A week ago, consensus in my Albion circles, was that full value from the remaining four home games would finish the job. Two down, two to go.
Not that this was at all straightforward. Odd, odd season tonight’s opponents Birmingham City, are having. Since replacing over-achieving club stalwart Gary Rowett with the affable but clueless Gianfranco Zola, they have plummeted down the Championship table like the proverbial stone.
Since the self-harming managerial change 21 matches ago, the Blues have won just twice. The discarded Rowett coincidentally has also won twice, in his new job. In three attempts. Here’s the odd part though – I’ve seen City play five times this season – twice against the Albion – and they at least matched their opponents in every game. And lost all of them. Perhaps Zola is luckless as well as clueless.
For the Albion, four changes – Bruno back after a niggle and a welcome return for Gaeten Bong – plus starts for March and Hemed after their decisive contributions from the bench on Saturday. The team changes were a bonus for traditionalists – an old school look to the Albion shirt numbers – a back four of 2, 3, 4 and 5. Shirts 6, 7, and 11 in the midfield, 10 up top. The purist in me would have liked Stephens and Huenemeier to swap shirts (none of this 4 at the back, 6 at centre-mid, Spanish nonsense). Quite realistic changes of Baldock for Murray, Skalak for March, and a run out for Niki Maenpaa would have achieved 70’s line-up Utopia. Chris is old school. He MUST have been tempted.
City arrived here off the back off a sequence of solid draws, and Albion boss Chris Hughton had warned of the need for patience, on the field, and in the stands. For once the main man was wrong – a blistering 66 seconds in and we were, as per the season’s mantra, on our way. Solly March wriggled out of tight spot in defence, before Kayal’s visionary pass sent Anthony Knockaert scampering away. 442 Magazine’s newly crowned Football League Player of the Year, ran to the corner of the box, stood up his marker, then rolled the ball ahead of the galloping Bruno. The ageless skipper pulled the ball back for Glenn Murray to side foot home with his first touch of the evening. Absolute scenes.
Twenty for the talisman now – the first Albion player to reach that mark, since, er, Glenn Murray in the glorious final season at Withdean. A stunned Amex in full voice. Not only are we on our way, but we’re topothelegue too. Surely a joyous romp lay ahead?
Birmingham, refused to their credit, to accept their appointed role of gutless victims, and fought back hard – in fact dominated large parts of the first period. On just 8 minutes they were desperately unlucky not to level. Stephens floored Craig Gardner 20 yards out, and Gary’s infinitely more talented brother crashed the resulting set piece against the crossbar, with David Stockdale only able to watch and pray.
Further scares to follow – Uwe guilty on more than one occasion of losing possession carelessly – before a second dangerous Gardner free kick was well held by Stockdale, with Donaldson ready to pounce on any spill. Uwe was soon required to step up – taking the lead defensive role, as Lewis Dunk succumbed to sickness, and after a fabulous Lawrensonesque run forward, slumped to his haunches, and was led from the field.
Young Fikayo Tomori took his place, and set about showing any doubters, unconvinced by his efforts as stand-in full-back, just why he is so highly rated in the centre by both Chelsea and England. Solid and relaxed, and my word he’s quick. Really excellent display for the rest of the evening from a partnership that by my calculations would be the Albion’s TENTH choice pairing at centre-back. There’s a lesson there, for sure – depth of squad so very crucial in a relentless Championship slog.
After long spells without the ball (the visitors enjoying 67% of first half possession) the Albion fashioned a couple of decent late opportunities – first Solly March on the break, into the box, and trying to jink between two defenders – crashing to the turf – referee Mr.Bond (we’ve been expecting you, etc) unmoved. Then after excellent footwork from Kayal and Murray, Stephens drilled wide from 20 yards. Half time. 1-0. Game very much in the balance. Birmingham looking a threat, most notably through the tricky and skillful Che Adams.
If Zola had been frustrated at his charges’ early mishap in the first period, the Italian will have been pulling out the remains of his thinning hair, just two minutes into the second. Having survived one scare – Knockaert’s volley blocked – the Blues conspired to concede in the softest of manners. A deep cross from Bruno reached Murray at the far post to head back across goal – our erstwhile Big Pole stood rooted to his line, as the ball looped over him for Tomer Hemed to divert home with the seagull on his chest.
As the stadium relaxed, and sofa-bound Geordies and Yorkshiremen cursed at their phones and TV screens, the Albion set about their task with new-found freedom. Before long the contest was over – origins of the third goal, same as the last – a deep cross, this time from Knockaert – more hesitancy from Kuszczak – an Albion header. Tomori met it but sent it straight up into the night – Kuszczak flapped and got nowhere near it – his defensive colleagues half-cleared, only for Uwe Huenemeier to crash home his first Albion goal from 12 yards. The players visibly thrilled for the always-enthusiastic German – payback for a season of consistent support from a player sat waiting for his own chance to contribute. Top man, Uwe.
The game won, Hughton afforded rests to the excellent Stephens and le Petit Magicien – Norwood and Murphy on in their stead – the former ‘resplendent’ with his new ridiculous bright-blonde hairdo – one way to get noticed in training.
Zola introduced Kerim Frei to proceedings – the Turkish International winger causing difficulties immediately – close control and direct running of a high calibre. Zola has not started him since the middle of February, inexplicably. Perhaps that lack of fortune is largely self-inflicted. The substitute’s slaloming run from the half-way line to the penalty spot opened up the Albion defence, and led to Adams firing home City’s consolation – deflected past a furious Stockdale. Don’t tell big Dave it was inconsequential. He looked LIVID.
A couple of minor moments later Mr.Bond brought proceedings to a close – confirming a club record number of second-tier wins, with power to add.
The Championship table makes enticing viewing; 12 points ahead of Huddersfield now, and 10 over Reading. Surely even the staunchest of long-suffering Albion pessimists are flirting with chicken-counting now?