It was a thrilling, entertaining game with a fantastic atmosphere but The Baggies showed why they’re promotion candidates - finding that little extra character and quality - whilst The Bluebirds showed why we’re the also-rans. We were spirited and often threaten to pull off a shock win, nobody could have argued if we had drawn either, but yet again defensive ineptness at one end and spurned chances at the other end meant we had only ourselves to blame really.
Despite a measly haul of 8 points in the last 9 league games, the Bluebirds amazingly are still just 5 points adrift of a play-off spot and are in 12th place and it’s time to look at the harsh reality of this season. In 12 games against the 11 teams currently above us, we haven’t won any and lost 7 and collected just 5 points. We have played 19 games against the 12 teams below us and collected 39 points, losing only three.
The inescapable conclusion is that we are in our rightful place, better than those beneath but poorer than those ahead of us. That‘s no disgrace in our first season back here in 20 years but let‘s just accept that we‘re good but not good enough and are at least three players short of what is needed to really progress.
City last played at The Hawthorns 29 years ago. At the same level, West Brom won comfortably 2-0, exactly the same score as at Ninian Park earlier that season. Cardiff were relegated, Manchester United got promoted as Champions, West Brom just missed out but made it to the top level in the following season. Best not dwell too much on what City have been upto in the three decades since ... except we‘re back!
West Brom, despite doing their best to blow it in recent weeks, look set for a Premiership return. In second place, five points behind leaders Norwich, they started 4 points clear of 3rd placed Wigan with 16 games remaining. Cardiff kick-off 11 points behind them but with returning confidence on a 4 game unbeaten run, albeit against pretty mediocre teams. .
WBA are suffering - Cardiff City-stylee? - major promotion jitters with the winning post in sight with just 10 points from their last 8 games. They won their first 5 home games this season but it’s been a different since only 3 wins in their last 9 home clashes or 2 of their last 7. Mind you, those two happened to be their last two home games before this clash! It’s been mostly draws, a shock from Wimbledon and Sheffield United being the visitors to leave with all three points. Form has been distinctly average on the road too with 3 points from their last 5 away fixtures culminating in a 3-0 hammering at Preston last weekend. No wonder there’s nerves and talk of a confidence crisis from the home support..
The 108 mile journey to West Brom makes it City’s shortest trip of the season, slightly ahead of the 111 miles to Reading. The trip couldn‘t be any simpler either for those hitting the road - M4/M50/M5 with The Hawthorns just a few hundred yards from a motorway exit. We still had to be up and set off early though because local police, in their infinite wisdom, decided this was to be yet another lunchtime kick-off and took a while to make their minds up about that. First it was midday, then it was 1pm. No fans in the country get messed with more than ours.
Although we were expecting to see loads of Jacks on route to their 3pm FA Cup 5th Round game at Tranmere, it appears that the travelling Swans towed their caravans through Mid-Wales to The Wirral so they was no chance to display the hand-waving and finger-waving techniques that I had been practising all week for them, bless.
The journey was easily done in an hour and a half, the ground itself was land-locked with housing and factories all around. We parked at an Indian foods factory that 200-300 cars all paid £4 cash with no receipt to what looked like a warehouseman. We didn’t even get any samples! Nice little earner for him or them. Got to say it, I have never seen so many hot dog and burger stalls around one place other than Blackpool in the summer. The programme was £3 but had 100 pages, how much actual reading it contains however is a bit dubious but the Hawthorns was a brilliant football arena inside, I loved it.
Rather than a brand new, soul-less stadium which is the impression I had of Derby’s Pride Park last week, WBA have completely revamped what they already had into a completely enclosed stadium, high hanging roofs overhead retaining all noise, large screen tv’s in opposing corners of the ground so everyone could see, excellent stands and views and an outstanding atmosphere.
The one downside was Cardiff City only took a reduced 2,200 allocation, we deserve better and more, and found the away stand behind the goal shared with home fans and only stewards, police and some flimsy netting dividing us. Inside, there were no problems at all but there was an edge at times and a feeling there was trouble waiting to happen. If that’s how it normally is, it’s guaranteed to “go off” one day soon. On this occasion however, it just added to the occasion.
Lennie Lawrence named an unchanged side for the third successive game going into a series of major clashes (Sunderland and West Ham await in the next fortnight) that give City what is probably their final chance of clawing their way back into the play-off frame or having to settle for mid-table obscurity with consolidation which I believed for a long while is our destiny..
What most City fans want to see however is for The Bluebirds to turn over a leading side. Commentators and the media love to comment that anyone can beat anyone and, in general, they have too which makes it an incredible statistic that Cardiff can’t win against anyone above us.
Cardiff lined up with Margetson, Weston-Gabbidon-Vidmar-Barker, Langley-Kavanagh-Boland-Parry, Earnie-Thorne. There was however the major bonus and welcome return of John Robinson, albeit on the sub’s bench after missing the last 9 league and cup fixtures. Robbo is, without doubt, a major figure and influence over the side and it’s really no coincidence that our losing run, poor results and performances started the very moment he went absent with various injuries. He joined Alexander-Prior-Campbell-Lee with Whalley making way. Eight of City’s 16 were involved ahead of midweek international action for Wales, Scotland, Eire, Australia and Jamaica - the training ground’s going to be quiet next week!
The Baggies side were Murphy, Haas-Gaardsoe-Moore-Robinson, Koumas-Kinsella- Johnson-Clement, Horsfield-Hughes. Their regular keeper, Russell Hoult, was diagnosed with a back injury and a likely absence of several months causing his first absence since early last season. Joe Murphy, ex-Tranmere, took over with Kevin Pressman, now 37, signed on loan to warm the bench. Jason Koumas was recalled into a strong midfield and the threat was evident up front with brick outhouse Geoff Horsfield and Lee Hughes.
City needed to make a bright start and they did exactly that as they came out in that awful third choice orange shirt with orange, the sort of shirt you usually find for a fiver in the bargain bin at any sports shop. With orange-jacketed stewards everywhere, sunglasses were needed especially it contrasted heavily with heavy grey skies producing occasional showers during the game. Did anyone else notice the closer we got to the Black Country, the greyer and darker it got?
City wasted their first chance in the opening minute, they really should have scored. From the kick-off, Lee Hughes hit a weak shot at along the ground to Martyn Margetson to set off an afternoon of abuse for the striker awaiting a court case following a motoring incident.
Margetson gave the ball to Barker whose flicked ball upfield was nodded to Paul Parry who started a man of the match display by flying past his marker, looking up and crossing low to Earnie. Earnie skipped his marker but with the goal begging, he scuffed his shot straight at Murphy from 8 yards, if he had put it either side, it was a certain goal. Earnie was buzzing at the start and hit three shots at Murphy in the opening 7 minutes, a 25 yard effort brought the best out of the home keeper.
It was a frantic opening spell with City giving better than they were getting, the Baggies defence not looking comfortable when Parry, and City, took the game to them but they had some quality in the middle of the park with Koumas and Clement looking threatening when they were on the ball, Koumas was first to test Margetson with a 20 yard drive the he did well to hold as it took an unexpected low bounce. The pitch was far from the best seen this season, it was heavy, there were a couple of small puddles and both goalmouths appeared to have freshly laid darker turf in them with an unnatural join. Back cam City with Parry causing mayhem on the left again, it may be his 4th First Division outing after non-league football all his life but he looks as though he has played all his career here. Thorne cleverly nodded on his cross and Murphy dashed out to deny Langley turning the ball home by a fraction. Shortly after, Parry was at it again as he cut inside and had a go himself but fired well over.
Rhys Weston was again looking short on confidence and a weak link in City’s defence. His range of passing was exceptionally poor all afternoon - most balls being floated ahead which were simple for the home defence or smashed long or diagonal, it caused a few problems. He produced some strong tackles and runs but it was in equal measure to him making what were far too many unforced errors. A poor moment came on 20 minutes when he failed to challenge a ball coming his way and allow Clement a free header at goal from 10 yards which Margetson got behind but it was a defender‘s ball all the way.
The home support were showing signs of frustration and nerves - just like we did at Ninian last season when City struggled - at City’s strong start but they had more to cheer in the final 15 minutes of the half as their side got on top and City were unable to make headway and indebted to Margetson for saving from Kinsella - a wicked low curler that he pushed around the post, Koumas and an exceptional stop from Horsfield who next had a disallowed effort for clear offside turning home from close range after City’s defence got in a terrible mess. Kav was yellow carded for a tough 50/50 challenge with Andy Johnson, the Welsh Baggie coming off worst.
Lee Hughes was subjected to some fearful taunting - “Lee Hughes is a murderer”, “10 years, you’re gonna get 10 years”, and when home players got injured, “leave him die, that’s what Hughsie did”. The home fans could hardly stick up for their player and noticeably rarely challenged but their singing was far more sinister.
The Baggies fans frequently turned to the Bible and serenaded us, I kid you not, with Sunday School Songs! Psalm 23, The Lord’s My Shepherd getting airings all afternoon. We tried to retaliate with Onward Christian Soldiers, S-A-V-I-O-U-R and All Things Bright and Beautiful but it didn’t work so we stuck with Men of Harlech and abusing lee Hughes instead.
On the stroke of half-time, West Brom were awarded an edge of area free-kick, Margetson was well beaten but he, and we, were relieved as the ball curled past a post by literally millimetres. A cracking first half with honours fairly even but the home side dominating going into it.
Half-time: WBA 0 CITY 0
After getting over the shock and anger that the bar had been closed down to City fans for no apparent reasons with the catering staff pouring a couple of hundred pre-prepared pints down the drain (what was that all about?), the 2nd half started as the first had finished with West Brom pushing onto us.
City narrowly escaped a comedy own goal on 48 minutes as Gabbidon passed back for Margetson who swung and missed, the ball rolling slowly past his post. TV replays showed that the ball took a wicked bounce over his kicking foot off as it hit the returfed goalmouth.
Gabbidon, putting on a great show at his previous club, was almost robbed by Horsfield on the edge of his box and just about got away with it by dribbling all across the penalty area before clearing but City’s luck ran out on 54 minutes with a goal that had been on the cards for a while.
West Brom’s 12th player, referee Les Mason, awarded a free-kick that never was after Willie Boland cleanly and clearly won a 50/50 challenge. It was a decision that had “homer” written all over it and was one of many that any team on the receiving end would have been angry about.
City’s defence caved at Derby to free headers from simple crosses and history repeated itself as Koumas swung the ball over and the excellent CLEMENT far too easily got in front of Rhys Weston to head home high from 15 yards giving Margetson no chance. In fact, there was another home player queued behind to do the same - what do our defence do in training???
The noise from the home fans in the 25,196 crowd was fantastic and them jumping up and down and Boing, Boing-ing was quite impressive, gutted as I felt. You felt West Brom must turn the screw and City collapse but they deserve respect for showing character and fighting back and, at times, almost pulverising the home team and nerving their fans again.
Five minutes after the goal, Kavanagh lobbed a ball behind West Brom defenders to see Danny Gabbidon come from nowhere to steam through on goal, Murphy charged out and saved the day by just getting his head in the way but sent the ball to Paul Parry wide left. With Murphy hopelessly stranded, Parry took a touch to control and unleashed a venomous angled drive that beat everyone but, sadly, the far post too by inches.
Moments later, Parry slaughtered his marker, went around the outside of him and delivered the perfect far post cross that Langley and Thorne raced in. It looked odds on for an equaliser but Langley headed tamely directly at Murphy, either side and it was there. Langley sent over another cross, this time Murphy was his equal taking the ball arching backwards with Thorne waiting to pounce.
West Brom were hanging on - literally - and feeling the pressure. Central defender Darren Moore at one stage grabbed Earnie’s on a City break and put it over his head but the ref played on and said he hadn’t seen it with everyone else had and the evidence was obvious.
With the clock running down, it was time for Lennie to gamble which he did by bringing on Alan Lee for the hugely disappointing Richard Langley on 75 minutes with Thorne dropping behind Lee and Earnie to accommodate the switch. It brought out a huge cheer that it has to be said was a combination of relief for seeing the player come on but, from some, also the one going off. Langley again worked hard up and down the pitch but nothing is happening for him or looks like it will currently.
On 79 minutes, there was another loud cheer but it was for the return of Robbo, our motivational work-horse replacing Willie Boland. Boland deserves a special mention. I do think we will eventually need better midfield quality but, today, Willie was magnificent. He was doing what only he can, buzzing all over the field, disrupting play and closing space but to great effect. His passing was better too and he even managed a couple of shots but both went flying well over and behind the goal.
Robbo made a massive impact as within 30 seconds of his arrival, City were level! Darren Moore, for once, was pulled up for one of his continual fouls. The referee getting huge ironic cheers for not only spotting it for once but calling it City’s way too.
City filled the penalty area and Kav lined up 25 yards from goal level with the right hand edge of the area. He sent a low, powered, curling ball that fizzed into the area spun on when it hit the greasy surface where ALAN LEE got a deflection so slight that I wasn’t sure whether he had touched it at all and the ball sailed on past Murphy’s despairing dive and inside his far post. Had Lee not touched it, I’m convinced it would have gone straight in anyway.
City, and our support, went absolutely mental. A few boing-boinging to West Brom and there was the remarkable sight of a few hundred of their fans getting up from their seats immediately and walking out. .”Sing when you’re winning” we predictably chanted and bar their Sunday School chanting and occasional very loud chants all around the ground, it was fairly true.
There was only one winner now as City continued to swarm the Baggies yet somehow, we went on and lost it. Not before some controversy.
83 minutes with Alan Lee once again causing impact and havoc, he’s surely due a start. First he shot over and making room for himself and then he was first to react to an edge of area scramble and shot towards goal. The ball, I’m certain, deflected off a home defender for Earnie to pounce , swivel and fire home low from close range but it was disallowed, a linesman calling offside when the ref seemed prepared to give it. Surely though, if the ball was last touched by an opposing player, it effectively makes Earnie onside whatever the circumstances?. City felt hard done by and rightly so.
On 88 minutes, the home side grabbed the most dramatic of winners but yet again it was from a ‘nothing’ cross that City totally failed to defend. Sub Dyer, on moments earlier, swung a ball over, Gaardsoe rose almost unchallenged to head at goal, Gabbidon blocked it on the line but the loose ball was snapped up by, of all people, LEE HUGHES who turned it home standing virtually on the line in the scramble. The fact the cross came from a free-kick that didn’t look justified and a City player was clearly pushed didn’t matter. Instead, we saw Hughes doing the ayatollah (at least we know that we got to him even if he had the last laugh) before boing-boining down the pitch.
Even at the death, City had chances with Earnie wasting the worst firing high over the bar as the ball dropped at his feet in a scramble with Murphy charging out at him. And time for the ref to rub his final piece of salt into the wound as Moore used Alan Lee as a climbing frame but the ref bottled a penalty decision and instead gave West Brom a free-kick which staggered the City support and Alan Lee in particular who couldn‘t hide his contempt and disgust with that decision..
Final whistle blew, West Brom fans celebrated like crazy, City’s were gutted to see a point at the very least given away but the side were warmly applauded and deservingly so. At the end , we lost a game that could easily have gone either way but the cold reality was that we let ourselves down again in both penalty areas whilst WBA had that extra bit of quality, experience and attitude that still made them winners on a day they struggled. That’s the difference between Premiership chasers and those looking up at them like we are.
Walking away from the ground, I bumped into Neil Alexander hiding slightly behind a wall of a BP station. No wonder when gangs of West Brom fans, so obviously looking for trouble, were roaming about whilst he was in his City track-suit. “Is this the pick-up point for the Scottish squad??”, I asked him. No he said before telling me his taxi hadn’t turned up to take him to the airport to fly to Scotland to meet the squad before flying back to Cardiff. He was almost certainly going to miss his flight. Who said being an international football was easy and glamorous?
Report from FootyMad
Lee Hughes put his off-field problems behind him with a priceless late strike to boost West Brom's bid to make an instant return to the Premiership as Cardiff City's play-off push suffered a setback at the Hawthorns.
Hughes, who is waiting to stand trial on charges of causing death by dangerous driving and leaving the scene of an accident, stabbed home Albion's 85th minute winner to cap a dramatic finale.
Before Hughes struck, Albion had looked set to have to settle for a point after Cardiff substitute Alan Lee cancelled out Neil Clement's opener just four minutes after being sent on.
But Hughes' late strike, his second goal in successive home games, kept Albion firmly on course for automatic promotion.
Albion also owed their success to an impressive display from goalkeeper Joe Murphy who was making his home debut fully 18 months after he joined the club from Tranmere Rovers.
The Republic of Ireland international was called-up to replace the injured Russell Hoult and kept a dangerous Cardiff side at bay.
Cardiff were also indebted to their own goalkeeper, Martyn Margetson, for a series of impressive saves.
But Cardiff, beaten for only the sixth time in 16 away games this season, paid the price for failing to make their early pressure pay.
Albion manager Gary Megson had demanded a positive response after the 3-0 defeat at Preston in their previous match and he said: "There was a lot of effort and drive from the players.
"Lee Hughes seems to have that sixth sense that some strikers have when he pops up at just the right time.
"We are now entering what I feel is the most important three months in the history of the club.
"We can really push on now and put the club where they have only been once in the last 25 years and start moving in a different direction."Cardiff boss Lennie Lawrence admitted that his side should have made more of their early pressure and he said: "When you come to a club like West Brom you will get three or four chances and you have to take them.
"We had two good early chances and we did not take them.
"We played to our maximum but West Brom have the ability to grind out a result and at the moment we do not.
"I felt that we deserved to draw the game as we matched West Brom in all areas of the field. But we just paid the price for not taking those chances."Murphy was thrust quickly into action - after just 58 seconds - and settled his nerves with an impressive reflex save from City's leading scorer, Robert Earnshaw.
Paul Parry showed the Albion right-back Bernt Haas a clean pair of heels and whipped in a cross to the feet of Earnshaw.
The Welsh international was just six yards from goal but Murphy was able to smother his shot on the line.
Cardiff really gave Murphy a tough Hawthorns baptism in the opening exchanges and the 22-year-old had to be alert to hold a long-range drive from Earnshaw and also punch the ball clear from Cardiff forward Peter Thorne.
It took Albion fully 20 minutes to get into the game and when they did they were also frustrated by some goalkeeping heroics.
While Murphy had denied Cardiff, his opposite number, Margetson, proved to be a thorn in Albion's side.
Albion peppered his goal from long-range, but the former Welsh under-21 international proved to be more than equal to the task.
In particular, Margetson denied the Albion midfielder Clement.
The former Chelsea trainee saw his 20th minute header saved by Margetson and then had a 35-yard drive beaten away by the former Manchester City keeper.
Margetson also turned a shot from Albion midfielder Mark Kinsella around the post before collecting another cross-shot from Clement.
When Albion finally did find a way past the 32-year-old, they were inches away from taking the lead.
A crude challenge from Richard Langley sent Albion midfielder Jason Koumas crashing to the ground 20 yards from goal on the stroke of half-time.
Koumas picked himself up to take the free-kick himself. His right-foot curler left Margetson rooted to his line, but the ball flew just past the far post.
Having withstood so much pressure, it seemed only a matter of time before Albion's persistence paid off and that proved to be the case ten minutes into the second half.
Cardiff were left fuming when Rhys Weston was adjudged to have fouled striker Geoff Horsfield on the right-hand edge of the area.
Koumas lifted another free-kick into the area that flew straight to the head of Clement who was finally rewarded for his earlier good play when he rose above the Cardiff defence to power the ball past Margetson from 12 yards.
Having worked so hard to break the deadlock Albion then threatened to undo all their earlier good play with three minutes of madness.
Murphy had to ride his luck after 59 minutes when he raced out of his goal to try and clear the ball and was left in no-man's land when his clearance was collected by Parry.
Parry had an unprotected goal to aim at but drove his angled shot just wide.
Murphy then made amends for his earlier error in the 62nd minute when he did well to beat away a close-range header from Richard Langley.
But there was nothing that he could do when Albion were caught napping 11 minutes from time.
Just as Cardiff had been undone by a free-kick, Albion suffered a similar fate.
Graham Kavanagh lifted his free-kick into the area and Lee, back in action after three months on the sidelines with a knee injury, made an immediate impact when he headed the ball wide of Murphy's left hand.
His second goal of the season looked to be good enough to earn Cardiff a point before one of Albion's substitutes helped turn the game in their favour.
Lloyd Dyer had only been on the pitch for a minute when he lifted the ball into the area.
Albion skipper Thomas Gaardsoe nodded the ball down and his header looked set to cross the line anyway before Hughes helped it home to seal a dramatic success.
The Western Mail
Wales On Sunday