West Bromwich Albion 1 - Aston Villa 0
2-2 aet; Villa win 4-3 on penalties
Despite a raucous home crowd buoyed by blue and white flags, numerous renditions of the Liquidator and a goal from Craig Dawson after half an hour, Albion failed to a penalty shootout and saw Villa go through to the Play-off final at Wembley.
For the third game running they finished the game with ten men, and this time it really couldn't really be argued; if anything, Chris Brunt was fortunate to still be on the pitch to pick up his second yellow for his third offence against John McGinn and looked like a broken man as he trudged off towards the tunnel.
Albion held on to see out the game and the ensuing half hour of extra time, and even created enough good chances to win the game - but with Jay Rodriguez and Matt Phillips having been substituted, Brunt dismissed and Dwight Gayle and Hal Robson-Kanu missing through suspension the shoot-out was never likely to go well with the first four spot kicks falling to defenders.
Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hegazi both saw their shots saved before Tosin Adarabioyo, on as a substitute for the ineffective Jacob Murphy and playing as a makeshift holding midfielder, neatly slotted the ball past Jed Steer and into the bottom corner of the net. Kieran Gibbs and James Morrison put theirs away too but the damage had been done and Villa's last, courtesy of Tammy Abraham, ended the contest.
And so ended a waste of a season, one in which Albion claimed to have geared themselves up for an instant return to the Premiership but failed - twice - to appoint a Manager with the experience to deliver that aim. That mistake needs to be rectified or a long stay in the Championship awaits them.
Was really proud tonight - with the players available and how things panned out I don’t think we could’ve done much more. I thought the system and tactics were spot on - I might have put Murphy up top and JRod left wing but it’s marginal.
The crowd were amazing, the club did everything to cultivate an unbelievable atmosphere and were were solid, compact, aggressive and a threat. We played to our strengths in the first half and went in deservedly ahead through a set play with Daws nodding home - this always likely to be our biggest threat without Gayle. We contained Villa really well and there was a 15 minute spell after half time when we battered them, forced them into mistakes but couldn’t find that second goal.
Unfortunately things started to unravel in the last 20 or so. If I was being hyper critical I thought we took Phillips off too early as we lost drive. Losing Johansen was a blow but he was on a tightrope anyway and when Brunt was sent off I thought again we made the sub too early - Murphy was weak and lacking bottle as normal but we really needed pace.
When extra time came it felt like a slow death - we were tired and on the few breaks we did make out we sloppily missed great opportunities to win set plays. By the time JRod could run no more and made way for Leko I was totally stumped by who would take penalties if we made it.
For that 40 mins with 10 men we were magnificent but heatbreak came in the shoot out. In the end SJ was one inch of a toe from keeping the decider out.
And so another huge summer of change - Hughton suddenly looks like the best target to navigate us through the turbulence. Genuinely I’d try and keep as many of our sellable players as possible because the loan turnover will be big enough and if we get any money in I’d move heaven and earth to sign Dwight Gayle.
The inquest over the summer will conclude that we really should’ve finished in the top 2 with the squad we had and the right tactics and system. I hope lessons are learned and we really go for it next season because it’ll be our best chance of getting promotion for a while.
Another season of entertaining and competitive football when we might win a few games and score a few goals? Go on then...
And season reviews -
So, it wasn't meant to be. But just how brilliant were the fans last night, and great to see how the players appreciated it.
Most of the players gave their all. I thought Hegazi was just tremendous throughout, just never stopped and some of his passes out were world class. Sam was excellent in goal, and Bartley also had his best game for ages. J Rod just ran himself into the ground as did Phillips but sadly our substitutions plus the sending off left us with no penalty takers. My real disappointment was not just losing, but the total lack of application and enthusiasm from Harper and Leko - they had their chance and totally blew it. Gone by next season I imagine.
Some hard decisions are needed now. Surely there is someone out there who would be interested in buying us and who would show more ambition and desire than our pathetic excuse of an owner. We need new board, without the old pals network, or yes men. And a manager - who knows! Not another circuit man please, but someone can see we have the basis of an excellent team, and is able to build from this.
As an afterthought, I thought the flags were great - a wonderful spectacle! I have taken mine home. Ideally I will have it with me in my van and I will see that odious cheating little cretin Grealish. If I rammed it where the sun doesn't shine he might find falling over a bit harder, or give him a bit of backbone. I doubt it but a nice idea isn't it!
Come on Leeds! Raise the Roofe!
I thought we looked the better team throughout the 90 minutes, and with the goal the Hawthorns was rocking. But again, as so often this season a lack of quality (combined with over enthusiasm from Robson-Kanu, Gayle and Brunt) meant we were never going to win the penalty shoot out........
So next season. Not all doom and gloom. The Championship, like it or not, is our level at the moment. We need a younger, faster midfield and a settled strike-force. The loss of Barnes in January now looks to have been the beginning of the end, and realistically if Gayle kept banging them in (had we got to the Prem) Newcastle would have just taken him back too.
Let's give the kids a go, and if it takes a year or two so be it. Otherwise we'll be living off scraps, and look how that worked out for us this year. Luton, anyone?
As the three-in-the morning kick-off approached, a grand total of seven interested parties (Villa 2, Albion 5) lined the back row of tables at Perth's Crowne Casino's Sports Bar, although whether a sports bar in which both of the bars noramlly serving it are closed - forcing sports fans to navigate a way through the labyrinth of slot machines in order to get a drink - can claim to be a bar, is open to some debate: of which more later.
Also open to debate was how the Albion, a goal down coming into the second leg, were going to about scoring one, let alone two, with what looked very much like a 5-4-1 lineup and indeed the early stages, in which Murphy and Phillips, ostensibly wingers in that midfield four, were often overlapped by Gibbs and Holgate, their respective full-backs, albeit probably the best full-back pairing in the division and possibly in much of the lower parts of the division above, suggested that offering offensive width high up the pitch was not all that high up in the agenda.
I thought Villa started the brightest of the sides but after their initial flurry, the contest seemed to become dominated by long balls, many of which were woefully overhit, as were a couple of long range "efforts" masquerading as attempts on goal and/or opportunitiesfor the commentary team to issue the usual cliches - you know what I mean!
With just the one available striker, it was always likely that the Albion were going to have to rely on set-pieces and so whilst many may have had bets on Dawson as first scorer, it's unlikely that many will have had a long-throw delivery method as a combination but that's how it unfolded. Villa could claim that that particluar attacking movement should have been ended at the point of Rodriguez's robust "shoulder charge" but it wasn't and even when Holgate launched the long throw to the edge of the six-yard box, it still took all of Dawson's neck musculature to generate enough pace on the dropping ball to steer it across the Villa keeper and into the far side-netting.
The remaining fifteen minutes of the half mostly appeared to comprise of a series of niggley fouls, although again, Villa probably edged things in attempts, if not on-target attempts.
The start of the second half though was very much the Albion's with Villa seemingly determined to offer up chance after chance with balls out from the back, including at least one goal kick, that not only didn't clear their lines but, had the Albion's back nine not been dropping so deep, might have seen the obviously-surprised- to-have-the-ball player able to make more of those chances. Sadly though, those chances came and went.
With around 25 minutes left to go, the booking of Brunt pretty nuch signalled the turning of the tie. A few minutes after, Johansen, by no means a rock, though certainly an obstruction, in front of the back five up to that point - indeed, so much of an obstruction that he'd been booked for being so - went down injured, being replaced by Morrison. Ten minutes after that, Matt Phillips went off, being replaced by Harper, and just five after that, Albion were once again down to ten men, and in a way that didn't offer a replacement for the man leaving the field.
It's worth pointing out that the Albion defence had a number of opportunities to clear their lines within this Villa thrust but after not one but two attempted Cruyff turns within five yards of their own box had failed to fool the opponent, the ball ended up at the feet of McGinn, stiil outisde a rather packed box, but Brunty decided to make a challenge right through the back of the Villa man and pretty nuch gave the referee no option but to reach for the second yellow. Not clear to me why Murphy was "sacrificed" so as to get Adarabioyo on in the reshape after the sending off, but the addition of a sixth defender to the outfield nine was always going to be an invitation to attack, and one which the visiting Villans accepted with a delight akin to that of seals being thrown fish.
That the ten men survived the remaining ten minutes of normal time plue the six added minutes was a small victory for the Albions fans in the room but you could sense that the Villa fans felt it was just a matter of time.
The Murphy-Adarabioyo swap seemed even odder three minutes in extra time when Leko (you may remember him: he was the "home-grown" winger that we brought in more wingers than we were allowed to have in any given match day squad, to try and make up for?) came on for Rodriguez. Whilst the change didn't really stem the tide, Albion still made it through to the 105-minute mark with their lead on the night intact and, despite a final flurry of Villa corners, that lead was still intact as extra-time ended thus seeing the Albion enter the lottery of the penalty shoot-out, a result that had the five Albion fans; one in a "Crancher Creations" Brazil shirt, one in a BCLM Black Country motif polo, modified here in WA for Albion affliation, and one in AC Milan shirt (Hmm?) looking a lot happier than their claret-and-blue clad cousins.
Before we contemplate the penalty shoot-out, a word to the wise, should you ever be attending an event in the Crowne Casino's Sports' Bar, when the two bars in the sports area aren't open.
You need to be aware that bar-staff in the casino's bars not associated with the sports area aren't necessarily as open to the way that people there to watch the sports go about getting their drinks, and you may be told that you can't be served for 10 minutes, after which you may then be told that you can't be served for 20, and after that, even if you send up a different person, the bar-staff are more than competent enough to see through your subtrefuge and not only not serve the second person but also call in the floor walkers. The latter though, are at least aware of how those patrons of the casino who are there for the sport usually use the bars and so, when they hear that a group of people who have only met some 90 minutes ago have merely managed one round of drinks each over the course of those 90 minutes, at least have the nous to allow the group to remain in the casino to see the end of the game.
I guess you could say that common sense prevailed, even though the Albion didn't: a small victory but a personal one for me, as I was the one having to converse with the floor walkers at nearly five-thirty in the morning, having earlier arrived back into Perth in mid-afternoon, after a thirty-two hour trip home from Montreal.
Maybe I was still speaking French? But back to the sporting spectacle.
Well before one of the Villa fans had thought to it ask if, when Gibbs stepped up to take Albion's fourth penalty, we had given the first four penalty duties to four defenders, it had long since dawned on us that, yes, we had, as had the fact that Sam Johnstone, whose saves had kept the Albion in the game in regulation time, seemed to have forgotten which side his ex-Villa colleagues would place their shots from the spot.
But even then, fate had a way of dragging things out, as Adomah missed the goal altogther, whilst Mozza converted his, to leave Villa's Tammy Abraham (6 from 7 from the spot for the season) to drive the final penalty of the initial ten straight down the middle where we think that it may even have gone in off Johnstone's legs, trailing behind him in mid-air as he dived, in vain, for one of the corners of the goal.
As I didn't end up seeing the first leg whilst over in Canada, I don't really think I claim to say if we deserved to lose via a penalty shoot-out or not, but it does seem incedibly sad that the last action that Gayle and Brunt may well have had for the club was to be sent off, and you certainly can't fault the application of the players remaining on the pitch who saw it through to that penaltly shoot-out.
Whilst a win in the shoot-out would still have only given us a chance to be the first team to advance via the play-offs having had a man sent off in all three games (along with other less dramatic outcomes), the same question now remains, as regards who'll be in the squad at the start of the next season, given all the loanees that won't be and all the established pros who'd be established by yet another year.
Shout-outs to the other four Albion fans include to a Tom - over in Perth from Sydney for a conference and who used to work for the Grauniad and so who's met Chris Lepkowski - who got turned back from the bar twice; to a John who'd driven down from up near Mindarie Quays, and who knows Phil (and Gloria) Summers from back when they were in Perth, and a bloke from Halesowen, there with his partner, whose name - which I must apologise for forgetting: I blame the jet-lag - I can't now recall.
Big shout-out too, to Brendan Clegg for keeping the match reports coming all season long: you, sir, deserve some kind of medal.
And yes, finally, in case you were wondering, by six in the morning, yes, I did get lost in the slot-machine labyrinth on the way to the exit, and yes, I did have to ask a group of floor walkers to point me to the door: smiles, if not handshakes, all round.
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