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BOWLER’S DELIVERY: Credit where it’s due

4 January 2017

Albion’s progress goes under the radar

A funny thing happened to us on “Match of the Day” on Monday. We got a bit of praise.

 

Looking back on the win over Hull City, Martin Keown had plenty of good things to say about the way Albion had played and the way in which the club is gradually piecing together something with real potential for the years ahead.

 

Ordinarily, we get just a cursory mention, win, lose or draw, after a chat about the opposition, not that we are picking on the BBC’s flagship football programme for at least they mark our existence, which is more than some manage to do.

 

Generally though, the feeling is that the Albion don’t really exist, and that if we do, it’s as mere irritation, like a bumble bee on the backside of a rhino. “Irrelevant” is the dismissive adjective that one critic reached for in connection with us earlier this term.

 

Admittedly, they were slightly more fractious times back then, but sensible people don’t rush to judgement after five games, instead having the patience to see how things work themselves out.

 

Nonetheless, once some people have an idea in their heads, it’s a hell of a job to shift it and even as Albion have surged to eighth place in the Premier League, with more goals than anybody but the top six and the anomalous Crystal Palace, it appears that most people haven’t noticed.

 

Even on Monday, when Albion not only scored three goals and came back from behind to win a game for the second time in 48 hours, reports were about “the capitulation” of Hull City. The fact that we did it by changing our shape during the game to combat the opposition and then defeat them, barely got a mention.

 

Had Pep done it, we’d be being invited to fall at his feet and kiss the hem of his garment. But nobody was suggesting we plant a smacker on the Pulis baseball cap after his tactical shift were they?

 

The truth – unpalatable as it is to many – is that Albion are not a one dimensional side, capable of parking the bus and precious little else. Yes, at times we’ll drop the handbrake on and head for the pay and display machine, but, to be realisitic for a moment, is there really a sensible alternative at Chelsea and Arsenal?

 

But at other times – West Ham, Leicester, Burnley for example – we’ve shredded the opposition with the quality of our attacking play, most notably on the counter-attack, driving forward with pace and precision to impose ourselves on games and score plenty of goals in the process.

 

Part of the problem is that we live in an era where some people would rather judge a game on the basis of statistics instead of goals. If you have had less than 50% of the ball, the theory goes, then you haven’t contributed to the game and you don’t deserve to win. But what’s the point of having the ball if you don’t do anything with it? And anyway, wasn’t it ok last year for fairytale Leicester to win the league despite hardly ever having possession parity?

 

There also now appears to be some prejudice against scoring gals from set pieces since we got so good at it. It’s apparently especially heinous to score with your head, all of which would be news to some of the greatest strikers in history – Tommy Lawton, Nat Lofthouse, Geoff Hurst, Jeff Astle, Alan Shearer to name just a handful.

 

Taking a corner and putting it in the right area time and time again the way Chris Brunt and Matt Phillips do is a skill that comes from hours on the training pitch. It isn’t easy – look at how many other teams can’t get a corner past the first man if you want proof of that.

 

That their hard work, and that of Gareth McAuley, Salomon Rondon, Craig Dawson et al in attacking the ball when it’s there to be headed, should be treated with such disdain is an odd way to view the game. After all, if it was all so easy, why isn’t everybody else doing it? And by the way, for those who think we only score goals without any artistic merit, have a look at the two we scored at Southampton for starters.

 

So many are so quick to heap so much criticism on our heads that you’d be tempted to think they had an agenda against us. Our recruitment, for example, is often placed in question. Ok then. Find me a better pound for pound transfer than Matt Phillips from last summer.

 

In many ways, we are victims of our own success. Modern media is fixated with big stories and hyping them still further. It interests itself only in winners and losers, not the majority of us who are doing good work in the middle ground.

 

While some suggest that Albion are irrelevant, that’s a function of a world obsessed with extremes and of a Premier League where the nine point gap between Manchester United in sixth and Everton in seventh, is the same as the gap between Everton and Leicester City in fifteenth. If we are going to be even handed about it all, that makes nine of us irrelevant in national media terms. To misquote Mario Balotelli, why is it always us?

 

There are stories beyond the obvious ones too. If you want to look at the Hull fixture alone, what about the fact that in a game where, supposedly, loyalty has no place, our three goal scorers have amassed more than 800 games for the club between them? Or how one of them, Chris Brunt, was so adaptable that over the course of 90 minutes, he managed to play roles from outside-left to right-back and all points in between?

 

Or there’s another one, about how Albion have managed to evolve beyond the sterility that a long run in that middle ground can bring. Remember how the likes of Charlton were seen as the model club, only then to be dismissed as boring and, as they tried to reinvent themselves, ultimately imploded?

 

That’s not to criticise Charlton either, merely to recognise how hard it is to stay in the Premier League year on year, not least when – and let’s once and for all finally accept Leicester as a once in a generation miracle rather a shift in reality – that top six glass ceiling looks to be increasingly impenetrable each season.

 

When you are up against that, there’s a temptation to create your own challenges, as we did when we flirted with the continental game espoused by Pepe Mel. It took us two years to recover from that, but recover we did. Let us hope that Swansea will be similarly fortunate in surviving their experiment with throwing away their blueprint.

 

That brief identity crisis put us in deep trouble, from which we only escaped by going back to basics, by bringing in Tony Pulis to dig the same sort of foundations that Roy Hodgson had put down. Their two sides were largely indistinguishable, except Hodgson had better strikers in his day and so was able to open things up more quickly.

 

Under Pulis, the attacking options were less potent initially and as a consequence, we had 18 months where we had to block things up at the back because we simply couldn’t go and try to outscore sides. We needed our clean sheets and we needed our 1-0s. And, let’s not kid ourselves, if we were to lose three in a row this month, easy enough to do in this most savage division, we might need them again.

 

Those 18 months were the period of groundwork laying that kept our heads above water, kept us in the Premier League and has now allowed us to go forward. With Rondon bedded in after his first season, with Phillips and Chadli added, with Brunt and Morrison both back from long-term injury, the Throstles are winning home games, scoring goals and are becoming increasingly good to watch, even for the neutral.

 

It’s a shame only Martin Keown seems to have noticed. 


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