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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 23/08/03, 3.00pm
West Bromwich Albion
4am eternal
By Matt Rowson

I don't believe that I have what some would call an inquisitive mind. I mean, I like to understand stuff, sure, but am more than ready to accept most things as given and only seek explanations when the explanation in itself becomes of significance. Otherwise it's sufficient that water comes out of the tap, the television comes on when I press the button and the car engine kicks in when I turn the key in the ignition. It is for this reason that I still don't know how to change a washer in a tap, for example, and have occasional trouble tying my shoelaces.

And there's plenty of stuff around to be ignored if you've a mind not to think about it. Plenty of which you'd be rather better off being ignorant of. So it is with Visa Requirements and the labyrinth of hoop-jumping exercises that a foreign national has to go through to as much as send a postcard abroad. I was blissfully ignorant of all of this, a British passport seemingly getting you pretty much anywhere you'd ever want to go without too much hassle, until I started seeing my Ethiopian wife around five years ago. And to cut a longer story short, our week's holiday has so far involved an application for British Citizenship lodged in April which is still four months from the front of the queue, an inordinate amount of photocopying and phonecalling and, tomorrow morning, my wife arriving at the German Embassy at 4am to queue for a Visa. And yes, I understand the reasons and so on, but surely there has to be an easier way. At the very least, queuing at the Embassy at 4am seems a little unfair...

And speaking of unfair, West Bromwich Albion. At a time when the majority of the division's inhabitants are still counting their pennies, Albion are in relatively rude financial health (certainly in comparison with the sides who came down from the Prem with them last season). Not only that (and this is the unfair bit) but they seem to be ignoring the protocol which dictates getting ideas above your station and hiring a suave Italian European Cup winner as manager to blow the bloody lot on a load of old tosh. Instead, they've invested astutely and built well on the squad that bludgeoned its way into the Premiership two years ago. With a prevailing wind, they've got to be a sound bet to go straight back up.

And after two years of being awkward and obstructive, the current challenge appears to be how to modify the team's style effectively to employ the new-found riches without losing the defensive reliability that was their strength. The side still needs to "gel", in other words, which is at least one respect in which the Baggies are sticking to the script... bearing this in mind, two (albeit flattering) four-goal victories in a week isn't bad going, even though the other game to date was an eye-catching hammering at Walsall.

Russell Hoult, who came close to an England call up during Albion's more obdurate periods last season, will be in goal; he captained Albion for the first time at the weekend. He has a more than capable understudy in former Tranmere stopper Joe Murphy.

At the back, a ligament injury has put paid to Darren Moore's involvement for the timebeing; his role as provider of bulk and power (and, perhaps, of penalties for obliterating pint-sized opposition strikers with a bodycheck) seems to be taken by Joost Volmer, a recent arrival from AZ67 Alkmaar in Holland. Alongside him will be Thomas Gaardsøe, a signing from Ipswich who was among our most impressive opponents last season. Larus Sigurdsson (back) and Sean Gregan (heel) both missed the win over Burnley on Saturday but are both aiming to return for the weekend... should they miss out, James Chambers is likely to continue as a capable deputy; the three-at-the-back formation means that his lack of height is more easily accommodated than it would be at the centre of a back four. Phil Gilchrist is another option.

Both wing-backs, as is characteristic of their trade, enjoy going forward but have looked suspect when put on the back foot. Swiss international Bernt Haas was signed from Sunderland in the summer... that he didn't make that record-breakingly awful side might be a concern, but he did spend most of last season on loan with the Basle side that impressed in the Champions' League. On the left, Neil Clement had a shocker of a year in the Premiership by his own standards, but appears to be returning to form this season.

The three-man midfield is built entirely from relatively new arrivals, each having moved to the Hawthorns during or since their year in the Premiership. Jason Koumas is the old hand of the three, Albion resisted the temptation to cash in on the Welsh International over the summer but he had a quiet game at the weekend. James O'Connor is unlikely ever to have a quiet game, the fiery ballwinner was a long-term target from Stoke, for who he was one of very few positives last season. Artim Sakiri, the Macedonian of scoring-direct-from-a-corner-kick fame has finally arrived after nine months of wrestling with work permits (although whether his ultimate success involved him arriving at the British Embassy in Skopje at 4am one Monday morning I somehow doubt). He played the gifted if occasionally uninterested stereotype to a tee on Saturday, clubbing in from thirty yards for good measure. Other midfield options include headless chicken Andy Johnson, former Man.United reserve Ronnie Wallwork and Lee Marshall, whose ineffectual past two years are betrayed by the failure to recollect anything he's done since that injudicious goal celebration at Carrow Road three seasons ago.

Up front, Albion have a sudden glut of riches which they are currently switching and swopping in search of a winning combination. Saturday's pairing saw Rob Hulse, a summer recruit from Crewe who has continued last season's form with three goals in the last two games, with Scott Dobie. Dobie, who had a blinder in this fixture two seasons ago, seems to be favoured by the support as a willing substitute, and Lee Hughes' brace (his first in the league since rejoining Albion) and all-round play as a sub on Saturday could win him a start. Daniele Dichio is also an option, whilst Jason Roberts is still waiting for that call from the Premiership. Albion turned down an offer from Wigan last week, which probably didn't do his confidence a whole lot of good. Still, there's always Wolves.

On the assumption that we've judged our hoop-jumping accurately and that four in the morning is early enough to obtain a place in the Visa queue, I won't make this one... which is a shame, as it could be a cracker. After what has been invested into it, the holiday ought not to be half bad either...