's challenge began to fade. important wins against blackpool, derby county, coventry, swansea and preston north end re-energized both the team and supporters alike.

again, and this time in an all important PREMIER LEAGUE fixture, jimmy kebe came back to haunt the baggies and cause me to suffer the greatest amount of grief and frustration that i have yet felt since the baggies' most recent promotion to the PREMIER LEAGUE.

after making their best start to a top-flight season in over thirty years, west brom have suffered a drastic loss of form since having to play swansea away. they have generally been slow to start and their performances in the first half of all their most recent matches have been flat and unenterprising. while they have played better football in the second-half, this has been a real problem and has all too often lead to early capitulation and an inability to come from behind. the one exception to this being the recent home victory against norwich.

however, their trip to the madjeski stadium saw the baggies return to form - in terms of a footballing display anyway. aside from the early moments of the match, which saw the royals on the front foot and winning the the first few corners, the baggies were in control and had the majority of possession with james morrison and romelu lukaku linking up brilliantly. their attacking partnership almost always looked dangerous going forward and lukaku's brace seemed like it would be enough to see the baggies get back on track.

george thorne, having been brought back from a loan spell at peterborough, has done really well in covering the holding midfield role. he made his first team debut at old trafford on 24 hours notice and has been putting in solid performances since. thorne looks like he will be a real asset to the club in the immediate future. with claudio yacob still out injured and youssouf mulumbu having departed to the AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS there was good reason to be concerned, but the 20-year-old thorne played with maturity and a very clear, uncomplicated vision of the game.

in fact, the overall defending was excellent for 82 minutes. with jonas olsson having returned from a groin injury and gareth mcauley keeping pace with the high standards that he set last year, there is still much evidence of roy hodgeson's organizational work in the side, evidenced by the disciplined shape of the back four. until the last few minutes ben foster had very little to do in goal, and when the worst happened there wasn't much he could do about it anyway.

that's why this was such an absolutley unbelievable loss. for 82 minutes the baggies were the better of the two sides by a long way, and for the first time in weeks were playing an expansive passing game and really getting on top of the other team. they played at a more contolled pace, had the majority of possession and instead of sitting back, being slavishly over reliant on the principles of counter-attacking football, they got hold of the ball and worked themselves into precise and measured attacks.

it is unbelievable just how much the baggies were in control of this game. it was their best performance in weeks and it is inconcievable that they contrived to lose it on two very late set plays following jimmy kebe's opener.

i still didn't see it coming when the first reading goal went in, and i am convinced that they would have held on for the win - perhaps even having to ride their luck a bit - if olsson hadn't blundered into kebe and/or handled the ball to concede the penalty. i mean, suddenly dropping two-points out of the blue is a big let down. especially having been so comfortably in control.

to then not even be able to see it out on a free-kick near the centre-circle... the whole thing was just beyond belief. it was even beyond analysis and there was no real technical reason for it. it was all just a bit of a fluke. of course, you can blame olsson for the idiotically clumsy challenge that gifted reading the equalizer, and it was clear that ridgewell lost concetration on the free-kick and was caught looking the wrong way when the first goal went in. however, this was still quite incredible on any and all accounts.

whatever mistakes were made (the penalty aside) none of them were really bad enough to merit giving up three goals inside 8 minutes. the most unbelievable thing is how easy a time the supporters give jonas olsson. he was directly responsible for the home loss to stoke and nobody said a thing. against the royals, he dives into a bad tackle and gives away a pointless foul that set up the equalizer and everyone is rushing to blame rosenberg, dorrans, brunt or ridgewell... ridiculous!

we all knew that when the albion was in third place - and with a chance to go top of the league - that it wasn't going to last forever. the stated goal of the club at the outset of the season was to get to 50 points and improve as a mid-table side. that goal is still achievable, and the supporters who phone in to tom ross on the GOALzone, raging and ranting in a rabid, homicidal lather that "jeremy peace has no ambition..." would do well to remember that.

we have to remind ourselves, as well, that this is traditionally the time of year when the baggies struggle with the demands of the PREMIER LEAGUE anyway. claudio yacob, yussouf mulumbu, goran popov, peter odemwingie, steven reid, marc antoine fortuné, shane long and zoltan gera are all either injured or otherwise unavailable. jonas olsson has just come back after being out for three weeks with a groin injury and the side does look a bit threadbare at the moment. all things considered, this was a good game with an unfortunate freak result, and they wouldn't generally lose too many matches on a footballing performance of this quality. it was just horribly ironic that it had to come after a run of poor games coupled with even poorer results.

we didn't play well against either fulham or arsenal and we probably still should have at least drawn both those matches!

with a run of difficult fixtures coming up, i'm hoping that they realize that with nothing to lose, it's time to throw caution to the wind and find the energy to nick a few more points.

i'm sure everyone remembers that two years ago we didn't win a game from november until february. we then went 8 games unbeaten and lost only a single match in what remained of the campaign. on the last day of the season somen tchoyi scored 3 goals in ten minutes to earn a 3-3 draw away to newcastle that propelled us into 11th place. just as with reading scoring three goals in 8 minutes, these things don't happen everyday... or even every season!

i think the albion's season will pretty much turn on the game against villa at home. as long as they put their foot on the ball and control the game early, they should be able to come up with a result against a hugely inconsistent villa side that has now fallen into the relegation places.

it's a tough time now, and something that can be hard to live with as a fan. but i'm still sure we're going to do no worse this year than we did last year, and that's at the very least.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Great Expectations and Grand Delusions


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despite a recent drop in form that has seen the baggies take only seven points from their last eight fixtures, their blistering start to the season has assured that they begin the new year still in the top 7, as well as now having a third-round replay at home to QPR in the FA CUP.

while this still represents what is so far the best campaign that west brom has contested in thirty-some-odd years - and any albion supporter would have happily taken their current standing in the table at the outset of the season - the reaction to their recent home loss to fulham gives some small insight into the decidedly unhealthy attitude that the modern football fan now brings with them to the park each and every saturday afternoon.

thankfully, matches are no longer plagued by the large-scale hooliganism that sometimes made attending football in england a terrifying experience in the 1970s and 80s; but something has changed in the mindset of the average, shirt-wearing, scarf waving, anthem singing fan in these early years of the 21st century.

WBA 1-2 Fulham F.C.

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with the whole side being booed off the pitch at half-time against fulham - and club captain, chris brunt, singled out for individual abuse when substituted following a sub-par peformance - the level of psychological anger that has replaced the old feelings of disappointment at a poor result was fully exposed for all to see.

even modest success now seems to create a sense of entitlement in the modern supporter and the right to harbour unrealistic expectations that necessarily require a scape-goat when not properly met.

last year it was james morrison who was singled out for supporter animosity.

to illustrate this tendency at its most dramatic, and after a long run of poor results up the road at wolves, manager stale solbakken's car was vandalized outside his staffordshire apartment back in november. the disturbing fact about this incident is that it wouldn't be the work of "hooligan" elements looking to create social disorder. this type of activity would hold little, if any, interest for them. rather more likely, is that it was disgruntled season-ticket holders, emboldened by some small intake of liquor and beer, and angry at seeing their team's drastic drop in form with the ever impending prospect of a relegation scrap at the bottom end of the CHAMPIONSHIP looming.

Manchester Utd. F.C. 2-0 WBA

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i have always been an admirer of chris brunt's. he's the best dead ball man at the club by some distance. from open play he is capable of cutting apart a defence with a singularly acute and accurate through-ball or scoring with a 25-yard screamer to the top corner. he is a real professional who has strived to continue and improve; and whether you believe that he is an adequate top-flight footballer or not, replacing him would be much more difficult and costly than some might think. so i don't understand why some of the home support turned on him as they recently did.

i wouldn't suggest that things have gotten too far out of hand just yet, but the PREMIER LEAGUE can do terrible damage to the soul of a football club.

while it was not a particularly distinguished performance (especially the first-half) against fulham, it is a mistake on the part of the average west bromwich albion fan to take it for granted that the baggies should necessarily and routinely be beating this level of competition. especially when you consider that the cottagers have been in the PREMIER LEAGUE for the last ten years running, they almost won the EUROPA LEAGUE two years ago, and in dimitar berbatov they have a top international who costs 5 times what albion's most expensive player does. you can't sniff at that.


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the baggies have recently developed the habit of starting slowly, and this has lead to poor performances in the first half of their most recent matches. whatever it is, they are definitely reserving their better football for after the break. my suspician is that this is a by-product of single-minded adherance to the principles of counter attacking football. nowhere was this more evident than their recent trip to old trafford.

to be fair, they looked a little stunned at the occassion and consequently their play throughout the first-half could only be described as "timid". however, they came into the game in the second-half and dominated the play for long periods.

in fact, with the baggies threatening to equalize, and coming more and more onto the front foot in the final stages of the game, united were ultimately forced to bring on their £22.5 million substitute, robin van persie, to ensure the victory.

while disappointed with the result, especially after the baggies looked like they might repeat their achievement of two years ago, i was happy with the performance in the second-half. if they had shown anything at all in the first-half, they just might have gotten something from this game.

WBA 2-1 Norwich City F.C.

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this tendency of playing poorly in the first-half of a match was understandable at old trafford. i can imagine going to play there can be quite overwhelming, even if you've been there before. but this issue has been something that has concerned me since the swansea game.

i think it's a big problem at the moment, and the side needs to go out and start matches much more aggressively, try and get on the ball and not rely so heavily on the counter attack. especially at the hawthorns, and particularly with claudio yacob out at the moment and chris brunt playing in central midfield.

WBA 0-0 West Ham Utd.

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the home fixture with norwich was a solid home win and marked the first time this season that the baggies have taken all three points after having gone behind in a match. it was also significant that after three losses on the bounce, the albion were able to then go three games unbeaten, starting with a draw against a visiting west ham side, followed by a home win over norwich and an away win at QPR. confidence still seems high at the club, and shrugging off a poor run of results like this is another testament to the quality of steve clarke's leadership and a newly found resilience in the team's character.

against west ham, the baggies played well in the second-half after the hammers dominated their visit to the hawthorns in the early going. while the east london side had the better chances from open play, the baggies looked the more dangerous from dead ball situations. it was, however, the usual problem with a scoreless game. where a 1-0 victory snatched at the death can transform 90 minutes of otherwise mediocre football into a supremely exciting spectacle, the 0-0 draw that is at its foundation - regardless of the quality of football - is almost always a disappointment for the supporters on both sides.

Arsenal F.C. 2-0 WBA

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one of the defining characteristics of the average albion supporter is their supreme pessimism and how, over the years, they have come to expect the worst. only a few weeks ago, baggies' fans everywhere were entertaining notions of european qualification and the outside possibility of challenging for a top-five finish in the league. now they are bracing themselves for a relegation scrap. the truth of the matter is probably somewhat less dramatic than either of these possibilities.

it's time to just cool it down a bit and have a little faith.