Vital 3 points bagged.





We won’t know if victory over a beleaguered, demoralised West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns was a pivotal moment until the whole season’s story unfolds, but it sure felt like it.

In all likelihood, the defeat consigns the Baggies to relegation. While hope will flicker in the Midlands for a little while yet, there is now a gap of 7 points to safety with games running out and with their dreadful record over a much longer period to consider, pessimism will devour them.

It is even more outlandish to imagine them being able to make up 10 points on Town, leaving the small dogs of the top league to worry about just two remaining relegation spots – even not finishing at the bottom of the pile will represent a minor victory over the majority expectation that they would sink without a great deal of trace in elevated company.

What may be viewed as pivotal is the shrewd transfer business early in the last window. Not only did Town strengthen two crucial areas – offensively and defensively – Wagner delayed the introduction of both Pritchard and Kongolo until he was sure they could make the type of crucial difference both made in yesterday’s vital win.

Kongolo shone throughout. Strong, composed and aware, the left back made a vital tackle to prevent wunderkind Burke making an immediate impact following his introduction and contributed to a fine defensive performance which, corners aside, subdued the home side’s attacking threat.

The excellent Pritchard filled the troubled number 10 role with energy and imagination, simultaneously bringing out Mounié’s qualities as he had done in the Bournemouth game and the much maligned Frenchman has hit form at exactly the right time now that his strengths are illuminated by his integration in to a team plan and shape which suits him.

The tension around the Hawthorns was palpable and no doubt contributed to a quite dreadful first half almost entirely devoid of quality or semblance of calm. A fierce midfield battle produced a multitude of errors from both sides and a contest as dour as the struggles of both clubs, but it suited the visitors more as they built a foundation on the back of the Baggies’ increasing frustrations both on and off the field.

Williams and Hogg dominated the midfield slog without being able to inspire threat, but rarely relinquished their superiority over Barry and Krychowiak while providing a largely impenetrable defensive shield. This allowed Schindler and Zanka to cope comfortably with Rondon – who was semi permanently offside – and the dangerous Rodriguez.

Having established decent control, Town should have gone ahead just after the half hour when Hadergjonaj and Quaner opened up West Brom’s left side to set up Pritchard for a shot which was goalbound until hitting Mounié near the line. Van La Parra’s follow up was saved by Foster and scrambled away before Pritchard could head in the rebound.

It was a rare moment of excitement in a frantically unsatisfying first half and, soon after, the home side created a chance following good work from Rondon who, for once, got behind the visitors’ defence to set up McClean who may have done better than volley over when unmarked.

The breakthrough for Town came early in an improved, but hardly sparkling, second half. Quaner, who was quietly effective throughout, capitalised on good front running by Mounié and movement by Hadergjonaj to set up Van La Parra. The Dutchman swung a leg at the ball first time and somehow shinned the opener past a bemused and utterly stranded Foster to score for the second time in the season against the troubled hosts, if rather less spectacularly than his previous effort.

Taking the lead has always been vital to Town successes. It is rare for them to lose once in front – just as it is rare for them to recover from conceding the first goal – and the cushion of a second followed not long after.

A dreadful ball out of defence was shifted quickly forward to Pritchard who cleverly played in Mounié with a lovely reverse pass. With his new found confidence and in the knowledge that he now has a song dedicated to him, the striker curled a great finish past Foster to put Town in firm control.

In between the goals, Wagner sacrificed the booked Hadergjonaj (he had picked up the yellow card following a typical piece of Van La Parra madness who had stayed down following a tackle he felt should’ve been a foul in the first half) for Smith. The captain played his part in a generally good second half performance by the visitors.

The blot on the landscape was Town’s defending of corners. With 25 minutes to go and a comfortable victory in sight, defenders allowed Dawson to head home an excellent Brunt corner with Lössl nowhere, though possibly illegally blocked.

The same defender was to head over from a similar but less promising position later in the game and Lössl made a good save from a Brunt free kick to make amends for his less than commanding effort for the Baggies’ goal.

Other than those two scares, Town’s experience of seeing out slim victories came to the fore, and, if anything, they looked far more dangerous going forward than their desperate hosts. Williams had a fine volley well saved by Foster while a jinking Van La Parra run in to the area past 3 defenders was let down by a very weak finish.

At the heart of it all was Hogg. Tackling, blocking, cajoling, the highly energetic midfielder combined excellently with the more progressive Williams to snuff out threats at source and reduce West Brom to an aerial bombardment capably dealt with by all of the back four.

While the last 25 minutes and injury time were occasionally stressful, Town’s resilience was not to be broken and the vital 3 points were rightfully earned.

West Brom look hopeless. In direct contrast to the spirit and togetherness of their conquerors, the stench of decay and disharmony – particularly between the club and fans – was overwhelming. Relegation looms and it is not easy to see how the caustic atmosphere around The Hawthorns can be dispelled.

For Town, salvation is within grasp though it remains exceptionally challenging. The last few games have restored the early season confidence; if relegation is the final fate, it will not arrive because of lack of effort and that same effort gives them a fighting chance of survival.

Turning the corner from a dreadful period from mid December, the recent performances – including in defeat – has given supporters renewed hope and revitalised enthusiasm. Even if yesterday’s win was a little on the ugly side, it was massively encouraging to witness the commitment to the cause.

Town fans, rightly or wrongly, will forgive a lot if they see blood, sweat and tears and their response to the victory celebrations at the end reaffirmed the bond so indispensable in this struggle against the odds.






Theatre of silence and sighs




In 1968, the whole country was behind Manchester United’s quest for the European Cup, with overwhelming sentiment derived from the Munich Air Disaster.

The goodwill disappeared long ago but not for the victims and survivors of that tragedy and a perfectly observed minutes’ silence paid poignant homage before Town’s first visit since 1972 began.

The task in front of the visitors was huge.

In poor form which has seen 4 straight league defeats in 2018 with only one goal scored from precious few opportunities and survival looking increasingly unlikely as the weeks pass, a visit to the second placed side boosted by the signing of Alexis Sanchez promised little respite.

Reverting to a back 4, with Smith and Kongolo at full back and Hadergjonaj pushed in to a midfield role that seemed to rather suit him, Wagner’s experimentation continued – thankfully, the pairing of Mounié and Depoitre seems to have been consigned to the drawing room.

Mooy, who has looked bafflingly jaded for far too long, was demoted to the bench and Van La Parra and Quaner restored.

An encouraging first half saw Town restrict United to one decent effort well saved by Lössl and one break from a rare Town attack which ended with the Dane saving at the feet of Lingard.

Town preserved their goal at the expense of both possession and attacking intent though they did construct one or two possibilities for opportunities down the right with Quaner, Hadergjonaj and Smith combining.

Those flurries of excitement were rare, however, and most of the visitors’ energy was expended in trying to thwart their opponents’ attempts to play through the lines.

Using fair means and foul, the objective was achieved despite the incessant prompting of Sanchez. The Chilean is supremely elusive, always on the move and has that perfect centre of gravity which draws opponents in to challenges and fouls. Theatrical as he is, and his constant sense of injustice is annoying, he is exceptionally difficult to counter and Town controlled him reasonably well for 45 minutes.

In the absence of any genuine threat emanating from their team, the visiting support was kept animated by a referee seemingly bent on handing the home side momentum and a linesman who failed to spot clear offsides from 3 free kicks from the right.

The most outrage was reserved for Morinho’s instruction to his players not to return the ball to Town after they had put it out for an injured United man.

In truth, United were getting decisions because they monopolised possession of the ball, were often a little too quick for the defenders and Town’s timing of challenges went awry at times.

It could hardly have been the crowd influencing decisions – like at Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton, the atmosphere was appalling and sterile.

Town also got away with a crude challenge on McTominay on the edge of the box, and the referee could hardly be blamed for the visitors giving up possession too easily at times and facilitating the home side’s dominance.

Still, a scoreless half was just reward for commitment and towards the end of it, Town finally escaped the tight grip established from the off by United and mounted some offensive resistance.

Despite these slivers of encouragement, there remained an air of inevitability about a game where, frankly and unsurprisingly, the teams were not only mismatched but United’s incredible bench would only exacerbate the inequality.

Against high quality opposition, however frustrated they can become, inevitable errors will eventually be punished and so it proved in a largely disappointing second half.

Intense early pressure from United was defended very well with last ditch tackles and blocks keeping an increasingly hungry beast at bay, but sloppy play halfway inside Town’s half saw Matic capitalize and feed Mata to supply the otherwise well marshalled Lukaku a perfect cross for the Belgian to crash home.

The game was up, the injured Schindler was withdrawn for Hefele and the inevitability of defeat was painfully obvious.

Hefele felled Sanchez in the box with 20 minutes to go and while the Chilean’s poor penalty was saved by Lössl, he opened his United account with the rebound.

With the result confirmed, not that there had been much doubt once United had taken the lead, Morinho took the opportunity of blooding some hopefuls as Pogba, Rashford and Martial were introduced.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a predictable defeat was the final 20 minutes.

With United adopting something of a showboating mentality, Town were afforded some possession from which they created precisely nothing.

Largely instigated by the lively Hadergjonaj, two promising breaks down the right were let down by poor balls in to the box, Ince messed up a good ball from the Swiss with poor control and momentum was lost on other occasions.

Town’s increased presence in the United half also created good opportunities for United on the break. These were defended well, if somewhat desperately and, at least, a drubbing was avoided.

However good the opposition, it remains deflating when your team fails to trouble the keeper, basic skills are executed carelessly and their threat is this feeble.

Credit should be extended to a stoic defence in which Kongolo was outstanding and those at the back must feel frustrated that their efforts are not built upon by those further forward.

The whole team did work hard to contain a vastly superior outfit – Depoitre’s thankless front running with stitches in a foot injury at half time a case in point – but a fifth straight defeat was fully merited.

With hopes pinned on Wagner using the last two hugely difficult games as preparation for the crucial, and winnable, series of encounters ahead, Town’s drop in to the relegation zone for the first time still feels ominous.

The holding back of Pritchard – other than his less than fruitful appearance at Stoke – is a little mysterious but, hopefully, a ploy to add his creativity in games where it could be effective.

Williams could still add something different to a midfield desperately lacking Mooy’s influence (he was slightly better in this game after a very poor first 5 minutes, but nowhere near the standards he has set himself), and the excellent Kongolo has a lot to add if the team as a whole can climb out of their current rut.

Town desperately need to recapture their identity against a dangerous and resurgent Bournemouth next week.

Finally, off the pitch, Town’s support totally dominated a horribly quiet Old Trafford crowd. It is to be hoped – and there is strong justification for that hope -the JSS assembly is as supportive of a struggling team next Saturday.


(I won’t be put to the supporting test as Bournemouth is the one League game I’m missing – next report, West Brom, unless I do a TV based one – cos I’m going here and hurling myself off mountains (well, more like gliding gently down not so challenging stuff);