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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 15/9/01
West Bromwich Albion
Having a whale of a time
By Matt Rowson

Last week I was in Boston. (That's Boston Massachusetts, home of Paul Revere, 'Cheers' and Ally McBeal, not Boston Lincolnshire, home of Ken Charlery and, um, Mrs.Charlery).

Having had a predictably expensive, exhausting and exhilarating week in New York prior to this, Boston was something of a welcome relief in many respects. The highlight of the trip came when we caught a catamaran out of Boston Harbor (sic) to the Stellwagen Bank, whale watching.

About an hour into the trip we saw our first evidence of a humpback, a splash of surf in the distance and what might have been a black tail fin. The catamaran sped towards the whale, which beached again as we approached, but we saw the tail fin flick out of the water and downwards as the whale dived out of sight. We waited, motionless on the surface for a reappearance but no joy.

Until, to the obvious excitement of the marine expert commentating through the tannoy, another whale appeared to the left of the boat, again some distance away but clearly visible. The catamaran struggled around and sped towards the new sighting, but again as we approached the splashing ceased and the whale dived.

(Incidentally, is the left side of the boat port or starboard ? Cubs was a long time ago... don't ask my co-editor anyway, he gets sea-sick on moored party-boats, y'know).

We waited again for the whale to resurface but it didn't happen. Instead, our original quarry reappeared near its original location, and started lolloping playfully on the surface. This time the catamaran crew resisted for a while, awaiting the reappearance of the second whale, but eventually gave up and returned towards the original position. At which point the first whale dived again. And the second reappeared.

The large gentleman in bermuda shorts and shades standing next to us on the rail turned and asked, in a broad Mancunian accent, "d'you reckon they're taking the piss?".

Such must have been Baggies fans' sentiments at close of play on Saturday. After an untidy start to the season which included defeat at nearby Walsall and an unconvincing penalty shootout win over Cambridge, West Brom's form had picked up to profer successive wins against Gillingham and Manchester City. The latter, a particularly accomplished team performance, will have provoked smiles amongst the Watford contingent who travelled up to Maine Road on the opening day to be derided by our hosts. "Three-nil... ha, you're sh*te!". And so on.

Such wit, only matched by the racist muppets in our own end (whom my brother and Dad had the misfortune to sit alongside at the same game) who have now been given bans by the club. Well played Watford.

Anyhow, just as the Baggies see it all coming together, they lose their two strikers, Jason Roberts and loan signing Danny Dichio, to broken ankles which will keep both out for around six weeks. Someone, surely, is taking the piss. And this on top of Lee Hughes departure to Coventry at the start of the season.

Albion's play-off finish last season may be easily dismissed by pointing at both a relatively good year with injuries in a small squad and Lee Hughes' goals, neither of which can be relied upon this time. Gary Megson, however, has put together a more than decent first team, and the Albion shouldn't be discounted.

Megson's first foray into management was at Norwich in the mid-nineties, where he replaced Martin O'Neill ostensibly as Robert Chase's yes-man. Since then he's proved himself to be anything but a chairman's puppet. His spiky discontent with the spending constraints placed upon him by his latest board of directors have lead to Albion fans casting nervous glances across the midlands to the empty manager's seat at Highfield Road this week.

In goal for West Brom will probably be Russell Hoult, a mid-season signing from Pompey last term. Hoult is a good shot-stopper, but is occasionally hesitant on crosses and also has Kevin Miller's kicking ability. His main rival for the goalkeeper's slot is the colossal Brian "the Beast" Jensen. Youngster Chris Adamson is another option, but his occasional and brief spells as first choice have not been inspiring.

Albion tend to play three at the back, one of whom will probably be Phil Gilchrist, a solid defender signed last season from Leicester. He has been playing alongside committed Icelander Larus Sigurdsson and also former Blackpool and Vale stopper Tony Butler. Butler's lack of mobility mark him out as a weakness, but his strength in the air is something that Albion don't appear to be able to replace. Pompey's Darren Moore has long been on the shopping list, but his wage demands appear to be obstructing a transfer. Otherwise, other options at the back include quick youngster Jason Chambers and former Chelsea man Neil Clement.

Clement's preferred position, however, appears to be left wing-back, from where he has made a succession of highly impressive performances since his arrival last summer. Arguably Albion's most complete footballer, he is also dangerous from set-pieces. His cover is Scot Warren Cummings, on a season-long loan from Chelsea. On the right, our old mate Des Lyttle who had one now-legendary performance for the Hornets in a defeat at Bradford but was largely pathetic the rest of the time. He seems to be doing well enough at Albion though in what's perhaps a better role for him, withstanding the so-far limited challenge of Slovak Igor Balis.

Albion's midfield has been greatly strengthened this summer by the return from injury of captain Derek McInnes, a midfield battleship who missed most of the last campaign. After a slowish start, he's beginning to find his best form again. Michael Appleton, a decent midfielder surprisingly released by Preston last term, should play alongside him. Jason Chambers' twin brother Adam, more frequently a defender, has been capably filling the third spot, but this trio is thought to lack the creativity to be a long-term fixture. The return of Ruel Fox from a rib injury would help here, but the Portuguese Jordão and youngster Adam Oliver would be other possibilities.

Up front Albion look starved of options, departures and injuries leaving Bob Taylor and Scott Dobie as the duo most likely to face us on Saturday. Veteran Taylor, a tidy intelligent striker, needs no introduction; Dobie's enthusiasm has won him much support since his summer arrival from Carlisle. James Quinn is the only obvious senior deputy in the absence of Roberts and Dichio.

As for the whales, they stopped arsing around after a while and put on a splendid show, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Albion can hope for the same when their forwards return. In the meantime I can't help remembering the way we've often described them as a hot or cold team.

(A bit like the guy who lies with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer saying on average he feels fine, Albion were always very average by never actually being just mediocre).

It would be nice if this was one of those cold times. Apart from anything else, three league wins on the hop, albeit at home, would begin to resemble a run of form...