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02/03: Reports:

FA Cup Fourth Round, 25/01/03, 3pm
West Bromwich Albion
A bit special
By Ian Grant

On the whole, football doesn't lend itself to moments of contemplation. Facing a work of art or listening intently to music, you can allow the beauty of the piece to fill you completely, you can become part of it totally. Of course, that's true of football too - anyone who contributed to that roar yesterday knows it - but there's a difference. It's so much harder to savour the moment as it happens, to explore it and cherish it before it's gone. Perhaps that's why we put so much effort into searching for it again and again, from Southend to Macclesfield, between and beyond.

During the game, it's all about each passing second and the possibilities held within it. While it's certainly possible to drift away into daydreams, just as it's often a real pleasure to be absorbed by strategies, tactics and formations, all that is engulfed and forgotten as soon as the ball enters either penalty area. Then you're back in the frantic, thrilling moment.

And afterwards, performances and results are too quickly overtaken by other things. Promotion celebrations turn to thoughts of survival next season; relegation wakes are lifted by the promise of better things. The best displays bring fresh optimism, the eternal push for the playoffs; the worst drag the spirits down, bringing the doommongers out from the woodwork. There's always a past to compare with and a future to worry about. The present skips away before you've had a chance to give it the attention it deserves.

So, stop for a moment.

This was brilliant, wasn't it?

Don't let it slip away just yet.

Even allowing for our customary difficulties in turning possession into chances and chances into goals, it would be hard - and unnecessary - to imagine a more exhilarating display. From first to last, we did everything right, and then a little bit more. With the benefit of hindsight, that even includes the penalty miss, since an earlier goal would've left us with longer to defend the lead. It was a perfect afternoon, one of those when it all comes together at the same time.

"Man of the Match"? You can pick your own. There were so many candidates, so many outstanding performances, so much to applaud. Defensively, we were obstinate and bullish, particularly in the frantic last ten minutes...but we were also composed and intelligent when the opportunity arose. In midfield, we were in almost total control throughout - we kept possession far more comfortably than of late, we broke swiftly and decisively at key moments, and we denied Albion any hope of building momentum. Up front, we were all energy and commitment and movement and speed and brilliance. Best of all, it fitted together into one thumping great monster of a team, undeniable and insatiable.

You know what? It doesn't particularly matter that we beat Premiership opponents, especially since their display was hardly worthy of the top flight. Because if you beat anyone like this, you deserve acclaim. We didn't appear at all interested in "asking questions" of West Brom. We didn't test them, we didn't examine anything. Rather, we appeared to have absolute confidence that they'd break eventually, given the sheer weight of pressure that was building up. It was going to happen, in the end. It had to.

It's the FA Cup, of course. This is what it's about. But it still disappoints so often...and you dream of these moments, of seeing your team rolling ominously towards you like a tidal wave. Of the inevitable, when that wave finally breaks, crashing in with one mighty, deafening explosion. Of the glorious aftermath. Sometimes - not very often, but sometimes - it happens like that. And it's bloody wonderful.

There was no point at which we weren't the better side here. Always, we were sharper, hungrier, fiercer. But we played superior football too, mixing up our approach work with short and long passes, quick breaks and more thoughtful probing. We were not only determined to compete, but intelligent enough to find the most effective ways of making it happen. So, while the first half failed to produce an obvious winner, it laid rock-solid foundations for what was to follow.

In the first forty-five minutes, it was an absorbing, gripping game...even if it lacked the constant goal-mouth action of the most thrilling cup ties. Although Moore headed weakly at Alec Chamberlain in the first minute, Dichio glanced a header wide from a corner and Koumas floated a free kick into the Rookery, West Brom were never allowed to settle into any kind of rhythm. The counter-attacking football that had served them so well last season was exposed as one-dimensional - it invited us into their half, and we were determined to out-stay our welcome. Three minutes in, and Jermaine Pennant's low cross rebounded to Tommy Smith, who turned towards goal and fired a shot over. We'd already got the measure of the game.

By the passing of the fifteen minute mark, the pattern had been established. The grip taken by Micah Hyde and Paolo Vernazza in central midfield would be crucial, enabling quick and accurate supply to the flanks and to the forwards. It brought Jermaine Pennant into the game, screaming down the right wing to the obvious terror of cumbersome opponents. It brought Allan Nielsen into things too, although such was the driven, Hessenthaler-ish nature of his performance that it would've been pretty hard to exclude him for long. And it protected the defence, leaving them to concentrate on the forwards in the knowledge that any late arrivals from deep would be tracked and halted.

And so the pressure built. Jermaine Pennant danced past a couple of challenges on his way from the right towards the penalty area, had a shot blocked and still managed to win it back for Heidar Helguson, whose effort from closer was also charged down. Tommy Smith took advantage of sloppy West Brom passing to break and shoot at Hoult from the edge of the box. A Neal Ardley free kick caused considerable panic before falling for Micah Hyde, whose cleanly-struck half-volley brought the first decent save from the keeper, diving to his right to catch by the post. As it happened, the chant of "we're gonna score in a minute" was rather premature. We were going to score, though....

All over the pitch, we were not only competing, but we were starting to win every contest. That even applied to Russell Hoult, increasingly uncomfortable when asked to deal with backpasses and extremely fortunate to win a free kick when challenged and dispossessed by Tommy Smith after twenty-seven minutes. That summed up the afternoon in many ways, for not only did the striker make the effort to close down the keeper, he deliberately blocked any potential clearance from his better foot and thus forced him into improvising on his weaker side. In that, and in so much else, we allied considerable passion with a bit of thought.

It was an absolutely fascinating game. That tussle between Hoult and Smith raised the temperature a little more, which did no harm. It remained well-balanced, the superiority of the home side matched by the knowledge that Premiership sides have a habit of scoring without half an hour of bombardment beforehand. You still felt that it might go either way, particularly as our spells of domination and our competitive edge had yet to yield a goal. To prove the point, Dichio stretched to head a Roberts cross in the vague direction of goal and then curled a shot into the Rookery after a wandering run from Koumas, tracked all the way, as ever, by the superb Micah Hyde.

You couldn't have asked for much more. A goal, of course, but not much more. We'd been so assertive right from kickoff, defending our territory with such determination. And we'd been attractive too - watching the rarity of a Jermaine Pennant mis-control, followed by a remarkable stretch, touch and athletic leap to beat the resulting tackle was an especially fine moment. It would've been even finer if Tommy Smith had been able to direct his header from the resulting cross on target, but that's mere quibbling. To finish, Paolo Vernazza - less prominent than Micah Hyde in the midfield, certainly...but it would've been impossible to be more prominent - blazed a volley over from twenty yards.

Standing ovation. Fully deserved.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Smarties bar.
Reason: An increasingly impressive track record for this excellent, innovative new kid on the block.
Result: Nah. I mean, I'm quite superstitious when it comes to football...but luck had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all.

The second half, then. Ah, the second half. My word.

We took our time. Or, more precisely, Heidar Helguson took his time...but, fortunately, when he did emerge from the dressing room about two minutes after everyone else, he found that they'd been kind enough to wait for him. And then we kicked off. And we absolutely thundered at West Brom.

This time, there was no deflected equaliser in the last minute. We battered West Brom as we battered Wolves, hurling our shoulders against the door until it finally burst open. We would not be denied, we would not take anything but victory. Throughout, the anticipation in the stands built and built, each attack adding to the tension to be released with the inevitable goal. Honestly, you could power cities with the amount of nervous energy released in the Rookery when Heidar Helguson's low finish beat Hoult in the eightieth minute....

It was immensely impressive. So much more than passion here - the way that we kept the ball in the final third, rarely letting West Brom off the hook with a careless pass; the way that we retained our discipline, rarely giving any opportunity for a counter-attack; the way that we refused to allow the penalty miss to become a turning point. It was just excellent, always and everywhere.

We should've been ahead much, much earlier. It doesn't matter now, and we didn't let it matter then. After seven minutes, Jermaine Pennant set of a sequence of chaotic events in the West Brom six yard box with a cross that found its way through to Heidar Helguson. Crossed back, and through to Pennant via Allan Nielsen's head. Thumped back, and blocked by Moore. Finally, it fell back to Nielsen, whose instant drive flicked the top of the crossbar. Close.

The Rookery was on its feet more often now, as the intervals between attacks became shorter and shorter and then disappeared almost entirely. Nine minutes, and a superb, arrow-straight ball from Neal Ardley down the right wing gave Jermaine Pennant something to chase. He got there, looked up and saw Tommy Smith darting into the area. The accurate pass into Smith's stride, a sight of goal with the keeper advancing...and WALLOP. Blackness. Tweeting birdies. Stars above head. That kind of thing. It was a block worthy of the Superbowl, courtesy of the enormous Darren Moore. If Jeff Winter ever gets an easier decision, he'll be a lucky man.

Not time yet, though. Leave it a bit longer. Don't want to have to hang on to the lead for half an hour or more. No, thanks. Thump it at the right height, just to the keeper's left. Let him be the hero, for now. Make 'em think it's their lucky day. That'll do. Good man, Coxy.

We've seen it before, plenty of times. You miss a penalty at a vital moment, the opposition suddenly springs into life, the whole game turns around. Except that we weren't going to let that happen, and West Brom simply weren't good enough to make it happen. Instead, the attacks continued, as fast and fluent and thrilling as before. It was our game. We just wouldn't stop until the scoreline reflected that fact.

So, Tommy Smith dashed down the left, pulled the ball back to Allan Nielsen and his awkward stab was deflected wide of the near post by two defenders. Another poor kick from Hoult was met with an equally poor attempt at a clearance by Sigurdsson, and Nielsen nearly scored the goal of the century with an astonishing half-volley from far out on the left wing that swerved wide of the far post by a foot or so. Oh, that would've been quite something. A Neal Ardley cross was cleared - true of too many, if we're splitting hairs - and, perhaps needlessly, Hoult touched Paolo Vernazza's looping volley away from the top corner. And the West Brom defence was looking so clumsy, and the Watford strikers were looking so eager...and it just had to happen. It had to happen.

And it did. At the perfect time, late enough to be decisive and yet not late enough for desperation to have taken hold. And in the perfect way, a flowing end-to-end move with a calm finish and an anything-but-calm celebration. Micah Hyde's work ethic on display, clearing from his own area as a laborious West Brom attack was put out of its misery. Heidar Helguson beginning the attack in earnest, stepping away from a tackle, playing the ball forward and charging off in pursuit. Jermaine Pennant picking up possession in a central position via an opponent's ankle, seeing Tommy Smith to his left and the breathless Helguson to his right. The former was the easier pass, the latter was the better pass...and so Helguson found a delightful, deft flick arriving at his feet as he crossed the eighteen yard line. He looked up, whipped a low shot past Hoult and set off for the Rookery....

I can remember it only in unconnected freeze-frames, separate and distinct. I mean, I know what happened...but it happened so quickly, too quickly for the mind's eye to capture coherently. But I can see Heidar Helguson wheeling away from the penalty area as the ball ripples the net, removing his shirt to reveal a black vest...and then just the most almighty noise. This huge roar, tumbling out of the Rookery onto the pitch and billowing into the darkening sky. All the tension and all the anticipation released in a few vital, precious seconds. Just fantastic. The best moment.

Of course, the tension and anticipation built again from there. A different kind of tension and anticipation, far more gut-wrenching than before. Inevitably, we began to sit back, hoping to score a decisive second on the break but eager to add numbers to the defence of the lead. We stood in the Rookery, straining our eyes towards the far end of the pitch, screaming encouragement, praying quietly. Koumas smacked in a drive that dipped just over the crossbar. Then Sigurdsson managed to send a far post header looping over Alec Chamberlain, against the face of the bar and down onto the goal-line, where Gavin Mahon, who'd been introduced mere seconds earlier, hacked it clear.

Injury time lasted a frantic eternity, all belted clearances and desperate tackles and pleading glances at the referee. And then, as Alec Chamberlain scrambled across to push a looping shot around the post, the final whistle. And joy. And relief. And sheer bloody pride.

Like I say, this was brilliant. Not plucky, not gutsy, just brilliant. There was nothing lucky here, nothing of cup tie cliché. Just one team out-playing another, in every department. West Brom were dismal, awful, a pale shadow of last season's promoted side...but they were never allowed to be anything more. They were never given the chance. We were too damn good.

A bit special. Savour it.