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The Great Escape: The day Fortune shone on Albion

13 May 2015

An unforgettable Day: Albion man recalls May 15, 2005

MAY 15, 2005 was an afternoon Albion fans will never forget. 

Bryan Robson's men started the day in 20th. To stand any chance of survival they had to produce a better outcome in their game against Portsmouth than Norwich, Southampton and Crystal Palace did in their final games of the campaign. The Canaries and the Saints were to lose to Fulham (6-0) and Manchester United respectively (2-1). They were out of sight long before Kieran Richardson scored Albion's second. It was down to a two-team shoot out: Palace or Albion. 

At The Hawthorns the chronological 'playlist' of senses went like this: anxiety, fear, cheering, anguish, more despair, false hope, confusion, sporadic cheering, lots of cheering, a bit of relief, more anxiety, the longest few minutes ever...and then came news of the the final whistle in South London. It had finished Charlton 2 Crystal Palace 2. 

And with it came the most overwhelming feeling of all: Safety. The Greatest of all Premier League Escapes had been achieved.

Charlton's assistant manager back then was Mervyn Day, Albion's current Head of Recruitment. caught up with Mervyn to get his perspective on the day and his recollections from a game played 130 miles away.

Q. May 15, 2005. What are your memories of that particular day?
A. We were concentrating on trying to get a top 10 finish, for a lot of reasons. Being in the top half of the table was like the holy grail for us at Charlton and if we'd got three points against Palace we'd have finished 10th. From a personal point of view my bonus structure started once we finished in the top 10 - so when we drew, we finished 11th. Our chief executive, who is a good mate of mine, was no doubt rubbing his hands with glee but you can imagine how I felt at the time.

Q. How did your game go? 
A. It was a pretty nothing first half from memory. Bryan Hughes scored a fairly tame goal - I seem to recall he poked the ball in through a crowded penalty area - after about half an hour. Iain Dowie made a switch in the second-half by bringing on Dougie Freeman. He scored after about two minutes, then Andy Johnson scored a second from the spot to put them 2-1 up. At that point Palace looked safe, with 20 minutes to go.

Q. Jonathan Fortune could easily have been named as Albion's player of the year...
A. Palace were safe until eight minutes to go of the season. That's how close it got. And, yes, it was down to Jonathan Fortune that Albion stayed up I guess. Yet one of the biggest complaints after the game was that he shouldn't have been on the pitch. When Palace were awarded that penalty (on 71 minutes) it was actually Jon who hand balled it. Iain Dowie felt he should have been sent off. And, of course, Jon Fortune then popped up to score the equaliser - so from their point of view it a double whammy. The guy stays on following a handball in the area...and then scores the equaliser that relegates the opposition. 

Q. The Albion Gods certainly looked over us that day. It was Darren Fletcher who scored Manchester United's first at Southampton in their 2-1 win. And then yourself and your Charlton colleagues.
A. Everywhere you look there seemed to have been Albion connections. That equaliser came about because Jerome Thomas got brought down for a foul. He whipped the ball in which Jonathan got to. And then right at the death Palace had a brilliant chance and Dean Kiely made an unbelievable safe when he dived down low to his left. From the fans' point of view, it was the chance to get one over the local rivals, our chairman and their chairman didn't get on... in the end when you are interested what happens elsewhere but our emphasis was to finish 10th. 

Q. Were you aware of what was happening elsewhere?
A. Not at the time. Palace started singing 'we only need one more goal' at 1-1 so we knew they were technically safe at 2-1 up. Towards the end we had the kitchen sink thrown at us. I was to find out how that feels a few years later - I was part of the West Ham staff when Carlos Tevez scored for us at Manchester United. It's a horrible scenario to be in - I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. 

Q. What was the atmosphere like at the final whistle given Albion's result had already come through.
A. Our fans were celebrating like they'd won the FA Cup. Palace were crestfallen. You can't describe that feeling unless you've been there, certainly when it all hinges on the last few minutes of the season.

Q. Yet a week earlier Palace could have all but stayed up.
A. Iain Dowie did mention that. Danny Higginbotham scored an injury time equaliser for Southampton at Selhurst Park to make it 2-2. Iain mentioned that subsequently as a big result for them. [That result, in the 3pm game, consequently meant Albion DIDN'T need to win at Old Trafford in a later kick-off, knowing a draw would keep them in the hunt for the final game. Albion drew 1-1 with Manchester United]

Q. That wasn't the only time you'd been involved in an Albion Great Escape, was it?
A. <laughs> No, absolutely. I remember that game in what is now the Championship. We'd just won the League, Albion were managed by Gary Megson and needed a result. 'Meggie' went absolutely mental at me during the match. The way it worked for us, Alan (Curbishley) used to be the quiet one out of our coaching staff and I used to yell instructions at the players. Meggie turned around, glared at me and yelled: "Will you shurrup....we need to win this game." And they did. 2-0. [Albion stayed up, with Walsall being relegated].

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