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.