West Bromwich Albion FC vs West Ham United FC
FA Cup Fifth Round
Saturday 14th February 2015
The Hawthorns, West Bromwich, West Midlands
“We’re gonna struggle, I’m afraid,” says a woman with a deep Lancashire accent on the Blackburn Rovers ticket line. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m trying to convince a football club to offer me FA Cup Fifth Round tickets in exchange for money.
It hadn’t been a great draw, in truth. Several all-Premier League and Championship ties had left limited choice for underdog potential. Middlesbrough’s reward for their incredible victory at the Etihad was a trip to cup holders Arsenal. A home tie against Sunderland stood between Bradford City and the quarter finals. With both matches moved to Sunday, they were out of the running.
Manchester United’s safe passage beyond League Two Cambridge had rewarded them with another away trip to Preston North End on Monday night. Fans of the Lancashire club were trading kidneys for tickets, so that was also out. Maybe the lady at Blackburn was holding out for me to offer her an organ?
With Saturday being our only realistic option, we observed the slim pickings. Crystal Palace vs Liverpool looked attractive, as the Pardew feelgood factor continued in South London. “Tickets won’t be going on general sale,” said the guy on the ticket line after 10 minutes on hold. It left us with Blackburn or West Brom.
“You’re not on our database so we can’t sell you tickets”, she continued, eyeing up my request for two adult and one child ticket as being the classic calling card of likely hooligans. Maybe she’s heard of our curse, I wonder. Three defeats in a row, and no wins since the Third Qualifying Round, has perhaps left some clubs running scared of welcoming The Underdog Blog on their cup adventure.
I consider telling her that we’ve consulted Eileen Drewery since last week’s defeat at Craven Cottage out of desperation, and that her tarot readings were positive. But, alas, my efforts are in vain. We make plans to incorporate The Hawthorns into our schedule for Saturday’s televised early kick-off. It’s effectively that or an Italian accent at Twickenham.
Before Baggies fans new to this blog abandon me, disgruntled at effectively being my fourth choice on Valentine’s Day, I should explain that I have nothing against your fine club. It’s just that the whole point is to support underdogs against superior opposition.
The Premier League table suggests a modest gap between these two sides. West Ham are having their best season in several years, playing an attractive brand of football under chief Louis van Gaal tormentor Sam Allardyce. Meanwhile, West Brom sit six places and twelve points below the Hammers in the Premier League table.
While West Ham can be backed at 10/1 to lift the famous old trophy at Wembley on 30th May, WBA are a more distant 18/1. Underdogs then? Just about…
In truth, the resurgent Baggies are climbing the table under new boss Tony Pulis at a time when West Ham’s excellent early season form looks to be slightly hitting the buffers. A difficult run of fixtures in the Premier League has seen today’s visitors pick up just one point in their last three, with their most recent victory coming at Ashton Gate via a controversial Fourth Round winner from African Cup of Nations sicknote Diafra Sakho.
Meanwhile, just like at Selhurst Park, a change in manager has led to the return of the feelgood factor in the Black Country in recent weeks. A dreadful start to the campaign under Alan Irvine, who succeeded the disastrous Pepe Mel, left them staring a relegation-threatened season in the face.
After working miracles at Palace, the side he left 48 hours before the start of the season, Pulis joined Albion just after Christmas and has already made headway into protecting his famous record of never being relegated.
A point at Upton Park on New Year’s Day in his first game in charge was followed by a 7-0 victory against Norton United conquerors Gateshead in his first game here, and means we’re rejoining a thread we last visited in the First Round. One defeat in his eight games in charge in 2015 has seen them ease away from the bottom three and into the FA Cup last-16.
We’re spending the weekend with our best friends in Cambridgeshire, so it’s Mark/”Hadders” who joins me again, along with my six-year-old son Jacob. He’s really excited about the idea of a boy’s day out at the football, and seemed genuinely disappointed when we suggested it might not be happening due to Blackburn’s ticketing policy. Albion it is.
It won’t be his first match. We’ve been to see our hometown team Chesterfield a few times, including a trip to Wembley last year, as well as a visit to the picturesque setting of Matlock Town’s Causeway Lane. Since then, weekly football practise, Fifa 15 for Christmas and the emergence of Harry Kane have fed his enjoyment of the game. We haven’t managed a trip to White Hart Lane yet, so taking him to West Brom does a feel a little odd.
One too many Cinzanos on Friday night threatens to derail our progress as Mark struggles with a hangover. A mug of tea provided by his heavily pregnant wife seems to do the trick, eventually, and we hit the road. Jacob settles down in the back of the car with his Nintendo DS and a steady supply of chocolates.
We arrive around half an hour before kick-off and park in nearby East End Foods. It appears to be the aptly named welcome sanctuary for dozens of West Ham fans, too, who have battled two motorway closures to get here for 12.45pm.
Picking up more sweets from a stall on our walk into the ground (there may still be a small amount of bribery remaining in our father/son football relationship), we’re directed towards the Jeff Astle gates by a policeman pointing us towards the ticket office.
We stop to observe Astle’s image, which forms the centrepiece of the large blue gates. Two fresh bouquets of flowers are displayed on either side of the entranceway. In the minute or so that we linger, I notice three or four home fans affectionately tap their hero as they walk into the ground.
The Justice For Jeff campaign was launched by the Astle family last year. Its purpose is to encourage the FA to accept that a career heading heavy leather footballs was the cause of a brain injury that prematurely ended his life in 2002, aged just 59. A club legend here, he scored the winning goal against Everton that last saw Albion lift the cup in 1968.
Attached to the campaign is a foundation supporting sportsmen and women who have been affected by brain injuries through sport. Led by Jeff’s family, it’s a noble cause that’s rightly received wider attention in recent months and continues to grow. With recent instances of concussion in football and rugby dealt with inconsistently and, at times, controversially, it’s a campaign that deserves all of our attention.
As I wait for tickets, in what later turns out to be the queue for collections only, I listen in to two fans chatting behind me. One a Hammer, the other a Baggie, they’re clearly discernible through their characteristic accents, as the visiting supporter asks about Brown Ideye.
A club record £10m signing from Dynamo Kiev in the summer, the Nigerian international almost left The Hawthorns in a cut price deal to Qatar on deadline day. The collapse of a move for Carlton Cole, who in turn had been thwarted by Tottenham’s refusal to release Emmanuel Adebayor to their London rivals, means he’s still here and in the team. Carlton Cole is on West Ham’s bench.
“He hasn’t done much to impress me,” is the summation of the Baggie behind me. “He played well in midweek though.”
West Brom’s 2-0 victory over Swansea on Wednesday night saw Ideye score his fourth goal for the club, and his second in two matches. He publicly praised Pulis in a national newspaper this week, going as far as to say that the former Stoke boss has saved his career.
“He’s good for now but he can’t take us all the way,” he continues, when asked about the new boss. “We need a foreign coach and foreign investment.” It’s not necessarily a summary I agree with, but I don’t have time to join in as the man at the ticket office door directs me towards the longer, slower-moving queue to purchase my tickets.
In a new and, for regular readers, perhaps pioneering Underdog Blog anomaly, we find our seats just before kick-off. The teams head out to Faithless’ Insomnia as the away end continues to fill with visiting fans who’ve beat the traffic to be here.
I suggested on Twitter that this could be a tie that might struggle to sell out, given the early kick-off and TV coverage. One West Brom fan politely informed me that it would be close to full and, in the end, I think we can both concede a score draw. Just under 20,000 fans leaves The Hawthorns feeling atmospheric, if not quite at the 27,000 capacity.
With Wembley just a couple of wins away, both teams name strong sides. For West Brom, Ideye is partnered by Saido Berahino; another striker who spent January being linked with moves away. Craig Gardner looks to be the most direct replacement for former cup winner Darren Fletcher, who is cup tied after appearing in Manchester United’s third round win at Yeovil Town. Chris Brunt captains the side in his absence.
For West Ham, Adrian is in goal after his red card against Southampton was overturned. Enner Valencia provides the main goal threat following a midweek injury to Andy Carroll that could see him miss the remainder of the season. Adebayor would have certainly come in handy.
“Who’s our best player?” asks Jacob. “Probably Berahino,” I reply. I point him out as the players take their positions.
The West Ham fans can be heard criticising the home support as the game kicks off, but supporters continue to fill the empty seats around us up until the ten minute mark – it seems the traffic problems have had an impact on the home end too.
The same criticism certainly can’t be levelled at the travelling support. More than 5,000 Hammers join in with their first of many renditions of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’. “You’ve only got one song”, retort the Albion fans.
A Craig Gardner effort from a decent Brunt cross sees the first real chance of the game as the former Birmingham City midfielder puts the ball just wide. The resulting applause continues and grows, as the home fans remember Jeff Astle. It’s a tradition here in the ninth minute, Astle’s shirt number, as a ‘Justice For Jeff’ banner is lifted behind the goal to our right.
We get a glimpse of Ideye soon after, as he holds the ball up well and spreads play out wide. The home fans show their appreciation. West Ham win a freekick not long after, which is blasted high and over.
“Is Aboubacarr playing, Dad?” asks Jacob. It’s in reference to his favourite player from his World Cup sticker book, Cameroon striker Vincent. He asks me this during every game he sees.
Ideye opens the scoring in the 20th minute. Gardner is involved again, spreading the ball out wide to the advancing Dawson. Cresswell fails to cut the ball out, and Dawson crosses perfectly to Ideye who finishes from an unmarked position inside the six-yard box. The West Ham fans, who’ve been noisy up to now, fall silent.
Jacob explodes with excitement, jumping up from his chair, and I find myself picking him up as we celebrate together. We’re off our seats again in the 23rd minute, as Ideye almost wins a penalty with a piece of outrageous skill. Kevin Nolan appears to be fortunate that Martin Atkinson waves the appeals away.
The action reaches our end of the pitch a few minutes later, as Joleon Lescott ushers Sakho out of play to concede a throw-in right in front of us. Inexplicably, the assistant flags in West Ham’s favour, to the disbelief of both players and fans. One man leaves his seat to find a better vantage point to abuse the official on the stairwell. I glance to check Jacob’s reaction but he seems nonplussed.
Sandwiched between me and Hadders, he seems to be invested in the game so far. Aside from the occasional reference point he doesn’t understand (I clumsily describe what ‘man on’ means at one stage), he seems to be enjoying things in between wine gums.
A man sits next to me midway through the first half. I’m unsure of where he’s come from, or whether he’s just arrived, but we’re remarkably cosy considering there are dozens of empty seats on the rows in front of us. He seems to know other fans around us and is quite an animated character.
“Every time!” he exclaims, as Stephane Sessegnon blazes a ball high over the bar after it breaks to him in space on the edge of the box. “I think he just gets excited.”
Gardner is involved again in the 37th minute. Receiving the ball from Berahino on the left, he hits a powerful shot in his unique style from 25 yards that rebounds off the crossbar. We were right behind it, watching it wobble in the air as it rocketed towards goal, and everyone returns to their seats applauding at the audacity of his superb effort. Albion would be good value for a two-goal lead at the break, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.
Ideye’s attempted lay off to Berahino in the 42nd minute falls short and West Ham clear the ball to Mark Noble inside their own half. He’s immediately closed down by Brunt and Gardner, who win the ball back to release James Morrison. With work to do, he evades the lunging recovery tackle of Noble, uses the movement of Berahino to create space and cracks in a screamer from outside the box. Two nil.
It’s a superb goal, not just in the quality of the finish, but in the pressing style of West Brom to win the ball back. While all the pre-match stats focussed on the importance of setpieces to Pulis’ teams, the high tempo, pressing style to win the ball back when a goal up at home is more along the lines of what I associate with him.
“What did you reckon to that, Jacob?” asks Mark. “It was so exciting, I farted!” he replies, out of my earshot. He’s taking this ‘one of the boys’ thing to heart.
The home fans are in full voice now, boing boinging their way to halftime as the away fans stream out for an early pint. I imagine one or two of them would rather still be stuck on the motorway.
There’s a chance for West Ham before the break, causing the man beside me to cry out “Shit it. SHIT IT!”, in a style not dissimilar to a Black Country Alan Partridge, but the home team go in at the break to rapturous applause and a rousing chorus of ‘We love you Albion…’
“Can you remember when I scored a goal like that, Dad?” asks Jacob, in reference to Morrison’s screamer. “Erm…”, I reply, buying time while I work out if he means on FIFA or not.
“I did! On the patio! Remember?”. I nod, and he seems pleased.
Mark heads off to grab halftime snacks as we recap on the opening 45 minutes. Jacob anxiously awaits sustenance that won’t arrive until the second half has kicked off. He’s decided that he wants to try Bovril based on a recommendation from his Mum. I await a Valentine’s Day on-pitch proposal that never materialises. It’s an underwhelming quarter of an hour for us both.
West Brom start the second half strongly again, with Ideye at the focal point of most of their best play. He receives the ball in the centre circle and, with excellent skill, creates space for himself to spread the ball out wide despite being surrounded by three West Ham midfielders. It would be audacious if he didn’t make it look quite so easy.
Jacob’s long awaited pie arrives shortly after kickoff. I take the top off of it to release some heat and he patiently spoons meat and potato from the centre like it’s his own pastry-based cereal bowl. It’s fair to say this distracts him from the action for a while.
West Ham have the ball in the back of the net in the 52nd minute through Kevin Nolan, but he’s clearly offside. It’s the first real chance we can remember the visitors having as they continue to struggle with West Brom’s dominance.
Ideye looks to have wrapped the game up in the 57th minute. West Brom move the ball upfield quickly again, and Chris Brunt looks to find Brown Ideye with an early cross. The on-rushing striker fails to connect but, with the chance still alive, the ball finds Sessesgnon. Ideye is back in position and rises to meet the deflected cross with a powerful header. His acrobatic celebration in our direction is enough to even distract Jacob from his pie, as Adrian picks the ball out of the back of the net for a third time.
“Bobby, Bobby Brown! Bobby, Bobby Brown!” sing the Baggies fans, repeating the new nickname of their star man. Any puns that Mark and I came up with based around the 80s and 90s R&B singer won’t be making the final edit of this blog. That is, after all, my prerogative (please, don’t go…).
“Worse than the Villa! You’re even worse than the Villa!” sing the home fans as a steady stream of visiting supporters make their way towards the exits. The thousands that remain appear to boo Kevin Nolan as he leaves the field to be replaced by former WBA loanee Amalfitano. Given the previous relationship between Hammers fans and their captain, combined with his fairly ineffective performance today, it seems unlikely that they’re booing the change itself.
The Frenchman didn’t last long. Booked for a reckless challenge on Chris Brunt after just ten minutes on the pitch, he responds to the Northern Irishman’s angry reaction by shoving him in the face. Atkinson, who was already midway through brandishing a yellow, pulls a straight red out of his pocket. It was pure petulance from Amalfitano, and it’s the final nail in West Ham’s coffin.
“I didn’t think I’d like potato pie, but I do” says Jacob, unaware of the fracas on the pitch. “Mmmm, lovely!”, he adds, as he washes it down with lukewarm Bovril. “Mum was right, this is nice. It’s like gravy, but hotter.”
Berahino finishes matters seconds after the game restarts, finishing powerfully at the near post from a tight angle in the 71st minute to cap off a move that involved Ideye, Gardner and Sessegnon. The fans are in party mood now.
“Was that Berahino?” asks Jacob, who’s finished his pie and is celebrating with everyone else now. “I call him Berra”, he says, informing me of his own little nickname for West Brom’s other star man.
As the away stand empties, even Dawson gets forward to force a save from Adrian in the final quarter of an hour. Pulis brings on new signing, and former FA Cup winner, Callum McManaman for Sessengon late on. He failed a late fitness test for this match but shows enough in the final minutes to suggest he too will be a useful addition to the side in the weeks to come.
West Brom see out the final moments with continued waves of attacks. A late wayward shot narrowly misses an old lady and a disabled child behind the goal, and Mark and I discuss slow motion replays of adults who protect themselves at the expense of nearby children in the crowd when the ball flies in their direction.
“Maybe you don’t know yourself until you see it flying towards you,” I say, nodding towards Jacob, “but I’d have my arms in front of him for protection, I’m sure.”
“I’d be alright if it hit me anyway,” Jacob says, turning to Mark. “Dad boots the ball at my face all the time and I’m fine.”
He’s referencing the couple of times recently when he’s braved a ball in the face or midriff on the back garden by not crying. I can’t help but feel this sounds like a cry for help to anyone unaware of the context.
Ideye receives a standing ovation for his man of the match performance as he leaves the field. His skill, finishing, hold up play and blossoming partnership with Berahino make him look a snip at £10million. A few more performances like this and he’ll soon be a cult hero.
It would be unfair to focus too much on the Nigerian, though. Tony Pulis has built his success on making his sides equal more than the sum of their parts, and that’s exactly what he’s doing at The Hawthorns. ‘Bobby’ may have been the star man, but this was as good a team performance as you could wish to see against a lacklustre and tired looking West Ham.
The sparse collection of visiting fans that remain show great humour in the 89th minute, beckoning Adrian to come forward for a late corner. It’s been an annihilation for the home team, though, and they’re safely into the quarter finals for the first time since 07/08, when eventual cup winners Portsmouth beat them at the semi final stage. On this performance, it would be foolish to back against them at least matching that feat this season.
We listen in relative disbelief on the way home as Blackburn record a famous 4-1 victory over ten-man Stoke City in front of less than 14,000 fans. We remain content with our match choice as we watch Liverpool squeeze out Palace over a curry in the evening kick-off.
There’s time for a quick kickaround in the park with Jacob before sunset in Cambridgeshire. He has e-numbers to burn and several goals to recreate. His powerful finish from four yards to make it 13-0 is a carbon copy of James Morrison’s second goal.
“I’m Harry Kane, Dad. You can be Berra.” I think this means that, tonight Matthew, Hadders is Bobby Brown. All three of us are a little fonder of West Brom after today, but I have to admit I’m relieved that he hasn’t been too heavily influenced by an enjoyable afternoon at The Hawthorns.
At such a formative age, the heroes we discover never die and gift us with memories we’ll cherish forever. Rest in peace, Jeff Astle, and may we eventually repay you with the justice you deserve.
To find out more about the Astle family’s campaign, visit justiceforjeff.co.uk
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 11 W 4 D 2 L 5 F 12 A 20 GD -8
West Bromwich Albion FC vs West Ham United FC
FA Cup Fifth Round
Saturday 14th February 2015
The Hawthorns, West Bromwich, West Midlands
|West Bromwich Albion 4 –||0 West Ham United|
|Ideye (20 & 57)
West Bromwich Albion: 1. Foster, 25. Dawson, 23. McAuley, 6. Lescott, 11. Brunt, 8. Gardner (16. Gamboa – 91′), 7. Morrison, 5. Yacob, 29. Sessegnon (19. McManaman – 78′), 18. Berahino, 9. Ideye (4. Baird – 86′)
Substitutes: 2. Wisdom, 3. Olsson, 13. Myhill, 15. Pocognoli
West Ham United: 13. Adrián, 18. Jenkinson, 8. Kouyaté, 5. Tomkins, 3. Cresswell, 16. Noble, 30. Song (17. O’Brien – 68′), 4. Nolan (21. Amalfitano 60’), 11. Downing, 15. Sakho (24. Cole – 68′), 31. E Valencia
Substitutes: 20. Demel, 22. Jääskeläinen, 25. Henry, 36. Lee
Referee: Martin Atkinson