There’s nothing quite like an afternoon of sport where multiple games take place simultaneously, and yesterday’s ‘Survival Sunday’ was no exception. Five teams were in danger of being relegated from the English Football Premiership, but only two would actually go down. The drama across the country was amazing, and the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary, switching between the grounds, captured the tension, jubilation and despair brilliantly. With minutes remaining, goals were going in, fans, players and managers were discovering how their fate was being affected by others. Tremendous.
I’ve supported West Bromwich Albion since I was child in the mid-1970s. At that time Liverpool were dominant in England, winning the League Title 8 times in 11 years. Everyone supported Liverpool in my school. But for some reason, I liked West Brom. I’m not sure if I was just being contrary, but there was something about them that appealed. Perhaps it was the so-called Three Amigos – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson – who were a rare sight in English football in the 1970s, three black top-flight players. They regularly suffered abuse from rival fans, but were legends for West Brom. Regis was a brilliant centre-forward, and Cunningham a truly gifted player with silky skills. Future England Captain Bryan Robson, and stalwarts like Ally Brown, John Wile and Derek Statham, not to mention their flamboyant manager Ron Atkinson, made The Baggies a force to be reckoned with.
It seemed for a brief moment in 1978/79 that they might even threaten to challenge the dominance of Liverpool. West Brom were second for most of the season, flirted with the top for a week, and only finished third by losing the last two games of the season. But it was mostly downhill for a long time from there.
West Brom’s supporters have traditionally celebrated goals with hilarious ‘boing boing’ bouncing, and this motif has seemingly been adopted by the club in recent years, by bouncing between the top two tiers of English football; getting promotion from The Championship into The Premiership, only to suffer relegation the following year.
In the era of The Premiership, West Brom have been in the top flight for 5 seasons and relegated 4 times, only surviving in 2005 with ‘the great escape’ on the last day. They were bottom midway through the season, at one point 8 points from safety. On the last day of the season they were still bottom. They won the final game, but still needed other results to help them out.
I remember that afternoon pretty clearly. I was in the garden with the radio on, it was bright, warm and sunny, and my mood swept from resignation to optimism to despair to exhiliration in about 30 minutes. I never want to experience that again.
Typically West Brom play lovely football, but leak goals like a sieve. This season started in a familiar fashion, as we lost 6-0 to Chelsea on the opening day. However, only a few weeks later there was a glimmer of hope that this season would finally be different, as we beat Arsenal at The Emirates. For a few weeks were dizzy in the Top 5, but by February we were sliding into the Bottom 5, and we sacked our manager.
Roy Hodgson had achieved great things at Fulham, but nothing in a bitter spell at Liverpool. He was appointed with the sole task of Keeping West Brom Up. 13 games later, and we’re only goal difference away from finishing 10th. Hodgson’s record compared to what went before is terrific:
First 9 games: Won 4, Drawn 3, Lost 2. GF 13, GA 16 … a terrific start (15pts/27, 4th in the table)
Next 15 games: Won 3, Drawn 2, Lost 10. GF 18, GA 31 …oh dear (11pts/45, slumped to 16th)
Hodgson (last 13 games): Won 5, Drawn 6, Lost 2. GF 25 / GA 23 … what a recovery (21pts/39, secure in 10th)
The difference this year has been (apart from The Hodgson Effect), in my mind, down to three further things…
- Scoring Goals: in previous seasons, we’ve never scored even a goal a game. This year we’ve scored 56, and only 3 teams have scored more than our 26 goals away from home . Peter Odemwingie scored 15 goals on his own, more than any player from Liverpool, Spurs or Chelsea. According to the Performance Stats, he has been the 7th best player in the entire league.
- Resilience: we’ve continued to leak goals: indeed we’ve only kept 2 clean sheets in 38 games. But this season we’ve come behind from losing positions to draw 9 times and win 6 games, when in previous years we would have collapsed. Highlights have included winning from behind against Liverpool, and even on the last day of the season, with nothing but pride to play for, we came from 3-0 down against Newcastle with less than 30 minutes to go to draw 3-3.
- Getting Results against the top teams: During our last Premiership season in 2008/9, we lost all 12 games against the top 6 teams, scoring just 4 goals while conceding 31. Ouch. This season wasn’t brilliant, but it was a big improvement. 2 wins and 4 draws included those great results against Arsenaland Liverpool, and coming from 2-0 against the eventual champions, Manchester United, to gain a 2-2 draw. West Brom were the only team all season to get a point at Old Trafford.
We’ve got work to do next season, but for now I’m basking in the glow of being ‘comfortably mid-table’ and able to enjoy the terrors of the Final Day of The Season in peace.