As Jim White slammed shut the January transfer window, the Albion looked well stocked defensively. With the meanest defence in the Football League and a string of clean-sheets in the bag, the back line had been the bed-rock of a fabulous campaign to date. With no less than four centre-backs of proven Championship quality, and full-back reinforcements on the way in the imminent returns of Liam Rosenior and Gaeten Bong everything was rosy in that particular part of the garden.
With long term planning also a consideration, the club sent promising full-back Rob Hunt out to Oldham, to rack up half a season of competitive first team football, and replenished the defensive back-up numbers with the addition of Chelsea prospect Fikayo Tomori.
With the squad now locked down for the remainder of the season, the football gods took umbrage at the calm passage of the Good Ship Albion, and whipped up some storm clouds to test our resolve. First the bombshell that routine testing had shown the brilliant Connor Goldson required surgery to address a previously undiagnosed heart condition. A devastating blow to the young defender’s flourishing career, never mind the immediate impact on the club’s defensive choices.
A week or two later, left-back Sebastien Pocognoli, making the position his own in the absence of Bong, succumbed to a niggling groin strain, and was lost to the squad for the foreseeable future. A disastrous FA Cup showing at Lincoln apart, this afforded the Albion fans a first look at young Tomori – to some disquiet. Thrown in after a few minutes of the huge showdown with Newcastle, the Chelsea loanee did as well as could be expected, but athletic and game as he looks – he may not be the assured option that the tense finale to this season is likely to need.
Off the back of that Newcastle defeat, and in the throes of another damaging reverse at Forest – disaster – off limped Shane Duffy – the absolute ROCK on which the Albion’s defensive strength relies. Alongside the imperious and elegant Lewis Dunk, Duffy has been immense – heading away everything and repeatedly putting his body on the line. Later confirmation of a broken metatarsal, and a minimum of six weeks out – leaving the squad with just two senior central defenders – Dunk, plus Uwe Hunemaier – so solid early last season, but unconvincing in his recent appearance at Brentford.
Add in the fact that Dunk himself sits just three yellows from an inevitable three match ban, and suddenly we are down to the proverbial bare bones © Harry Redknapp.
With the transfer window long since closed, and emergency loans consigned to history, the only available option to bolster the squad, would be a free agent – a player not registered to any club at the point the window closed. Now given that players are generally not without a club, with no good reason – this represented something of a challenge for the Albion’s recruitment team. A recently retired player unlikely to have the legs for a promotion push. An untried youngster would be as big a risk as our own youth. Anyone without a club since the end of January will likely be well short of fitness. Not simple.
Yet somehow a positive result – on the night of the crucial away win at Rotherham – further good news, as the club announced the arrival, of Norwegian centre-back, Vegard Forren. Now as desperate intra-window emergency signings go, the capture of a 29 year-old current International seems about as good as you could possibly hope for. (That certainly seems the view of Aston Villa fans – their own club rumoured to hold an interest – but now resigned to 34 year well-past-his-best Chris Samba as the only answer to a perceived squad gap.)
As well as racking up 33 caps for Norway – the last as recently as November - and featuring regularly for his club side Molde, until the end of 2016 - Forren is arriving fresh from pre-season training with Rosenborg, so is presumably in decent shape. He had been expected by local media to sign a 2 year deal with the Norwegian champions, before answering the Albion’s call.
So what is the CATCH? There has to be a catch?
One NSC poster has apparently asked a Norwegian acquaintance about Forren, and been told that we have signed “an unfit, whining alcoholic, with a gambling problem”! Well, now. That could certainly be classed as a catch, if there’s much in it…
The description above (its not mine btw, if Vegard’s lawyers are reading this) describes a character, though, that Chris Hughton would not touch with a barge-pole, regardless of circumstance, whatever the scarcity of available options. However desperate the need, you just can’t imagine Hughton welcoming a defensive Paddy McCourt into an ultra-professional dressing room. (I must add here, mind, that I bloody LOVED Paddy McCourt!)
The fact that the player has seemingly eschewed the security of a longer contract at home, for just three months here, hopefully indicates an individual with the drive and hunger to prove his worth, and showcase his talents over here. He’s failed here before, and sounds determined to rectify that.
Due solely to my place of residence, I’m in a minority of Albion fans previously aware of the player. His ten years at Molde, broken as it was in January 2013, by a high profile £4m transfer to my now-local Premier League club, Southampton – the Saints fighting off interest from Liverpool amongst others, to secure the deal. Saints were struggling that first season, and Nigel Adkins (are you keeping up?) parted company with the club just as the newcomer arrived. As new boss Pochettino set about steadying the ship, Saints fans bombarded the comments section of the Daily Echo asking when they would finally see their expensive new defender in battle.
‘Poch’ remained unmoved by whatever he saw, and the answer would prove to be ‘never’. Just 6 months after arriving on the South coast, the transfer was quietly reversed, with Saints reportedly recouping ‘most’ of their outlay. Forren restarted his career with Molde, and quickly regained his Norway place. Whilst the quality of the Norwegian Eliteserien is debatable, Forren’s defensive worth has been tested further over three more seasons – with the national side, and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in European competition – Forren central to the Molde side that amusingly dispatched Celtic from the Champions League, costing compatriot Ronnie Deila his job.
Fingers crossed then, that we’ve struck lucky – reinforcement was certainly needed, and he looks every bit as good a signing as could be hoped for. He’ll no doubt be called upon soon enough, and with every remaining game absolutely crucial, we wait with bated breath to see for ourselves what he’s got.
Now for the creative in the stands, to bestow upon him, a song…
“Who’s that man from Kyrksæterøra…”