Date: 7 May 2016
After the excitement of this time last year and the beginnings of life in the Premier League; after the purple patch before Christmas when we beat Chelsea and Manchester United in a single week; after the pleasure of watching Arter, Elphick and Wilson return from injury; the latter end of this season was always going to be something of the proverbial damp squib. But the ‘dampest’ squib of all turned out to be the apology for a lap of honour at 5 o’clock.
Any hopes that our poor run of results through the past month or so would end today, were quickly dashed when we saw the team Eddie had selected. In-form Pugh wasn’t even on the bench; Ritchie, King and Wilson had been dropped; Afobe and Grabban were starting. Even worse, Grabban was in the most advanced position with Afobe behind him. It wasn’t as though we were trying a new system; just the same old system with a second XI. But why? And what could Eddie or anyone else hope to learn from this experiment? Oh, and there weren’t any defenders at all on the bench!
Unsurprisingly we had a poor first half – whether defending or attacking. When we did get possession of the ball we’d pass it around a lot before hoofing it forward and losing it. The difference between the two sides was also reflected in the crowds: West Brom’s fans were much more vocal than ours. And soon the difference was reflected also in the score. Only quarter of an hour had passed when a poor clearance by Boruc enabled WBA’s rising star Leko to pass the ball out to the left wing, whence a cross found Rondon who beat Cook to make it 0-1. Fortunately both Boruc and Cook would make amends in due course. Boruc made one great one-handed save before even more dramatically palming a penalty kick (given away by Elphick) onto the crossbar and blocking a subsequent shot off the rebound before Cook made sure by kicking the ball away. We could and possibly should have been two down at half time but fortunately the deficit was still only the single goal. Could we come back in the second half? Bring on Wilson and King and we were in with a chance.
Well, there were no immediate substitutions, but not only did Afobe and Grabban swap places but the entire midfield line reversed. So, whereas it had been Stanislas – Surman – Arter – Gradel right to left it was now exactly the same left to right! No-one knew why, unless Stanislas prefers playing in the shade and Gradel in the sun! Anyway, it made no difference until on the hour mark both strikers were replaced. What a difference! We immediately upped our game and went for it. King and Wilson set the place alight, but still a goal wouldn’t come until the last – vital – substitution had been made. Ritchie came on for Stanislas with quarter of an hour to go, and five minutes later scored the equaliser! A trademark Steve Cook long throw (though we’ve not seen many of these recently) found a West Brom defender in the box, but he was only able to head it as far as the advancing Ritchie who – hardly the tallest of players – nodded the ball into the net. 1-1 wasn’t a great result, but at least we’d seen one final goal at home before the season ended.
There wasn’t much to celebrate at the end. I’d say the majority of fans didn’t wait for the promised lap of honour by the players, and when it finally happened (after a five minute wait) it was more a ‘trudge’ – by the players accompanied by their children – than a celebration. The players scarcely acknowledged the crowd. Mostyn, who followed them around the pitch, did at least attempt to put a slight skip into his step; but Howe and Tindall – bringing up the rear – walked slowly around the pitch looking as miserable as sin. Surely it would been better to have no lap of honour at all than such a muted attempt?
Meanwhile, off the pitch a lot of work is needed by Eddie before next season. Elphick, Afobe and Grabban don’t look like Premier League players, and despite the deceptively large squad there’s not much depth. Francis, who’d picked up most of the Player of the Season awards before the match, was one of the few semi-stars today; Boruc and Cook both had reasonable games after errors early on; and Surman impressed me by the way he was continually looking around and seemed to know where every one of his teammates was at any given time. But there wasn’t much else to get excited about.
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Francis (7), Elphick (5), Cook (7), Daniels (6);
Stanislas (6), Surman (8), Arter (6), Gradel (6);