A thorn in their side

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West Brom 1 – 2 Wigan Athletic
Saturday 10th September 2005

On day of debuts for strikers all across the Premier League it could be argued that David Connolly’s had the lowest profile.  Yet come 4:45 he was the only one that had the immediate impact that fans look for.  Elsewhere Owen’s first start for Newcastle was frustrating; a reasonable performance but it was left to a midfielder to salvage a point.  Crouch and Rasiak both had disallowed goals as they helped their sides to a 0-0 draw. 

Ellington, whether affected by the occasion, the reaction of the fans that only last season had adored him, lack of match fitness or a hang over from his ineffective partnership with Horsfield whilst at Wigan was extremely quiet.  There’s another similarity with all those players, all four in some way had been linked with Latics during the summer.  Connolly, the player we weren’t linked with, but went on to sign, marked a lively debut with an equalising goal that, until injury time, looked like it had decided the result of this tight ‘six-pointer’.

So early in the season, it’s hard to say what this result might mean to either team.  For us it gives two wins out of two against the teams that fall into the ‘mini relegation league’ that we have been (probably rightly) pigeonholed into.  It will also give fans a hope/expectation that we may not form part of that battle.  For the press, the tenacious performance means that they can continue to peddle the “Plucky Little Wigan” line. For the baggies it may well knock the confidence that the good start to the season had instilled on the Hawthorns terraces.

It could have been so different.  Despite an encouraging start for the Latics on a surface that players were struggling to stand up on, let alone play football, West Brom were first on the score sheet.  The scorer, Jonathon Greening, looking more like a leftover from the Midlanders’ late 70s heyday than a modern athletic footballer (the kit doesn’t help), pouncing on a weak clearance of his original shot to put the ball past Pollitt from distance.  At this stage there looked a real chance that the game could slip away from us, if the Baggies could put their Premiership experience on show and close the game out.

I had warned of the potential for midfield dominance if our two didn’t stand up to theirs.  In the end it proved an empty threat.  The no show typified by the time that Francis had to collect Bullard’s pass, turn and slot a perfect through ball for Connolly to run onto and lift over England’s goalkeeping future for the equaliser.  The move leading to the goal perhaps indicating, in three easy steps, how we need to go about making something of a success of this season. 

Bullard’s energy and spirit, making a 50-50 challenge look more like 75-25 and still having the ability to find a team-mate with his first time pass; Francis’s calmness and skill in threading the ball through for Connolly, who’s movement guaranteed him getting to the ball first and finally the luck that Kirkland had come off his line allowing a first time, and quality, finish from the new boy.  If we can keep those ingredients together all season then, come Christmas, a few expectations may changed somewhat.

In the run up to the game I wasn’t alone in suggesting that one of the three strikers who had played for both clubs would have the final say in this game.  This again was a fruitless prediction.  Horsfield and Roberts showed endeavour throughout the 90 minutes, but the Duke’s only real contribution was to force a Pollitt save from a typically rasping drive from the right hand corner of the box. 

His replacement, by Earnshaw, part way through the second half received an ovation from both supporters, the away end reaction the more vociferous.  Some Baggies are already wondering if they’ve signed a wrong un, but they need to give him time to get his head and fitness right before passing judgement, unfortunately that type of time isn’t readily available in this day and age.

Despite the more attacking line up that this change brought to West Brom, Campbell also replacing Wallwork, there was little else of note in the last 20 minutes.  In fact it seemed that Latics were playing out time by the corner flag when, following McCulloch’s attempt to play the play out off an opponent, Baines broke into the box.  His hard and low cross, didn’t look a good option, hitting Roberts more than being played to him his control, turn and measured pass, would have escape many players in such a pressure situation. 

As the ball rolled to the edge of the box for Bullard to run onto, you could be excused for thinking that at least retrieving the ball from the back of the stand would waste some time.  Jimmy was having none of that, belying his reputation as a poor finisher with a side footed shot that curled around the keeper and into the back of the net.

That was that, we’d come full circle in the space of four games.  There was an element of revenge here, not for all the petty squabbles between no nothing fans and not for the Duke signing; neither of those things matter in the bigger scheme.  The late winner has resonances with the past, of the same fixture in 2003, the final game of the same season and the first game of this.  Promoted teams apparently have problems with late goals.  I would dare suggest that we won’t; but if we can keep this up and dish them out as much as we concede them, then it bodes well.

That said, we should be wary of reading too much into this result.  An important win, a decent performance and very pleasing, but is this the best that West Brom can do.  For their sake I hope not.  Latics are slowly improving as they discover what is required of us, but whichever way you look at it the Baggies have seen this before.  Brian Robson was rightly displeased with his team’s performance.  Jewell, by far the happier of the two managers, still sees the room and need for improvement.  There’ll be no time for resting on our laurels this season; he knows that, let’s hope the rest of us don’t forget.

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