For those of us who were around in the sixties, throughout the seventies, and into the mid-eighties, this game is arguably right up there alongside the Brummagem derby. During that period, in fact probably throughout history, The Baggies have been on a more level playing field with us, than ever have been those lovable rascals from deepest, darkest Small Heath. Yes, the trip up the Soho Road to The Hawthorns has always been a short excursion to savour, if not for the scenery, then very definitely for the mouth-watering, feisty, robust local derby, that all too often awaits us.
With two successive away victories just behind us, including that scintillating performance and excellent result at White Hart Lane, we journeyed there in fine heart, good spirit, and full of confidence.
Glorious September sunshine greeted the players out of the tunnel, the atmosphere in the stadium very typical of the fixture. Martin made three changes from the team that surely ensured progress into the group stages of the UEFA Cup on Thursday night, with John Carew, Ashley Young, and Curtis Davies, all as expected, or certainly as hoped, returning to the starting line up.
It was the hosts who had the first shot on target, Baggies skipper Greening, who has had a much needed hair-cut since the last time I saw him, shot weakly from distance, resulting in an easy gather for Brad, keeping goal in front of the Villa faithful.
Gareth then lost possession, allowing West Brom to break threateningly, but the final ball across goal was wasted, and we breathed again. The Albion though were definitely seeing more of the ball, our lads looking a little lethargic. Ten minutes gone, and Ashley as far as we could recall, hadn’t even touched the ball.
He put that to rights though with one of his typical free kicks, finding Big John Carew, who headed narrowly wide. At least it looked as if we were getting to grips with the game, starting to look as if we were up for the task.
End to end action, starting with an Ashley Young corner which we were unable to force home, Albion then broke with pace, Brunt putting in a decent ball, Shorey clearing, and we were back on the attack, only for Gabby to shoot horribly wide.
The Baggies then lost wide man Brunt, who to be honest had looked lively in the opening exchanges, he was replaced by Kim.
We were playing a very direct style, up to Carew as soon as, and whenever possible, hoping that his flick ons etc. would set Gabby free.
The home lot were definitely not getting bored with booing and jeering Curtis, but typical of the young man, it didn’t seem to bother him one jot.
They were silenced though at the sight of Scotty Carson picking the ball up out of the back of his net, Big JC connecting with Ash’s free kick, heading in off the post. 1-0 to the good guys. Celebration time amongst the travelling faithful. My favourite part of any away trip. You get to hug and cuddle perfect strangers, some pretty decent looking female one’s too if its your lucky day.
Sixty seconds later, and The Gab strikes. An Albion defender failed to clear an Ashley Young ball over the top, pushing the ball into Gabby’s path, and with thirty minutes gone, its 2-0. The Brummie Road End are silenced, The Smethwick End rocking and rolling. Good finish from Gabby.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to bask in the comfort zone for too long, Brad Friedel making a hash of a long distance Baggies effort, leaving Morrison to get to the loose ball first, forcing the ball home to reduce the arrears. 2-1 to the good guys, but the Albion are very definitely back in business.
Up to this point Gareth had looked somewhat below par, while Gabby was having himself a fine game. Big JC was showing signs of limping, so the chances of the starting eleven actually seeing out the ninety minutes looked very remote indeed. One or two of our lads were definitely looking a little jaded.
Cracking derby though. Certainly no dull, drab affair this. Its end to end stuff, with Brad Friedel redeeming himself with a top class save from a header, from the head of substitute Kim, I believe it was, probably the smallest player out there. That kept our lead intact, no doubt about it. Brad palmed the header out left handed, Martin Laursen completing the clearance. Great save that Brad.
I think we were all glad to see half-time arrive. Time to take a much needed breather, and rest the old vocal chords. A thoroughly entertaining first forty-five, with we presumed, more of the same to come. Must say, and I never thought/hoped I’d ever have to say this, The Baggies have impressed. They can play some delightful football at times.
Into the second period, and a superb move from the lads see’s John Carew clip the outside of the post. The move deserved a goal, and it certainly looked as if JC was set to make it 3-1. ‘Hope that isn’t costly’, said one of my my mates. I nodded in agreement.
Two minutes later, and yet again a glancing header from John Carew hits the woodwork, our popular centre-forward meeting a Stan Petrov cross. Certainly no let up in the action.
Stan Petrov worryingly went down injured, but after treatment he looked o.k. to continue, just as the Albion looked ready to introduce a certain Luke Moore into the action. The guy next to me cheered me up no end, by commenting that the law of the returning ex-Villan always seems to rear its ugly head and kick us in the teeth. I sure needed to hear that.
Sure enough, within a couple of minutes of his arrival, Moore almost forced the ball home, thankfully though Gareth got in a superb blocking tackle. Gareth may not have been at his best today, but what a valuable player he is for us.
It sounds obvious to say, but we needed a third to wrap this one up, and Nigel almost made it three in three, Carson diving low to his left to make the save. It was still end to end stuff, definitely nail-biting time.
A little bit of tension was certainly starting to cloud the Smetwick End. Twenty minutes left a neighbouring supporter announces. Yes, we needed that third killer goal.
MON decides to make a change, well more like three changes in one. James Milner coming on, Nicky Shorey off, Luke Young to left back, NRC back to right back.
John Carew earns himself a yellow card much to the delight of the Albion lot. Big JC has played well today, put himself about, and been a constant handful to the Albion defence. When isn’t he a handful to any defence?
Craig Gardner comes on replacing the impressive again, Stilyan Petrov. Ten minutes remaining says our nearby timekeeper. Another Villan delights in telling us that Albion were 2-1 down to West Ham but came back to win! Someone asks whether he has anymore encouraging news to impart (or words to that effect).
Our Nigel looks knackered, but he’s been top notch again today. ‘We have to keep the ball, keep the ball’, the young lady behind me yells in my ear.
Not long left now, four or five minutes maybe, but this is where we always seem to be at our most vulnerable.
Ashley gets himself a yellow card, as Carlos Cuellar comes on to make his premiership debut, replacing John Carew. Anxious faces around me, particularly when they announce four minutes of added time. Where the hell did four minutes come from?
Finally the ref decided that enough was enough, and there were jubilant celebrations in the Smethwick End. Another very valuable three points.
Touch and go at times perhaps, but I think that overall we shaded it.
As for our Man Of The Match? Curtis Davies and Martin Laursen definitely staked a claim, but I have to give it to Nigel Reo-Coker.
Right, home for Sunday lunch. The afternoon gets better.
For what its worth, here are the markings of the Glensider jury, as judged and awarded in the heat of battle:-
Friedel – 6
L.Young – 6
Davies – 8
Laursen – 8
Shorey – 5
Petrov – 7
Barry – 5
A Young – 6
Agbonlahor – 7
Carew – 7
Subs not really on long enough to fairly evaluate.
(James Milner 74)(Craig Gardner 83) (Carlos Cuellar 89)