Main Menu
What's New
03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 23/08/03, 3pm
West Bromwich Albion
Carbon copy
By Ian Grant

See above.

It's hard to believe that there are already so many what-ifs and might-have-beens so early in the season. Of course, some of those what-ifs and might-have-beens continue to over-shadow events on the pitch, making our last two results seem trivial by comparison...and yet it's also obvious that, while the shadows would still remain, a win or two would add some valuable, vital sunshine to the picture.

We haven't been too far away. Change a few variables and we would've recorded positive results in these opening league fixtures, and recorded them against two of the division's there-or-thereabouts sides too. It's damn hard not to pick over these games in search of clues, to attempt to find out how exactly we won them in that proverbial parallel universe. Because the gap between two one-nil defeats and two one-nil victories is far narrower than instinctive, emotive reactions suggest. Because we have to work out how to bridge that gap.

There were minor differences between this and the defeat at Selhurst a week ago. We didn't give the winning goal away in quite such an inept way, for a start. And we were, it's worth remembering, coming up against one of the promotion favourites, in much better shape than when they visited back in January. But these differences are only minor, for the script varied little in most respects.

Again, we dominated for long periods; again, we neither created enough chances nor took those that we did create during those spells; again, we lost to a goal that we might've prevented; again, the equaliser was denied us by a fairly miraculous goalline clearance; again, the later stages of the game saw us lose our way. Again, we have to hold onto the positives, to build on them. There's certainly no need to return to the drawing board yet, for just a couple of goals would've turned this into an impressive, encouraging opening to the season. Just a couple of goals....

Really, we've been more than a little unfortunate. In contrast to the kind of obstinate, organised resistance that we've encountered so far, you suspect that more than a couple of First Division defences would've buckled and collapsed under the kind of pressure that we've shown ourselves capable of exerting. But you also suspect that we could do with coming up against one of those opponents sooner rather than later. The concern is that much more of this goalless frustration will lead either to a complete loss of confidence or to the need to formulate and implement some kind of Plan B. Which would be a terrible shame, for there has been a great deal about these performances that has been very good indeed.

The first half certainly falls into that category. This fixture was a real test...and, after ten minutes of slightly nervous preparation, we faced up to that test. During that ten minutes, a combination of Neil Cox and a defender drove a header wide from a fine Neal Ardley free kick, but there were also difficult moments at the other end - Alec Chamberlain struggling to clear a looping Johnson header from the danger area, then Gaardsoe drifting away from everyone else at the far post to head over. We were still playing for serve, as it were...but we were soon to dominate....

And dominate superbly too. For a while, the quantity of possession was pretty much irrelevant, a warehouse load of stock that we hadn't yet taken to market. We passed it around well enough, keeping the ball moving at a smart tempo and checking the West Brom defence for leaks...but that was it, essentially. Nevertheless, while the ball rarely threatened the six yard box, it was still a significant time, a period in which we effectively forced West Brom to think in terms of getting to half-time without conceding rather than anything more ambitious. A moral victory, at the very least.

It was nearly more than that, though. With confidence growing, we needed something to set it all off, to signal the charge. And it came from Gavin Mahon, with a fiercely competitive (and successful) challenge in midfield that had people rising from their seats, passion rising from throats, heartbeats accelerating. Within moments, that charge had begun, with Lloyd Doyley pushing the ball past his man and bursting down the right wing, Bruce Dyer becoming actively involved for the first time, others following the example. Suddenly, we were beginning to hurt West Brom rather than merely ensure that they didn't hurt us.

Ultimately, and in cruel contrast to the winning goal, the ball wouldn't fall in the right place at the right time. In the end, despite sustained pressure and regular delivery, set pieces provided the greatest threat, a chance to get yellow shirts into the box and supply them with the ball, something that wasn't always so easy in open play. Late on, Neil Cox was terribly unlucky to be denied, thumping in a header from a Neal Ardley corner and bringing a flying save from the West Brom keeper. Unlucky, as a foot to either side would've made all the difference. A couple of minutes afterwards, Heidar Helguson glanced wide from another Ardley dead ball.

So, half-time brought a familiar frustration, mixed with the optimism generated by another positive, strong-willed forty-five minutes. We have to sustain it, for the rewards will surely come. And if they do come, this will be a powerful side, capable of controlling games with consistency and authority. Oh, to find those precious goals, wherever they're hiding....

For a while, the second half threatened to turn to our advantage. That is, things opened up somewhat, with West Brom breaking out of their territory more regularly...and thereby affording us rather more space in which to construct our attacks. It was a risky time, sure - something demonstrated by Koumas' clear run at goal in the fifty-second minute, a run that was a little hesitant and foiled by Alec Chamberlain's fine intervention at the midfielder's feet as he attempted to round the keeper - but it held much promise too. Having struggled against two deep, heavily populated defences, we needed a bit of room to breathe...and immediately after Koumas should've opened the scoring, Danny Webber was holding off an opponent to sprint into unusually broad expanses at the Vic Road end.

Unfortunately, the visitors scored almost immediately. And it has to be said that chanting "ONE SEASON WONDER" at Lee Hughes isn't terribly clever, firstly because it's not actually true and secondly because the consequences are almost inevitable. Fate, having been tempted, duly obliged by providing the striker with an unmissable chance via a series of absurd ricochets from a corner that began with Neal Ardley's near post slice and ended with an unopposed Hughes header from three yards. It wasn't pretty, but it was exactly the kind of good fortune that we'd give anything for right now.

With a lead to defend, West Brom did just that. Again, we found ourselves faced with so many bodies, so little room to manoeuvre, so little time. Even when we felt brave and confident enough to run at opponents, success was measured in corners rather than goal attempts...although Marcus Gayle did set an example by striding magnificently forward from defence and smacking a rising drive just over. There was loads of effort and determination, yet not quite enough guile to make the breakthrough.

And no luck either. As with last week's Helguson header, there was that one moment when the equaliser seemed a certainty. Here, Micah Hyde's twisting run down the right side of the penalty area and hanging cross brought an uncharacteristic handling error from Hoult, dropping the ball into the heart of the penalty area. Straight to Danny Webber, who smashed it back whence it came, only to be denied by a block and then by a clearing header from the line. Denied, again. But not forever, hopefully.

Just then, it was hard to avoid the feeling that it wouldn't be our day. Nothing that followed made the feeling go away. Indeed, although various people - Micah Hyde, Jamie Hand, Paul Robinson and Gavin Mahon - had a wallop at goal from outside the area, the more likely location for a second goal was always at the other end. Except that Hughes had now departed and Dichio had arrived, the latter proving to be entertainingly hapless, missing three decent chances in the last ten minutes as West Brom breaks tore into our sparsely populated half.

Which completed the carbon copy of last week's script, really. For we'd lost our sense of direction by injury time, four minutes of which were filled with a pointless booking for dissent for Paul Robinson, a drive into the Rookery by Clement, and another Dichio miss from a Koumas break. That the final whistle blew as Lloyd Doyley and Gavin Mahon were getting themselves into a bit of a mess in their own half rather sums things up, and can be the only excuse for the smattering of boos that greeted the end. In truth, we were much, much better than the distinctly ragged finale suggested.

It deserved a rather happier ending.

And a goal.