Monday, August 10, 2009

Precious point bagged at the Baggies

West Brom 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

No manager, no new owner, no new signings and one of our longest-serving players - and a homegrown lad, at that - describing the club as "a joke" on the eve of the match. You could say they were hardly the perfect circumstances in which to kick off a campaign which we desperately need to end in promotion back to the Premier League.

That the TV cameras were once again trained on us and that our opening day opponents faced us in the top flight last year helped cushion the blow of realising that this was indeed the Championship. And, as it turned out, the trip to the Hawthorns wasn't as prickly as we'd anticipated.

Chris Hughton opted to pair Big Lad and Bigger Lad together up front, meaning Damien Duff and Kevin Nolan appeared in midfield and ASBO had to be content with a place on the bench - a punishment for a very vocal difference of opinions with team-mates and/or Hughton himself in training, if some of the papers are to be believed. Meanwhile, despite going public to give the lie to Hughton's insistence that the spirit in the camp was good and everyone was pulling together, Steven Taylor took up his place in the centre of defence.

For more than half an hour the signs were very encouraging. We had by far the most possession, Spiderman was beating his marker Gianni Zuiverloon almost without even breaking a sweat (though his final ball was routinely awful), Bigger Lad was putting himself about to good effect and even captain-for-the-day Alan Smith was tackling like a man possessed. It wasn't all good, of course - Fabricio Coloccini was appalling, and it seemed that every time we had a chance (Spiderman's tame header and Duff's wasteful shot wide, for instance) the Baggies hit us on the counter-attack with ominous swiftness.

When the opening goal came, it had Newcastle written all over it. A poorly defended free-kick eventually fell to the feet of Baggies centre-back Sheldon Martis, who had missed a sitter early on and now took time out from his busy schedule of roughing up Bigger Lad to prod home from two yards while a lunging Big Lad clouted Steve Harper full in the face. The thin veneer of confidence stripped off, shoulders immediately slumped and recriminations began.

A concussed Harps just about made it through to half-time - in a way I envy him, being able to look around the Newcastle dressing room and see stars... Tim Krul, his replacement for the second half, still looks as boyish as he did when he made his debut three years ago against Palermo - and he carried on exactly where he left off that night in Sicily, a superb low dive to deflect Robert Koren's shot wide of the post effectively setting us up for the equaliser.

Hughton had been sufficiently astute to make another change at the break, urging Kevin Nolan to push further forwards, and when Big Lad found him with a pass in the area, he was our most advanced player. A quick look up and he rolled the ball into Duff's path, and the winger finished neatly across Scott Carson - quite fitting, really, given that it was the Irishman whose own goal at Villa Park sealed our relegation.

That veneer of confidence was back and for a short while it looked only a matter of time before we took the lead. But it was Krul and not Carson who had to excel himself, saving brilliantly from Koren again, Luke Moore and substitute Graham Dorrans. The Dutchman looked rather more suspect coming for crosses, but once the initial rush of blood to the head had subsided he grew in stature and started to command his six-yard area.

Doing his utmost to suggest that the tactical repositioning of Nolan was accidental rather than deliberate, Hughton brought on ASBO for Bigger Lad when the obvious candidates for replacement were Big Lad and Smith - the former utterly unable to fulfil the task required of him (holding the ball up) and the latter by now wandering around leaden-footed. As is now customary, ASBO's introduction drew boos and jeers from all sides (though there was also some support from the away end), resulting in the smirk many (most?) of us hoped we'd seen the last of. Nile Ranger was also introduced, making his first team debut very late on, and managed one touch - a telling one, which set up a shooting chance. Surely either he or Xisco should be preferred to Big Lad for Bigger Lad's partner?

If the fact that we escaped with a point was largely down to Krul, we also had reason to be thankful to the injury-time linesman's flag that rightly ruled out Jonas Olsson's header. It would have been cruel, and we've had more than our fair share of cruelty in recent times.

The result is, I think, one that few of us anticipated. The Baggies must have eyed up our visit with relish, given the current predicament - but against the odds we performed reasonably well. However, anyone confidently forecasting a successful season ahead would do well to remember that last term we began with a creditable 1-1 draw away to the side widely expected to win the league - and look how that turned out...

Other reports: .com, BBC, Guardian


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