A Retrospective Look – Tony Pulis At The Albion

Soccer - West Bromwich Albion Press Conference - The Hawthorns

Growing up as a West Brom supporter it was never really that difficult to find a reason to dislike Stoke. For years, Stoke would always win against Albion, even prompting the words, “We always beat West Brom”, to be sung by Stoke fans at any game between the two clubs.

The first time I saw Albion beat Stoke was in 1998 in the FA Cup. One of those moments that I always remember. Prior to that, Albion hadn’t beat Stoke since 1988. When people talk of ‘bogey’ teams, Stoke were definitely that.

In the background of growing up as an Albion fan in the Nineties were the changes that were starting to happen within football. Arsene Wenger had taken over at Arsenal in 1996 and, with him, he bought change to the English game. From the scouting to the dieting to the way it was played. As a youngster, as a football fanatic, I loved it. I loved watching those teams play fluid football. As years went by, the Albion took their own style of fluid football under Tony Mowbray and my favourite era at the Albion had started.

40 miles down the road, however, Stoke were playing the complete opposite style of football. Far from fluid, they settled for sitting deep and playing long ball. They used Rory Delap for his long throw ins as if they were corners. It was effective. It made them hard to beat. It made them a comfortable Premier League team. However, this wasn’t just Stoke City. This was Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.

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The football was largely terrible to watch. Stoke would grind out results and always create issues for teams. They were strong and weren’t scared to put in hard challenges. They played as though they were from a different era…and they were, in a way. Tony Pulis is an era defining manager. Stoke were in the Pulis era. Second time round, they seemed the perfect fit. The supporters were louder than most, if not all, and Stoke maintained a good Premier League position throughout.

From a football perspective, it gave another reason to dislike Stoke. Not only could Albion seemingly never get a result against them, they were now playing the most boring, difficult to watch football. I couldn’t imagine Albion ever playing that way. Eventually, Stoke fans wanted more. Patience began to wear thin with the playing style and what felt like a lack of ambition…and Pulis and Stoke went their separate ways.

As this was happening, Albion were just finishing their best ever Premier League season. Steve Clarke had seen the club to 8th in the league and it seemed as if Albion had cemented themselves somewhat as the ‘best of the rest’. The 8th place finish masked a run of poor form in the second half of the season, however, and the year following it saw the poor form continue. Clarke got sacked, Pepe Mel came in, Albion survived – just – but damage had been done.


At a time when Albion needed somebody strong, somebody who could take the club forward following Pepe Mel…the board hired Alan Irvine. To say it was badly received would be a huge understatement. The club seemed to be falling apart in the 2014/15 season. The famous blue and white stripes had been replaced with pinstripes, there were multiple issues behind the scenes…and it was ultimately no surprise at all when the Irvine experiment failed and he was dismissed halfway through the season. We were only going one way.

So, then, who to appoint as manager if you don’t want to be relegated? Easy. Pick one that’s never been relegated. Enter, Tony Pulis.

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The appointment made sense, but it always felt like a deal with the devil for me. This manager that had helped produce football that I detested, for a team I detested – largely because of that style of play – was in charge of my team…and for as much as I couldn’t stand the man’s football I knew, deep down, he was the right man at that time.

The club had lost 10 games in the league during the first half of the 2014/15 season, only winning 4. The second half of the season, under Pulis, saw a turnaround. Albion won 7 games, lost 6, drew 6. Defensively Albion had improved, too. From looking like a team destined for relegation, Albion ended the season comfortably mid-table…even beating the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United at the end of the season. Results wise, the Pulis appointment was a success.

Despite this, the warning signs of discontent had already started to show. Albion’s style was changing. A soul destroying week where the club were beat twice in a week by Aston Villa didn’t help him win support. The Jeff Astle Day defeat was so disappointing. But they were, in the grand scheme, singular events. The fact that Albion were staying up was enough to please the majority of fans.

The following season saw the start of a Pulis trend at Albion. The team were solid. They’d made some good additions. Jonny Evans was a superb signing. Alongside Darren Fletcher, who joined in the February of the previous season, it gave an increased sense of quality within the spine of the team. Premier League winners…and it told. The experience of those players, the leadership, oozed throughout the team. Salomon Rondon signed for a then record £12m, adding a different strength up front. James Chester also signed for £8m – more expensive than Evans – with Serge Gnabry, a young talent from Arsenal, joining on loan.

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The club were never in any danger of relegation. They were also never in any danger of challenging for anything else. Albion were just there. But the playing style had now changed completely. It had become Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. This was the Pulis era, definitively. This was also the season where it started to become too much for me. The frustrations were huge, and I could sense myself falling out of love with it all.

In the seasons that Pulis was at Albion, the team did well. Mid-table finishes, they were hard to break down…Albion were no fuss, defensive and hard to beat. But the Pulis theme was this. Albion got to 39/40 points, results then stopped. In the 2015/16 season, Albion got to 39 points after beating Manchester United on the 6th March. They didn’t win another game all season. The following season, Albion hit 40 points after beating Bournemouth on the 25th February. In the 12 games that followed, they won only once and lost nine times.

It was disheartening. As a fan, you felt that the target was always 40 points and nothing more. As soon as the club hit that target they switched off. In both of Pulis’ full seasons, you were left wondering what the point was in even going to the games from March onwards because it was clear the team you were watching was not playing with the same intent as the one a month or so prior. It was dull, it was boring…it was unbelievably difficult to feel passionate about.

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I found myself so frustrated, also, at the use of the signings made during the Pulis reign. Salomon Rondon had the makings of a great powerhouse forward – we later saw that in full effect when he joined Newcastle United – but the style of play Pulis implemented didn’t benefit any striker. Robson-Kanu, flourishing this season, has never been known for his goals but his work rate…and he looked lost. The signings of Nacer Chadli, Ollie Burke, Matt Phillips all felt like signals of intent – but none fitted with how a Pulis team plays. (However, looking at how things have gone for Burke since, maybe Pulis was right on that one.) Callum McManaman was another that did nothing.

Defensively, the signings of Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry and Jake Livermore made sense and they all, for the most part, did well. Yet James Chester, a defender that cost £2m more than Evans, was played out of position and deemed too small by Pulis, who eventually sold him to Villa where he went on to do extremely well. The loan signings also made no sense. Serge Gnabry was a waste of time (though, to be fair to Pulis, that was more because of Gnabry than anyone else at the club). Alex Pritchard pointless. Brendon Galloway, too. Young players that would have never fitted in with the Pulis ideology.

We became an old team. Possession wise, we would often struggle to even reach 40% against any team. For fans of statistics, we must have left them completely confused. How could this team maintain security in the Premier League whilst going every game with only 35% of the ball and struggling to have any shots? Somehow, we did. But that in itself was an issue. Against the big clubs…Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool…you could forgive sitting back and hoping for a counter. Although that even went too far in one game against Manchester City when we failed to register a single shot. The biggest issue was that even against teams of a similar ilk, Albion did the same. Sit back, constantly.

There was no ambition. The club didn’t play to win, they played to avoid defeat. Because of that, there was no excitement. There was no enjoyment. For the first time in my life, I gave up on Albion. I lost interest. I couldn’t bring myself to attend games. I could no longer tell people who we had next in the league. I couldn’t tell people how many goals a striker had scored. I was bored of it. I couldn’t even put on Match Of The Day because I’d lost the passion for the game.

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Growing up, I started supporting Albion during the Alan Buckley days. They were bleak. We were so much poorer than we’ve ever been since. Denis Smith wasn’t great but was infinitely better than Buckley. Brian Little was a disaster. None of them, however, drove me away from the club. Throughout all the poor seasons, narrowly avoiding relegation to Division Two (League One, as it’s called now)…I was still there. I still enjoyed going down the Hawthorns. Pulis and the football he made us play changed that. We were beyond boring. The atmosphere was, at times, toxic. Why would you spend money on it?

Not all of what Pulis did was bad, though. As I said earlier, after Irvine he was absolutely the right man for the job and I don’t think anybody else would have kept the club up. When Saido Berahino let his ego get the better of him, Pulis dealt with it well and managed to protect Saido and the club as well as he could. He developed Craig Dawson in to a Premier League player. I’ll even begrudgingly accept that he maybe prolonged Chris Brunt’s time at the club by moving him to full back. He gave the club security and, in the end, when results really did go downhill, I remember reading that it was actually the board that stopped him from leaving as he was prepared to let somebody else try to move the club forward. A rare selfless act.

Despite that, my memory of Pulis at Albion isn’t one I look back at fondly. Tony Pulis made me hate football. Tony Pulis made me stop going to watch the Albion…even when we were getting the results – and I wasn’t alone as average attendances dipped continuously. The Pulis era was uninspired, boring, frustrating, devoid of all ambition and not a lot else.

But, on the plus side, at least we can beat Stoke now.

 


 

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A Retrospective Look: Saido Berahino At The Albion

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It could have all been so different.

September 28th 2013, West Brom are at Old Trafford playing Manchester United for the first time since the incredible 5-5 game, with United now managed by David Moyes. Morgan Amalfitano, a new signing for Albion, had put he Baggies 1-0 up with an incredible solo effort. Rooney had immediately pegged it back to 1 all. Then 10 minutes later, a goal by Saido Berahino. Albion go on to win 2-1.

In that moment, Berahino started to become a star at the club. He was clearly still learning his game, still finding his strengths, but he had an ‘it’ factor about him. There was a feeling that this boy could go on to be something special.

And what a story it would have been. Berahino and his Mother fled a war-torn Burundi being granted political asylum in the UK. Berahino, aged 10, made his own way after his Mother. He spoke French, knew nobody except the few of his family that had also made it, and had to start life again. His Father was killed during the Burundian Civil War when Berahino was only 4. It’s an unimaginable start to life. To go from that to scoring the winning goal at Old Trafford was…still is…inspirational.

So…what happened?

A year after coming to the UK, Berahino was spotted by coaches from the Albion and signed up. From age 11, he started to develop his game for the club and, over the years, reportedly rejected advances from other clubs. He scored goals, he was becoming a good striker. By 2009, he was playing for the England U16s team. He would work his way up through each age bracket of the England set up with tremendous stats. When he got to the Under 21s he was paired with Harry Kane – 11 games, 10 goals – and, for some time, it looked as though he would progress further than Kane would.

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Once he’d signed a professional deal in 2011, the decision was made to loan Berahino out to lower league teams to help build his experience. His records were good, scoring 6 in 15 for Northampton Town, 4 in 8 for Brentford and a couple for Peterborough in the Championship. Behind the scenes, though, the signs were there that Berahino could play up.

While at Brentford, his loan was cut short. The reason was revealed that Berahino had been having parties in his hotel room, even trying to get tequila sunsets paid as part of his hotel expenses by Brentford. There was also an occasion where his hotel room was soiled, probably following one of his parties…and that was the final straw. When he returned to the Albion, there was talk of him being dismissed by the club. Dan Ashworth, sporting and technical director, wanted him out. He was talked around. It was to become the first of a number of chances Berahino would have.

More controversy surrounded Berahino in 2012, when he was arrested for being drunk in charge of a vehicle. Driving convictions start to come hand in hand with Berahino from this point. But the club stood by him, and by the start of 2013 Steve Clarke, then head coach at Albion, had decided that he wanted to try to make Berahino Albion’s main striker.

His first start for the club came against Newport County in the League Cup. He was brilliant, scoring a hat-trick and showing the fans the promise that he clearly had. This was his breakthrough season, the goal at United cementing that he had landed…but it wasn’t without controversy. By March, he’d had a (now infamous) bust-up with James Morrison after Albion drew 3-3 with Cardiff – reportedly resulting in Morrison throwing a punch at Berahino – and then, only 2 weeks later, news broke of Berahino inhaling laughing gas (“hippy crack”) after a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United.

Those incidents alone became frustrating to so many that supported Albion because everybody could see the talent and knew how far he’d come. I remember watching him and seeing this news thinking “if he isn’t careful, he’ll lose it all”. And we all wanted him to succeed. His upbringing was well known by supporters, he worked his way through the academy…he had the potential to be an Albion hero.

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If the 2013/14 season was a breakthrough year for Berahino at West Brom, the 2014/15 season was truly the one where he became a household name to supporters of other clubs. Albion, now managed by Alan Irvine, started the season against Sunderland. Berahino opened his account scoring two goals. He then doubled his tally with another two when Albion destroyed Burnley 4-0 at The Hawthorns. The club started to discuss a new, much better paid contract with him…but controversy struck again.

Once more, Berahino found himself arrested for drink driving, with allegations that he was also doing more than 110mph before being stopped on the M6. The club put contract talks on hold. When Tony Pulis joined the club, Berahino showed what he could do, scoring 4 goals in the FA Cup against Gateshead. He didn’t celebrate. He then did an interview stating that he was playing to get a transfer to a bigger club. Tottenham were showing interest and you could see his head was being turned. The Albion stopped contract talks and said they’d consider offers at the end of the season. Despite this, Berahino had a great year, scoring 20 goals in all competitions and ending as the Players’ Player Of The Year.

For other strikers in the Albion’s Premier League era, a season that gave 20 goals would see that player held in especially high regard amongst the fanbase, kids with the name on their shirt. However, with Berahino, it just didn’t happen. His attitude, his conduct…it had prevented him from being held anywhere near as highly as his goals would normally allow. Everybody knew he wanted out, but many knew he wasn’t really ready for it. For all his goals, Berahino was still a very raw talent. He needed another season to develop. He could have improved his game, increased his value and increased interest. But his head had already been turned.

The Summer leading to the 2015/16 season was full of speculation around Berahino. Tottenham had placed a bid of £15m for him that was rejected. Jeremy Peace, chairman at the time, set an asking price of £25m. A few more bids came in, Spurs now bidding £23m in instalments. Again, rejected. Berahino put in a transfer request. It was turned down. Peace and Albion were not budging. Berahino took to Twitter, stating he would never play for the club again.

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It was a threat that never came to light. Berahino featured 35 times for Albion, but it wasn’t the same. In several games he seemed missing. He (understandably) received mixed receptions from supporters. After scoring 20 goals the season prior, he only hit 7 in the 15/16 campaign – only 4 in the league. Salomon Rondon was the preferred striker, and Berahino’s stock was falling. Tony Pulis appeared to try to take a bit of a father figure approach, meeting with Berahino and his Mother to try to improve things. It just wasn’t to be. Eventually, Pulis stopped starting him at all, even claiming he was lucky to be in the team at all. But, still, Albion rejected bids for him. Newcastle attempted to sign him in the January window for £21m – rejected. And, then, after the season ended, Stoke bid £17m. Again, rejected.

I remember thinking when Stoke went in for him that we should have accepted it. I remember thinking we should have let him go to Spurs or Newcastle. He had become a negative energy. Peter Odemwingie had a spell on Twitter where he’d argue with Albion fans but you always felt that there was a reason for Odemwingie’s frustrations – more than any ‘normal’ fan would ever know – but Berahino would incite anger on Twitter from fans and his reasons just simply felt like greed. By the end of the year, the fans had turned. The boy with the absolutely incredible, inspiring story – coming out of desperate personal grief, leaving his home country to become a top Premier League player – had lost touch. When he first broke in to the Albion team, many would comment that he was humble…it sounded as though he was a good kid…but by the end, there was no good feeling towards him.

The 2016/17 season was to be Berahino’s last at the Albion, featuring only 5 times and not scoring any goals. Fairly early in the season, Berahino was dropped and sent to a training camp in France. The club gave the reason that he was overweight, and this was to help build him back up to full fitness. Reality was, however, that he had failed a drugs test. Found positive for MDMA, Berahino was banned for 8 weeks. In covering it up, the club had tried to protect him and his reputation, but this was it. Enough was enough, and he was sold to Stoke for a potential £15m.

Some months after news broke about the failed drugs test, Berahino did an interview claiming it was because his drink was spiked. This may have been true, but it’s sadly so often the way with Berahino – for every wrong, there’s an excuse and a denial. When people criticise or point the finger (even to the extent of WaterAid claiming Berahino’s charity hadn’t donated the money it promised), he always denies and says it’s been exaggerated. The only admissions of guilt come when there’s no other possible story. It’s not a good character trait.

I will always have the frustration with Berahino that, beneath it all, there is a really good footballer in there. Had he kept his head down, stayed out of trouble and just concentrated on his game then I honestly believe he’d be regarded as somewhat of an Albion icon. His story alone would have given him that. Instead, he left the club he joined as an 11 year old and spent 13 years with as a villain.

There was a time when Saido Berahino was considered a brighter prospect than Harry Kane. He could have had it all. He blew it. Two years after leaving Albion, he has had yet another drink driving conviction and that, plus his attitude, resulted in Stoke sacking him. He now has another chance at redemption, this time in Belgium with Zulte Waregem…and part of me, the part that still thinks of that academy built player scoring the winner at Old Trafford, really wants him to succeed. He has to, because this is surely the very last chance he has altogether.

Saido Berahino. Through all of his own doing, a wasted talent.


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A Retrospective Look: Kevin Phillips At The Albion

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It’s not everyday that your club signs a 33 year old striker from your local rivals and you feel equal parts excited and interested about what is to come, yet in 2006 that’s exactly what happened when Kevin Phillips left Villa to join Albion for £700,000.

Phillips was a known prolific goalscorer, but there were doubts over how much was left in him. His record at Sunderland was incredible, averaging better than a goal every two games. At Southampton, he managed an impressive 22 goals in 64 league games. Then, he joined Villa. Phillips lasted one year at the club, scoring only five goals in a season hampered by injuries and illness. It was his worst season in front of goal since the 1996/97 season at Watford.

And so, Phillips joined the Albion. Bryan Robson in charge, the club were hotly tipped for promotion straight back to the Premier League after relegation the year before…but things don’t always go to plan. A poor start saw Robson out the door and replaced by Tony Mowbray. The style of play changed. Suddenly the likes of Koumas and Kamara looked like real deals again, and up front Kevin Phillips was proving his worth.

To sum up the kind of impact Kevin Phillips had on me as a fan watching the game, I’ll take a trip to a match that involved neither West Brom or Kevin Phillips.

20th September 2009, over a season after Phillips had left Albion, the Manchester derby was on. It had been an incredible game. Back and forth, non-stop action, and as the final minutes hit Craig Bellamy scored to make it 3-3. In to ‘Fergie Time’…a perfect pass from Ryan Giggs finds Michael Owen in the penalty area with acres of space. Goal. 4-3 after 96 minutes. Bedlam. And sat there watching this happen, I turn around to my Dad and say, “That was a Kevin Phillips goal if I’ve ever seen one.”

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For a 33 year old Phillips still had an impressive turn of pace but his overall game was about so much more. When he joined the Albion I had visions of him being a goal poacher…he’d score goals with the right service but not much else. To an extent, that was true. He would hang around the goal if he needed to…he was a striker…but, equally, he’d drop back. It became clear that he would always be in the right place at the right time.

I quickly found myself in awe at just how well Phillips could read the game. If the other players were running around all over the place, he’d just stop and wait. Eventually the ball would drop to him from the scramble and he’d ever get a chance at goal or set up a chance instead. And that’s what made that Michael Owen goal in 2009 so much like a Phillips goal – when everyone else chased the ball, Owen stood still. Space opened, ball came, goal. It’s brilliant reading of the game and the more you watch football the more you realise just how many players are not capable of doing it all that well.

That approach to the game even changed how I would play myself. I used to run around like a headless chicken chasing everything. Suddenly, inspired by watching Kevin Phillips, I would decide to stop and stand still or just walk while everyone else ran. I’d get the ball more, I’d get better chances, I’d always lose my man…if I had a better finish, touch (and the rest), I could have been lethal. But that style of play changed my opinion on how a forward should play.

In his first season at Albion, Phillips scored an impressive 22 goals. Mowbray had started to place his style on to the team and we were desperately unlucky to miss out on promotion, losing to Derby in the Play Off Final. That Summer there was an exodus. Jason Koumas was gone, Diomansy Kamara gone, Curtis Davies gone…amongst others. It was expected and, to some extent, wanted. The ‘bad blood’ was out. Mowbray could build his team of soldiers and artists. Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Felipe Teixeira all join…as does a young forward by the name of Ishmael Miller, on loan from Manchester City.

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The 2007/08 season was, for me, the perfect year. The football was sensational, the players were hugely likeable, and the club had massive success. A season that saw an amazing FA Cup run, ending (unfairly) at Wembley in the Semi Final, and then the club won the league. This was also the year where Kevin Phillips cemented himself as my favourite player.

24 goals in 38 games is more than a good return; it’s sensational. It was so good that there was always an air of expectancy when Phillips played. If he was on the pitch, you knew Albion would score. You’d know it because either he would score or he’d create the space, make the chance, for the other player to score. He made the players around him better. Ishmael Miller, alongside Phillips, looked a world beater in the making. They were immense together. And away from the goals, he also bought a joy to the pitch. When you saw Phillips and Paul Robinson dye hair the same colour, rub each others heads…you could see that this was a team loving life. Phillips made that and, in turn, it made the support feel it too. He was quiet, he was small, but he was somehow almost larger than life. Only 5’7, but on the pitch he was the guy you saw.

The goal that epitomises Kevin Phillips’ time at the club, in my opinion, came in the 5-1 win against QPR on 30th September 2007. As QPR attempted to clear the ball after another attack, the defenders chased after the ball as Albion players tried to get it back in the area. Phillips makes his way to the edge of the area, with defenders running the other way. The ball comes across to him. He stops it, looks up, and just curls it in to the top corner. As cool a finish that you will ever see, he walked over to the supporters with a beaming smile and both arms aloft. It was pure quality. I’ve seen few, if any, finishes that beat that goal in terms of quality.

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As the end of the season drew near, talk began about Phillips new contract. The current deal expiring at the end of the season, it felt almost imperative to have him sign a new deal. He was the player of the year, he was named in PFA teams of the year…the fans dressed as super heroes for the last game of the season in tribute to him, ‘Super’ Kevin Phillips. It was simple. Give him two years and he’d sign.

But we didn’t do it.

A contract was offered of one year, with an option of a second year only being given if Phillips played in 19 games. No guarantee. It was turned down. Birmingham City offered two years, back in the Championship, and he took it.

In a way, I really admired that decision. It showed that it was about more than just the Premier League for him. He just wanted to play, and he wanted to play for another two seasons at least. I’m of the opinion that, had we offered the second year as a guarantee, Phillips would have signed and probably have gone on to retire at the Albion. In the space of two years, Kevin Phillips had completely bought in to the club. Even today, interviews show how much the Albion mean to him.

I would have loved to have seen Phillips play for Albion in the Premier League under Mowbray. I remember reading that Mowbray was equally disappointed that it never happened. There’s still a part of me that thinks Phillips would have played the 19 games and would have got that second year…but I could understand why he wouldn’t risk it.

To this day, the refusal to offer a basic two year contract stands high on my list of things that have frustrated me about Albion in my lifetime (perhaps a blog for another day). The fact he would go on to spend two (and a bit) seasons at Birmingham, including time in the Premier League, just heightens the feeling. But the fact I could feel so frustrated, so upset, at losing a player turning 35 just shows how good he was.

Kevin Phillips joined Albion with an air of interest, excitement and a tinge of doubt. He went on to score 46 goals in 81 games. He helped the team win the league. He got the club to the FA Cup Semi Final. He loved scoring against Wolves (I couldn’t leave that out). He left the Albion as a hero.

Super Kevin Phillips. The best striker I’ve ever seen play for Albion.

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A Retrospective Look: Lukaku At The Albion

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There was a moment on transfer deadline day in 2013 where I thought, along with several others, that the unthinkable was about to happen. Albion were going to re-sign Romelu Lukaku on loan for another season.

News filtered through on Twitter – I even remember Stan Collymore (I know…), who worked at Talk Sport at the time, tweeting that he had signed for Albion. He wrote it in block capitals. I remember jumping up and going “Oh my God! Brilliant! Yes!” as if Albion had scored a goal.

But isn’t it just like the Albion to get it wrong?

Lukaku joined Everton, and Albion signed Victor Anichebe. It was like going out and saying, “Tonight I’m buying a brand new Aston Martin” but then coming home with a second hand Skoda. It’ll still get you from A to B, but it’s nowhere near as glamorous and it’s probably going to break down two or two hundred times along the way.

It capped a pretty dreadful transfer window at the club – arguably the start of a deterioration within the club as we failed to capitalise on a great opportunity to establish ourselves as a steady Premier League team – and the season that followed was a nightmare. Steve Clarke, who needed some luck, couldn’t get anything and ended up being sacked. Pepe Mel came in and got a cult like status for really very little. And following that came Irvine and Pulis. The Albion gradually moving backwards and the idea of having a player like Lukaku at the club growing more and more like a pipe dream.

But once upon a time, it did happen. Romelu Lukaku was sent on loan to the Albion from Chelsea to help aid his development and add a bit of quality to the Albion’s attack.

Aged only 19 years old, Lukaku came to the club having only played 10 league games for Chelsea without actually scoring. That stat didn’t really matter, though. It was well known that at Anderlecht Lukaku had made a name for himself as a strong, fast centre forward with a good eye for goal. He looked ahead of his years at Anderlecht, resulting in Chelsea paying good money for a teenager and seeing him picked for the Belgium squad at the age of 16. There was a real air of excitement about the Hawthorns.

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His debut came in the first game of the season at home against Liverpool – a game that would later become famous for Brendan Rodgers and his envelopes – coming on as a second half substitute and scoring a header in a surprise 3-0 victory. It was a great way to start, and had fans believing that the hype was real…but Lukaku could rarely break in to the starting line up. Instead, Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long were preferred.

The 2012/13 season started off brilliantly for the club, and by the end of November the club found themselves sat fourth in the league, occupying a Champions League spot heading in to December. It was a real “pinch me” moment for the Albion faithful. Totally unexpected, the team were flying, and even when the club had dropped to seventh by the end of December it still felt like a dream. It felt like ‘little’ West Brom had arrived.

Then came the January transfer window and the saga of Peter Odemwingie and the QPR car park. Things were never the same after it, and form dropped massively. The incident with Odemwingie (who had now also started arguing with fans over Twitter) resulted in him being dropped from the starting 11, leaving a gap for Lukaku, who had previously mainly featured as a sub.

And this is when we saw what he was capable of.

Eleven goals in the second half of the season, resulting in him becoming the highest Premier League goalscorer in Albion’s history. His last actions at the club being an incredible hat-trick in the unforgettable 5-5 draw against Manchester United, Alex Ferguson’s final game.

The second half of the season, and that hat-trick, cemented Lukaku as a massive fan favourite. He had the buy-in of the crowd already, but stepping in as a heroic figure, as such, following the ‘betrayal’ of Odemwingie secured him a status afforded to few at The Hawthorns. He deserved it, too.

In interviews it was clear just how much of a perfectionist Lukaku was; he was articulate, critical of his own performances and always looking at how to improve. He had a determination that was clear in the way he played and the way he carried himself. Despite being so young it felt like he had more about him than some of the older players at the time.

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I remember when I first saw Lukaku play at The Hawhorns and I was struck by his size and speed. For a guy that looked so big, he moved so well…but he was raw. The potential clearly there, but it wasn’t fulfilled yet. Of course it wasn’t, he was playing for Albion. His first touch often let him down, but if he got the chance to hold the ball then you felt that something could happen. His size intimidated defenders and, at the time, the Albion had some good players who could help him out up top. The team posed a threat.

It was easy to see why he was a bit part player in the first half of the season. Peter Odemwingie was superb for the club – it’s still such a shame it ended the way it did – and Shane Long was a brilliant partner for him. The team were performing so well, it would have made little sense to alter things to make space each week for him. But, in a way, this is where part of the problem comes when looking at Lukaku at Albion.

There is no doubt that as a player he improved as the season progressed. That raw, powerful striker at the start of the season had turned in to a solid, ‘too-good-really-to-be-at-Albion’ striker…but his form came as the rest of the team fell apart. The final 18 games of the season from January onward saw Albion lose 10 games and win only four. Of those four wins, Lukaku scored in all of them.

An argument is sometimes made that the majority of Lukaku’s 17 goals meant very little over the season – even amongst the four wins it’s argued that his goal against Liverpool was a second in stoppage time where Albion were already 1-0 up and his goal against Southampton was the second in a 3-0 win…potentially these games were already won.

What feels odd is that a team drops in form, but the key striker rises to prominence. It’s very rare that a striker will grab the headlines for a team that continues to lose, but he did. And for that to happen, in a way, demonstrated how good he was becoming. Romelu Lukaku was a bright light in a very dark end to a season.

When that final game of the season came round, and Alex Ferguson came to the Hawthorns with his Manchester United team for his last game I felt the writing was on the wall. We’d been beat 4-0 the week before by Norwich, we couldn’t buy a result. United would want to leave on a high. Ferguson would want to leave on a high. With the game at 5-2 to United after 80 minutes, it felt like it would only go one way.

It didn’t.

Lukaku saved his best for last. Having already scored Albion’s second, he popped up with two in five minutes and helped Albion finish the game 5-5. This was a player that had well and truly landed. It felt like he knew this was his big opportunity, and I don’t think any other player in the world would have had the same impact.

It left me feeling like we’d seen someone special play in the blue and white stripes. We’d watched a young boy with bags of potential join, and in that last game seen his potential become fulfilled. It felt like we’d been on a journey with him and, I think, that’s why so many of the Albion fans still hold him so close to their heart. This felt like a feel good story and we were a big part of that story. We all invested in to that story. I also think it’s why Lukaku still holds the Albion in such high regard. He came with a point to prove…and, by the end, he did it.

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Watching him now, it’s interesting to see how much he has changed. I don’t see the love for the game in him so much at Manchester United…the style of play just doesn’t look to suit him as much as it should…but also, the perfectionist aspect of his character doesn’t feel as prominent as it once did. Where, at Albion, you could sense he strived to improve, it now sometimes feels like he’s just there. His first touch still lets him down too much, and his goal scoring form has started to drop. There are rumours that he may be sold this Summer, and I hope it happens. As a football fan, and as a fan of the player, I’d like nothing more than to see a truly fired up Romelu Lukaku again.

In a different world, that fired up player could have had another year at The Hawthorns. His rise in form giving massive reason to be hugely excited at the prospect of seeing him at the club for another year. It wasn’t to be. Stan Collymore lied to me (I was foolish to believe him in the first place), I celebrated for no reason.

But I’ll always be grateful we got to see the young Lukaku play for the Albion. The majority of his goals may have meant little in the grand scheme of things, his form may have peaked as the team began to drop…but it felt like we had a player of importance. It felt like we had something special. It felt like we had an attraction.

And, at the end of the day, it’s those type of players we want to see, and those type of players we end up remembering.

Thanks for reading!

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Disappointment, Frustration and Hope – Doing An Albion

My first taste of an Albion Villa derby came 21 years ago, 1998, in the FA Cup. Managed by Denis Smith, it was a very different time to be an Albion fan compared to what it’s like now. After starting the 97/98 season quite brightly under Ray Harford, the season would eventually peter out after he left to join QPR and Smith could only manage to get to 10th in the league.

I remember when the FA Cup draw was made and we were drawn against Villa my Dad, far more than me, was massively excited. This was the rivalry of his childhood. For my generation we had grown up to despise Wolves, but for my Dad it was all about Villa. This was the first time we’d faced them in 8 years. You could tell that this meant something else.

The day came. I remember that I was kitted out in an Albion tracksuit (the kind of thing an 11 year old can get away with but now, as a 32 year old…not a chance), Dad had his Albion shirt on. Our team had the likes of Alan Miller in goal, Lee Hughes and Andy Hunt up front, Kevin Kilbane and Richard Sneekes in midfield…Shaun Murphy and Shane Nicholson in defence…and we were up against a strong Villa that had Dwight Yorke, Stan Collymore, Gareth Southgate and Ian Taylor in. My Dad and I knew it would be tough to get a result but you’ve always got hope and…

4-0. We were destroyed. Simon Grayson opened the scoring early, Yorke scored two in quick succession and then Collymore (obviously him…it had to be him…) finished it off. A day to forget. We hoped, maybe one day, we could get out revenge. At the time, the play offs were in our sights but it didn’t happen and we wouldn’t see Villa again for a few years.

At that time we used to go to the Midland Red Social Club in Quinton every Saturday (I don’t think it exists anymore). It was populated by Birmingham and Villa fans, few Albion in there and perhaps some silent Wolves. I went still in my Albion tracksuit. I remember my Dad saying to me during the night that he was proud that I was still wearing the colours even though we’d been thrashed to which I replied something along the lines of “well, they need the support more than ever now and I’m still proud to be an Albion fan”.

A full 21 years later and that stance has always remained, albeit tested on several occasions. The tracksuits don’t exist anymore for me, even the shirts have become more “laze around the house” attire, but the love for the club has always been able to fight through and remain, even at the times when I’ve really felt like giving it up.

Since 1998, times at the Albion have changed dramatically. In 98, the thought of sneaking in to the play offs and getting promoted was like a pipe dream. Unimaginable, almost. But we finally got there, and for some time we actually established ourselves as a decent, if unspectacular, Premier League team. A succession of years of bad management, from top to bottom, has seen the club drop back down in to the Championship and now facing the play offs, with Villa being our semi final opponents.

When I think back to how I felt as an 11 year old thinking about Albion, and compare it to now, the difference is huge. I fell out with the club, and refused to go to the Hawthorns at all, during the Tony Pulis years. For me football had always been about the enjoyment, more than anything else really, and I felt we sacrificed that in hiring Pulis just hoping that he’d be able to keep us just afloat in the Premier League. Even thinking to that 1998 team, when we were far from great, we had players that made it entertaining – Hughes, Sneekes, Kilbane, Hunt all had the ability to make you leave a game and feel like you’d witnessed something good. Under Pulis, we had better players, but played a style that nullified them (for an example, look at Rondon at Newcastle and compare to the Rondon that played for Pulis) and just made it so boring.

After Pulis and the shambles that was Alan Pardew, the club went back to one of their icons, Darren Moore. In the space of a year, my connection with the club had grown back. Moore made the club feel like it’s old self again, brought that connection with the fans back and made me care again. Ultimately it never worked out for Moore and he was dismissed. It was a sacking that pained me more than any other, even though I felt it was the right call. I wanted Moore to succeed. I wanted him to be the one to take us up and move the club forward. I wanted him to help turn me back in to that 11 year old kid, excited about the Albion even when we lost. I had missed that feeling…Moore got it back.

Then the frustration. More mismanagement. The sacking of Moore did make sense results wise, but the sacking of Moore with no succession plan was, and is, beyond naive. It’s foolish, and it puts the club in limbo. It also alters the way in which the club can be perceived – compared to the other three teams in the play offs this year, we stand out as a team that doesn’t seem to have a plan. If we go up, James Shan will have an undeniably brilliant record of results as caretaker – is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to do the same with Shan as they did with Moore and promote him? Likewise, if we fail, is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to stick with Shan because it’d be a far cheaper alternative than looking elsewhere and “he knows the club”? This isn’t meant as a dig at Shan, but it is laughable, really, that a club potentially 3 games away from promotion doesn’t know who their manager is for after those 3 games. It’s even worse when you’re already thinking the club will probably get it wrong when they make a final decision, too.

And this is the biggest frustration with Albion. We had a chance to really reset this year, but have failed to do so. Although it’s been more exciting this season, performance has been poor most of the time and we’ve been reliant on a great strike force. It pains me to think that several of the issues we face as a club come from planning…and you can look over the years, back to Steve Clarke’s last Summer in charge, perhaps even further, and see that it is planning that hurts us most. This season we’ve struggled defensively…but in Craig Dawson (a player I’ve generally always liked) we have a defender that doesn’t want to be at the club and promotion, essentially, hinders his chances of a move away – we should have sold him last Summer – and then you look at, say, the decision to loan out Allan Nyom but have no plan to replace with another right back. Poor decisions. In hindsight, the last Premier League season, paying the ridiculous wages for Krychowiak and Sturbridge, Chadli and so on, have bitten us. If we don’t go up this year the potential for implosion next year is massive because we will absolutely have to sell to make amends, but we won’t get the money we may have got the year prior for the likes of Dawson and Rodriguez, for example.

But then comes the thing with football, and the Albion. Despite the poor planning, despite the frustration, despite the poor defending and performances, we finished fourth and are now two games away from Wembley, three games away from the Premier League. My heart says we can do it. My head says we need to do it but I don’t think we’re consistent enough. But this is football, and the heart will always override.

In a week that saw the impossible completed by Liverpool and Tottenham, it gives all fans hope. The unlikeliest of results are always possible. We go to Villa Park on Saturday as the unfancied team, in my opinion. Villa have ended the season in brilliant form. They have some of the best players in the league. They are a good team. But so are we. There has to be belief.

For all the frustration, the anger…the Albion are my club, and I have to believe things will go well. Although I have supported Albion long enough to know that, if we can, we will find a way to mess it up. We call it “doing an Albion” in our house.

21 years ago, my Dad was excited because we had Villa in the cup. Now, we have them in the play offs. I’m excited, I’m nervous and I’m absolutely dreading it. We’ve made up for that 4-0 drubbing in 1998 on a fair few occasions in recent years but none would make up for it more than beating them over two legs now. A few good results will make me forget all the frustrations…even if only for a few weeks…and it will mean everything.

The nail biting has already started. The anxiousness has kicked in. But deep down I can’t wait.

Now, I just wait and I hope. Hope that we do it. And, most of all, hope that we don’t “do an Albion”.

Soldiers And Artists – The Tony Mowbray Era

mowbray

I first started going to The Hawthorns with my Dad in 1995. I’d been to see Birmingham a few times, but my Dad finally got me to the Albion. We were playing Sunderland. I don’t really remember the result, I think it ended 1-1, but I do have one lasting memory. That memory is a ball played across the field to Stacy Coldicott, who was out wide.

Coldicott, like many of the players at the time, was nothing special. The Albion were a hard working team but that really was it for the most part. The Nineties were not a great time. But I fell in love with Albion because of Stacey Coldicott. As that ball went across the pitch to Coldicott, who had no players around him, he did something I’ll never forget. Did he score a wonder goal? No. Did he have a moment of brilliance and control a football like nobody I’d ever seen before? Absolutely not. What did he do?

He caught the ball.

Nobody around him, ball still in play; he inexplicably catches the ball. In doing so, he gets a yellow card.

I’m sat in the stands in hysterics. The few games I’d seen at Birmingham had never made me laugh – they’d made me feel scared (Cardiff fans ripping seats out and throwing them around still vivid in my mind), they’d made me feel excited…but they never made me laugh. All in one huge cock up, Stacy Coldicott had embarrassed himself but also made a fan out of me. I loved laughing, and therefore I loved the Albion. I was hooked from that moment.

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The years that followed were dreadful. Alan Buckley’s West Brom were shocking…that 11 game losing streak…Ray Harford’s Albion boring but too short lived…Denis Smith’s Albion were erratic…and then Brian Little came along and came so, so close to sending us down before change of board and the arrival of one Gary Megson. In school in Birmingham all my mates supported Villa, Birmingham, Manchester United, Liverpool…one Arsenal fan…and I could see why for most of it. I loved Albion but for a long time it was impossible to really enjoy watching Albion.

And so life goes on. Times change and the turn of the Millennium sees promotions and a change in fortune. But West Brom yo-yo between the leagues, and we either get relegated or go up. We weren’t fancy to watch…there were some great moments…but for the most part we weren’t exciting. I found myself loving watching the likes of Arsenal because they played football how I felt it should be played. It was neat, it was stylistic, it was fun, it was enjoyable. It’s that enjoyment that we all want from football at the end of the day.

On 13th October 2006, 11 years after my Stacey Coldicott moment, Albion hired Tony Mowbray to replace Bryan Robson. I didn’t really know much about Mowbray; I’d heard he’d done well in Scotland with Hibs and knew little bits of him as a player at Ipswich but that was it. His first job was to try to get the club back in to the Premier League. We finished fourth and got in to the play offs, beating Wolves in the Semi Finals (two amazing games) but ultimately losing to Derby in the final 1-0.

play off final

This was a make or break time. Several of the players in the team at the time didn’t want to play for the club, there were rumours that there was unrest…something had to give. Mowbray sold key players…Jason Koumas, Curtis Davies, Diomansy Kamara…and he bought in his own players. Chris Brunt and James Morrison were signed. Ishmael Miller joined the club to play up front alongside Kevin Phillips. The shape of the team changed. The make up of the team changed. Tony Mowbray talked of wanting ‘soldiers and artists’ on a football pitch and he had formed that team.

The midfield was incredible, the attack was sublime…Albion were brilliant. We played football better than anybody else in the league. We could outscore anybody and everybody. It was a dream to watch when it worked, and even when it didn’t work there was still always that feeling that we only needed one chance.

The game that showed how far we’d progressed for me was John Gregory’s last game as QPR manager. It ended 5-1 and it could have been more. It was a masterclass. Kevin Phillips was sensational – his second goal my favourite of his Albion career. I had fallen in love all over again. This was the Albion I wanted to see. This was the Albion I was proud to go to everybody and say “That is my team.” We were electric.

Tony Mowbray had transformed the club. There was a fear at the start of the season that with the loss of the likes of Koumas and Davies that the club would struggle but, instead, we were better than ever. Defensively we were always suspect, but we had a midfield and strike force that made that almost impossible to care about. You score 3 against us? We’ll score 4.

It wasn’t all golden. In the March of that year Leicester came to the Hawthorns to beat us 4-1 (a game made famous by Luke Moore getting sent off pretty instantaneously)…Colchester United beating us 3-2, Coventry beating us 4-2…these games happened. It was perhaps the risk with our style of play; we played an expansive brand of football and if a team countered it it could be a disaster. But fortunately these were just odd games. We went on to win the league. We deserved it. Tony Mowbray deserved it.

mowbray trophy

Alongside the league performance, we also had an incredible cup run. I think back to when I started watching Albion in 1995 and I could have never dreamed of seeing them in an FA Cup Semi Final but Mowbray got us there. One handball and a poor refereeing decision cost us that game against Portsmouth. I still believe that, had the ref seen Baros handle the ball before Portsmouth’s goal, Albion would have won the FA Cup that year. It would have been an incredible double. Regardless, it was an experience I will never forget. A moment I will always treasure. Watching Albion walk out on to the Wembley pitch in the FA Cup – it was sensational.

mowbray wembley

Tony Mowbray’s footballing philosophy was the same as my own. His near three years at the club were the favourite of my lifetime. We were entertaining, we were adventurous and we were good. Outside of football, I found Tony Mowbray an inspiration. After losing his first wife to breast cancer aged just 25, he just continued to move forward. Such personal tragedy had hit him but he remained focused, he achieved so much. He is a soldier, with the mind of a footballing artist.

On Saturday (27th October), Mowbray returns to the Hawthorns for the first time since leaving the club for Celtic. Some fans felt let down by Mowbray but I always felt, with his history with Celtic and the size of a club such as Celtic, he had to go. He gave Albion three brilliant years, and while it’s a shame that the Premier League year with Mowbray never worked, his time at the club remains my favourite period.

My hope is that he’s welcomed back to the Hawthorns with massive applause. My fear is that his Blackburn side do to us what his Albion sides used to do to many others.

Chris Brunt: Albion’s Hero, Albion’s Fall Guy

It’s Monday evening on the 28th April in 2008, I’m sat in a back room of a pub in Derby with a few University friends watching West Bromwich Albion play Southampton on TV. The season is so very nearly over, promotion is in our grasps and then it happens. Adam Lallana, not yet the name he is now, scores for Southampton. Celebrations are muted for the time being, it seems. Albion had dominated for large periods, but just couldn’t find the back of the net…something so unusual for a team that ended the season scoring 88 goals.

But here we were with less than 15 minutes to go, losing 1-0 to a team fighting relegation. “Typical Albion” is something I would have undoubtedly muttered under my breath.

Albion continued to push on after the goal, desperately looking for an equaliser. A draw would essentially clinch promotion; only an absolutely incredible turnaround on goal difference on the final day would alter that. Attack, attack, attack…Tony Mowbray’s Albion knew no different approach. A ball got played over the top on the right wing, a cross comes in, Luke Moore just about misses the connection on his attempted header and the ball lands at the feet of Chris Brunt who had come off the bench in the second half. Control, shoot, goal, eruption.

West-Broms-Chris-Brunt

My pint went flying, the scenes I could see on the TV at The Hawthorns were spectacular…fans fell over the advertising hoardings, I actually fell over my chair. Chris Brunt was the man of the moment, ending his first season at the Albion by winning promotion. It was an iconic moment and the first real landmark moment of Brunt’s Albion career. A hero was born.

Just a little over 10 years on, Albion are back in the Championship and Brunt remains one of the key members of the team. This Wednesday (3rd October), the Baggies will travel up North to face the team that they bought Chris Brunt from for £3m, Sheffield Wednesday. If Brunt plays, which he most likely will, it’ll be his 376th game for the club, a feat only beat by a few other players.

Chris Brunt has, for lack of better word, often found himself at the brunt of any criticism aimed at the club in recent years. As captain for several years, he was the face of the club and it was a club that was generally moving away from it’s fans. The business side mattered, not what the fans wanted, and it told. Decisions at board level, senior management, were detaching the club from the people that followed it. Brunt, not shy to put himself forward, often found himself a fall guy. Unfair criticism was aimed at him and it culminated with a coin being thrown at him from an Albion fan after a 3-1 loss to Reading in the FA Cup in 2016.

This moment was met by anger from the majority of Albion fans that understood that Brunt was one of the few players that actually seemed to care about the club, and appreciated the years of service he had put in. While the club continued to gradually detach itself from it’s previous “family club” values, Chris Brunt was genuinely one that tried to keep the connection and this was how he was repaid.

But still, Brunt stuck with it. He knew that the coin throwing incident wasn’t a fair representation of the Albion supporters with a number of fans putting together and raising money for a charity of Chris Brunt’s choosing after. He kept playing. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he tried all he could before being hampered by injuries, one of which ruling him out of the European Championships with Northern Ireland.

Brunt’s character shone through during the relegation season last year. Passion and fight took over and, at times, he ran the games. In a team that looked half arsed, he stood out as one of the few that genuinely cared. For many younger West Brom fans, Chris Brunt is West Bromwich Albion. And for many older West Brom fans, Chris Brunt is a reminder that loyalty does still exist in football, even in this modern era of fame and greed.

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So why then, is Chris Brunt under so much criticism this season? Featuring in most matches so far this season Brunt is still one of the more consistent passers of the ball in the team with a pass completion rate of 77.8% so far but there are constant calls for him to be dropped. I have been in the party myself calling for a change in the team and to see Brunt on the bench instead.

Playing alongside Jake Livermore in the centre of midfield, Brunt has often found himself as a weak part of the puzzle. The partnership of Brunt and Livermore is questionable. Both more than suitable players but they just haven’t always gelled. It’s got better as time has gone by but, overall, it’s still not a partnership that breeds confidence.

Chris Brunt’s range of passing is, and always has been, superb. His left foot is remarkable and by playing him in the centre it is entirely plausible to consider Brunt as somewhat of a ‘Quarterback’, trying to construct attacks from the back. However, it begins to fall down when the player next to him lacks the energy to be box to box, and is practically demolished when the defence behind struggle to do the basics. Brunt, again, becomes the fall guy and none of it is really his fault.

It’s a strange time at the Albion. Results are going brilliantly, and a win against Sheffield Wednesday will see the club return to the top of the table. However, the performances are still inconsistent; it’s still a club trying to find it’s feet, resting on the potency of a superb forward line to help get the results. Darren Moore, still sitting on an incredible win ratio, is still learning and, although results have been good, shouldn’t be made free of any criticism of decisions made by him. It is possible to enjoy the ride but still see the flaws.

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At some point, Chris Brunt will have his testimonial at the Albion…most likely alongside James Morrison…and it should be a day steeped in celebration. He is a modern day icon, certainly for supporters of my age group, and he deserves to be treated like one. Playing him in a central midfield role, with the flaws that do exist in this squad, is heralding the murmurs of “We should have moved on from Chris Brunt a few years back.” The partnership of Livermore and Brunt is improving slowly, but it needs to improve more to quieten the crowd…myself included.

Ten years is a long time in football. I still remember that goal against Southampton like it was yesterday. I still remember Brunt’s wonder goal against Villa, the free kick against Everton. I just hope that, regardless of any criticism he may get, that these are the moments the fans remember him for when he does eventually depart and not as a player “that stayed too long.”

And if Chris Brunt is able to do what Chris Brunt has done several times before and make people eat their words, then nobody will be happier. There’s still a moment or two for him to create just yet.

Rainbows Over The Hawthorns

These are strange times. It feels very much like the extreme views of anyone can be presented, and will be presented, due to social media. Facebook is under pressure, but despite that pressure many people read what they find on there, true or false, and believe it.

When I was at Uni, I wrote my dissertation on how media and media portrayal can affect the result of elections and change public perception. I wrote on the American election; Obama vs McCain. The media presentation of Obama was unlike anything else – regardless of policy, there was no way McCain would beat him. The media loved Obama, loved his catchphrases…he was money, he was change, he was exciting, he sold papers. Years later, McCain is now presented as he wanted to be in that election; a war hero with smart ideas. Just see how his Trump comments are presented.

It’s beyond easy to find racist or xenophobic posts on Facebook and Twitter. Both sites have attempted to thwart some major bodies – but, for example, removing a blue tick from the side of Tommy Robinson’s Twitter handle doesn’t diminish his influence on people. You need only search for “#FreeTommy” to see how many cling on to and believe the nonsense he spouts.

To suggest that Facebook or any form of social media is what makes people support the likes of Robinson is somewhat ridiculous. The EDL didn’t need Facebook to have supporters, the BNP were widely recognised before Twitter – what social media has done is given those people extra reach. What social media has also done is allow you to see who in your circle follows these views…it sparks debate, it sparks arguments, it can bring education and it can also enlighten. Different views, different opinions aren’t always negatives. If you can back it up, you can move things forward.

wba lgbt

But, adding to that element of social media that allows you to see other people’s views, no matter how backward they may seem, can be disturbing. It can be disappointing, rage inducing, offensive. I’d like to share some tweets (spelling mistakes and all) I have seen regarding news about West Bromwich Albion agreeing to fly a rainbow flag at The Hawthorns in support of the LGBT community.

“So it will be now known as the Gay stand. Away fans are gunna love it. Thanks Albion but the majority of the East stand I reckon are heterosexuals. Oh I forgot the majority doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Next it will be the “proud to support paedophilies flag” which the LGBT (let’s go bang toddlers) also believes is just a sexual preference rather than a perversion.”

“PC Bollocks…How about a stand for blokes that shag women 5 times a night? Not PC enough?”

“Ffs what’s happened to football? PC gone fucking mad”

“So because youre gay you have to tell everyone by having a flag. I feel victimised because i am straight and we havent got a flag”

In a time where being openly gay is widely accepted, there is still an underbelly of homophobia. Sadly, in football, it’s seemingly more common than in other areas. The above tweets are all from a minority, and thankfully many were pulled up by others and rightly lambasted, but that’s not to say others don’t have these feelings. Unfortunately the sad truth is that the first tweet may have some truth to it – it’s not far fetched at all to believe that some away fans would, and will, target it.

The list of openly gay footballers is ridiculously short. Perhaps the most famous player being Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and tragically committed suicide in 1998 aged only 37. The most recent high profile player, Thomas Hitzlsperger, only came out after retiring from the game. There are rumours that there are several gay players in the Premier League yet none have come out. Yes, it’s up to the person as to whether they announce their sexuality to the press, but it’s equally so concerning that even now, in this day and age, there is a belief that players are scared to come out as gay for fear of the impact it would have on their career.

A huge part of that will be because of the vitriol they know they would receive from the fans of different clubs, and to an extent even their own (as seen above). Why would you put yourself in line for the abuse?

This is football’s problem. Hooliganism raises it’s head every now and then, but homophobia is easier to find. It’s a massive issue, and one that Albion should be praised for trying to tackle. The founder of the WBALGBT group, Piero Zizzi, has said, “If the flag makes just one person feel more welcome at The Hawthorns, then it’s served its purpose” and he is correct. The hope has to be that it does help, and that the supporters contribute and ensure they do their bit to tackle homophobia in the game.

It’s quite apt that Albion have taken the decision to support the LGBT community. It’s a club with a proud history and a club with a history of tackling discrimination. The “Three Degrees”, Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham were the most high profile black players in English football at the time the Albion had them in the team. Bananas were thrown on the pitches, but the club and, perhaps more importantly, the fans really ensured those three players were looked after and were seen as “one of their own”. Colour didn’t matter to them. They loved those three players. They still do.

And now, sexuality shouldn’t matter. It may only be a flag hanging in the East Stand this coming season, but it may make a difference. Earlier I wrote how difference of opinion on social media can be healthy, and it can be educational. For some people, I genuinely hope that this is educational, and that it opens eyes to see that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a different sexual orientation. And then comes the hope that one day a player would feel more comfortable in being openly gay. For all we know, the next Lionel Messi may be in this country, afraid to display his or her talent, because of the stigma that is still apparently attached to homosexuality in football today. It needs to change. It will change.

On a final note, the placing of the flag is rather fitting. The East Stand was built in 2001, replacing the old family stand that was called The Rainbow Stand.

There’s something quite nice about the LGBT flag flying in the Rainbow Stand…perhaps they should bring the old name back.

A Forgotten Rivalry Or A Return To The Dark Ages?

I’m normally one to try to write blogs like articles, taking note from my journalism and media writing lectures at University, trying to be as unbiased as I can regardless of topic. It’s not always easy, and I’ve battled against myself at times when writing about West Brom, the club I support. For this, though, that approach would seem off.

It’s been an awful week for the Albion. We’ve gone to Villa Park twice, just 4 miles up the road, and got beat twice. This isn’t a great Villa team we’ve lost to, it’s a pretty awful one…but both times, they deserved it. The Tuesday evening game was a shambles; we went there for a draw, nothing more. I heard the BBC commentator talk of how we dominated the second half and were desperately unlucky but I didn’t see that at all. Villa wanted a win, we wanted a draw. Villa won.

On Saturday, we travel 4 miles up the road again, this time in the FA Cup. First half, we are in control. Brown Ideye, a player I have supported through thick and thin, misses a glorious chance after just 8 minutes. At that point, I said to my other half “We’ve lost this.” We are so utterly predictable. Ideye barely had a look in after that, Berahino didn’t do much…and as for creativity in midfield we may as well give in. Going in at half time with the score at 0-0 I tweeted that we could live to regret those missed chances, and boy did we.

With all the usual typicality of Albion, we came out for the second half and within 6 minutes we are 1-0 down. Villa’s first proper chance, and it goes in. That right there is the difference. It doesn’t matter how ‘in control’ you are, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the better team overall, if you don’t take your chances you lose. Football is not a difficult game, but we love to make it so.

The second half saw Villa come at us. We had to open up after the goal, so it’s inevitable that more chances will come against you, but we were poor. Like the first half on Tuesday night I felt a distinct feeling of ‘Villa want to win, we want to draw’ coming over me. It looked like we wanted the replay. And then came the Yacob red card.

As bad a decision as I think I’ve seen in a long time. Bacuna comes in, Yacob stops. I’m of the opinion that had Yacob knocked the ball forward, Bacuna would have taken him out and probably injured him. In the end, it’s a block tackle from Yacob, Bacuna actually hurts himself. Play carries on for a few seconds, then ref calls a halt, and a red card.

If the referee seriously felt the challenge warranted a red, why did he hesitate? It wasn’t advantage that saw us play on for 5 seconds. It was a poor decision. Did it cost Albion the game? No. As much as I love Claudio Yacob, he isn’t a game changer, and if anybody could honestly say we looked like we were going to grab an equaliser then I wish I was watching the same game. We were out by that point. Scott Sinclair’s goal, the same Sinclair that was so dire at Albion last year, was just icing on an already very poor cake.

Grealish’s red card, also, was a shambles. If a man the size of Joleon Lescott dives in front of you when you are running at full speed how are you meant to stay on your feet? But it’s irrelevant, the game was won for Villa.

I won’t sit here bemoaning Tony Pulis and his tactical decisions. Had Ideye scored, we’d have won on Saturday…but games are turned on those missed chances. We saw that when Mowbray managed us in the Premier League. Before this week the overwhelming view across Albion fans was that Pulis was a saviour. He still is. He’ll keep us up, same way that Sherwood will keep Villa up; but I can’t help think what little that says for the “best league in the world” that two teams so poor will end up surviving yet again.

Away from the shambles on the pitch, it’s impossible to miss the shambles off it.

Prior to the FA Cup game, several Albion and Villa fans had voiced concerns about the late kick off, especially when considering the fact the teams were playing each other two times within five days. But the sheer ignorance to the concern from both the police and the FA just goes to confirm my beliefs that there is a ridiculous underestimation of the rivalry between Albion and Villa across the region and the nation. Whereas my generation feel Wolves are the ‘big’ rivals, for the generation just below me, and the ones below that, Villa is the big one.

I’m not defending fan trouble by saying “we are big rivals”, but it was, just like Albion, so predictable that trouble would flare up.

The reaction to the pitch invasion is, quite rightly, one of disgust. However, it yet again highlights just how little the national media and police, and (by the lack of stewarding) even the football clubs, think of THIS local derby. Had it been Villa v Birmingham, surely the stewarding would have been better, and the policing. Had it been Albion v Wolves, you’d imagine the same. Would there be as much ‘shock’ or reaction had this happened at an Villa/Blues or Albion/Wolves game? I doubt it. But this is Albion/Villa…it isn’t the ‘biggest derby’.

On the pitch invasion, I’d also like to add that had this been at The Hawthorns, and it was Albion winning 1-0, then believe me, it would have happened there, too. I love my football club, but to say that we wouldn’t have done the same is just pure nonsense. Every club has idiots, and, unfortunately, I’ve been watching our idiots grow over time.

Running on the pitch before the game is over is awful; the threat to players’ safety is incredibly visible because of that, and, ultimately, this will play a part in speeches that are bound to come saying that football fans never learn. It’s just disrespect to the game, the players, and, in my view most importantly, the fans that paid over the odds to go and watch it in good nature. Imagine that’s your child’s first game that you’ve taken them to and that’s what they see.

And then, on to my fellow Albion fans; are we any better? Yacob gets sent off and then some mindless bunch start ripping up seats and throwing them on to fans below and on to the pitch. It’s a disgrace and I sincerely hope that they receive the same justice as the people that invaded the pitch before the game finished. And for those that will have read this and gone “We wouldn’t have invaded the pitch…” think about this with the seats.

I remember when we got to the FA Cup Semi Final and got beat by Portsmouth. I went to the toilet after the game, and when washing my hands, some guy with an Albion flag came in and started smashing it to pieces, hitting it against the walls, doors, sinks and so on. There were kids all over the place. This guy with the flag looked about 30. Do you think he would run on the pitch? Do you think people smashing chairs would run on a pitch?

The media reaction is that this was a ‘throwback’ to the dark ages. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Pitch invasions happen. Had this been Bradford, it would have been greeted as one of the great sights…but it wasn’t Bradford, it was Villa, and it was a local derby.

For me, questions have to be asked of Aston Villa and the stewarding – have they forgotten the type of game this was? If it had been Birmingham, there would have been more stewards…should they have anticipated this could have happened? And for the police and the FA, similar questions…have they forgotten just how big a rivalry this actually is?

A shambles of a footballing week from Albion; we weren’t good enough on the pitch in either game. And an utter shambles off the pitch in the end from both Albion and Villa.

Simply put; not good enough.

Rebuilding Relationships and Eating Words

It says a lot that many West Brom fans were disappointed to leave The Hawthorns having seen the team draw against Manchester United. Seeing what would have been a famous win snatched away with a late equaliser put a slight dampener on what was a great night to be a Baggie. A strong organised defensive performance to be proud of.

How times have changed. My last blog on here was called ‘Spitting Feathers’. It was me discussing how very unambitious the hiring of Alan Irvine was, discussing what I was viewing as a stagnation at the Albion. I felt we were heading backwards. Recent weeks, and performances, are making me think I may have spoken too soon.

And I’m not just talking about Irvine there. I’m talking about the club as a whole. The relationship between supporters and club is growing again. The right moves are being taken. The media and PR side to the club has been enhanced (we’ll ignore the Fellaini tweet…) because they’ve hired people that Albion fans know and respect in Chris Lepkowski and Martin Swain. The support for the ‘Justice For Jeff’ campaign has grown.

It’s the little things that matter most sometimes, though…and, for me personally, the biggest indication of the club ‘giving back’ to the fans happened on my birthday on the 28th September. The other half had treated me to tickets for the Burnley game, and with the tickets she had a letter. I opened it to find a signed note from Alan Irvine wishing me a happy birthday on behalf of him and everyone at the club. It may only seem a small gesture to many…but it meant a huge amount to me. Not just because I had received a letter from an Albion head coach, but because I saw it as the club improving relations. Would this have happened last year? Most probably not.

It feels like we are getting our club back.

I’m not naive enough to believe that it’s all hunky dory because of these examples. I know full well the relationship between the club and fans will never be as close-knit as many would like it to be. I know it’s still early days and the good feeling about the club could crash down as quickly as it’s built up. I know there are still questions to be answered by Jeremy Peace for the debacle that was last season; a season that, potentially, could have set us back a couple of years…may still have set us back. We are a club that is still rebuilding off the pitch. And on it?

On the pitch we look completely different. Irvine has, so far, done extremely well and I’m very happy for him. I wanted him to make me regret criticising him being hired and thus far he is doing it. The team look as organised as I have seen for years…at Spurs we defended resolutely, kept shape and got a great win. Against Burnley we kept shape again, we dominated…if a move didn’t work we went back to defence and started again, we opened Burnley up. Tactically it was probably as good as I’d seen from Albion since Hodgson’s days. And last night, against United…kept shape, defended incredibly well and we were very unlucky not to get more than just one point for our efforts.

Irvine has got the team looking organised again. It is reminiscent of Hodgson’s time at the club – everybody knows their role, everybody knows their job. They look well drilled. In comparison to the latter stages of Clarke’s reign and all of Pepe Mel’s, we look miles better. We look a new team. Craig Dawson looks like a new player, Saido Berahino just gets better and better, and Graham Dorrans seems to have gone back in time and recovered his old self. Joleon Lescott adds confidence at the back, even if he doesn’t have a decent game, Andre Wisdom is getting better with each game, we’ve not really even seen our £10m striker Brown Ideye yet…there’s much to be positive about at Albion at the moment.

So, Alan Irvine, keep making me eat my words. Keep proving us all wrong. And who knows where we could end up at the end of the season.