The Madejski Stadium isn’t one that’s been favourable to West Bromwich Albion over the years. It’s one of those grounds where the form book always seems to fly out of the window and one of those grounds where, even if Albion are winning 2-0 with 10 minutes left…there’s a feeling that Reading may still win 3-2.
On Saturday 16th February 2016, the Madejski Stadium is the venue for the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Reading and Albion. Reading, in the Championship, have been inconsistent all year, while Albion are doing fairly well in the Premier League. For most on the outside, the expectation was an Albion win. For the most ardent Albion fans? We’ve been here before. The league tables do lie, sometimes.
After an uneventful first half, Albion take the lead in the second. Could it be? Could Albion finally get that win – their first since 1995 – against Reading?
No. Of course not. It’s Albion. It ends 3-1 to Reading, Albion out of the FA Cup.
There was understandable frustration. This period at the club felt like a time when a cup run could happen; a real possibility of maybe, just maybe, having a go at some silverware. The fans were unhappy. Chris Brunt heads over to the away fans to give his shirt away and say thanks to those that travelled down to London to watch them when one of the darker moments of Albion’s recent history happens.
A fan throws a coin at Brunt, hitting him in the face just below his eye. Brunt, in his ninth season at the club, reacts angrily. Fans scuffle amongst each other. Some argue with Chris Brunt, some tussle amongst themselves. Darren Fletcher ends up having to pull Brunt away. The focus of the game is no longer the result, but a shameful act from a supporter to a loyal player…a player responsible for several brilliant memories in the years before.
The response from the majority of Albion fans matched that of Brunt. He spoke after the game saying he was “disgusted” and “ashamed”, said that he wouldn’t want his children to be around that environment. Fans worked to try to help identify the person that threw the coin. But they also did something else.
The next league game was against Crystal Palace. Buckets were in place asking for Albion fans to throw in some loose change. Over £4,500 was raised and then given to Chris Brunt for him to donate to whichever charities he saw fit. A fan movement, a way to say sorry. A rarity in football. The worst of us seemed to bring out the best.
Even back then, four years ago, the fans appreciated that Chris Brunt was somewhat different to the usual player. In his ninth season, may understood that the loyalty he had shown was no longer seen so much in the modern game…he was as much Albion as some of those sitting in the stands. Perhaps even more than some.
I remember when Brunt joined the Albion. A Sheffield Wednesday fan spoke to me about how great he was, commenting that he had an amazing left foot. I personally didn’t know too much about him other than that quick review…I was more impressed by the signing of Jimmy Morrison, another who would go on to stay at the club for a long time.
Brunt’s first season was a spectacular one at the Albion. Tony Mowbray’s team were playing fantastic free flowing attacking football; the midfield were immense, the strikers phenomenal…the defence…well, it was there…but we were on fire. The season prior ended with Play Off Final heartbreak against Derby and then a mass clearout. The feeling amongst many fans was that we’d blown our chance but, in reality, Mowbray was making the changes he wanted. The 2007/08 season resulted in Albion getting to the FA Cup Semi Final and then winning the Championship.
The match that effectively sealed promotion is a key moment in the history of Chris Brunt at the Albion. Southampton, struggling in the league, visited the Hawthorns on a night where anything other than defeat would see Albion either confirmed as promoted or ‘as good as’ promoted. Albion do what Albion do and, in a season where they’ve scored for fun, can’t fid the back of the net. The game rolls on and Southampton take the lead in the 77th minute. Groans all round…”typical Albion”.
The team continue to throw players forward and create chances when eventually a cross comes over towards Luke Moore…but it goes past him and lands at the feet of Chris Brunt, who came on as a sub halfway through the second half. Brunt steadies it, hits it with his left foot…pandemonium. The equaliser, the goal that effectively sealed promotion and the first Chris Brunt ‘moment’. If he’d have only had that season at the club, his name would have been written in the history books. As it is, he’s now finishing his 13th season, his final one at the Albion.
Thirteen seasons that have seen two promotions and two relegations, 417 games, 48 goals, countless assists and chances created. Thirteen seasons that have seen spectacular free kicks and long range goals. Thirteen seasons that have seen 10 different managers (excluding the caretaker managers). Thirteen seasons that have seen the club sign 75 players and sell or release 94 players. Thirteen seasons that have seen Chris Brunt be a major part of the club for the majority of it.
That goal against Southampton is always one of the moments I remember most in football, but you could easily take a pick of Brunt moments…the free kick against Everton, for example. The screamer against Villa. The 40 yard goal against Middlesbrough.
Or, you could look off the pitch. The work he has done with the Albion Foundation has been superb. The stories out there for the way in which he interacts with fans are examples of how good and modest a man he is. I’ve read snippets of examples of acts that he carried out for a family going through a period of massive grief.
Chris Brunt isn’t just another player. He’s one of us.
I remember when Brunt joined the club, not long after Morrison, it was Morrison that excited me the most. He was he player I wanted to see at the club. The Albion were incredibly fortunate enough to land two players that showed immense loyalty and saw both complete 12 and 13 years service. But the feeling around Brunt leaving is so different to the emotion felt over Morrison.
Morrison was a great player, another with several moments etched in the history of the club, but it never felt the same for me. Injuries plagued him towards the end and consistency was not always there. He clearly cared, but (and perhaps this is just because of the type of player he was) I never felt it was the same passion and emotion as Chris Brunt. You saw that passion in Brunt, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and I think that’s another reason why seeing him leave the club will hurt more than most.
It’s not always been easy for Brunt. Over the years, there have been many times where fans have said that his time is up. Arguably, they were right. It pained me to see Brunt moved to left back under Tony Pulis but, as time goes by, I understand why he did it. There have been times since Pulis was sacked where I’ve even wondered whether Brunt should have been picked at left back…but it wastes his key attribute, his passing, and leaves him open to so much critique as the game has got faster and, unfortunately, age does slow you down.
This season, Brunt’s final one at the club, has only seen him feature in a handful of games. It’s a factor that will have no doubt played on his mind when considering the future, regardless of whatever Albion decided to do with his contract come the end of the season. Yet, despite the fact he’s barely featured, he’s a player that so many want to celebrate on the final game.
A banner currently sits in the Brummie Road End saying “Thank You Brunty” – it’s a far cry from the coin throwing incident, and a show of how much he means to the fans. Twitter has started to become awash with Albion fans changing their profile pictures to images of Chris Brunt – many actually pictures they’ve had with the man. Even those that have been critical of him in recent years are appreciating him. There is a real understanding that every one of us knows – every football fan knows.
We won’t get another like him.
Chris Brunt loves the Albion…there is no doubt about it. There will be 20 year olds going to the Albion that won’t be able to remember much of a time without Chris Brunt at the Albion. To many, Chris Brunt IS Albion…and it will be a sad day watching him go.
The final game of his first season at the club, the game that followed Southampton and THAT goal, was against QPR. A free kick on the edge of the area, he took it and scored to make it 2-0 and put confirmation on Albion becoming champions. On Wednesday, we face QPR with a chance to gain promotion. The romantic in me clamours for a final Chris Brunt goal, a third promotion, the perfect farewell. The Albion fan in me, naturally, fears the worst.
But, whatever happens, I hope we do get one last sight of Brunt in an Albion shirt…and I hope Wednesday is the last time we ever see him in one. In this case, more than any other I can think of, he deserves that moment.
Thirteen seasons. Many memories. One Chris Brunt.
Thank you, and good luck.
If you like this post and want to see more of my writing, give my Facebook page a like HERE
Or, feel free to follow me on Twitter: @Adam_Townsend