Albion - City 2-1 (0-0) 08/09

Tidenes førjulpresang

Albion 2, Manchester City 1? Now I really do believe that miracles can happen at Christmas! Perhaps the conversation I had with ‘Im Indoors as we finally hove into sight of Wright Towers, post-match best illustrates the finer details of how we came to be the astonished owners of three precious Prem points come half-three that wonderfully mild afternoon – and it went like this:

Me (on spotting the recent transformation of what had been a ‘FOR SALE’ notice adorning the end detached house in our row, into a triumphal ‘SOLD’: “I see that house there’s finally found a buyer, then - I wonder who’s gone and done it?”

‘Im Indoors (half in jest): “Yerss, at one point my mum was threatening to buy it….”

GREAT AUNTIE GLYNIS INTERJECTION: Before proceeding any further, let me clarify matters by explaining that Simon’s mum is truly the archetypal mistress of the noble art and science of ‘Nearly-Bought’: i.e. when in front of others, expressing strong, enthusiastic agreement with regard to a particular prospective purchase (usually white goods, or similar) as soon as convenient, or making further enquiries about the feasibility and cost of booking a holiday abroad for the first time ever, trilling on about it to any family member within earshot – then getting a terminal attack of cold feet once the initial enthusiasm’s died down.

An abortive attempt - I still get flashbacks, honest - to get her to sacrifice her creaky old twin-tub, leaky hoses leading to and from hot and cold taps, wonky spin-dryer, heavy-duty wooden wet clothes tongs, and all, for a proper automatic washing machine that didn’t require the owner’s presence when in operation, ended with me repeatedly bashing my head against our wall with the sheer frustration of it all! Bearing the above preamble in mind, then, please read on….

Whether said jocularly or otherwise, had I heard my other half’s comments approximately three hours earlier, and knowing hubby’s Mater all-too well by then, my reply would probably have sounded something like, “Yeah, yeah – there’s about as much chance of your mother buying that house as Luke Moore has of putting one in the back of the net today!”

And her dutiful and loyal son would have most probably readily agreed with my remarks about the eternal flakiness of his mum’s resolve, and thought nothing more of it, but yesterday’s astonishing events completely tore apart the fabric of my personal universe. Now Luke’s actually gone and done it, my perception of the world at large can never be the same any more.

In my current, somewhat changed, world view, two and two do not necessarily make four, and despite an absolute deluge of observational evidence to the contrary, it’s not a given that the earth orbits the sun, either. I once had certainty and order in my life, but thanks to our hero’s somewhat belated discovery of precisely where the match ball should end up during a game, he’s gone and removed it, just like that!

Because my immediate reaction was primarily one of sheer disbelief that such a cataclysmic event could ever happen this season, if at all, I’d quite naturally assumed that anyone wanting to place hard-earned money on the table on our underperforming ex-Villa player’s behalf had to be completely off their rocker.

But now the lad’s finally gone and busted his Albion cherry, so everything’s changed in a flash. Now you know why I’m heading for that estate agent’s HQ like a bat out of hell, and once there, making discreet but somewhat nervous inquiries as to the true identity of the mystery buyer!

Isn’t it amazing what a difference a much-needed win can make to supporter morale? I don’t know too much about the mood in our own dressing-room after the final whistle, but if the totally-transformed atmosphere among our supporters was anything to go by, as they happily trudged along the Brummie Road towards the town centre, the post-match racket must have been deafening.

Oh – and another afterthought. Before the game, my other half mentioned that the last time we went so long without a win, Alan Buckley took the players to a local restaurant for a ‘team-bonding’ meal. Result? A Baggies win at Southend, four or five days later. Now fast-forward to 2008 where, again, we’d hit a barren spell, so Mogga gets his troops to a local eatery for precisely the same reason as his teacup-chucking predecessor. Result? Too bloody right, it was.

Our jubilatory post-match mood certainly contrasted considerably with our own arrival at the Hawthorns pub, a couple of hours or so before the kick-off. Get past the Supporters Club’s human answer to the ever-vigilant two-headed dog Cerberus, guarding the entrance to Hades, allow yourself sufficient time for eyes to adjust to the gloom inside - and guess what?

The licensee had tried to improve matters by putting up miscellaneous artefacts that vaguely resembled Christmas decorations – balloons, tinsel, streamers, and the like – but the overall ambience suggested he was on a loser right from the very start.

It has to be said that the lighting was pretty dim, but even so, all you could see in that room was but a mere sprinkling of Baggie-shirted people, and all with facial features highly suggestive of recent news of the sudden demise of a favourite, much-loved relative. ‘Aye – we’re doomed’ seemed to be the most popular Baggie Thought For The Day, consequently the only noise to be heard was that of the ginormous gas turbine heater the pub owner deploys to make the room reasonably habitable on wintry match days. Let’s face it, had I really wanted to indulge in such unmitigated misery, and at much less cost to my trouser pockets, I’d have gone to the Crem instead, and be done with it.

Worse than that was the overall demeanour of some pretty senior, long-serving Supporters Club stalwarts, all to a man (or woman), packing some pretty glum expressions on their faces, as they went about their lawful business. So despondent were they, I even heard dark mutterings from some quarters about not bothering with certain away games in the near future, as such excursions always seemed to end in tears, anyway.

Even the normally-buoyant Lewis family seemed to have contracted a heavy dose of the same affliction. Or, should I say: ’those that haven’t ended up with their leg in plaster’? Yep, Bethany was still waiting on medical opinion whether or not the plaster cast could finally come off, so hadn’t made the 45 minute journey down the M6 for this one either.

As for Lewis Offspring Senior, her job’s still going remarkably well, despite all the recessional attrition taking place in other occupations. But just one tiny thought still niggles me, and perhaps I am reading things into the situation I perhaps shouldn’t, but Carly now reports her employers increasingly giving her tasks that require a certain degree of supervisory ability. And the growing number of split shifts she’s having to work (three in one day, on one memorable occasion) don’t sound like good employment practice either.

She sees all this as the subtly hinted managerial prelude to possible promotion; being of an altogether more cynical disposition myself, I see it as them getting a so-called ‘team-leader’ on the cheap. I daresay the coming months will determine whether or not I’m correct in my appraisal of her current situation.

But whatever the merits, or otherwise, of her current occupation, this Christmas Day, the entire Lewis clan will be changing their lifetime-long celebratory habits by forsaking a family dinner consumed at their in-laws’ domicile for a slap-up feed at Carly’s place of work.

If I were booked in for a meal there that day, I’d be looking to bring industrial-grade ear-defenders with me, the sort you see adorning the lugholes of airport ground-staff loading baggage onto aircraft, or towing them away from their docking berth preparatory to making their way towards the runway under their own steam. Believe you me, when gathered together in a huge bunch, family conversational excesses can make anything endured by the good folk living in the vicinity of Heathrow sound more like low muttering taking place in the reading-room of the local public library.

It was while we were discussing what the future would hold for our football club, should (when?) they and the Prem part company, that a large jet aircraft landed right in the middle of the Brummie, shaking the entire pub in true ‘earthquake’ fashion in the process. Well, that’s what it sounded like, as the sound system on the big screen, currently pumping out Man U’s ‘cash cow’ Far Eastern alleged World Champions Final, arbitrarily decided to take umbrage at being ignored for so long, and in highly spectacular fashion, too, hence the sprinkling of striped-shirted Baggies stuck fast to both walls and ceiling.

It’s not very often you see so many people in one place all jumping out of their skins with sheer fright, but that’s precisely what happened! Once all our nerves had stopped jangling, and all three of those tiny bones located in our eardrums had resumed their normal function, we were pretty much in agreement that the entire incident had aged us all by a factor of approximately 10 years.

“Hell,” I remarked, “It’s bad enough having to watch the game, without getting half frightened to death before you’ve even gone through the turnstiles!”

Later still, we were graced by the presence of The Fart, and in the same highly-subdued, pessimistic mood that prevailed among just about everyone present. Much of what the lad had to say consisted of a variant on the overall matchday theme aired by other Albion supporters, viz: “We’re down, we’re down….” You sure know you’re in trouble when even a naturally-optimistic Baggie such as him starts prophesizing a future consisting entirely of unremitting rack and ruin for our football club.

The clincher? Our wrinkly chum’s weary assertion that these days, he derived much more pleasure from regular theatregoing duties performed on behalf of Ade Goldberg’s “Stirrer” website. And I certainly couldn’t argue with his next comment: “At least, when you go to the theatre, you do have a pretty good assurance that what you pay up front to see will be entertaining….” Yes, The Fart does rest his case, M’Lud.

And the lad has also said he’ll bring up at the next liaison committee meeting (ooer, must be something in the food!) a pertinent point that “Im Indoors latched onto shortly after Gordon Brown announced those changes to VAT, recently, i.e. now the rate had shifted downwards, whether or not our football club were going to pass on the reductions to supporters.

A fair number of lower division sides, Hereford included, had done precisely that already, usually via price reductions of a quid or so through the turnstiles. But would our football club be doing similar, or not, he wondered? I guess we’ll just have to wait until the next scheduled meeting to find the answer to that one – if there IS an answer to be obtained, of course. Watch this space for any forthcoming news on this issue.

By the time we’d gone through that little lot, it was, as The Noise so wonderfully put it, a couple of seasons earlier, erm – ‘Time To Grumble’, so off we all went, straight into a Halfords Lane blessed by the joys of solar illumination, for once. That’s one clear advantage of early kick-offs, I suppose, but being the traditionalist I am, I’d much prefer to watch Albion games left untainted by media influence, thank you very much. And as we stepped out onto the pub car-park, time for me to issue forth with yet another foreign language variant upon an overall theme of ‘Tarra!’, the Italian “Ciaou” . Not that I got much reaction from the old guy on the door: maybe he’s used to my eccentricities by now.

After our usual natter with Steve The Miser and chums’ self-styled ‘Anoraks’ Corner’, entry into the ground couldn’t be put off for much longer, so we reluctantly bade our farewells, then proceeded through the portal that leads to the modern day answer to Bunyan’s “Slough Of Despond”.

The first thing I noticed, once in my rightful Halfords Lane Stand perch, was the sheer paucity of the Man City support. Nothing whatsoever to do with a sudden erosion of enthusiasm for away travel on their part, mind, but completely down to something our own club had done for this one – or, more pertinently, NOT done.

In short, Albion’s crazy decision to charge the City travelling contingent an astounding FORTY pounds for the dubious privilege of attending a televised bottom-of-the-table clash taking place just four days before Christmas. Having been made aware of this already by my other half, I was soon to discover that the boycott hadn’t happened on an individual basis.

City supporters, hearing of Albion’s preposterous pricing policy, had simply taken matters into their own hands by combining to become ‘refuseniks’. Result? What would normally be an away end absolutely jam-packed with shoehorned Mancs, now reduced by over 50%. Bad news for City, that: in the Premier League, clubs accepting away tickets have to fork out for those unsold, so all those blank seats in the Smethwick must have burned a gigantic hole in someone’s pockets.

Again, I can only express complete and utter puzzlement at this ludicrous policy on the part of our club. What with the recession’s possible impact on the game when next season’s regular punters have to be found – by the time season-tickets come up for renewal in the summer, I suspect that some unemployment-stricken family budgets will be unable to stretch as far as a season ticket. It’s tender loving care that’s needed, right now, not cynical exercises in how to rook people for everything they’ve got. I wonder how long it will be before the penny finally drops among certain Albion quarters?

But enough of the politics, now for the football. Given the sheer number of photographers, both TV and ‘still’, clustered around the players’ tunnel, and clearly awaiting the entry of City gaffer Mark Hughes onto the pitch with a certain sanguinary relish, it was clear that the media regarded this game as ‘make or break’ time for the under-fire boss. “Pack of vultures, the bloody lot of ‘em,” I muttered.

But all that was forgotten as both parties to the conflict made their respective entries into the arena, then indulged in the daft handshaking frenzy so beloved of this league and all who sail in them. Team news? Back was Roman Bednar, also Kim, and both replacing the now-benched Chris Brunt, and the poorly Valero. We’d also been catapulted into a last-minute sub crisis when Tex, named to be on the bench, ended up with a knock while warming up, so had to be replaced by Pele.

As for City, well… And we’d thought we had personnel problems! City declared no less than seven changes to their line-up, and all for various reasons connected with their Thursday UEFA Cup excursion a la Continent. Strange, that. You would have thought, given their current position in the table, that provision of an adequate squad for normal League business would be a Class One priority for them, but seemingly not.

Given the sheer number of pastings we’d taken over the course of the past few weeks and months, our supporting start was very much a low-key one. The logic stood out like a Belisha beacon: if you don’t allow yourself to get worked up, you won’t leave the ground spitting both bricks and disappointment in equal quantity, will you? And some early, nonsensical decisions made by both ref and lino (the one on the Halfords Lane side of the ground, I mean), quickly brought the ire of John Homer down upon their heads in heaps.

“Oh, God, just what we need” I wailed, as said flag-waver signified yet another dubious-looking offside decision on his part, “ANOTHER one who likes to get noticed on the box!”

Strange, though. Considering the sheer frenzy that was to accompany the game’s closing minutes, its start was so laid-back, it practically dismantled itself on the spot. Good TV, it was not, and my thoughts on the matter were to be confirmed later that evening, when the Beeb seemingly took the editor’s scissors to that opening 45 in true Sweeney Todd fashion.

And you couldn’t argue: with both sides desperately needing something from this one, mutual ‘caginess’ seemed to be the order of the day during those tense opening minutes. But the game then settled into what was, by now a familiar pattern, to we watchers from afar, i.e. Albion starting to dominate, missing chances, some clear-cut, others less so, and the visitors attempting to pick us off with quick breakaways from defence.

On one memorable occasion, once more instigated by possession lost at a critical moment, Robbo was as quick as you like to deflect the ball away from its intended target, the back of the net, where it would have most certainly landed, had our man not ordained otherwise, albeit unintentionally, one suspects.

The main surprise for me, though, was the unwavering quality of our support throughout the game. As per usual, the Smethwick were giving it big licks at the back of the stand, with that booming bass drum of theirs setting the tempo. “You’re Getting Sacked In The Morning,” was their message to the City dug-out, a sentiment enthusiastically taken up by the City contingent as well! Mind you, their own chant, borne of recently-acquired Abu Dhabi monetary largesse, of: “Buy Your Ground, Set It On Fire…” did little to further improve Albion-City relations, sadly. Can’t think why for a minute!

Our best attempt upon the City goal thus far came around the thirty minute mark, when three or so of our finest charged from out of defence and right up the pitch; courtesy some neat interplay, the ball then fell to Bednar, who let rip from fairly short range. Yes, the shot eluded their keeper, but sad to say, the post didn’t, the ball rebounding harmlessly away instead.

A familiar tale for those who Baggie-watch on a regular basis, of course: when you’re as deep in it as we are, nothing ever seems to go right. And not long after that, Bednar almost managed to rectify matters with a headed effort that wasn’t too far wide of the mark.

For the remainder of the half, City had their own opportunities to take the lead, and, for their part, so did our lot. That’s what happens when two sides, both equally desperate to open the scoring, simply end up nullifying each other instead. At least we hadn’t gone in a goal or three down, which you can count as a substantial improvement, I suppose.

We might all fret mightily about the gloomy prospects for our favourite football team, come the new year, but all that pales into complete insignificance when set against the possibility of an early demise through cancer. That was the dismal prospect facing former Albion hero Geoff Horsfield, recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. Luckily for him, the problem was spotted early and dealt with, so no need for either chemotherapy or its gruelling radioactive equivalent. Good to see him back on the Hawthorns turf once more – and if both his appearance and willingness to talk about the subject help save just one life among those blokes present, it’s got to be worth it, hasn’t it?

But back to Part Two. Both sides came on pretty strong during those early moments, thereby giving rise to speculation that an end to the deadlock might be imminent. But Carson found himself tested around ten minutes later, when he had to shift pretty quickly to stop a City goalbound shot, but only after a heart-stopping fumbling bout with the wretched thing.

And both sides were making ghastly mistakes at the back, too, for which either outfit could have paid the price very easily. Yes, Messrs. Dunn and Greening, that means YOU! That’s what must have prompted Mogga to change it; within minutes, Kim had returned to the bench, thereby giving the lad Dorrans an unexpected opportunity to shine.

On my reckoning, it’s not unfair to say that we had our noses in front by that time, and now was the moment we went and gave City practical confirmation of that very fact. It was particularly pleasing to note that the Baggie newcomer had a hand in our inaugural strike. It all started with what some might have called an Albion ‘cavalry charge’ up the pitch from defence. Cue the Dorrens pass that made all the difference, reaching the superb Morrison with ease around midway, swiftly followed by a lay-off to the much-reviled Luke Moore.

Despairing cries of: “GERRITOFFIM, SOMEBODY!” from the Bloke In Front Of Me, enthusiastically aided and abetted by his bespectacled and extremely anxious sidekick – but we needn’t have worried. Advancing just a little bit further, and with the City defence now in a complete and utter mucking fuddle, the lad fired home. Now tell me something: were all those Albion cheers really heavily-disguised sighs of relief? As for Jean and myself, all we could do was scream, in joyful unison: “HE’S SCORED! ACTUALLY SCORED!” followed by my little voice, somewhat anxiously, this time, saying: “Just you watch; after waiting for THAT all that time, the next thing will be one almighty asteroid strike on Brum!”

What a shame we never held John to the same arrangement we had going for Shergar: the eventual payback would have been pretty spectacular by Lower Gornal standards. Amazing, that very morning, Moore was the Albion player most likely to meet with a sticky end in some back alley or other, and now he was being given a standing ovation on replacement by Beattie, and deservedly so. Truly, the works of the Almighty are mysterious!

With Albion now riding, Gang Show-like, ‘on the crest of a wave’ and City looking very porous indeed, at times, (they were lucky to see another Albion strike, courtesy Beattie, disallowed, in my opinion) you would have thought that would have been that. But never underestimate our latent power to cock things up completely. What made this one so different was the origin of said near-lethal error – our own bench.

How come? With around four to go, Mogga decided to change it again. But timing the introduction of Brunt for when our defence would be preoccupied defending a City throw, to be taken deep in our own half, was an act of sheer lunacy, compounded significantly by Mogga’s seeming change of mind over who would actually get the bullet: first of all it was Bednar, who duly made his way towards the bench – then came that swift change of mind. Nope, not Bednar, but Greening, instead!

Result? A defence completely and utterly distracted. No sooner had cries of “Are you sure about that, Mogga?” left my anxious lips, over went the corner, and one cheeky back-heel later, courtesy City’s Caicedo, ‘ping’ went the ball off the back of some hapless, innocent Baggie, and into the back of the net. We had thought the equaliser was down to Carson, but later evidence proves that wasn’t so.

How so very typical of our entire season – but remarkably, this was the very point at which the storylines of both scripts diverged completely. On previous occasions, such occurrences saw the mass descent of Baggie heads with a terrifying ‘crash’ – but not this time. An equaliser wasn’t good enough, and we knew it. Deep into injury time, we eagerly grabbed our just desserts, courtesy a Zuiverloon ball that met the advancing Bednar’s napper very nicely indeed, thank you very much. Right into the top corner it went – and the ground went absolutely bananas.

Pan camera to Halfords Lane Stand, where the disbelieving Wright-Homer combo were both screaming “TWO GOALS! WE’VE ACTUALLY GOT TWO GOALS!” Poor City, so near, yet so far away, and it’s sure been a long time since I greeted that final whistle with such a deep sense of relief!

Now for the downside. That was just one battle, waged against a side that didn’t look much better than our own. Yes, what we achieved could prove to be the first neutron that splits the first atom to start a chain reaction, and hence a season-saving nuclear explosion, but equally, we could well be looking at a false dawn, so don’t get your hopes up too much, will you?

Just look at our Christmas commitments: Chelsea, at their place, no chance. Unless Stamford Bridge succumbs to a mass outbreak of botulism, or something equally nasty. Spurs, at ours? Maybe. And there’s the familiar FA Cup banana skin scenario involving last year’s opponents, Peterborough, to get past as well. To mangle Churchill’s famous war speech on a similar subject slightly, “This may not be the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning…” Now try untangling that one – if you can!

Senior Supporters Club stalwart (commenting upon our most recent glaring Premier League shortcomings, and emoting badly as a result): “What we need is an assassin, somebody who can hit the opposition hard, no messing….

Me: “Come on, we haven’t even got a grassy knoll, never mind a bloody assassin….”

Our elderly American baseball cap-wearing chum from Sutton Branch must have got an almighty shock, once he’d got back to his parked vehicle after leaving the ground at his normal time of around ten minutes from the end. The very moment he must have slipped through the exit gates, City grabbed their equaliser, then sometime during the intervening period ‘twixt leaving the ground and reaching car, Roman Bednar headed us into a late, late grabbing of all three points. Now, repeat after your Great Auntie Glynis, ‘BECAUSE WE’RE SO BLOODY UNPREDICTABLE, I MUST NEVER LEAVE THE GROUND UNTIL THE LAST BALL’S BEEN KICKED, AND THE FINAL WHISTLE’S BLOWN!’

 - Glynis Wright