Mickey Blue Eyes
One of my long-distance footy memories is a European Cup home leg return versus Borussia Moenchengladbach in 1970, one of the greatest matches I have seen. It was a wonderful clash between two perfectly equal teams playing the same kind of classic passing game. In retro mood you look at names in both teams and weep - Ball, Harvey, Kendall, Netzer, Vogts, Heynckes. But there was also a comedy pre-match moment: the Germans brought only a few hundred supporters and they were housed in the upper Bullens Road stand. Obviously they had heard our previous league result, a 3-0 loss to West Brom, because they chanted in a barely discernible north Westphalian accent, "Vest Brum! Vest Brum!" presumably to dent our confidence. It didn't work; Johnny Morrissey (aka Mogsy, a nickname he hated) scored a fluke in the first minute. It ended 1-1 but we became the first club to win a European Cup tie on penalties when Andy Rankin saved the last spot kick in the Street End and sparked mass Evertonian tumult.
The point is Vest Brum have always been a sort of dull, distant pain in our groin. A quick glance at the records shows why. So on New Year's Day I went to the Midlands prepared for anything, including a bad loss: traditionally Christmas and New Year games have recorded some weird results. I remember in another long-ago year West Ham lost 8-2 at home to Blackburn then the next day won 3-1 at Ewood. Another year, we won 3-1 at Burnley then lost 3-0 the next day in front of 75,000. There have been many others since, including an almost comical 6-2 home loss to the Mancs. Plainly, holiday celebrations have a gutting affect on some players. I hoped ours stayed on the wagon the night before. After all, Blackburn had just won 3-2 at Old Trafford and you don't get any odder than that. Crazy game, crazy guys.
It was a depleted Bus that set out, a mere twenty-five die-hards instead of the usual full complement. It seems the club returned a thousand tickets, thus pre-qualifying an awful lot of hangovers. There were more than a few pasty faces and twitching nerve ends in the away section, doubtless worn by those yet to acknowledge excess alcohol as an enemy of common sense. But understandably the whole crowd was subdued, which is why you felt like murdering the pitch side announcer and cheer leader; if you think ours is bad you should have heard this chintzy, strident moron. You wanted to jam his microphone sideways in his voice box.
No Felli and a cobbled together midfield had me feeling glum at the outset. Put simply, there was nobody capable of surprise. It was good to see Jack back but you knew he needed more games to get match fit. No Royston on the bench either, probably because at Sunderland he played with both legs in one side of his shorts. Up front we again relied on Louis and Tim because there is nobody else. At this stage I would have settled for a point and gone home to warm TLC and Horlicks. But that's not what we footy fans do. Still, economic times are beginning to bite hard - there were empty seats all around the ground, as there was at Sunderland. These days you can almost hear the swish of the grim reaper's economic blade.
There isn't a lot to be said about the game, which at times had the feel of a practice match with the odd niggle. Albion again looked very young and I thought that might tell against us in the last quarter, but it didn't. Moyesy's game plan and substitutions won it.
In the first half West Brom had a reasonable opening ten minutes and one close-in headed chance that should have been buried, but wasn't, and a comical appeal for a penalty (from the crowd, not the players) after a superb last minute tackle by Sylvain Distin. After that, possession looked like 70-30% in our favour, a few corners, one missed header by Jack, another with a snatched shot after their keeper spilled the ball, and one mishit by Louis. Occasionally even John Heitinga got a nose bleed, got forward and hit a couple of shots that rebounded off their defence. The home team weren't in it, which irritated the home crowd. Not that we were doing much with possession, which irritated our lot too. It was that kind of narky-mood match.
For us it was the same old story.....defence takes the ball off the enemy, a careful and patient build up, get to the last third, and then we sort of vaporise. Example, Louis didn't win a header all afternoon. Another example, nothing from the wings unless Bainsey made his excellent forward moves. But there's nothing you can do if you haven't got the players. In which case, like schlock theatre, it's all down to how you time and use the substitutions.
The second half was a vague imitation of the first. Albion should have scored within a minute when our defence made one of its few miscalculations and Odemwinge got goal side of Jags, couldn't keep his shot down and nearly decapitated someone in row K. They whizzed in a few brilliant crosses from the left too but nobody could get on the end of them. Then normal service was resumed......us with toothless possession. So Moyesy made the first sub on the hour, Magaye for Jack. Five minutes later, Denis for Louis and Vic for Phil. The game immediately changed. We had more width, particularly with Magaye wide left. Even Denis made a couple of darting runs (no sniggering at the back) on the right. Each time we came forward we looked like we had possibilities. The away section perked up. Albion looked vulnerable. They fell with three minutes left.
I think it was Bainsey who picked up a loose ball in the centre circle and laid it off wide right to Tony Hibbert. He gave it to Leon, tight on the right touch line and closed down by a couple of defenders. Osman turned and moved inside with it while Tony scissored right. You have to hand it to Ozzy, he kept possession then took out the enemy left side defence with a perfect ground pass that left Tony clear and closing to the edge of their penalty area at the goal line. He clipped over a cross that had a cluster of players going for it, passed over them all, and a startled Scharner could only butt it back anaemically toward his own goal area. Vic emerged first from the cluster, swivelled on his right and hit it home with his left from the edge of the left area. Game shot and well deserved.
So, a mediocre match, though one in which Moyesy and the players showed they can just about operate with present resources. Well, at least against midtable and lower teams. We wouldn't get away with this against better teams. This win was built on the backs of a well organised defence - Distin was man of the match by a long way - and careful use of limited subs. In the end it was the subs' fresh legs that won it. But if only we could translate possession into goals.........
Now we are into January and the New Year and its insane "transfer window." Get yourself ready for stupid rumours, envy and the venomous idiocy it always produces. You are about to feel the same vibes John Kennedy got just before he went to Dallas in November 1963 and said, "We're heading into nut country now," meaning a Texas version of fascism. We all know what happened next. Now in January 2012 you get similar footy vibes, that wearisome twice-a-year carnival of gaga. And we all know what will happen next. It will tell you more about the perpetrators than the stark reality. It's a grotto of wilful ignorance and neuroses. The only things to do are laugh at the nutters and believe only a signature drying on a contract - all the rest is garbage.
And a very Happy New Year to you and yours. Any of ours who went to Sunderland and West Brom has earned it.