I must have been a very good boy this year because I got to go to two football matches over the Christmas period! I’ve already written about my visit to Haverfordwest County FC on Boxing Day. If that was cake and ale football, then the visit to The Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion on 28th December was much more like champagne and caviar. And that must be the first time that West Bromwich Albion, champagne and caviar have all featured in the same sentence.
Things returned more or less to normal for this trip. It was Dan and me. I drove. And the traffic around Newport on the way to the Midlands was awful. However, there were a couple of striking differences too. Dan – newly financially independent now that he’s working full time – had bought the tickets. And – following earlier Bank Holiday ground hops to Shrewsbury, Oxford, Wolves and Yeovil – this was our first sojourn to a Premiership match.
Newport notwithstanding (when will somebody finally approve the start of work on the new M4 to the south of the city?) the trip to West Bromwich was uneventful. The club’s website had helpfully stated that parking was plentiful and reasonably priced all around The Hawthorns, and that proved to be the case. We left Cardiff at 11.40am and parked within 10 minutes walk of the ground (£5) at 1.20pm. Thankfully, this was a dry day, and the temperature was a balmy 13 degrees C as we strolled towards the ground.
We stopped off first in the WBA fan zone just outside the stadium, drawn mainly (to be honest) by the sight of the poshest-looking Greggs that we have ever seen! Eschewing the delights of that establishment’s chicken pasties, we instead plumped for an excellent burger from one of the outlets within the Fan Zone before leaving for a walk around the stadium.
It’s fair to say that The Hawthorns is not the most picturesque ground in the world. There is little to whet the appetite of the amateur photographer in the stadium’s external architecture. Just outside what passes for the main entrance to the ground, there is a statue of Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. Brown is a WBA legend having made over 550 senior appearances for the Baggies, scoring over 200 goals along the way. Another WBA hero was remembered more poignantly on the day that we were there. Don Howe had passed away on 23rd December. Howe played over 340 games for the Baggies between 1952 and 1964, before returning to manage the side between 1971 and 1975. There was a heartfelt minute’s applause to mark his passing before the kick-off, which was marked in equal measure by WBA and Newcastle fans.
Having made our way into the ground, we were amazed to find that our seats were almost within touching distance of the playing surface. Normally, I like to watch the game from a slightly more elevated position, affording a degree of perspective over the whole match. However, it’s only when you’re down at pitch level that you get a true appreciation of the the speed of the game and the physical attributes of the players. Victor Anichebe and Jonas Olsson both started this game for WBA and they were by some margin the most intimidating players on the pitch. Anichebe bullied the Newcastle defence all afternoon, and Baggies boss Tony Pulis will be hoping that the injury that he picked up in the final few minutes is not as serious as it looked at the time.
The game itself was actually very entertaining. The Albion won it with the only goal coming from the head of Darren Fletcher with 14 minutes remaining. It was no more than the Baggies deserved, although Newcastle will be disappointed that a determined (not to say occasionally desperate) rearguard action did not bring them a share of the points on the day. Stand-out players on the day were Anichebe, Sessegnon and Fletcher for the Baggies; and Coloccini for the Magpies.
Mike Jones and his refereeing team had a generally good day, although there was a blatant pull back on Wijnaldum by Jonny Evans at the mid-point of the second half that should have resulted in a penalty kick to Newcastle and a red card for the WBA centre back. With the benefit of the replays on Match of the Day later in the evening, it seems likely that Jones was unsighted at the critical moment, but it was certainly a let-off for the Baggies. Unusually, Jones didn’t produce a card throughout the entire game; which is in part, testament to the spirit in which both teams approached the match.
In the car on the way home, the match summariser from Radio 5 Live suggested that Newcastle had shown enough in the game to suggest that they would avoid relegation this season, despite their precarious current position in the table. I’m not sure that I’d agree with that assessment, given their lack of any sustained attacking threat on this occasion. But I hope they do survive if only as a reward for the Geordie fans who filled the away seats at The Hawthorns and supported their team noisily and consistently throughout the entire 90 minutes.