Tony Pulis’s band of entertainers rolled in to town on the back of a poor run of form which, nevertheless, failed to persuade the survival specialist to deviate from his strategy of muscular containment, with most of the flair available to him sitting watching his animated arse for an hour.
His team, along with his former club Stoke, are synonymous with gritty survival which eventually turns to drudgery and fear as the joy of the sport is sucked out for the sake of a continuing presence at the top table – a flaw in the Premier League circus as the inherent inequalities between the truly global clubs and the strivers encourages extreme pragmatism and systematically quells adventure.
Should they survive – and 15 points from 11 games increases the possibility substantially – Town may well be forced down a similar path, but, for now, there is nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for a side which harnessed collective spirit, individual talent and dogged endeavour to produce an excellent home record upon which their fate will rest.
The understandable euphoria surrounding the victory over Manchester United was accompanied by the slight concern that the triumph would be the high point of the season but, if anything, there was at least as much to admire in this victory over a club with massive experience of gaining points from the less glamorous top flight fixtures and as the drama unfolded, all of the qualities created by Wagner in his 2 year tenure were displayed.
In the first hour, the Baggies were rarely allowed to settle despite the visitors having slightly the better of the opening exchanges. The best chance they had fell to Rodriguez but his effort was well blocked by Schindler and their threat receded as the half progressed while Town slowly took hold of possession.
With Van La Parra lively and productive, Town had the one player on the pitch with the ability to surprise – his equal ability to frustrate was largely missing, making him potent and the obvious key to unlocking West Brom’s disciplined defending. A decent effort which cleared the bar quite comfortably signalled the Dutchman’s intent to make his mark on the game while the hard working Ince blazed over when the ball fell to him in the area. A better effort was comfortably saved and the ex-Derby man’s hunt for a goal continues.
The visitors’ game plan – conceding possession and looking to free their two front men on the break – was largely thwarted by Town pressing back their two full backs and not allowing them to venture forward to any real effect, but a potentially dangerous break by Robson-Kanu was halted illegally by Schindler to earn the German a soft booking (his Welsh opponent was as guilty of holding and while the free kick was given the right way, the booking was ill deserved).
Up to that point, despite a bizarre denial of an obvious corner to the home side early on, the officials had handled a physical contest reasonably well but that was to change significantly for the rest of the game with Roger East’s inconsistent approach to punishment of foul play enraging the raucous home support (just minutes after the Schindler booking, Robson-Kanu was forgiven a cynical foul on Van La Parra) – as often happens, refereeing incompetence inadvertently assists the aggrieved and an already fully engaged home support ramped up the atmosphere to truly play a 12th (and then 11th) man role.
With opportunities at a premium, it took a moment of pure magic to break West Brom’s stranglehold on Town’s attacking intent. A dubious decision in Town’s favour following a tussle between Hogg and Rodriguez allowed Mooy to release Van La Parra. Despite over running the ball, possession was retained by Malone who found the Dutchman in a little space. Few in the crowd were urging the previously misfiring Van La Parra to shoot but he curled an absolute beauty past a planted Foster who could only watch on as the ball found the top corner.
Momentarily stunned, the crowd’s disbelief turned to joy – as any fool knows, when Town score first, they almost always win.
The goal was just reward both for the player, by far the most progressive on the field, and the team, who had played with great energy and far more adventure than their opponents and coming just before half time, it was psychologically important too.
A low key opening to the second half augured well for the Terriers – Pulis’s conservatism was unchanged and, bewilderingly, so was his team as he continued to leave more talented individuals on the bench.
All was about to change however when the impressive Hegazy slipped past a couple of challenges as he brought the ball out of defence only to be clattered by Schindler on the halfway line. A second booking was inevitable and even the softness of his first does not relieve the normally unflappable German of responsibility for leaving his team a man down, but the enormous amount of goodwill the man has earned over the past year and a bit precludes too much admonition.
Not surprisingly, Pulis turned around to summon his spurned talent – the visiting support must have felt huge frustration that it took his opponent going down to ten men before deciding a little “bravery” was in order.
With Phillips, Rondón and McClean replacing the ineffective Robson-Kanu and a couple of more defensive players, the game took on an entirely different hue. Wagner responded with defensive substitutions – Cranie and Williams replacing Kachunga and Van La Parra – while Schindler was replaced with 3 and a half stands full of enraged Yorkshire men.
Immediately reverting to the deep defensive block which had been so effective against Manchester United, but one man short, the last half hour plus 6 minutes injury time saw Town exhibit enormous resilience to restrict the Baggies to a rather mechanical dominance. Despite the concession of too many free kicks and corners which could have played to the visitors’ obvious strengths, the defence, brilliantly marshalled by the ever improving Zanka, held firm with blocks and clearances while occasionally breaking forward using the strength and deceptive skills of Depoitre.
If they could be criticised, Town should have made more of the couple of times they exposed West Brom’s new found attacking intent, but that would be slightly churlish given the circumstances.
In normal time, the closest the visitors came to an equaliser, and a platform for all 3 points, was a Rondón header which flashed just wide but their dominance was not translating in to genuine chances on the whole.
The atmosphere in this desperate period was scintillating and drove the team in their endeavours. With a referee seemingly determined to assist the away side – only he can explain how McClean’s attempted assault on Ince was not a red card offence and his other decisions were determinedly in West Brom’s favour – and incessant, if rarely penetrative, pressure, the support was ramped up to insane levels and, unprovable as it is, must have given the players added resilience and desire.
As the minutes crawled by, the admiration for Wagner’s adaptability and his players’ bravery grew. Every single one of them strained every sinew to keep the opponent at bay and it rarely looked excessively desperate until natural fatigue set in during the long injury time as minds yearned for the final whistle.
At this point, the previously untroubled Lössl stepped up to make two outstanding saves; the first to his right and the second, even more impressive stop, to his left. After his Anfield penalty save and his heroics to achieve a 5th clean sheet to preserve 3 points, the aberration at Swansea can be consigned to history.
The final whistle brought more than 3 thoroughly deserved points, it brought immense pride in a squad which responded magnificently to adversity – for all the brickbats West Brom are attracting, they remain a hugely experienced team in the Premier League with not a little talent (even if criminally under used by Pulis in this encounter), and Town’s suppression of them was masterly.
The collective effort, from the stands, to the coaching staff and the players made for a memorable experience every bit as important and thrilling as the previous home victory and Town go in to yet another international break in a much stronger position in their quest for survival.
Irrepressible at home, Wagner will no doubt be aware that he needs a better formula for away games and we need to create more and better chances to improve our goal tally, but this was a hugely important victory over a struggling but dangerous outfit.
These are the days.