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02/03: Reports:

FA Cup Fourth Round, 25/01/03, 3pm
West Bromwich Albion
"Giving it a proper go"
By Matt Rowson

It all seems so long ago now, and not only because we've twice picked up the pieces and thrown them up in the air in the interim. That surreal, improbable season in the Premiership, now three seasons ago, is blending gently back into the history of the club, no longer something that's only just happened.

It's not difficult to recall the peculiar cocktail of emotion that we shared at the end of that season though. Humiliation at the insufficiencies of an injury-ravaged squad, frustration at the uneven hand dealt to the irrelevant non-glam filler clubs (remember Arsenal at home?), surprise at how artificial and plastic so much of it felt, pride in what and who we were.

I heard an observation recently, made by a pundit whose unremarkable stupidity is betrayed by the fact that I can't remember his name, witheringly dismissing clubs that gained promotion and "didn't give it a proper go" in the context of the current transfer window. Quite what was intended by "giving it a proper go" can only be marvelled at. Even the most banal ITV pundit wouldn't suggest that any struggling side would go into a game intending to lose. One can only assume, therefore, that we're talking about chucking a respectable amount of money around, committing yourself to weighty contracts, signing a few Premiership journeymen.

It could be argued, of course, that such an approach often leads to financial cataclysm as is being endured at Bradford or Barnsley... however the Nationwide is clearly a bit of an irrelevance anyway and clubs in financial difficulties, even clubs that you've heard of, appear to lend weight to the equally lazy and inaccurate "too many professional clubs" argument.

West Brom appear to be resisting the temptation to overcommit themselves, albeit the financial context offers starker warnings now than it did in 1999. They also appear to be enduring many of the irritations that we did three years ago, from the odiously dismissive Rodney Marsh to an apparent short hand from referees. Last weekend saw Mark Viduka offered several last warnings before Andy Johnson was booked for his first foul, then sent off for dissent in a group protest, and a penalty for handball later admitted by Lucas Radebe not given.

Whereas we had little in common with the Baggies in the Nationwide (beyond an only natural regard for Wolverhampton), they are far easier to root for in the current campaign than the clubs that went up with them - the deluded, preening Manchester City and the ever more detestable Birmingham City. The Baggies are obviously struggling, with only the "slimmest of chances of survival" according to one correspondent, but their success would offer a grain of hope to clubs like ourselves who would again have to rely on hard work, flawless signings and a decent dose of luck were we to gain promotion. (There's a Lord of the Rings analogy in there somewhere but I've been accused of overdoing that one recently so I'll leave the link to those well-read enough to be able to spot it).

In goal for West Brom will be Russell Hoult, one member of the squad drawing almost universal acclaim for his performances this season and with an outside chance of a place in the next England squad. His deputy is Joe Murphy, signed from Tranmere Rovers in the summer.

West Brom's defence remains their main strength, but whereas last season it provided a sufficient barrier to most clubs leading to fifteen wins by the only goal the higher class of opponent has not permitted this reliance this time. Colossal Jamaican international Darren Moore remains the kingpin at the back. A dominant figure, one criticism appears to be that a lack of pace limits the speed at which he can return downfield from his frequent appearances in the opposing penalty area.

Phil Gilchrist should play on the left of the three... he is also slightly short of pace, but a very decent defender. The trio is likely to be made up by Sean Gregan, recruited from Preston after a drawn-out summer negotiation... the composure that characterised his play in the Nationwide has largely been preserved this season. Icelander Larus Sigurdsson is the first-choice deputy, but he's generally regarded as having struggled to make the step-up, woeful distribution a key flaw. A move for giant Spaniard Roberto Rios has been mooted, but that deal fell through early this week, as has a move for Nuremburg's versatile U.S. international Tony Sanneh.

Slovak Igor Balis has been the regular right wing-back, but he damaged knee ligaments 30 minutes into the game at the weekend. This will see the introduction of either Adam Chambers, who played four games here recently as Balis was out with illness and suspension, or former Man United man Ronnie Wallwork, who impressed as a sub at the weekend - his midfield performances have generally been less convincing. Des Lyttle is still knocking around, but hasn't made a first team start since February.

On the left, Neil Clement has been a fixture for several years but his form, particularly, defensively, has been found wanting this season. Recent games have seen a slight resurgence, particularly in the return of the reliable delivery that featured heavily West Brom's game plan in the Nationwide - this is possibly in response to the loan arrival of highly-rated Nigerian Ifeanyi Udeze from PAOK Salonika.

In midfield Jason Koumas is the ballplayer, highly successful since his arrival from Tranmere with talk already prevalent over how long the Baggies can hold onto him. His fetching and carrying is performed by headless chicken Andy Johnson and ballwinner Derek McInnes. Midfield alternatives include Wallwork and Watford favourite Lee Marshall, a slightly surprising summer capture from Leicester. Tim Sherwood has also been in talks, but appears to be on his way to Pompey at the time of writing. How funny would it be if they failed to go up?

Up front is where Albion appear to have struggled, with a convincing majority of voters in a web-poll identifying a striker as the January priority. Jason Roberts, who missed the Leeds game through suspension, appears to have been Albion's most reliable source of mischief although he's only found the net three times. Danny Dichio has arrested his long-term slide towards obscurity with some imposing recent performances including a hat-trick in the last round but Lee Hughes has largely failed to impress since his return from Coventry. The willing Scottish international Scott Dobie, so impressive at Vicarage Road last season, has also failed to make an impact but hopes of a new recruit here appear to be fading with moves for Macedonian corner-kick bloke Artim Sakiri and Valencia striker Salva Ballesta appearing to be dead in the water.

Albion are bringing a big following to the Vic on Saturday for what could be an excellent Cup tie - our first ever F.A. Cup tie with Albion. Both sides could probably benefit from Albion being left free to concentrate on the league...