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Nationwide Division One, 31/3/01
West Bromwich Albion
By Ian Grant

Just when you thought that the week couldn't get any more painful....

If we wanted success prior to Thursday's announcement, then we want it so badly now. Not that failure to reach and win the playoffs would colour Graham Taylor's twenty-five years of management in any way. Even disregarding past miracles, he has, as he's said, achieved his stated aim of establishing us as a top thirty club. Merely that it wouldn't feel quite right if it all ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

So, this was a defeat that left us drowning in utter despondence. Perhaps most agonising was the fact that Albion managed just four on-target goal attempts in the entire ninety minutes. Hardly the usual basis for a three-nil win, that. Yet, despite the narrow gap between the two sides, we still allowed our heads to go down and our shoulders to slump after going behind, as if we believed we were further away from success than was the case. What should've been - and, for long periods, was - a close-fought contest ended in a horrible tonking. We lost this.

In particular, we can reflect on a first half that saw us play with confidence and competence. We were comfortably the better side throughout, yet were unable to translate that superiority into clear-cut chances and the all-important opening goal. Then, after the break, even having hit the self-destruct button in spectacular style, there were wasted opportunities to trigger a fight-back. In so many ways, this was such an unnecessary setback to our promotion hopes.

The early exchanges, during which Allan Nielsen volleyed into the stand from distance and Sneekes sent a low, bouncing shot skidding past the post, were even enough. Yet as time passed, our constructive football began to win us territory in the midfield, pushing Albion back into their own half with Paolo Vernazza and Micah Hyde especially prevalent. All very promising.

We were to regret the passing of a couple of chances. The first, which fell to Tommy Smith, didn't owe much to our slick creative play, more to our harrying of the West Brom backline. Heidar Helguson induced the error from Gilchrist and the ball ran away from the challenge towards Smith, leaving him thirty yards out and with a free run on goal. As he reached the penalty area, two defenders threatened to catch him...but he still had time to get a shot in. Disappointingly, he didn't even hit the target.

Ten minutes later, Vernazza's sly pass into the box picked out Nordin Wooter's run, but he allowed the ball to run slightly away from him and his shot was confused by a tackle. Even then, he nearly managed to score on the follow-up as Hoult failed to claim the ball, just managing to block Wooter and gain a deflection to concede a corner. Like I say, all very promising. Certainly, we weren't rampant; nevertheless, there was considerable imagination in our attempts to play around the limitations of a three-pronged, Mooney-less attack.

It might've been different if the referee had taken a sterner view of Steve Palmer's risky challenge on Hughes after fifteen minutes, of course. One of those that cause you to hold your breath for a moment or two, even if it appeared that the Watford defender had made some contact with the ball. Additionally, it has to be said that Hughes' relentless whining and tumbling do him no favours when he does have a case.

Our passing and movement continued to improve. The problem with our formation, however, was that simply getting the ball wide and whipping in crosses wouldn't really do the job, with the diminutive Smith being the only target in the middle. Instead, we were required to play it around and look for a final ball. We did the former, we struggled to do the latter. Consequently, a couple of Hyde shots from distance - one at the keeper, one arcing just wide - were all that we had to show for some very attractive football.

As the half hour mark passed, Albion finally managed to fight the way back into the game. After Wooter was bootered, he lost much of his eagerness, while the midfield began to be pushed back a little. That said, the defence rarely looked troubled, with both Page and Palmer dealing extremely well with the irritation of Hughes and the more sullen threat of Taylor. Only a header from the latter, which drifted tamely wide, increased the tally of West Brom goal attempts.

Really, then, we had every reason to be happy with our first half performance. A vital game on hostile and historically unrewarding territory, a display of purpose and discipline. If we hadn't yet made the most of our openings, you felt that more of the same would surely lead to some kind of reward.

It may have turned out that way. If we hadn't conceded two daft goals in the opening quarter of an hour of the second period.

The first, after six minutes, was preventable from start to finish. Nobody took on the responsibility. As Lyttle - yes, him - collected possession on the right side of the halfway line, Paul Robinson invited him to stretch his legs by offering an acre of space. He ambled forward without challenge, and was given time to pick out a pass into Quinn. The half-time substitute reacted more quickly than his marker, turning to fire a shot through Espen Baardsen's near post area. So, nothing to stop the supply, nothing to stop the turn, nothing to stop the shot.

Having said that, the second made its predecessor look like an example from a defensive coaching manual. Really, this was grotesque. A long ball that sailed through towards the area, bringing Baardsen from his line to claim. Routine events happen every second of every day - people cross roads without being knocked down, people make toast for breakfast without burning their houses to the ground, people shut doors without slamming their fingers in them. Sometimes, however, it goes all wrong. So, Baardsen was deceived by a high bounce, succeeded only in palming the ball into the air, and presented Hughes with an empty net. Nightmare.

As the ball hit the back of the net, Allan Smart and Gifton Noel-Williams stood on the touchline, waiting to play a part in our attempted comeback. The comeback became a more distant prospect as they waited, yet it was still not as remote as we seemed to believe. In the remaining thirty minutes, we created easily enough opportunities to have pulled something out of the fire.

Which isn't to say that we were necessarily worthy of a point, merely that we still had much to play for. Yet without that renowned leader of cavalry charges, Thomas J Mooney, our reaction to the situation was to separate into a set of individuals. There was plenty of effort even now, without the real purpose that turns effort into reward.

Despite all that, we managed to conjure up more sights of goal than during our first half prime. Indeed, there were even glimpses of flowing football, such as the wonderful interchange between Vernazza and Noel-Williams on the left after twenty minutes. It left the midfielder stretching to get a touch onto a through-ball - he wasn't able to get sufficient contact to force it past Hoult. Hughes sent a glancing header wide from a Lyttle cross shortly afterwards.

The lack of leadership was particularly evident in our failure to retain composure. You can, for instance, perhaps understand Robert Page trying his luck from thirty yards if you're two-nil down in injury time. With twenty minutes left, though? Desperation appeared to spread throughout the side, with the awareness that crucial points were slipping away. Ironically, the points slipped more rapidly from our grasp as a consequence.

Despite the headlines that'll be created by his glaring miss, the presence of Allan Smart and Gifton Noel-Williams did lend our attacks much more focus. They became less tidy than previously...but that's what happens when you get the ball towards the opposition box, rather than playing it around further back. And it has to be said that Noel-Williams acrobatic volley from twenty yards was quite brilliant, deserving a better outcome than a comfortable save from Hoult.

Two final chances to set up a roaring finale, neither taken. The first, falling to Smart from Nielsen's tremendous cross on the run, went with the striker's instinctive reaction. He took it on the volley first-time, hitting it straight at the keeper. Only then did he realise that he perhaps had more time, in which he might've taken a touch and given himself a clearer sight of goal. Still, to blame him for that would be harsh.

What followed, however, was the miss of the season. As Noel-Williams and Hoult collided in attempting to win a high ball on the edge of the box, the ball dropped to Smart, standing alongside them. The West Brom keeper was completely stranded, the route to goal was uncluttered, he needed to do nothing more than to pass the ball into the empty net. Unbelievably, he shuffled it a yard wide. One of those moments that leave you staring in utter disbelief.

So, the roaring finale belonged to the home side. It might've been worse, as Page hacked clear from the goalline after Hughes had met a corner at the near post. In the end, though, the concluding action rather summed up our horrible afternoon, as Clement thumped a free-kick into the wall and it ballooned away from Baardsen's scrambling dive. Three-nil. Bloody hell.

Ultimately, we competed on equal terms throughout these ninety minutes. Except, that is, for every decisive moment. Then, we failed to score and we failed to prevent the opposition from scoring. To call it suicidal would be too strong, perhaps...but the effect is much the same.

A crushing blow.

For Craig Foster and Steve Ball, whose engine blew up five miles from the ground and were eventually returned home by the AA without seeing the game.