The Diary

12 January 2009: Oh, Well - Better Late Than Never! Albion-Villa Thoughts, Two Days After The Event.

Oh, well, better late than never?.. As you might have gathered already, we?ve had a bit of a crisis in our family, and that?s meant just about everything going by the board in our efforts to get to Sandwell Hospital to cheer up our poorly brother-in-law a little bit. That, plus the fact we?ve now acquired yet more IT problems, all stemming from the purchase of another big PC in an attempt to resolve the multiplicity of annoying issues we already have with the laptop. We tried installing the new one last night, but for some reason best known unto itself, the new hard drive steadfastly refuses to speaka da English when it comes to inserting CDs in the appropriate orifice.

Won?t recognise the blasted things, despite the clear fact it should ? incompatibility problems, in other words - so now it?s back to Old Faithful and the tedium of having to take a CD copy of this diary down to the machine we have in the conservatory (currently colder than the majority of domestic fridges, hence my distinct aversion to playing down there, once I?ve done up here) and freezing to death while I get to grips with the tedious process of putting my scrummy, if somewhat late, little bits onto this website, then mailing my words to various ?private subscribers?.

LATE NEWSFLASH?? Because of the CD reader on the old machine playing silly buggers as well, this surely has to be the longest period of time I?ve ever spent preparing a matchday posting for publication! Many apologies, peeps, one day we?ll get everything sorted, then fondly look back upon all this with great hilarity ? errr ? I think!

That?s the preamble done, then, so on with the show?.. A strange Saturday morning, it was, to be sure, what with us actually being in our house, while a local derby involving our favourite football club drew nigh; a curious state of affairs I haven?t experienced since the last time I contracted a chest infection, a season or so back. Not that our place was silent, mind; in the garden, the Norm And Ron Combo were taking the concept of manual labour terribly seriously. Well, that?s the impression I formed, after listening to their manifold blasphemies for a minute or three!

As befitted his elderly status, Norm was acting as ?foreman?, while son Ron gave his shoulder muscles some serious exercise installing a hand-rail up the steps to the rear of our property, which overlooks our rockery and pond. A lovely place to sit and contemplate one?s navel in summer, but given the fact I experienced tremendous trouble trying to climb those wretched steps shortly after moving in last year, the necessity of installing some kind of aid became apparent.

That?s why the lads both donned their Superman gear, and came to my assistance, and nicely in time for spring sunshine and flowers etc, too. Said she, hopefully! It?s also a good vantage point from which to witness the serial bullying of a predatory tom cat by angry magpie parents, but I don?t suppose our tabby mog will be terribly amused, should the family bunch nesting in and around our garden decide to repeat the dose, in around six weeks time. They (Norm and Ron, not our intellectually-challenged tabby!) also completed work on a couple of extra cat-flaps into our lounge and hall, so now we can close all connecting doors, and by doing that, save oodles of money on heating bills while allowing our pussy trio 24/7 access in and out.

Anyway, after we?d settled up with our multitalented in-law (who much prefers payment in bottles of spirituous falling-down water to hard cash, any day!), and son Ron (who, being younger and not much of a boozer, genuinely prefers hard cash in his hot little hand), off they both happily toddled, not into the sunset, but into the pub over the road from our place. Can?t say I blamed them, really, and after the final whistle in our game, we were strongly tempted to go there ourselves! For therapeutic reasons only, of course.

Aha! Peace at last, and not the sort connected with our chairman, either. Along with the return of complete silence to our domestic Shangri-La, came that of our three moggies, none of them ardent admirers of a noisy home environment. Unless you want to count Laurie, who?s anybody?s for a chunk of hot roast chicken placed in her feeding-bowl, the brazen little strumpet that she is. Time, then, to switch on the old TV, and get the bit of the day we were really dreading well and truly over with!

I have to admit that watching games on TV can confer certain advantages, not least a cast-iron guarantee that whatever the weather outside, my back won?t seize up because of the cold, which it did the last time we played, versus Peterborough in the Cup. ?Tis true that because of limitations placed upon you by the producer?s decisions regarding which camera images to transmit, or otherwise, you don?t always get to appreciate the all-round tactical picture in quite the same way you do when there in person, but what you do get is a chance to view events leading up to goals, controversy, dismissals, etc. more than once. And, unlike Albion?s big screen, PROPER replays, not endless adverts for Birmingham City University, or whatever what used to be North Birmingham Polytechnic is calling itself this week.

Events replayed from a completely different angle can acquire a completely different slant: with benefit of hindsight, in the form of slo-mo footage, what supporters might have perceived dead-cert, nailed-on penalties no longer seem cast in tablets of stone, with the inevitable consequence of whistlers previously thought to be myopic idiots instantaneously acquiring a sudden veneer of unexpected respectability.

But then again, the TV camera can also highlight the deficiencies of referees not quite on top of their trade superbly; it?s one thing to miss a blatant foul in the box at lower League level (inside lowly Accrington?s ground, no-one can hear you scream!) but another entirely to do the same when officiating in a live Premier League game. $p Many are the whistlers left with badly-damaged egos and demolished reputations after so-called ?experts? have verbally torn them to shreds, post-match. And many are the players who?d thought they?d escaped a red card, courtesy dozy match officials failing to spot incidents off the ball guaranteed to make even the mildest of crowds absolutely incandescent with rage, finally seeing retribution descend upon them in heaps, once the FA?s seen the relevant TV footage, and acted accordingly.

The trade-off for the serious supporter is atmosphere, of course: even with the best will in the world, it?s nigh-on impossible for TV people to replicate the same neural, electrical almost, tingle of anxious anticipation that comes gratis with a game like Villa-Albion. And Baggie-watching on the box means you lose interactivity entirely, in other words, the huge amount of satisfaction one gets when hurling rude chants etc. in the direction of our Villa counterparts; win, lose or draw, there?s always the warm glow that comes with realisation of a cleverly-composed choral jibe actually hitting home. And for me, that?s where watching games on the box completely loses its appeal.

That?s the scene well and truly set, then - so on with the show. Bright sunshine was the order of the day when we tuned in, the faint warmth penetrating our living-room window giving little, if any, indication of the ghastly cold lurking outside. As I said to ?Im Indoors: ?There won?t be too many players wanting to lie on that pitch pretending to be injured today, I?ll bet?.?

And that, dear reader, was about the last humorous comment I made over the course of the entire 90 minutes. Yes, I had expected to see us lose, but not quite in the same circumstances. Small consolation, I suppose, in the fact that the eventual Villa victory turned out to be a surprisingly narrow one, but set against that were the exquisitely embarrassing circumstances in which we conceded our second, courtesy Scott Carson, but more of that later. Great puzzlement on our part, too, when the Albion side was read out: no Bednar to start. What, pray, was the rationale in benching the one striker who?d managed to hit at least some semblance of form, suddenly?

At least the impact of dropping Bednar was partially dissipated by giving a first team start to our new arrival from the Gunners, striker Jay Simpson (that?s some Mohican haircut he?s got; it?s not every day you see an Albion player emulating a hairstyle first made popular by American airborne troops, both during WW2 and the subsequent Vietnam era, is it?) who showed so much promise last Saturday.

Quite a Villa Old Boys? Reunion, this, what with former Seal Luke Moore partnering the new boy up front, as well as former Claret-And-Spew keeper Scott Carson between the sticks. Blimey ? Albion?s fresh fish bill must have gone completely through the roof, this season! Also starting were Morrison, now hale and hearty after injury, and Robbo, with Chris Brunt and Marek Cech the other two to yield to those mentioned above. As for Villa, they?d had people return from injury themselves, hence the depressing sight of Martin Laursen, Gareth Barry, Agbonlahore and Luke Young flapping their flippers furiously during the pre-match warm-up.

Finally, after all the shaking-hands nonsense had been dispensed with, off we went. Much to my surprise, Albion began by giving it big licks in attack, with Jay Simpson evading several opposition players in the box, only to see the end-result hit the side netting. Still, it was much better than merely engaging in a damage-limitation exercise, then wondering precisely how long it would be before they finally cracked us wide open. Ditto an early Valero effort that should have done far better than it actually did: is it me, or is this guy really proving to be something of a pig in a poke for the Baggies?

Now we were around a quarter of the way into the half, dominating still, but not really giving the Villa keeper cause to worry unduly. What we really lacked was genuine firepower up front: as we?ve observed, time and time again over the course of the current season, approach work good, skilful, even, but both delivery into the box and first-touch absolutely abysmal. And, as the half proceeded further, another development, somewhat disturbing, this: a complete inability to nullify the Villa threat on the flanks. Time and time again, they were being allowed to get behind our rearguard: unlike our woeful crossing, theirs was hitting the target with alarming regularity. No wonder the two of us experienced a growing sense that everything would shortly end in tears.

Our first really hairy moment came when Robbo conceded a corner without any good reason that I could see. Barry took their set-piece for them, over came the ball, a nasty curler that neatly connected with Sidwell?s head and would have gone in, had our lad Morrison not been handily placed to kick the thing right off the line, and Greening hastily clearing for all he was worth. But that only delayed the inevitable by a matter of seconds. In came the ball again, up rose ex-Baggie Curtis Davies, and into the net it went. Surprised? Not really. Frustrated? Infinitely and eternally, given the fact we?d started so well. Angry? Yes, yes, and triple yes - and mostly because of poor defending from Robbo, and a seemingly-naive inability to cope with various Villa incursions along the flanks. Even before the opening goal, the home side were skinning us there, completely and utterly; no surprise, then, that their persistence reaped rewards so quickly.

What was to follow simply served to reinforce my original notion that our inability to effectively defend has cost us dear this term. Realising we had a real problem out there, Villa worked our all-too vulnerable flanks unmercifully, and Koren losing the ball so cheaply at the back so soon after that opening goal didn?t help our cause either. As for Valero, Albion would have done just as well by sticking a tailor?s dummy there in his place, for all the use he was. How we didn?t fall further into arrears is a question that eludes me still!

Fair play, though, for at least trying to repair the damage via a few attacking incursions of our own, but the result was the same old story, i.e.: lots of possession, allied with some exquisitely skilful football, at times, but rock-all in the shape of real danger for both goalkeeper and defenders. But much to our mutual fury, the real killer blow was to come, not from Villa, but courtesy a truly appalling gaffe on the part of our very own keeper, Scott Carson.

Not the first otherwise-sound Baggies keeper to attract publicity for all the wrong reasons, of course ? veteran Albionites who witnessed the equally-appalling clanger dropped by Tony Godden during a 1980?s First Division game versus Liverpool, at The Hawthorns, should make themselves known to the writer at once! ? but the very fact this fixture was being seen live by pretty much the entire globe certainly served to compound the agony for our watching hordes.

What happened? Good question, that! It all let loose about five minutes from the break when yet more inability to close down on attacking moves led to Villa?s Agbonlahore letting fly with complete impunity from about 20 yards out. Carson looked to have thing covered completely, but a multiplicity of malevolently-inclined gremlins suddenly decided otherwise. One minute there was a harmless-looking goalbound effort, the next, the somewhat startling sight of the ball nestling comfortably right at the back of the Albion net!

Yet again, slo-mo replay was to prove instrumental in analysing precisely what went wrong: when the Villa player?s effort reached our lad, in his efforts to gather the thing safely, Carson somehow contrived to turn the thing right underneath his diving body, and from there, right over the goal-line. AAAARRRRGH! As the late Winston Churchill once so memorably remarked about Soviet Russia, back in the early Forties: ?A mystery wrapped within an enigma?.? Or was it ?An enigma wrapped within a mystery?.?? Whichever version you choose to accept, you?ll still get my drift regarding Mister Carson, no problems!

That hurtful and completely unacceptable error, coming as it did, just before the break, more or less saw off our hopes of leaving Seal Park with our heads held high. But Mogga did try to salvage something from the wreckage; come the start of the second half, off went a largely ineffectual Luke Moore, and on came just about the only Baggies player to have hit some kind of form of late, Roman Bednar. Some cynics might have called it ?shutting the stable door?: you get to choose. Within a minute of the restart, it looked to be Groundhog Day, yet again, as Villa surged forward to heap further misery upon our already-suicidal support, but following the successful repulsion of that opening effort, Albion were to spring a surprise of their very own, courtesy James Morrison.

Coming straight from defence, and roaring upfield, the ball rapidly ended up in the Villa box. Had this been the first half, that would most certainly have been that, as far as our powder-puff attacking was concerned ? but not this time, and for that we have to thank the aforementioned Morrison, who gratefully accepted a neat back-header from sub Bednar, evaded the one Seal standing in the way, then let fly. Result? Villa 2, Albion 1. Admittedly, the ball did appear to go in with a tad of deflected assistance provided by Villa?s Davies, but a goal is a goal, isn?t it?

From what I heard via the box, none of our supporters were in any mood to argue the toss, and who could blame them? The strike seemed to exert something of a rallying effect upon our weary troops, but on more than one subsequent occasion, poor marking could so easily have put the game completely beyond our reach once more. At least the errant Carson couldn?t be faulted, trying like stink to make amends of the aforementioned defensive gaffes with a series of top-notch stops. When will we ever learn, I ask myself?

Halfway through the half, we saw poor Morrison, now injured, exit the scene, and his replacement, Chris Brunt, take to the field instead, and, with around 13 to go, the ineffectual Valero making way for Kim. From then onward, it was the same old story: lots of Albion pressure, but nothing whatsoever giving the opposition real grief, save for the last ten, when we seemed to throw all caution to the wind in a last-ditch attempt to grab a late equaliser.

Then came two penalty shouts for us, both within seconds of each other, and both in the dying seconds of the game. With benefit of slow-mo hindsight, the first, in which Bednar featured, I considered a bit of a try-on, but not so with the second which looked to me suspiciously like Koren being pulled back by Villa?s Young. Anyway, what the hell; usual story, the ref didn?t want to know ? and, to be fair, despite all that possession, did we truly deserve to deny the Old Enemy all three points? As they say in academic circles, ?Discuss?.

Full-time thoughts? Our marking? Shocking. Our naivety? Truly depressing, distressing, even. That crucial Carson error? He should make unreserved apologies to our supporters as soon as humanly possible, as should Robbo, for the critical role he played in conceding Albion?s first. The Bednar booking could also cost us dear; that one making his fifth, thus far, he?ll be out for the Boro home game, the one we really need to win to have any hope at all of getting out of the glutinous relegation-zone morass in which we currently find ourselves.

As for Villa, and their victory, plus subsequent unprecedented rise in the Prem pecking order, to within hopes of grabbing a coveted Champions League place for themselves, come the end of hostilities in the summer, all I can say is this: on today?s showing, their failure to finish the job they?d started, plus a distinctly lacklustre performance in the middle and up front, makes me think that with them, it?s all a case of ?smoke and mirrors?; in other words, they?re simply not good enough. I suspect the final run-in will leave them wanting, and we Baggies giggling.

The latest on our poor brother-in-law? He?s still in the CCU, but after seeing him both Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, it?s good to report that although he?s lost a considerable amount of weight through illness, he?s now back in the land of the living, out of bed and sitting in an armchair once more. And knocking cups of tea back like there?s no tomorrow: that, plus moaning like mad about our failure to take Seal Park by storm, of course! With any luck, we?ll see him back on a normal ward within a couple of days.

Now for a few more gems, courtesy the ?Topical Times Football Book, 1965-66?. As promised yesterday, I?ll start with the rules handbook for players in the Portuguese international side. No players to venture into hotel corridors wearing pyjamas; no visiting what the text carefully calls ?gaming and dancing rooms? ? well, that?s Bruce Forsyth?s little Saturday night money-spinner out for starters, then! ? no telephone conversations to last more than three minutes (can you see modern-day players wearing that one?); no playing cards or dice, either.

But strangely enough, among all the numerous prohibitions, nothing whatsoever about sex, in any way, shape or form! So presumably, it was OK to indulge in what the modern-day media would term ?a roasting?, but show yourself in a hotel corridor in jim-jams AFTER a heated session, which may or may not have involved the use of whips, leather and banana ice-cream, and you were toast, as far as their FA was concerned!

Now for news of some well-known footballing favourites, back then. First off, a picture of Liverpool?s Ian St. John holding what surely must be the ugliest baby in the world ever seen ? a real gargoyle job, if ever there was one, also called Ian. Well, given the fact dad was no oil painting himself, genetics clearly has a lot to answer for! Then, on another page, a truly wonderful shot of a VERY young Harry Redknapp in his West Ham shirt, aged just 18, would you believe? Even so, he still looked much as he does now, i.e. as ugly as sin! Conspicuous consumption by well-known players, 1965-style? Try this quote from the late George Best for size: ?Thirty-guinea suits, hand-made shirts and suits ? I must have spent ?500 on my gear in the past year?.?

In the same vein, perhaps, are comments made by Tommy Docherty, then Chelsea gaffer, about his policy of allowing two kids from the youth side to accompany the first team on away trips, for the experience. Commented the man who was to take Villa down into the Third Division, come the 70?s: ??.Travelling first class on a train. Staying at a 5-star hotel. It?s safe to say none of them have ever experienced that kind of thing before?..? What, no WAGS? And certainly no dumping in the bidet, as per the time our very own Graham Lovett did precisely that, through sheer ignorance of the prime function of this important aid to intimate hygiene!

For my final effort, I genuinely have to hand it to then-lowly Walsall, whose gaffer, Ray Shaw, anticipated the hi-tech antics of today?s Premier League counterparts by some 40-odd years. How come? By the simple expedient of becoming one of the first to get ?miked up? both during training, and for games, but not in the sense we know. Back then, such aids to communication were known as ?walkie-talkies?, and about the same size and weight as a 1980?s mobile phone, i.e bearing a strong resemblance to the common-or-garden house-brick.

How did it work? Easy: Ray had one set in his possession, and so did his Number Two. During training, especially five-a-sides, Ray would stand on the touchline, and using his new toy, would make appropriate comments to his deputy, acting as referee, as and when necessary. But it was the use to which he put these gadgets on matchdays that truly made him ahead of his time. Being one of the few managers of that era to sit in the stands during games, Ray used his set to keep in touch with the dugout, where his deputy sat with set Number Two, and much like his modern-day equivalents, employed the thing to make tactical alterations, etc. as he saw fit!

Enthused the Saddlers head-honcho: ?We?ve found these gadgets, cost ?30, very useful, because you can see the players all the time during training - and during a real game, I?ve been able to check on injuries without leaving my seat in the stand?.? Assuming he?s still alive ? a big ask, mind, considering he was quite old when he had the Walsall job, as I recall - I wonder what his thoughts are now about all the miniaturised stuff toted by referees and linos, not to mention certain nervous gaffers?

 - Glynis Wright

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