Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Captain Marvel's Salvage Mission

Bryan Robson doused in Champagne

With the business end of the season approaching, fans of clubs in 14th place and below are praying to the Premier League gods to avoid a slide into the Championship come the final whistles of their respective last games, if not sooner. Some measure of hope could perhaps be derived from what is arguably the greatest of great escapes, to tread a particularly well worn path and cliché.




Even better, we can put a massive tick in the box that covers a former player coming back to lead the club, who he first laced up his boots for, out of the darkness against seemingly insurmountable odds…



This ex-player arrived back at the Hawthorns to replace the sacked Gary Megson, the man who in a sense had first go with the Baggies branded yo-yo effect! Megson managed to get them boinging up in time for the start of the 2001-02 season in what might have been seen as the best possible ending to a three year plan which began with him leading them to safety in the 1999-2000 Division One, before a run to the play-offs the next season served as an appetiser to the main course of finally making it up.



What went up did go down, perhaps inevitably! But then they came back up again in 2003-04, only for Megson to have been acrimoniously given the order of the boot by the end of 2004. Enter Captain Marvel, Bryan Robson, parachuted in from November 9th.



The WBA campaign had started with three successive 1-1 draws, away at Blackburn then at home to Aston Villa in something of a Midlands derby and again in front of a Hawthorns crowd against Spurs. Zoltan Gera marked his first full start, following a move from Ferencvaros in his homeland, with the first goal of the game in the latter, suggesting a decent enough start on the face of it before things slowly started to unravel…



Trips to Merseyside to face first Everton and then Liverpool marked their first taste(s) of defeat. Something those in the famous blue and white throstle-badged shirts would have to get used to over the course of a long and hard slog to avoid their ultimate tagging as something of the abovementioned yo-yo side, maybe even the originators of what became something of a tabloid go-to.



A first win would arrive by October 2nd, at home to Bolton, Gera nabbing the winner after former Arsenal man Kanu had opened the scoring to apparently ease a little of the pressure building on the man who signed him, the Nigerian having arrived as something of a marquee signing before the start of this second campaign among the big boys.



He would also become a symbol of their eventual malaise, in a sense! Fast forward five weeks to a home game against Robson's old Middlesbrough charges, the first of his tenure for the new man in the dugout, Kanu's seemingly unbelievable miss in injury time- sending a chance over the bar just a yard from goal- drew an incredulously mouthed “ how did he miss that?” from his new gaffer.



The spoils were shared at Arsenal the week after courtesy of a strike by Robert Earnshaw, his fourth of the season having had better luck than his strike partner against Boro. He had found the net after opening his account with both goals in the preceding 2-2 stalemate at Southampton, going some way to start repaying the £3 million outlay to get him in from Cardiff after 86 goals from 183 games (and rumoured interest from the likes of Aston Villa, Charlton, Fulham and Celtic).



All this coming after then- Bluebirds owner Sam Hammam had said he wouldn't part with the player for fear of being hanged in Cardiff city centre!



It would prove to be worth the money for WBA, as he finished top scorer on 14 goals in all competitions just to top off what is possibly the biggest miracle in the history of his then-new club if not the Premier League itself. Not that they knew it at the time of course, hindsight a fine thing even this long after the event.



A 3-0 besting by his own former manager at Manchester United might have been the point at which Robson and indeed his charges started to sweat a bit. For following on from that they'd have to wait practically two months to taste victory once more, January ending with a 2-0 success against Manchester City. Another veteran addition, in the form of Kevin Campbell, started as they meant to go on with the opener after just five minutes, before Ronnie Wallwork rounded it off with about ten minutes to go. 



Having been bottom at Christmas, they and everyone watching seemingly knew what would follow, no team having survived that position up to this point.



After Manchester City, they'd wait around another six weeks before delivering another performance of a similar calibre. The Hawthorns proving itself invaluable as the majority of points picked up, whether draw or win, from here on out would come at home. March kicked off with another Midlands derby and a 2-0 seeing off of Birmingham, Campbell helping himself to a third goal of the season to seal the win following his arrival on a free transfer from Everton, having originally helped the Toffees out of a similarly apparently doomed position following a loan move back home from Trabzonspor in the March of 1999.



Arguably the pre-final day survival highlight of the season would come in picking up their only away win in a commanding 4-1 thumping of Charlton at the Valley in March '05. Earnshaw's hat-trick was rounded out with a 90th minute penalty after Geoff Horsfield bagged the first goal with around just five minutes on the clock.



The three draws which followed- at home to Everton, away with Villa and then Spurs- did much to suggest slim reason for optimism even in the face of much of what had gone before. Although this was promptly extinguished by a 4-0 thumping at Middlesbrough in what was becoming a depressingly familiar pattern!



They were surely but a referee's whistle on the final day from completing the downward phase of what had become a familiar bounce between the top two divisions, the script already written in all but the hardiest of Albion-supporting heads.



But going into the do or die final games of the season none of the teams circling the drop were actually mathematically guaranteed to go down, though the Baggies were seemingly fated to end the day back in what would soon be rebranded as the EFL Championship.



Instead, what followed is surely confirmation of the topsy-turvy nature of football, that which we love as long as it's not conspiring against us and by extension our teams! Only one of the sides in the mire, Norwich, were actually in control of their own destiny, as it were. Blow it and they were down.



And indeed blow the gaff they did, losing 6-0 at Fulham! Thus, the Baggies' own 2-0 home victory over Portsmouth was enough to get the party started at both ends of the ground. Albion stayed up and Pompey's loss helped send Southampton down in an all too rare case of the best of both worlds, fans flooding the Hawthorns pitch in absolute delirium having made a sort of backhanded history.

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