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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 31/01/04
West Bromwich Albion
Mind over Matter
By Matt Rowson

I'm tempted to report that the weather conditions didn't bode well.

Rainfall that swayed disconcertingly between a sulky shower and a furious downpour, all shaken and stirred by a relentless wind. This was not the sort of day on which great feats are achieved, on which wrongs are righted. Not the sort of day that one has ever had cause to remember.

The same conditions beset the Albion, of course, which is why I say "tempted". I find it difficult to believe that any football fan gets up in the morning, notes a raging tempest outside by dint of the puzzled-looking cow being blown past the bathroom window and thinks "Excellent... we'll win today". Except perhaps Gillingham fans.

But logic dictates that some teams must do well in shitty conditions. There must be teams that win games, or gain creditable draws, by definition. It can't be possible that the fixtures computer is programmed to dish out a set of fixtures on wet, miserable days that might contrive results that neither side in each case is wholly happy with.

Anyway. The suspension of Cox (and Ifil) saw Sean Dyche reclaiming a place in the centre of defence; Wayne Brown was brought in at left-back, as hinted by Ray to provide some extra height in the defence against a big side. Jack Smith moved over to the right, Neal Ardley moved over to the left side of midfield with Cook dropping to the bench, whilst Dyer and Hyde came in for Fitzgerald and the suspended Hand respectively.

The start of the game was not altogether encouraging. The home side came out looking strong and aggressive, whilst Watford appeared more than a little tentative. Albion moved the ball around ominously, once being called up for an offside when in a threatening position during the opening spell and then later forcing a free kick within range of the goal that Clement put wide. Not the bullish in-yer-face let'sgetPalaceoutofoursystem mania that we were perhaps fancifully hoping for.

At this point it's probably worth digressing a little. This week, many of us have mostly been watching celebrities of variable status endure shoving their coiffured heads into boxes of maggots and snakes, and being shut in an underground coffin which gradually and without forewarning has been populated with a large number of rats. Quite therapeutic in getting over the Palace thing, I've found.

Surviving such exercises is pure "mind over matter" on the part of these celebrities, furious concentration on the cold logic of a situation without giving way to knee-jerk panic or hysteria. There is a relevance to our current situation here which I'm sure you'll appreciate, so here's Mind over Matter Fact #1: We Always Get Stuffed At The Hawthorns. It's the law. I'd been here five times before today and seen us concede eighteen goals, a horrible indistinguishable mish-mash of which came back to mind during this early spell. A defeat today should really have been no surprise.

Despite which, and not displeasingly, we rode this early bluster and gained a foothold in the game. If we never looked entirely threatening, then at least we moved the ball around neatly enough to irritate our opponents, at one point provoking a series of "Hurrah"s from the away end as possession was steadily flicked forwards. Jack Smith, back on his favoured right side, was involved here, and again displayed an encouraging ability to put a wicked, deliberate and accurate bend on his through balls, one of which released Dyer into a position that was promising enough for Moore to opt to bundle him over for a free kick deep into the Albion half.

The confrontation between Darren Moore and Dyer was one of the notable features of the first forty-five minutes. Whilst Dyer was reasonably effective at receiving the ball with his back to goal, holding it up and linking play together as we shifted the ball around the edge of the box, his chronic lack of confidence was betrayed by a blind refusal to take any sort of risk. On the odd occasion that a suggestion of a turn or run on goal threatened to present itself, Dyer would either shift possession sideways or find the massive bulk of Moore moving between him and the ball.

At the other end Albion's attacks were perhaps more frequent but little more convincing. Clement came reasonably close when, on receiving a knock-out from his near-post right-wing corner, he drove the ball back into the near post and narrowly wide. Brown was then caught out horribly on the half-way line, misjudging a block and ending up stumbling over the ball (and fortunately not through an opponent) leaving Albion a cleanish run towards goal. This move ended with Johnson springing to earth in the penalty area, an invitation that the referee rightly deigned to take up, although a less indulgent individual might have more formally declined on yellow paper. There was also a spontaneous challenge for a loose ball between Sean Dyche and Albion's strangely familiar left-back, a confrontation that neither evidently had any intention of pulling out of and from which the ball emerged diplomatically, and slightly incidentally, sideways. Said left-back was lauded by the away support at regular intervals before, during and after the game, a development that he never failed to acknowledge.

When Albion's opener came, it was on the back of our most convincing spell of pressure to that point. A ball had been played up the right to the edge of Albion's penalty area where Dyer, with encouraging bullishness, got up strongly to knock down tidily to Helguson. The Icelander span onto the ball and was immediately flipped over... instinctively I'd say it was a foul, although from the far end of the pitch it was difficult to judge. Certainly if it was a dive, as the officials must have inferred, it was a very fine one. Anyhow, protests were still in progress as the ball broke downfield. Brown dawdled in possession in the middle of the park and was robbed, leaving the Albion floodwater to gush into the aching gap behind him down the right flank. Horsfield outwrestled Hughes for the right to a clear run on goal and although Pidgeley did what he could to make the job hard for him, coming out quickly to force the striker wide, Horsfield kept his nerve and slid the ball into the net.

The remainder of the half was quite forlorn.

Mind over Matter Fact #2: Albion are probably the best side in this division; witness forty-five minutes of being pretty drab and yet going in at half time with the lead. Plenty of other sides will lose here (and have done) this season.

The second period opened with a period of slack passing from both sides prompting groans from the away end. Gradually, however, Watford imposed themselves and for the only time in the game put Albion under concerted pressure... in no particular order, a Devlin cross from the right narrowly avoided the heads of both Helguson and Ardley; Helguson had a shot charged down on the edge of the area, the ball broke to Ardley and his shot too was charged down; Mahon was released down the left and pulled back a fine left-foot cross from the touchline which Dyer headed narrowly over under challenge.

At which point, of course, Albion scored again. The ball that released Hughes past our high back line was a fine one, but Brown shouldn't have been caught flat-footed playing the striker on-side. It's been a few years since Hughes troubled the leading scorers charts in this division (and, dependent on developments in court next month, it could be a while before he does again). However, he never seems to lose the knack against us, and conjured up a fine, curling finish to leave Pidgeley with no chance.

We fell apart. Hughes came close again - slightly fortunately, as his deep cross was caught by the wind and dragged goalwards forcing Pidgeley into a dramatic, stretching save. Then the game was over... Horsfield was fed in on the right and finished clinically.

Ray Lewington's response was to introduce Scott Fitzgerald for the crumbling Bruce Dyer, on whose shoulders our entire malaise was creatively being dumped by certain elements of the crowd. I have to confess to having been sceptical... we had long since ceased creating any chances or putting any decent balls into the box, given which it was difficult to see how the young striker was going to contribute.

What Fitzgerald did add, however, was some much needed positiveness and belief. Within five minutes of his introduction he was robbing Moore on the left and flying in on goal. He exchanged a slightly scruffy 1-2 with Helguson before - and make sure you're sitting down as you read this - planting a right-foot shot into the top corner from fully twenty yards. More of that, Sir.

Albion introduced the pace of Lloyd Dyer and Delroy Facey to further irritate our defence but Albion were largely sitting back and comfortable now. Ardley was brought off to be replaced by Vernazza. The accommodation of the former Wimbledon winger on the "wrong" flank was not entirely unsuccessful... certainly he had his best game for a while, one of few to do themselves some kind of justice, and provided Brown with some desperately needed cover. Had Cook started on the left in front of Brown, we may has well have offered Albion piggybacks down their right flank.

However at two goals down, the decision not to introduce Cook as a last hurrah was strange, in keeping with Lewington's scant employment of the winger. Vernazza put his foot in and got involved for the last ten minutes, but salvaging something was going to require a bit of a gamble. Cook did get a brief run out with a few minutes left, read by some as a more damning insult still. My reading of this however was that Lewington was reacting to Helguson pulling up holding his hamstring; when H decided to play on (to our detriment, ultimately), the tiring Devlin was replaced rather than pulling Cook back to the bench again.

The sting in the tail was still to come. As Vernazza played a ball over from the right Helguson appeared to be quite forcibly restrained as he attempted to meet the cross, which ended up bouncing harmlessly out towards the corner flag. Helguson and Haas chased the ball into touch, and the attention of the majority of the crowd wandered into the vacant spaces reserved for gaps in play. And the next minute, Haas was on the ground.

Those in the stand that saw the incident seemed to form a consensus that contact, if any, was minimal and that some ham-acting by the Swiss fullback and a ferocious overreaction by the Albion players forced the red card. To which the reaction might be "well, a bunch of Hornets would say that, wouldn't they?". What's indisputable is that a ferocious overcommittal in the tackle or overexuberance in attempting to reach a cross is much more Heidar's bag than petulant off-the-ball nonsense. Nor is it entirely clear how the linesman can have had a clear enough view to pass judgement from the half-way line, more than half the length of the pitch away from the incident. The referee later confessed to not having seen what happened and will review the tape, which is I guess all you can ask. Our fingers will remain crossed... losing at Albion is not in itself a disaster; losing our best player for three games might be.

At the end of the game, that left-back gave us his final emotional salute. His departure earlier in the season turned a concerning lack of cover at full-back in the squad into a crippling problem, something that has been a major factor in our last two defeats. One assumes that this is an area that Lewington is trying to address in his quest for loan signings.

Mind over Matter Fact #3: We don't need to be fabulous to avoid relegation. We don't even need to be consistently average. We only need to be less poor than at least three other teams in this division. We're certainly capable of that.